“It is hard to understand the psychology of pious Christians who calmly accept the fact that their neighbors, 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.” — Nikolai Berdiaev
How does one live the doctrine of an eternal hell? Is there a single person whose eternal perdition we would accept without despair? A belief, after all, is no mere assent to a doctrinal proposition. A belief must be fully experienced, it must change who we are and how we act. Who among us is willing to imagine the fullest torments of the damned and then to accept that even one person we know will be consigned to such a fate forever?
The reviews of David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved are out, and they are mostly negative. But all seem to adopt a kind of calm, dispassionate reasoning on the subject, and many casually dismiss Hart’s book as annoyingly vitriolic and clearly erroneous. So few seem to grapple with the terrifying central question at the heart of the debate – are our neighbors and friends, parents and children, destined to be damned forever? It is hard not to share Hart’s suspicion that “most putative believers in an eternal hell do not really believe in it at all.”
In both ancient Christian and Jewish traditions, we have multiple accounts of visions of the damned in hell. In these accounts, there is simply no doubt: the experience of hell leads to the questioning of the goodness of God’s creation. In Hart’s book, Abba Macarius is filled with horror when he speaks to a skull about the torments of the damned, and Macarius exclaims that it would be better that the person, to whom the skull once belonged, should never have been born. Macarius is not alone. As early as the second century, we have multiple stories of saints “visiting” hell to witness first-hand the suffering of the damned. In these accounts, the lakes and rivers of fire, the souls drowning in pain and suffering overwhelm all those who witness the horror, such that even the most stalwart of the saints are said to exclaim, “it were better for us if we who are all sinners had never been born!” In the most popular of these accounts, “The Apocalypse of the Holy God-Bearer about the Punishments,” the Mother of God personally demands an accounting of God for what she finds in hell – and enjoins all of the denizens of heaven to weep and pray that God’s mercy should extend to the deepest reaches of the land of the damned.
These accounts of the terrors of hell spread throughout the Orthodox and Catholic lands, and Dante’s Inferno is well within this tradition. So also, perhaps, is Martin Luther’s own “journey” into hell, in which he arrived at the very depth of questioning God’s love:
Is it not against all natural reason that God out of his mere whim deserts men, hardens them, damns them, as if he delighted in sins and in such torments of the wretched for eternity, he who is said to be of such mercy and goodness? This appears iniquitous, cruel, and intolerable in God, by which very many have been offended in all ages. And who would not be? I was myself more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!
How much of “Sola Fide” is found here, in this glimpse into the real possibility of eternal horror? The question of hell is thus at the heart of the Christian faith.
David Bentley Hart feels alone in his justification of universal salvation. However, he is, in a way, in the venerable tradition of those who journey to hell, Hence the stridency of Hart’s tone, which seems counterproductive to reasonable debate. Hart is correct, hell, truly understood, is in fact terrifying beyond all reason, seemingly incommensurable with the unfathomable goodness of God. Should any of us speak of hell in “reasonable” terms?
Michael McClymond, in “Opiate of the Theologians,” makes the plausible argument that we moderns have (in so many words) become soft. Christian universalism, he writes, is a “religion of humanity,” a good-natured religion with all of its “spiritual shallowness.” Lumping Hart with the Unitarian-Universalists, this critique construes Hart’s universalism as a kind of “free ticket to heaven,” cheap grace absent repentance or spiritual preparation. The implication is that we enlightened moderns are all too comfortable, materialistic, and rational to really believe in hell, or to strive to escape it.
I wonder, however, whether McClymond has it exactly backwards. What if modernity, since the Enlightenment, has created a “religion of humanity” precisely in response to the doctrine of an eternal hell? What if the “religion of humanity” seemed a relief from the unendurable certainty that at least some of those among us will be forever trapped in eternal torment? If so, then Hart, however isolated, points us toward the very question that is at the heart of the modern rejection of God.
