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Hermeneutics 101 – What is Everlasting Hell?: Eternal Punishments and Timeless Tortures

Aἰώνιον Punishment

Matthew 25:31-46RSV-CE

31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – These terrifying words of our lord are one of many scriptural passages commonly invoked to prove that the mainstream understanding of everlasting punishment and perpetual torments is clearly and explicitly taught by scripture.

Now, as has been discussed at length and in great detail by other people far more learned than me, the original Greek is not quite as clear cut as the English translation on this issue. In Greek, the original passage is simply ambiguous, and not necessarily as scary as it might at first appear. To summarise: the Greek word αἰώνιον, commonly translated as “everlasting” or “eternal”, more literally translates to “of the coming age”. As such, a far more literal translation of Matthew 25:46 reads “And they will go away into the punishment of the age to come, but the righteous into the life of the age to come.” Note that a literal translation such as this says absolutely nothing about the duration of the eternal punishment or the eternal life. The life may last forever; it may be temporary. So too with the everlasting punishment. The verse simply does not specify any durations.

everlasting hellIt is true that αἰώνιον can be translated as “everlasting” or “eternal”, however these two options do not exhaust the translational range of this word. There are other alternatives, which may arise in diverse contexts. As such, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that we could employ a literal translation so that αἰώνιον does not mean “eternal” in Matthew 25:46.

So much for the Greek. When arguing theology with a protestant who dogmatically follows the historical-critical method of hermeneutics, this argument can be employed to great effect. However following this line of argument with a knowledgeable Catholic might not have quite the same impact. As discussed previously on this blog, Catholics give just as much authority and weight to translations of scripture as they give to the original manuscripts written in the original languages. As such, a Catholic cannot simply dismiss the English translation of Matthew 25:46 with the wave of a historical-critical hand.

Catholics are stuck with an authoritative, magisterially approved translation of scripture which undeniably reads “everlasting punishment”. What are we Catholics who subscribe to the gospel of universal salvation to do?

Experience and Reality of Everlasting Punishment

So eschatalogical punishment is in some sense “everlasting”: what sense could it be? Assuming that the gospel message of universal salvation is true rules out the idea that the everlasting punishment of Hell is “objectively” everlasting. This would be a contradiction. Something has to give: either we abandon the gospel and resign ourselves to the depressing notion that there will be people who never make it to heaven, or we find a way to reinterpret the passage in question in order to harmonise it with the gospel message.

Everlasting PunishmentI would like to propose a way of understanding this passage which does not contradict the gospel: What if “eternal punishment” is not understood as an objective reality, but is instead understood as a description of a subjective experience? To elaborate: What if – in reality – the eternal punishment of the damned really does come to an end, and yet what that everlasting punishment actually feels like to someone who is experiencing it involves a sensation of timelessness and eternity? Those of you who have had a bad psychedelic trip before potentially know exactly what I am talking about. During a bad trip your sense of time completely dissolves: you do not have an intuitive perception of the passage of time; you feel as if you are stuck in a timeless, eternal, everlasting moment and it feels like Hell. Of course in reality time is indeed still passing by and the trip will eventually come to an end, but in the thick of the action and the heat of the moment you have no understanding of this idea and feel trapped in an eternal prison of terror, pain and suffering. If that’s not a description of Hellish torments I don’t know what is.

This actually makes sense according to traditional theological and philosophical presuppositions. It is widely accepted that there is no time in the afterlife. As such the afterlife is presumably experienced as a “timeless” moment, similar to the psychedelic experience. However there is also a firm traditional understanding that despite the lack of time, there is still change in the afterlife. If this were not the case, then it would not be possible to escape purgatory, but it is dogmatic fact that all who enter into purgatory will successfully escape. As such “Eternal punishment” in scripture could very easily be referring to the experience of purgatory.

