People really like Hell. Or at least they really like the idea of Hell. And many are positively gleeful at the notion of some or another of their fellow human beings being tormented forever in its fiery furnaces (that’s right, forever, for eternity, for an expanse of time the human mind cannot fully comprehend). Oddly enough, it is clear that, pious professions aside, even eternal damnation’s most ardent supporters do not believe themselves in line for torments everlasting.
I suppose I always knew this. I grew up in Colorado before Colorado was cool, in a time when the state’s political and cultural life was dominated by Focus on the Family and evangelical megachurches. And I have known plenty of people who believe that unless you are “born again” in a rather specific way, you are damned for all time. None of these people, to be clear, believed that the Orthodox baptism I received as an infant was of any effect and feared (one cannot help but believe honestly) for the state of my immortal soul. And let’s not kid ourselves. Though we Orthodox, in general, might take a slightly less legalistic approach to the question of salvation and damnation, the immense popularity of the idea of aerial toll houses over the past few decades gives proof to the fact that we are just as morbidly obsessed with God’s impending judgement and wrath as your run-of-the-mill televangelist.
“There is no doubt that on this point we are faced with a profound evolution of dogma.” These are the words of Pope Benedict XVI, from a 2015 interview, on the sharp contrast between the teaching of the Council of Trent on the postmortem fate of the unbaptized and later Catholic teaching stemming from Vatican II. I was reminded of this comment when I read about Pope Francis’ 2018 change to the Catechism concerning the absolute inadmissibility of capital punishment—a move long anticipated in the theology of recent popes, especially Pope John Paul II. Speaking in February of this year to the 7th Global Congress Against the Death Penalty, Francis reiterated the point that the Catholic Church’s stance on the issue had “matured.” A profound evolution of dogma has indeed taken place in Catholicism on this question. But there are other reasons that this line from Benedict came to my mind, since there is a logical connection between Benedict’s admission and Francis’ emendation, precisely on the question of punishment and its purposes from a Christian viewpoint. In Pope Francis’ words, there is no ‘justice’ in a punishment that attacks the “inviolability and dignity of the person.” And this includes punishments both now and in the life to come.
Now, Francis’ teaching stems from Christian logic of God’s justice in Christ issuing in human mercy. But the correspondences between the 20th century shift on the possibility of salvation outside the Church and the movement towards a full proscription on the death penalty suggests that the same logic was propelling both: certain forms of punishment fundamentally violate the image of God in the human person. This Christian logic shone particularly brilliantly in 19th and 20th century Russian Orthodox thought, and its articulations there indicate subterranean points of connection between Eastern and Western theological development on the question of temporal and eternal punishment.