‘What there excites my admiration? What my derision? Which sight gives me joy? Which rouses me to exultation? – as I see so many illustrious monarchs, whose reception into the heavens was publicly announced, groaning now in the lower darkness with great Jove himself, and those, too, who bore witness of their exultation; governors of provinces too, who persecuted the Christian name, in fires more fierce than those with which in the days of their pride they raged against the followers of Christ. What world’s wise men besides, the very philosophers, in fact, who taught their followers that God had no concern in ought that is sublunary, and were wont to assure them that either they had no souls, or that they would never return to the bodies which at death they had left, now covered with shame before the poor deluded ones, as one fire consumes them!’ Tertullian, De Spectaculis, XXX
Mordheim City of the Damned
The context of this quote is Tertullian writing about the ‘circus’, ‘spectacle’ and ‘shows’ that were a regular part of the culture in which he lived. These spectacles often involved all manner of things that involved murder, sex, blasphemy, persecution and violence. Tertullian encourages Christians to stay away from such things and to be strong in face of severe persecution when rounded up to be subjected to being in these ‘shows’. Without doubt Tertullian is looking forward to a time when those who have committed atrocities will find their actions judged justly into eternity.
What is fascinating is that earlier on in this text Tertullain says, ‘God certainly forbids us to hate even with with a reason for our hating; for He commands us to love our enemies. God forbids us to curse, though there be some ground for doing so, in commanding that those who curse us we are to bless.’ (XVI)
It seems to me that there is a dissonance between these views from Tertullian in that it appears forgiveness and love for enemies applies only in this life and not the next. Therefore his joy at the plight of the damned is wholly reasonable to him. What strikes me most is his apparent joy at seeing the flames of hell lick those who are without Christ.
Now I struggle with this and so should you. Every theological question boils down to who we believe God to be in His character and nature. And so I wonder at how Tertullian views God in this moment of rejoicing? Does he think that God is rejoicing with him?
I do think however, that Tertullian is being theologically and philosophically consistent. If hell is a place of eternal conscious torment then questions have to be asked about the state of those who are in ‘bliss’; how do these ‘blissful’ view those who are eternally damned? For Tertullian our lives here and now are remembered into all eternity, not forgotten or dismissed but remembered. After all, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob continue to bear their names into eternity; never forgotten. So for Tertullian the bliss of eternity needs to incorporate the suffering of the damned. How can it be bliss if I am concerned about the eternal suffering of others? Tertullian resolves this tension through the joy of the bliss over the suffering of the damned. So to be in the presence of God, to ‘share in the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4), and know God in fullness of relationship is to be in bliss; that bliss incorporates the reality of the suffering of those who are not ‘in Christ’.
Any view of hell needs to recognise the Lordship of Jesus over all creation. In Colossians 1 it states that Jesus holds all things together (v18). A right theology of God is that he alone is eternal, without start or finish, the uncreated One, beyond time yet present with us. He quite simply Is, Being, God Is, Presence. So all things, whether things on earth or heaven or under the heavens or in the cosmos depend upon God to exist. Nothing is eternal in and of itself. All things require the continued sustaining power of God for their existence. Therefore hell exists only because God wills and sustains its existence. Likewise, all who are in hell are sustained by the presence and Spirit of God and cannot exist apart from His presence. So to speak of hell as ‘separation’ is theologically an impossibility.
Eternal conscious torment requires the eternal sustaining power and presence of God.
Now of course not all who believe in ECT believe in flames, demons and pitchforks. Yet torment is torment. Perhaps it is beholding the glory and love of God in all its fulness and then knowing that you will never again be able to enjoy and be part of God, eternal regret perhaps.
Maybe it is the everlasting torment of flames, consuming yet never consuming, the Presence of God continually holding us in this sustained torture.
Perhaps it is the absence of light and love, a giving over to hate, consumed by the power of hate.
It raises deep and profound questions as to the nature of memory for those who are in ‘bliss’.
What if your children, wife, husband or loved ones are in hell, never to be released, forever in torment. How can ‘bliss’ truly be ‘bliss’ in such circumstances?
It is no good to say we will not remember them for our memory shapes our very character, the people that we are. In Scripture we see that the resurrected Jesus knows fully who the disciples are, the memory of Peter’s betrayal transformed into Divine forgiveness and transformation. Our relationships now, our memories taken up and into eternity. Augustine saw memory as ‘a spreading limitless room within me’, a vital part to our humanity and our relationship with God,
‘If I find you beyond my memory, then I shall be without memory of you. And how will I find you without memory of you?’
Augustine recognises how vital memory is into eternity.
Lost Identity – Tomasz Alen Kopera
Scripture repeatedly affirms how actions and memories in this life are carried over into the next because the very nature of who we are, our identity and character and nature is wholly shaped by memory. To take our memory away would be to strip us of our very identity making us nothing more than a robot, a clone, nothing.
What is even more perplexing if we hold to ECT is the very nature of compassion and love.
God is love, abounding in compassion, humanity called to share in his very nature. If a single person is in torment in hell into all eternity compassion demands that all who are in ‘bliss’ weep for eternity over their fate. Does this sound like the triumph of the Cross? Does this sound like fulness of joy? Does this sound like victory?
In every way only universal reconciliation makes sense of who God is and how God has revealed God’s own Self through the person of Jesus. Only when God redeems all things and draws all people to God’s Self can we declare Good News.
Jesus is Lord and will draw all people to himself, redeeming, reconciling, forgiving, transforming all things, the whole cosmos.
The Church must throw off the insidious and destructive shackles of eternal torment and annihilationism and declare the power of the Gospel to a world who needs to hear the voice of the forgiving victim Jesus declaring ‘Rejoice! My child was lost and now they are home!’