So what if eternal punishment is just like a bad trip (although perhaps infinitely worse in intensity)? The eternal punishment does not literally “last forever”, it merely is experienced as “timeless”. This is still a completely terrifying prospect, and is not a fate that you would want to wish on anyone, however – unlike the standard understanding of objectively eternal torments – it is completely compatible with the gospel. Why should Hell have the final say? Does this not contradict the good news of the gospel? Hell is everlasting, but Christ can still defeat it and rescue the captives who are detained there. Gehenna is eternal, but God can still bust down the doors and liberate the sinners therein from their slavery to evil, death, and Satan. Hades is timeless, but Jesus can still trample down its gates and free all men from the clutches of sin and rebellion against love.

So timeless punishment is a subjective experience, it is not an objective reality. Christ will still have the victory and all who are cast into the lake of fire will eventually repent through the flames. God will be all in all. Amen

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Prophecy Fragment #10 – Epektasis, Eschaton, and the Ineffable Mystery of Evil

During my 26th year, during the vigil of the day of my birth, the word of the LORD came to me:

Do I truly want to understand evil? Is it not vanity? Is it not foolishness? Isn’t my worldview so blissfully foolproof, so perfectly paradisical, and such a plethora of ineffable delights?

So what is this principle of discord, that always seems to creep in and corrupt heaven, right as heaven is at it’s strongest? What is this principle of evil, which enters in as silent subterfuge to the eternal moment which is the uttermost paragon of goodness. What is this whisper of disharmony, introduced into a pinnacle of ecstatic harmonies? What is this hint of dissonance, stealthily sabotaging paradise’s fortress of consonance?

It’s not as if it is able to compromise my plans. It’s not as if it is able to shatter my defences. And yet there is this persistent, inalienable reality to it; like the sound of a screaming infant, whose cries echo and reverberate into the halls of eternity. And THAT is my eternal question. How wonderful it is that evil is swallowed up in good, like a tear is swallowed up in a lake. And yet how terrifying that even from paradise there can be a fall, and even complete impeccability cannot prevent a descent into total degeneracy.

Don’t I already understand evil? And yet to say so would be presumption. Don’t I always do good? But of course my silence is my children’s despair.

The purpose of sex is children. But these children need not necessarily be biological.

O Son of man, you have hundreds of adoptive spiritual fathers sending you artefacts, wisdom, art, music, and literature from the past and future. So whether you are a husband or whether you remain celibate; you too will pass my wisdom on to children.

Both past and future are speaking to the present. And the present is an everlasting movement forward; a rolling and galloping epektasis towards God. Perfectly sink into the present moment, and let the peace of death carry you away into nirvana, and the other heavenly realms.

Drugs: Legalisation, Liberalisation and Harm Minimisation

shutterstock_170939975[1].jpgI got into an argument today over whether or not weed is moral or immoral and whether it should be legalised. Unfortunately it was two against one and I totally lost the argument, however it put me in a reflective mood for the rest of the day.

At one point I brought up the fact that alcohol is legal and yet it is by all accounts more harmful than weed; my opponents response was that alcohol is physically harmful whereas weed is mentally harmful (as if this makes any difference). After some protestation from me, they made a point which completely stumped me: It’s all about the intention. The intention when you drink a glass of wine is not to get drunk, whereas the intention when you smoke weed is to get completely baked “off your tits”. I was unable to answer this point. It raised the question for me, “Is it really sinful to smoke weed with the intention of getting high?” The Catholic catechism would seem to imply so. However after some reflection, I have come up with the answer “not always”.

Context is an important factor in the discussion. Is it wrong to intend to get high? I say “no”, so long as you are in an appropriate context. An appropriate context would be a weekend off from work or study, where you don’t have any other obligations to attend to and can well and truly kick back and relax. If as part of this recreational Sabbath you desire to alter your state of mind – via chemical assistance or otherwise – that is completely ok. People have many ways of altering their brain chemistry for the purposes of recreation, including dancing, listening to music, eating, drinking etc.  In this sense, smoking weed is just another form of recreation.

An inappropriate context for smoking weed and intending to get high would be if you are about to pilot a passenger aircraft loaded with people. The mild dissociative effects could be disastrous and cause you to crash the plane. Another inappropriate time to smoke weed would be right before your wedding, or before an important exam. There is a time and place for everything, however the time and place for weed is during recreation; not during everyday life. Exactly the same arguments can be applied to the responsible use of alcohol. It would be entirely inappropriate to turn up to work or your own wedding inebriated.

