Berdyaev: Hell Doesn’t Exist

Over the past month we’ve been looking at The Beginning and the End, by the exiled Russian Orthodox theologian Nicolas Berdyaev. It’s about eschatology, or the end times; in it, we find Berdyaev’s perspective on what time is and what eternity is, and what it might be like when we move from one to the other. It’s really the pointy end of the Christian faith – it’s where all the fun stuff happens, where we find out what really happens in terms of salvation and the afterlife, and whether or not heaven exists.

As we discussed recently, Berdyaev has a pretty specific belief about the difference between time and eternity (Berdyaev: Are We Making Progress?). He draws this distinction between two types of time that we experience – there’s ‘historical time’, which I think of as clock time, and there’s ‘existential time’, which is what we experience when we get really sucked into something. In his view, eternity is just endless existential time – it’s not time in the normal sense of minutes and hours, it’s an unbroken flow, a state of absorption into an endlessly present now. Historical time, clock time, is “eternity which has collapsed into ruin,” and when the world is made perfect, we will all be lifted out of time and restored into the unending now.

Following on from this belief, Berdyaev explains, is the supplementary belief that hell doesn’t exist. He discusses this idea in Chapter 9, and I’ll try and paraphrase his argument a little. We can start with a relatively uncontroversial thesis: “The experience of hell,” Berdyaev says, “is the experience of godlessness.” That seems pretty reasonable. Berdyaev further suggests that we experience hell here on earth. For example, we might say it’s part of our experience of injustice – we see things going wrong, and we have this intuitive sense that it’s obscene, that it’s not how things are supposed to be – that God is in some sense absent from those moments. It’s torment, and it’s horror – it’s hell. But, Berdyaev says, these experiences of evil and godlessness are actually inherently features of historical time. They are part of our separation from God in the ruin that is history – and when history comes to an end, so does that suffering. We’re in hell now: it ends with our uplifting.

Traditional beliefs about eternal damnation, Berdyaev says, really just issue from a mistaken understanding of how eternity and time work. We experience godlessness now, during broken historical time; the believer in damnation then “projects his experience of the pains of hell upon the life of eternity. He objectifies the evil of this present life into a diabolical kingdom of hell parallel to the Kingdom of God.” The mistake, in Berdyaev’s view, is not identifying godlessness as a feature of the Fall. It’s part of the ruin of historical time. And when time is restored, he says, when reality is made perfect and we’re brought back into eternity, that experience of godlessness will end – for everybody. If history is a precondition of our experience of hell, then when history ends, so does hell. In Berdyaev’s view, any other outcome – such as eternal damnation for certain parties – “would be the failure of all creation and a schism within the Kingdom of God.” That is, in order for hell to continue to exist, there would have to be a part of creation that was not made perfect, that was left in ruin. Something would have to be left broken forever – because hell can only exist in broken time.

Neat, huh. I think – for me, at least, I’m so accustomed to the portrayal of salvation as a choice, as something that you have to consciously commit yourself to, that it’s wild to see it cast in this framing. At one point Berdyaev refers to the doctrine of eternal damnation as a “terrorist” doctrine, and I genuinely cackled. And it’s not that he’s totally out of step with every other theologian in Christian history. There are plenty of close parallels with other writers. For example, Berdyaev argues that “one cannot be saved in loneliness and isolation,” and that “salvation can only be a corporate experience, a universal release from suffering.” That sounds a little like the French Catholic De Lubac. We looked at De Lubac last year – he argued that sin and salvation are experienced collectively (De Lubac: Social Salvation and the Afterlife). He believed that humanity will be saved as a whole, as one body – although he also believed in eternal damnation, which really means that the damned aren’t part of that ‘one body’. It’s basically arguing that the damned are in some sense subhuman, that humanity is ‘whole’ without them. But you can see what Berdyaev would make of his work. Berdyaev might agree that humanity is saved as a unity – that all of creation is uplifted as one – but he wouldn’t agree that some people are less than human. He doesn’t think that some people drop off the radar – rather, we all go up together. “My eternal destiny cannot be isolated; it is linked with the destiny of history, with the destiny of the world and of mankind. The fate of the world and of all humanity is my fate also, and, vice versa, their fate cannot be decided without me. My failure, or the failure of any creature whatever will be world failure too, it will be the failure of humanity as a whole.”

And – you know, obviously I think this is a pretty funny argument. I do think it’s interesting and fun to reject the concept of hell out of hand. But the argument also really resonates – partially because Berdyaev spends time saying all the things that everyone thinks about hell anyway. For instance, he says that the idea of hell isn’t just about frightening people – he says it’s also about revenge. “It is untrue to suppose that the doctrine of eternal torment serves merely to frighten people; it provides them also with a source of satisfaction and content.” At base, he says, this doctrine stems from “vengeful and cruel instincts,” and indicates that fundamentally within Christianity “the spirit of love has not yet won the victory over the ancient spirit of vengeance.” That’s a summary that still rings true of the church we see today.

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