The Restoration of Hell
The problem with reason is that it is progressive. The structures of arguments are progressive in that they lead you from premises to conclusions. Even in deductive arguments, where the premises perfectly entail the conclusion, you learn something via the arrangement of premise to conclusion. Your knowledge has progressed. Historians, while fixated on the past, are finding new evidence and supplementing narratives of what happened. Ask any classicist and they will tell you that we have learned new truths since Thucydides wrote his epic history of the Peloponnesian War. Our understanding has progressed. Or, think about the great debates in church history. The formation of the Nicene Creed was in response to a debate about the nature of the Trinity, specifically the divinity of Christ. Scriptural texts were compared, arguments formulated, and those defending a sharp distinction between God the Father and Jesus Christ were judged incorrect. The Reformation itself is an exercise in rightly, truly understanding (i.e., reasoning about) Scripture. Our understanding progressed. Reason pushes understanding forward even when the object of reason is an historical event.
The problem here is that one must ask what are we reasoning and progressing toward? If you think about the Fall, was it not reason that the serpent appealed to when deceiving Eve—“Did God really say…”? The serpent pushed Eve to formulate a new argument in understanding God’s Word; her actions proved her conclusion. What could Eve and Adam have to progress toward? Satan promises the knowledge of good and evil, but Satan, being a liar, was misleading. According to God, the knowledge gained was death, a real, physical, painful death. Not only a biological death but also spiritually, as well as mentally. The Fall was a separation from the source of goodness, truth, and beauty, where we are left with the entire natural and social world transpiring against a person. It would seem that we reason toward our own destruction.
This brings me to something that I was reading recently by Leo Tolstoy. Just under forty years before C.S. Lewis published his famous The Screwtape Letters (1942), Tolstoy wrote in 1903 a short story entitled,The Restoration of Hell (public domain). In this little story, the devil and his minions despair at the work of Christ. The defeat of death through Christ shackles the devil. However, Hell is not silenced. As the devil awakens after a long slumber, recovering from the resurrection event, he finds his shackles loosened and the glorious screams of torment throughout his dark empire—Hell is being repopulated.
What is fascinating is what Tolstoy pegs as the problem leading to the repopulation of Hell. The devil can’t understand why humans would turn from the simple reality of Christ’s death and resurrection. To the devil, the action on the hill was the final nail in the coffin—or more in line with reality, the pulling of the last nail. However, we humans are too clever for our own good (Col 2:28). The restoration of Hell according to Tolstoy, was made possible through theological reasoning, you may say philosophy. Thus, the very question that Eve stumbled over—“Did God really say…?”—is reposed not in light of an Edenic tree, but in regard to the man Jesus hanging upon a tree.
The simple answer to Satan’s question is YES. However, humans don’t leave YES alone. We crave more systematic answers, a reasonable response that fits our background understanding. After all, incorrect belief is at stake and false belief is the root of heresy. No place is this more codified than in the church. And, as Tolstoy reveals, it is the church that has been the greatest help in restoring Hell despite the destruction of the Temple at Golgotha.
This same truth was recognized during the Reformation by Martin Luther, who seeing the cognitive machinations of the church and the spiritual death left in its wake, was led to call reason the devil’s whore. The problem is not so much that reason is evil, but the inherent progressive nature of reason. As I mentioned, it leads the mind down various pathways, away from the act of redemption. Luther, Tolstoy, and Lewis recognized that the more the church came to understand about Christianity, the further we had to move from the center of Christianity. The further we move from the center of Christianity, the closer and closer we move toward Hell. As it is often said, “The devil is in the details!”
This is not meant to be a tirade against reason; I am a philosopher after all. However, Tolstoy’s piece is a tragic reminder that the hounds of hell are constantly waiting to devour us by moving us away from the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection. Moreover, our own church bodies are often complicit in helping the demons, as we get hung up on all sorts of issues arguably, and thus reasonably, downstream from Christ’s death and resurrection. Downstream from the resurrection, nothing really matters. Christ really did say I am forgiven, you are forgiven, we are forgiven. However, our reason will constantly push us downstream even while we are being faithful to that redemptive truth.
Here is the great irony of Tolstoy’s piece. The church is faithful, but in systematizing its faithfulness it moves downstream from Christ. When problems downstream from Christ, even as they are logically related to Christ, take precedence over the simple death and resurrection of Christ, Tolstoy rightly laments that Hell is restored. We should forever be on guard against what is truly important and what is only secondary to the resurrection fact. Hell literally hangs in the balance.