John Polkinhorne on hell

And what of hell?

In Living with Hope, an Advent devotional, John Polkinghorne argues that hell is real but that its true nature doesn’t match the traditional images of fire, pitchforks, and eternal torture (see pgs 57-59). Instead, hell is the definition of the state of those who choose not to turn to God, reject God’s mercy, and persist in the thinking that they can “go it alone” forever.

Hell is the place where that mistake continues to be made for ever. It is the setting of an unremitting refusal to allow ourselves ever to attain to the fulfilment of the true humanity that God intends for us. We can only hope and pray that in the end no one will persist everlastingly in that defiance of God’s mercy. If that is the case, then hell will be empty, and we may be sure that this would be in accord with God’s good will for human destiny.

Living with Hope, pg 59

Polkinghorne also hints that we can be in a state of hell either in this life or the Life to Come, and that at any point along the way we are always free to accept God’s merciful offer of transformation, redemption, and purification.

Questions this raises for me include:

Where/when can this process happen and this choice be made? Let’s say someone dies persisting in their rejection of God’s merciful offer (as Polkinghorne puts it). Are they resurrected to the New Heavens and New Earth along with everyone else? If so, do they live there along with everyone else while continuing to resist God’s presence and mercy, always being invited to “repent” (learn to see in a new way, change their minds)? This seems inconsistent with the imagery of the Life to Come.

Alternatively, this might happen prior to the resurrection. If this is the case, though, then it implies that we are conscious and able to make free choices while existing only as an “information-bearing pattern” held in God’s memory while we await the resurrection (see yesterday’s post for more information on this). This would make sense, although it would also imply that a physical body is not ultimately necessary for our selves to be as full and complete as possible, at least not necessary enough to prevent us from being able to make decisions with eternal ramifications.

I’ll admit, these points don’t seem to hold together consistently, although it’s entirely possible that I’m misinterpreting Polkinghorne’s arguments and/or that they’re made more clearly in some other of his writings.

Perhaps some ecumenical perspectives could help resolve the inconsistencies.

In the Latter-day Saint tradition, the Eternal Destiny is not conceptualized in a simple binary of heaven or hell. Instead, there is a clear three-tiered heaven and only a weak corresponding theology of what most Christians call “hell.” The highest level (the “Celestial Kingdom”) is where God lives and most closely matches what Anglican orthodoxy considers to be the New Heavens and New Earth. The other two lower levels, the “Terrestrial Kingdom” and “Telestial Kingdom” are post-mortal destinies for those who were honorable people but rejected God’s invitation for redemption and transformation and for those who were not honorable in their mortal lives, respectively. These are the initial assignments of post-mortal destiny after the Judgment and Resurrection. LDS theology is ambiguous about whether there is the possibility of movement between the various post-mortal Kingdoms, but recently there has been movement by prominent LDS theologians toward a YES position on that question. They have speculated that while someone might initially be assigned to a lower Kingdom, they always would have the option of embracing God’s invitation of mercy and transformation, enabling them to advance to a higher Kingdom as is appropriate for their readiness and willingness.

Applying some of these concepts to the Anglican conceptualization of hell and the afterlife, we could speculate that perhaps in the redeemed New Heavens and New Earth that there are multiple different locations in the redeemed cosmos. Those who inhabit “hell” are those who are resurrected with physical bodies but persist in rejecting God’s invitation for mercy, transformation, and redemption. They inhabit some other place in the cosmos of the New Heavens and New Earth, further away from God’s immediate presence, but always having the option to accept God’s invitation and “relocate” (in a manner of speaking) to the Kingdom with the rest of God’s people. As Polkinghorne wrote (above): “We can only hope and pray that in the end no one will persist everlastingly in that defiance of God’s mercy.”

Sources and further reading:

Yesterday’s post on Polkinghorne’s overall view of the cosmos and eschatology.

A 2015 post on a theology of Mormon Universalism

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