Tom Wright describes studying Theology in what he calls the ‘heyday of liberal theology’ in the 1960s and 70s. One of his teachers told his students, “There may be a Hell, but it will turn out to be untenanted.” As a consequence of that prevailing fashion, Wright says, most Christians at least within the mainstream churches have become effectively universalists – people who believe that ultimately, everyone will be ‘saved’.
And yes, gentle reader, I am one of those who, although I was not reading for a degree in Theology until almost the end of those liberal decades, find myself most comfortable within a universalist view of humankind’s final destiny. But I also agree with Tom Wright that universalism just won’t hold water in the world we inhabit at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries. Decades in which we have seen genocides in the Balkans and Africa, bloody civil wars in Syria and DRC, constant wars in the Middle East, terrorist atrocities in Western countries and even more in Islamic countries, where Islamist extremists massacre fellow-Muslims by the hundreds and thousands. Where there are evil leaders who even train children to be suicide bombers, with lying promises of Paradise hereafter.
The Great War of 1914-18 showed up the bankruptcy of the liberal Protestantism of the 19th century, which Karl Barth denounced in his Epistle to the Romans and Church Dogmatics. The German liberal theologians who had not challenged but lent their enthusiastic support to the militaristic war aims of the Kaiser, were equally ineffective in challenging the Nazis when they took over the German State and Church in the 1930s. A new theology was needed, which took seriously the Word and the sovereignty of God, and this became the inspiration for the Confessing Church and younger theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who resisted Nazism. Now that we find ourselves living in our own new age of barbarism, where is the tough new (or old?) theology we need to bear witness against the powers of this present darkness?
Yet I was still secretly hankering after that universalist pabulum. Until I re-read the Rule of St Benedict, one of my favourite spiritual readings. The Rule sets out one of the most gentle, moderate prescriptions for a life of Christian discipleship. The Master claims that he wants to prescribe nothing that will be too severe, or will frighten off the would-be servant of Christ. So far, so good. But at the same time he robustly warns his students about the horrible punishment that awaits those who fail to keep the commandments of God’s Word. Even for the holy pupils in Benedict’s ‘school for Christ’s service’, there is no free pass, no ‘Get out of Hell free’ card, for those who fall short.
So Alison and I found ourselves, at teatime last Sunday, debating whether or not there is a Hell. We didn’t reach a definitive conclusion, no surprise there then. But we did decide that Hell is something like a theological Schrödinger’s Cat.
God must ultimately put everything that is wrong in the world to rights; God must deal with evil and its consequences, and establish justice. Therefore Hell is necessary.
God’s love and everlasting mercy are all-inclusive, infinite and invincible. Therefore Hell is impossible.
Wikipedia explains the dilemma of Schrödinger’s Cat like this:
Schrödinger’s cat: a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor (e.g. Geiger counter) detects radioactivity (i.e. a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison, which kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead not both alive and dead. This poses the question of when exactly quantum superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or the other.
Perhaps we have to live on the basis that Hell simultaneously exists and doesn’t exist; but at the end of the day, when the ‘box’ is ‘opened’, it will either exist or not exist.
So which is it? Is the Hell-Cat alive? Or dead? And what will be the moment at which reality collapses into one possibility or the other?