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The Abolition of Hell (and a Few Words in Defense of Church)



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What does Easter mean, for mankind? In many Eastern Rite churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, the Easter services feature the reading aloud of a most eloquent answer, written by the great Greek Church Father St. John Chrysostom. (It is also read at the Easter Vigil night services at my own high-church Episcopal parish in NYC.) Here’s part of it, from one translation I found on the Internet:

 

Let no one lament persistent failings, for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the death of our Saviour has set us free.

The Lord has destroyed death by enduring it. The Lord vanquished Hell when he descended into it. The Lord put Hell in turmoil even as it tasted of his flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said, “You, O Hell, were placed in turmoil when he encounter[ed] you below.”

Hell was in turmoil having been eclipsed. Hell was in turmoil having been mocked. Hell was in turmoil having been destroyed. Hell was in turmoil having been abolished. Hell was in turmoil having been made captive.

Hell grasped a corpse, and met God. Hell seized earth, and encountered Heaven. Hell took what it saw, and was overcome by what it could not see.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory?

Christ is risen, and you are cast down! . . .

Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead.


When we look around us, it is easy to believe in the reality of Hell: A world dominated by cruelty, hatred, and sin seems all too reasonably to point toward a final destination that embodies these values and is purged of all goodness. But with the eyes of faith, we see that Hell is not the final truth about reality, and the Paschal Mysteries celebrated this weekend proclaim forcefully God’s answer to man’s sin. God has declared, to repeat the powerful words of Chrysostom, that Hell has been eclipsed. Mocked. Destroyed. Abolished. Made captive.

When Christians sing the hymn, “This Is the Feast of Victory for Our God,” that is the victory they are referring to. And this is Good News indeed for all mankind.

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It’s hard to focus on this Good News when you’re alone, though. The world keeps coming at you, all the time, with more cruelty, hatred, and sin — and how many of are strong enough to say “No”? Especially when our own broken natures feel the resonant attraction of the cruelty, and want to say, “Yes, it’s not just the world out there; I am like this, too, I admit it; so why not just give in?” It helps to see others living in hope, and trying to resist the world. The most significant set of institutions that exist to offer this encouragement goes by the name of “church”: ek-klesia, those who are “called out” of the world. My own gratitude for these institutions has been much on my mind, throughout the Easter services — and because, just last week, one of America’s most famous intellectuals had a newsmagazine cover story proclaiming “Forget the Church. Follow Jesus.” I think that is a false choice. Of course, there are many people — in all denominations — who turn their own religious affiliation into an idol, and perpetrate harmful acts in its name. But it’s one thing to criticize people when you think they are wrong, and another thing entirely to “forget” (give up on) them. There is not a simple dichotomy between church and Jesus.

In fairness, I should point out that the article itself is more nuanced than the crass summary from the magazine’s cover. (For example, the author notes something too rarely mentioned about St. Francis of Assisi — that he did not engage in his radical spirituality and his reform efforts “in rebellion against orthodoxy or even church authority.” As an (adopted) son of the Reformation, I would dearly love to claim St. Francis as a proto-Protestant! Alas, the historical sources simply don’t bear that interpretation.) But the sentiment expressed so tersely on the cover is important in itself, because it accurately reflects the feeling of a growing number of Americans about organized religion. Now, I know as much as they do, and perhaps more, about the various faults of religious people and institutions, and I am about as low-church as one can possibly be on questions of ecclesiology; so I both understand and sympathize. Still: If you have been put off by bad experiences with churches, I urge you to give them another chance. Try another congregation in the denomination you were a member of, or try another denomination entirely. It’s highly likely that you can find a church that you will find welcoming and congenial, and that will reach you with the spiritual encouragement we all need.

Ours is a world of spiritual struggle, and obstacles sometimes appear, distressingly, even in places where we most look for help. Easter is a time to be especially grateful, in the face of all the discouragements we encounter, for the hope we have: that the victory has already been won for us, in the work God did two thousand years ago.



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