Sixteen Propositions Regarding Eternal Damnation
I thought that since recently my notes have been highlighting the importance of the life of the world to come, it would be important if I said something about the threat of damnation too.
- As gristly as might be the wars and battles and slaughters of the Hebrews and the vengeful language of the Old Testament with regards to their earthly enemies, but even their occasionally rather graphic expositions of the destruction of their worldly foes pales in contrast to the warnings of Christ regarding eternal damnation. Of all the figures of the Holy Scriptures, Jesus had the most to say about eternal damnation, so if our Saviour himself takes it seriously, so must we.
- “I believe in… The Communion of Saints”, we confess in the Apostles’ Creed. If heaven is a fellowship and Communion of Saints, the chief Saint being of course Jesus Christ the head, and if this intimacy is beyond anything which we can possibly experience on earth, then necessarily it can only be populated by people whose character and lives are compatible with this bond of love and fellowship with each other, namely, they must be people who accepts, discerns and love each other in spirit and in truth, according to God’s spirit and God’s truth. Only those who are willing to receive God’s truth and live in God’s love, shall be able to live in this company. It is impossible to force into the closest of intimacy, those who have nothing but hatred or indifference towards God and God’s people. If you think sitting through a sermon for half an hour is bad, wait till you do nothing but adore, worship and listen to God’s word for all eternity, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” Matthew 24:35. To the saints who love God’s word and truth, these are sweet words of comfort, to the damned who hate God’s truth, to be forced to listen to it forever and ever, this would be hell indeed.
- Thus, eternal damnation can be known only in contrast to the Communion of Saints. Some Eastern Orthodox theologians postulate that hell is not really a different place, but the damned merely experience God differently. Those who love Jesus Christ and his people would experience this intimacy and constant exposure and presence of God as bliss, the beatific vision, as joy, for they love both God’s truth and God’s love and would enjoy it’s never ending unveiling. But the damned will be repulsed by this constant, and dangerously intimate, exposure to God’s presence. In their hatred for God, they will experience him as pain and torment, just as we would when we are forced to sit in the same room with someone whom we can’t stand.
- It is in this light that we understand St Paul’s many threats of damnation. “Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” Ephesians 5:5-6. The fornicator, the idolater and covetous man who lust after the things of this world and worship them, and care not for God’s truth or the things of eternity, would be tormented with eternal boredom in God’s presence, for in eternity there is nothing to be gained, nothing else to be attained, except God, therefore for those who has not the slightest interest to seek after God, there would be nothing else, except the eternal frustration of transient desires. “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.” 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. So the threat, and state, of damnation is as real as is the state of communion. No one who does such works, or are of such character, shall inherit the kingdom of God, shall be able to live in communion with God and his people. The Law of God upholds the necessary demands for eternal communion, and upon those who falls woefully short, his wrath descends in fury, and even now is made manifest in this world. (Romans 1:18)
- If this were all, then it would indeed simply be better to simply renounce Christianity altogether. But, and this is the vital but of the Gospel, the essence of the Christian faith, the hinge and great turn which everything hangs, but, St Paul does not merely preach the threats and demands of the Law, 1 Cor 6:10 continues on in verse 11, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” The Law is overcome by the Gospel, the threat of damnation is washed out in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of God. The reality of condemnation, is cancelled by the reality of justification, for “mercy triumphs over judgement” (James 2:13) Damnation is real, because Communion is real, but yet the reality of damnation is not an absolute reality. The threat is itself threatened; death indeed has been put to death, by the death of Jesus Christ. In the action of God in Jesus Christ alone is the reality of damnation threatened, and overcome. Through God’s justification, our flesh and old self, which are incompatible with eternity, is put to death and killed, for as St Paul himself puts it, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.” (2 Corinthians 15:50), and our new self in Christ, is born anew by Water and of the Holy Spirit, containing all the perfections and graces necessarily for eternal communion, is given and shall be raised with a new incorruptible body at the General Resurrection, “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.” (1 Corinthians 15:53)
- Thus, the eschatological paradox of the Christian is neatly summarised by this statement of the Bethel Confession, ‘In this way the church becomes the communion of “saints”. Its members are saints not because they are without sin; their holiness is not the fruit of human endeavour, but depends solely upon God’s action, God’s call. The church is therefore a community of sinners; it is a community of the godless, of people who are lost. Through God’s forgiving action of justification, that is, only because God reaches out to them, people who are without God become God’s children.’ This is the great simul iustus et peccator of Luther and the Reformation. At the same time sinner and justified, simultaneously living in the present flesh and possessing the spirit of God.
- But, where is God’s saving action to be found? Wherever the Gospel is preached in its purity, and the sacraments rightly administered, there the Holy Ghost works saving faith in Christ, and people are delivered from damnation unto salvation.
- Is there therefore truly no salvation outside the Church, extra Ecclesiam nulla salus? The answer of the Catholic Church has always been, God is bound to his means of grace, the Word and Sacrament, the Church Catholic, but God is not confined to it. To put it another way, we know definitely where the Holy Ghost works, and God has bound himself by infallible promises to those means of grace, but as to whether God can or does work outside of it, we do not, and dare not presume to restrict God, reserving to ourselves only the right to reject any claims of the working of the Holy Ghost which contradicts our sure knowledge where the Holy Ghost is revealed, the Word and the Sacraments.
- Is it possible to be saved outside of Christ? An absolute no must be insisted. The communion of saints by definition must include the chief saint, Jesus Christ, whoever denies him on earth, he shall deny before his Father in heaven. It is impossible for those who wilfully refuse to worship him on earth, to worship him in heaven for eternity.
