Ramble on interpreting the Hellfire passages in Scripture

Feser and David Bentley Hart have gone another round arguing about Universalism, and Hart’s last word on the subject is that Feser needs to deepen his understanding of Scripture. Now Scripture study is not my field, and I doubt I even qualify as a well-read amateur, but I’m pretty sure I know what Hart is gesturing at: proof texts for eternal hellfire are part of the Apocalyptic genre of writing, and any attempt to form dogmas from them cannot pretend the prima facie sense of the Apocalyptic is dogmatic. 

Apocalyptic literature is a sort of fiction. Fiction can teach, and much of the Apocalyptic literature is dedicated to doing so, but even straightforward statements of fact in Scripture are easy to bungle. Abraham fathers both both Ismael and Isaac because of interpretations of the revelation given to him that he shall raise a child out of his body, but the line of salvation goes only through Isaac. In a world where polygamy is normal and your wife is infertile, when God tells you that you’ll have a biological child it’s rational to assume you should conceive with someone other than your wife. As it turns out, that’s not what God meant. But this is revelation at its most straightforward and propositional before it introduces intentionally obscure metaphors in now defunct literary idioms. To point out that Apocalyptic writing is strange and enigmatic does not prejudice the result toward skepticism about the horrors of judgment and fire, but it does put us on notice that the plain sense of Scripture might be anything but.

To start with an example that is not apocalyptical as such but it still telling, Christ’s condemnation of Judas “better that man etc.” can be read as hyperbole. We don’t need to read it as a condemnation any more than we should read Christ as commanding us to cut off our hands, put out our eyes, or see our inability to telekinetically uproot trees and throw them into the sea as a sign we lack faith. Christ exaggerated to make points all the time. I don’t happen to think Christ is exaggerating, but showing this requires a good deal more than treating the text in isolation and then forcing dialectical options on people. There is, at any rate, one problem with the passage even if we read it as a condemnation since this would be prima facie be an argument for the reprobation of the damned (i.e. what often gets called “predestination to Hell”). Judas isn’t dead yet, after all – but the most Catholic traditionalists who see Judas as condemned by Christ also deny the doctrine of double predestination.

All this is before we try to understand what a metaphor like fire is supposed to be teaching us, and what it would mean to describe the fire as everlasting. For my own part, I see the beatific vision as so wildly exalted and disproportionate  even to the sort of good that would make us perfectly happy that it is odd to see it as any failure of divine mercy to grant it to someone. Hell is just the failure to be granted this almost ridiculously infinite gift of deification. There is a long tradition of carving out spaces in Hell that seem indistinguishable from what most persons call heaven, with the Limbo of the Fathers or infants being a sort of Elysian fields with no pain and perfect earthly harmony. Still, you wonder what you would think of missing your chance to be deified. At the moment it seems better than hellfire, but this sort of moment isn’t  the one we’ll have to live with for eternity.

I’m pretty sure I missed the main point I was trying to make, but that happens.



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