This interpretation of modernity is brilliantly narrated in Dostoevsky’s “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” chapter in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan, the rebellious brother in the novel, sits in a noisy pub with his pious and almost saintly brother, Alyosha, and pours out the anger and anguish that have led him to his present state of spiritual crisis. Through a long reflection on human suffering, Ivan has arrived at a thoroughgoing refusal to accept God and his creation. Alyosha must endure a litany of horrifying stories of the torture of little children. The outpouring of Ivan’s heart is a desperate plea: If heaven, by some inscrutable logic, is built on the torture of just one of these children, could Alyosha consent to enter such a heaven?
To illustrate his anguish, Ivan recites a “poem” of Christ’s brief visit to earth during the Inquisition. Ivan’s main character in the “poem,” the Inquisitor, is ingeniously sketched — the very distillation of evil disguised as rational, humane beneficence, at once a parody of the nefarious Jesuit of Dostoevsky’s imagination and a prescient imagining of the totalitarian tyrant Dostoevsky would never live to see. So powerful is the Inquisitor’s perfectly reasonable rejection of God’s suffering creation and his justification of benevolent tyranny that D.H. Lawrence declared the poem an unanswerable refutation of Christianity; and Evgenii Zamiatin, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley all used the “Legend” as a model for their dystopian novels. The Inquisitor is old and wizened, but charismatic and powerful. Nearing the end of his life, he has constructed an elaborate worldview, a theological and philosophical edifice built in Christ’s name, but in which the teachings of Christ have no part. Then, unexpectedly, Christ reappears in the flesh. The Inquisitor immediately recognizes Him, but with breathtaking boldness, orders Him imprisoned in a dark cell, lest He topple the church that has abandoned Him.
The “Legend” is, in the simplest reading, Dostoevsky’s critique of the Catholic Church (which was, for Dostoevsky, a legalistic and power-hungry institution). There is also, in the figure of the Inquisitor, some of Luther’s rage against the impossibility of righteousness (Dostoevsky was reading Luther at the time). On a deeper level, and far more prescient, it is a portrait of modernity, especially in its technocratic form. “We have improved upon your teaching,” the Inquisitor tells Christ. The Inquisitor’s new church is a “religion of humanity.” It promises to extirpate earthly inequality and injustice. It willingly assents to the three temptations of the devil found in Matthew’s gospel: turning stones into bread to feed everyone, creating miracles to dazzle them, and gathering all into a universal, benevolent dictatorship of materialist happiness. But the rejection of God’s creation and the building of an earthly utopia require their price: the end of freedom. For the Inquisitor, this poses no serious dilemma. He makes the bold declaration that people will gladly surrender freedom for justice, equality, and peace: “peace of mind and even death are dearer to man than free choice and the cognition of good and evil.”
The Inquisitor’s explicit declaration against freedom is grating to our modern ears, with its inescapable undertone of the gulag. But how many modern atheistic philosophers and scientists have, since the Enlightenment, energetically and even happily denied the existence of free will? While freedom persists, so does irrationality, and the selfishness, crime, and suffering that follow. The scientific, beneficent organization of society and politics requires that human beings become as gears in a well-oiled machine. The Inquisitor’s tyranny is sincerely compassionate. He has pity on the masses and their seemingly pointless suffering. The Inquisitor’s “religion of humanity” rejects human freedom as dangerous heresy.
The “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” echoes through Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved. Hart shares Ivan’s impassioned rejection of a God that allows seemingly meaningless suffering and of a heaven built on the eternal torture of a single person. “Ivan is the incarnation of the refusal to be the only one saved,” wrote Albert Camus in The Rebel. In Camus’s exegesis, the principle of Ivan’s rebellion is simple: “Everyone or No One,” a perfect summary of the central thesis of Hart’s book. Writes Hart:
I have been asked more than once in the last few years whether, if I were to become convinced that Christian adherence absolutely requires a belief in a hell of eternal torment, this would constitute in my mind proof that Christianity should be dismissed as a self-evidently morally obtuse and logically incoherent faith. And, as it happens, I would.
