God in his mercy made the fixed pains of hell…

Something I’ve been thinking about today-
In my Christian Foundation’s class, we are just getting into the protestant reformation and the life of Luther and Zwingli. We talked about the medieval penitential scheme which is a formula for salvation based on the theology of Tertullian, the first great Latin theologian of the 2nd century. According to Tertullian:

  1. The basis of repentance is fear
  2. God grants pardon by way of repentance
  3. Salvation is the reward of repentance
Do you see the penitentiary formula there? The church in the 14-15th century had become obsessed with three things as the means to salvation- Confession (Words), Contrition (Heart) and Satisfaction (Deeds). This transactionary means of atonement was the cause of the sale of indulgences, the idolization of relics and other such abuses.
Luther was heartily against such a system which he saw vile and corrupt. More so, he was torn up within himself about the seemingly insurmountable enormity of his personal sin. He felt like that he was always at odds with God. He viewed his contrition as essentially self centered, so much so that he writes-
‘For I hated that word RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD… with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner… “
Here Luther identifies the human condition, calling it a natural crookedness.
‘The natural man enjoys everything with reference to himself and uses everybody else for the same purpose, even God himself: he seeks himself and his own interest in everything’ L.W. 56, 361
St. Augustine said at one point, ‘you don’t really do God’s will unless you delight in it’. This was Luther’s struggle with himself and his struggle with the church. What is the cause of salvation? According to Luther, it is a gift. He comes to the conclusion that it has to begin with grace. The cause is the Holy Spirit.
‘I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that which the righteous live by a gift of God… the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by’ L.W. 34, 336-337
According to Luther, when one understands this, one sees neither anger, death or hell but sheer grace. By no means does he deny the significance of the contrition, confession and satisfaction; all three are necessary but do not in themselves cause salvation.
‘If contrition is the cause, [of forgiveness] then Christ is idle’ L.W. , 34-172
If you think about it, we in the 21st century might not have actually got it. The message we preach is still a reflection of the Medieval Penitentiary System. We talk about grace as if it is something we acquire, conditional up a certain transaction (repentance) and forgiveness is the reward. An interesting taught but not quite what I was thinking about all day.
Rather on a related note, I was asking the question, if we subscribe to Luther’s answer to salvation, what becomes of hell? What is the consequence of rejecting God’s gift of righteousness? Is there then such a thing as eternal suffering (penitentiary), and would a loving God subject us to such a condition? What is hell?
I found this terribly interesting compilation of C.S Lewis’ thoughts on hell.
Essentially, Lewis says that hell is an imminent possibility. But he describes hell as ‘self-centeredness’ and ‘self-chosen’. See how Lewis makes it non-penitentiary? He says for example:
“We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.”
– 
The Screwtape Letters
“A man can’t be taken to hell, or sent to hell: you can only get there on your own stream.”
– 
The Dark Tower & Other Stories, “The Dark Tower”
To enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being on earth; to enter hell is to be banished from humanity. What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is “remains.” To be a complete man means to have the passions obedient to the will and the will offered to God: to have been a man – to be an ex-man or “damned ghost” – would presumably mean to consist of a will utterly centered in its self and passions utterly uncontrolled by the will.
– 
The Problem of Pain
And finally:
“The whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing. But ye’ll have had experiences… it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.”
– 
The Great Divorce
All this to say that our value on repentance and the human agency is misplaced if we don’t in humility acknowledge that salvation is the redemption of the human condition and not a formula for atonement. Hell isn’t penitence, it is mercy… Something that points us in the direction of hope. Fascinating stuff…
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2 thoughts on “God in his mercy made the fixed pains of hell…

  1. Good read… we were just discussing some of these issues at Alpha class today. “Penitentiary” is an interesting way to describe the the constant struggle of the troubled Christian soul.

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