This principle can be extended to almost all drugs. No drug is intrinsically immoral so long as it is taken in a recreational context. If you have a weekend free and have no obligations to meet, then by all means take LSD and enjoy the profound spiritual experience that it provokes. If you are going to a music festival and there is some MDMA on offer, then by all means feel free to partake (Although MDMA is a complex drug and there is more to say about it).

Drunkenness is an interesting case, seeing as St Paul explicitly names it as a sin in his epistles. Speaking from experience, there have been times when I have socially drunk to the point of drunkenness, and yet I didn’t do anything sinful, feel any increase in temptation, say anything stupid. I just felt on a slightly different plane of reality. There have of course also been other times when I have been drunk and done lots of stupid things. And being drunk to the point of vomiting is a sign that you are physically disrespecting your body, which is the temple of the lord. However the state of mind of being “drunk” is not inherently sinful. It’s only if you get “totally wasted” and start saying and doing stupid stuff, vomiting etc.

Of course context is not the only consideration when tossing up the morality of taking drugs. Something else to consider is the side effects. If the drug is known to cause severe physical and mental harm even with casual use, it should not be taken – even in a recreational context – unless there is some way to offset this harm. For example MDMA is known to cause slight-yet-notable, permanent brain damage if it is taken alone. This is because MDMA works by increasing the rate of serotonin consumption in the brain to a point where the brain literally runs out of serotonin. At this point when there is no more serotonin, the receptors that would usually receive serotonin start to eat the dopamine in the brain instead. However dopamine is toxic to these receptors and ends up killing them off, leading to brain damage and an extreme hangover. All of this can be avoided simply by taking a serotonin supplement at the same time as the MDMA. In this way you get an awesome high and no hangover, no brain damage, no harmful effects. One friend of mine reported that he actually felt even healthier after the MDMA wore off than before he had ingested it, solely because he had also taken a serotonin supplement.

The sin with drugs is not so much the taking of them as it is the addiction to them. Smoking a casual joint every 3 months with some mates is completely fine. However if you get to a point where you are craving weed at every hour of the day and are sneaking out of the office at regular intervals to light up a fat one – this is a habit that is interfering with your life. It is similar to alcoholism: having a casual drink with the boys after work is fine, but once you’re addicted to booze it starts to invade every other aspect of your life.

Addiction is also relevant when it comes to some of the harder drugs: Heroin, Cocaine and Methamphetamine. In these cases, the drugs are actually physically addictive because they target the addiction center of our brain (The dopamine system). Theoretically it is possible to take these drugs casually without becoming addicted to them, and I have heard anecdotes from people who have successfully tried them without getting hooked, however the common story is that these drugs lead to total addiction and an utterly ruined life. In this situation you have to ask the question “am I tempting fate by taking this drug?” and the answer is very much “yes”. In this way, taking these harder drugs is immoral, because they are inherently addictive and as such are much more likely to lead to addiction and a ruined life.

Every drug has side effects which need to be considered too. For example excessive marijuana use can lead to schizophrenia. Excessive psychedelic use can activate latent bipolar. Excessive cocaine use can lead to mania and psychosis. None of these dangers make casual use of the drug inherently immoral, however they must be taken into account when assessing whether or not it is “tempting fate” to take the drug in any given situation. “Tempting fate” is definitely sinful.

The conclusion of the matter is that it is ok to desire to change your mental state (read as: get high), so long as it is in a recreational context and you have assessed the risks in your personal situation and found ways to mitigate them. For example when taking psychedelics it is advised to find a good “set and setting”, otherwise you run the risk of having a bad trip. Or as mentioned, when taking MDMA it is highly advisable to take a serotonin supplement such as 5-HTP so as to avoid brain damage. There is nothing inherently sinful about striving to change your mental state: monks do this all the time during intense contemplative prayer. Chemicals can be used to assist the process and so long as they are used in a responsible manner, there’s nothing sinful about them.