But, in turn, Hart’s book reveals an often-overlooked aspect of Dostoevsky’s “Legend”: the frame in which the story unfolds – the frame of eternity. Readers rarely notice that Ivan begins his “poem” with a “preface”: a retelling of “The Apocalypse of the Holy God-Bearer about the Punishments.” “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” is thus in the ancient tradition of the journeys to hell.
With eternal damnation in mind, could we perhaps empathize with the Inquisitor? After all, he does not pity humanity merely because of their earthly sufferings. He does not wish to rid them of freedom only because of their this-worldly cruelty and injustice. The Inquisitor pities the weakest of humanity because they are undeniably unequal to the eternal burden of freedom God has given them – the freedom to love God and be saved or to reject God and be damned. Those who will be saved in the end will prove equal to God’s gift of freedom – they are “the elect,” “the children of freedom.” “But remember,” the Inquisitor accuses Christ, “that they were only a few thousand of them, and those were gods, but what about the rest?”
“What about the rest?” Who can resist the anguish of this question when gazing on the torments of hell? Hart, for one, cannot. Reviews of Hart’s book have, almost universally, responded with recitations of biblical passages, the reiteration of the judgements of ecumenical councils, and references to the inscrutability of God’s will and the necessity of hell for the purposes of human freedom. But this does not answer the fundamental question: What about the rest? Could we endure just one person, no matter how sinful, languishing in hell forever?
The European Enlightenment and all its progeny have come to the rescue – abolishing hell along with the entire religious vision of God’s creation. The slogan of modernity is, as Camus brilliantly summarizes: “everyone or no one.” The Inquisitor closes the doors to eternity, and promises a humanitarian heaven on earth, a clockwork world in which justice is precisely calculated and governmentally administered, suffering is scientifically ameliorated, and cruelty is rationally extirpated. Freedom is abolished, but then who could endure freedom in the face of the horror of an eternal hell? In this reading, it is not modernity that caused us to reject hell. It is hell, as it has been so literally and cruelly depicted through the centuries, that has led to the atheist universalism of modernity.
Nikolai Berdiaev, one of the foremost personalist philosophers of the twentieth century, devoted an entire chapter of his book on Dostoevsky to the “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.” Berdiaev was one of the first interpreters of the “Legend” to proclaim that the Inquisitor was the advocate of progressive modernity. At the same time, Berdiaev argued that the “Legend,” was a parable, and meant to be lived: “Every man is offered the alternatives of the Grand Inquisitor or of Jesus Christ, and he must accept one or the other.” Each of us must confront human suffering, in this world and the next. If we choose the Grand Inquisitor, we reject hell, but must understand that, in doing so, we reject freedom.
But what if we choose Christ? In Ivan’s tale, Christ is utterly silent. In the silence, we are allowed a different view of hell. This is no “lake of fire,” no landscape of torture. In the silence of the Seville night, “fragrant with laurel and lemon,” we are left with an old man sitting with Christ in a dark prison cell, rejecting Him and all His teachings. The Inquisitor’s blasphemies have now become the fetters with which he has chained himself, the cell in which he has “imprisoned” Christ is now his own. In the last pages of the Legend, where silence reigns, hell is revealed as the prison where, in C.S. Lewis’s well-known description, the doors are locked from within.
With this change of scenery, Dostoevsky guides us toward a different way of seeing. Turning away from gazing at “humanity” from above, from the mathematical calculations of “the “elect” and “the rest,” the “thousands” and the “millions,” we see that hell must not be contemplated as a subtraction story. It is not a place that we should observe neutrally, from afar – a fiery pit into which nameless sinners sink. Hell is that prison cell in which we each can find ourselves, fettered by our own free rejection of God and his creation. The Inquisitor is already in hell, in his willful denial of God’s goodness.