- Can we know who are indeed the elect or in Christ? Where God has not spoken, neither must we speak. God has not deigned to give us the census of heaven (or hell!), therefore we should not presume to attempt to peer into it. “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.” (1 Corinthians 4:3-5) If St Paul himself dares not judge his own heart, but commends it to the Lord’s Final Judgement, how much more ought we refrain from declaring whether individual persons are saved or damned! As the Bethel Confession puts it, “But as Christ was raised from the dead, so at the end time God will awaken the dead and call them before his judgment seat. Only those who believe can stand this judgment. But who are those who believe, and who are those who do not believe? This question, which we have to answer for ourselves, is the final thing that can be said about it here.”
- But if we can’t know who are saved or damned, how shall we be assured of our own salvation? We are only answerable to our own standing before the judgement seat, and we know that our only possible answer to the judgement is Christ’s promises given to us in the Gospel, which we appropriate through faith by the means of grace, the Word and Sacraments, speaks to us as individuals, to pledge his love to us. But God’s speaking to others, that is for others to hear and to receive, not for us to know, judge or pry into. In other words, that’s simply between him and God. We are not saved by making deductions about the state of our soul from a criteria list; we are saved by receiving and hearing the forgiving voice of Christ to us in Word and Sacrament. To run through the criteria list to judge our salvation, is to confuse Law and Gospel.
- But for those who died as apostates, excommunicates, or without faith in Christ, surely we can judge them to be lost? We return back to proposition 8, God is bound to his means of grace, but he is not confined to it. Christ came precisely to destroy the power of death, shall death limit the power of God in Jesus Christ to save and bring sinners to repentance? Is it not possible for Christ to preach, even to the dead (1 Peter 4:6)? Death is not the finishing line whereby beyond that there is no hope, our hope is precisely that which transcends and overcomes the grave. The Catholic Church has never officially pronounced upon the damnation of any particular person, despite the inordinate amount of anathemas in their decrees and councils, and if even an excommunicate Australian nun can be canonised, how much greater ought our faith in Christ be?
- It is for this reason whereby prayers for the dead should and ought to be retained in the Church. Shall death silence our appeals to God’s mercy and grace, when Christ by his Cross and Resurrection has taken away the sting and power of death? No, we must confess confidently with St Paul that, “I am convinced that neither death nor life… will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) And we pray for the dead with firm assurance in this sure word of God, that indeed death cannot separate us or anyone else, from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. “This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ.” (Karl Barth)
- But don’t prayers for the dead take away our “assurance of salvation”? Isn’t it at the same time a confession that we don’t know whether the other person has truly been saved? Why else would we pray for the dead? We return back to proposition 11. We never presume to judge the state of the souls of others. Assurance is an individual matter, between the Gospel’s voice and me. And when I listen to the Christ voice speaking in Word and Sacrament to me in faith, I receive his promise and assurance of grace. But when I cast my eyes upon others, I dare not pry into their souls, and so my only attitude towards them is prayer and faith in God’s desire to redeem them. Just as no matter how “holy” a living person may appear to be, we would still pray for them, the same principle is retained, even if after that person is dead. And this principle is extended, even to those who appear to be the worse or most unrepentant of sinners, just as we judge not the state of the souls of those who appear holy, neither do we judge the state of the souls of those who appear unholy. What is Christ’s teaching with regards to our enemies? Bless them and pray for them, and yes, even if they die in unrepentance, continue to do so, for it is only Christ’s power alone, which has triumphed over the grave, which shall and can save them. This is the only attitude we should adopt towards others, not the attitude trying to place them in hell’s census. “I can speak of hell only in relation to myself, precisely because I can never imagine the possible damnation of another as more likely that my own” (Hans Urs von Balthasar). For we “believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” (Apostles’ Creed) We do not believe or confess our confidence and faith in hell.
- But will not such confidence in the overwhelming power of Christ to save, leads us to presumption and boldness to ignore the Law and sin, wantonly believing that we shall have the chance to be saved anyway? While it is true that the warnings and threats about damnation are precisely warnings, which logically does not entail that there are any who are subject to the warnings, anymore than a sign saying that “trespasses will be prosecuted” imply that there is anyone who has trespassed, but it does not logically follow that there isn’t anyone who has not trespassed either. While Gospel does overcome Law, but the Law is not abolished but upheld. If we dare not pronounce upon the damnation of anyone, neither do we dare to pronounce upon their salvation either. Our faith in Christ’s desire and power to save is a faith grasped in hope, but it is not one grasped in knowledge. We simply do not know whether that person will be saved, we can only pray and hope in Christ that he will be. But this prayer and hope does not by itself allow us to boldly presume or speak any guarantees to others, especially if they refuse the means of grace, of their salvation. Precisely because the threat of damnation remains real, which is why the need to pray for them remains real. The latter does not take away the former. Make no mistake, the types of character described by St Paul in his letters truly will not inherit the kingdom of God, but only by continually dying to those characters and washing our souls in his blood through Word and Sacrament, in other words, only those who maintain their repentance, shall be saved. Those who refuse the washing endanger their souls and tempt God to destroy them utterly.
- Therefore we end with this paraphrase taken from St Augustine, Christ was crucified between two thieves at the hour of their deaths, do not presume, for one of them perished, but yet also do not despair, for the other was saved, and this can be said to be an allegory of the Law and the Gospel. The Law truly does judge and condemn, do not presume but fear the wrath of God. But the Gospel also does truly save and deliver, therefore do not despair but believe in the love of God.