What if we choose Christ? Christ may be silent, but he does answer. The Son of the living God sits with the Inquisitor in the dark cell and patiently listens to the diatribe against Him and His creation. For Christ has descended into hell and is always with those who suffer there. And when the Inquisitor has finished speaking, Christ does the unthinkable: he approaches the old man and “kisses him on his bloodless, ninety-year-old lips.”
We are, with Alyosha, aghast at this moment in Ivan’s story. But with him, we must eventually see that it must be so. The kiss does not refute Inquisitor’s monologue, it does not touch the scaffolding of the Inquisitor’s monstrous blasphemy. Christ does not abstractly forgive, nor does He offer a bland kiss of peace, nor a free ticket into heaven. Christ offers His tender, personal love to one who has rejected Him, a divine, unfathomable love for the most abandoned of all sinners. Christ loves the Inquisitor, not only despite, but perhaps also because of his rebellion in the name of suffering humanity. He loves even the grotesque “bloodless lips” of the man who sought to imprison and kill Him. Christ sits with him in hell and seeks to draw him out with His love.
If we choose Christ, we must turn away from “humanity;” whether those in hell or out of it. Humanity cannot be loved – no earthly person can love an abstract mass of unindividuated human beings. The love of “humanity” is the path to atheism and tyranny, an attempt to look at people from above, in a poor imitation of God’s judgement and mercy. The peril of modernity since the Enlightenment is precisely this: in our grand desire to save “everyone,” we have forgotten about our neighbor, about the “man with whom I am drinking tea,” ignoring him as insignificant compared to the fate of the whole world.
To see hell abstractly, as if from a distance, where unnamed sinners are tortured for their earthly choices, is the path to despair. As Berdiaev writes, in terms just as forceful as Hart’s, “The idea of an objectified hell as a special sphere of eternal life is altogether intolerable, unthinkable, and indeed, incompatible with faith in God.” But to see hell from within is to realize that in our freedom, each of us has the potential to place ourselves in that dark, unfathomable abyss that is our departure from God. Only Christ’s love can rescue us from the torments of hell, a love freely given and one that asks to be freely returned.
Herein lies the choice between the Grand Inquisitor and Christ. While the Inquisitor loves “humanity,” Christ loves the person — each unique and unrepeatable human being, no matter how seemingly insignificant and inconsequential, made in God’s image and likeness. To choose Christ is to refuse to coldly contemplate a hell for “the rest,” or the “damned,” or any nameless and faceless multitude, those we have barely met and easily forget. It is to love each person we encounter so fully as to feel heartbroken that they might languish in hell.
The Inquisitor is correct, freedom is a burden. Berdiaev calls it a tragic principle. But Christ’s kiss reveals freedom’s true purpose: the true end of every freedom is love. We are free to love not only despite, but perhaps also because of the hell in which our neighbor is trapped. We should not think it beneath us if, with the assistance of Christ’s grace, we are called to help liberate just one person from hell.
It is this worldview that best expressed in the story well known in the Orthodox Christian tradition, of St. Silouan the Athonite, as recounted by the Elder Sophrony Sakharov. “Tell me,” St. Silouan asks a hermit, “supposing you went to paradise and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire – would you feel happy?’
‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,’ was the hermit’s reply.
The saint answered simply: ”Love could not bear that. We must pray for all.”
Enjoy the article? Pay the writer.
Nicolas Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man, trans. Natalie Duddington (San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009), p. 276. ↑
David Bentley Hart, That All shall be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), p. 29 ↑
Martha Himmelfarb, Tours of Hell: An Apocalyptic Form in Jewish and Christian Literature (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983). ↑
Roland Herbert Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009), pp. 40-41. ↑
Ana Siljak is Associate Professor of Humanities in the Hamilton Center at the University of Florida. Her current research and publications focus on Russian philosophy and religious thought. She is currently writing a book on the personalist philosophy of Nikolai Berdiaev and editing a translation of the correspondence between Nikolai Berdiaev and Jacques Maritain (forthcoming from McGill-Queen’s University Press).