The Death Penalty and Hell
“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.
In fact, it has recently been argued that Vladimir Soloviev’s philosophical and theological opposition to the death penalty may have influenced Pope John Paul II’s own writings on the matter. But it fell to Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, the titan of 20th century Orthodox dogmatic theology, to develop most thoroughly the logic of Christian inadmissibility of certain earthly punishments and to extend that inadmissibility to the life beyond. A long-time opponent of the death penalty in Russia, Bulgakov understood that our thinking about crime and punishment in the afterlife is always partially constrained by our thinking about it here. As Christian consciousness was becoming clarified (or re-clarified, more in accord with early Christian standards) concerning the inadmissibility of an earthly death penalty, so too Bulgakov understood that modern consciousness could no longer fathom the traditional doctrine of eternal torments for finite crimes. This point is most fully worked out in the final volume of his magnum opus, On the Divine-Humanity: The Bride of the Lamb:
Earthly life and the afterlife are connected as different aspects of the one life of one and the same spirit. One usually prefers to conceive the afterlife state of “sinners” (but who is free of sin and therefore does not need to repent?) in the juridical and penitentiary form of a sentence served in an afterlife prison, without possibility of pardon or parole. However, it is completely impossible to allow that the spirit could be in a state so static, so frozen in an unchanging spasm or so immersed in passive contemplation of its past actions and deprived of the capacity for further life.” (365; Boris Jakim’s translation)
The logic here is one of respecting the intrinsic dynamism of the human spirit created with an irresistible striving towards its Source. This transcendental orientation entails ceaseless movement, epektasis, into that Source, though the path is, as we all know from experience, almost insuperably littered with obstacles, both willed and not. To put an end to this dynamism, to make the Goal impossible and to forestall repentance is the very essence of the death penalty. That Christians could support it is absurd, as Dostoevsky—himself no stranger to attempted execution—showed so well in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan tells story of the Geneva Christians, who, after converting a murderer in prison, encouraged the repentant Christian to embrace his coming execution: “Die, die, Richard, die in the Lord! You have spilled blood, and you must die in the Lord.” But if the ground for rejecting the imposition of death here on earth is not God’s “property claims” on human life on which we dare not infringe, but is instead the very divine image of the human person, then can we logically expect that in the next life God—‘the judge of the earth’ who is more just than any human tribunal and more human than any of us all—will also respect the souls he has made for eternal union with him?
The doctrine of eternal torments has become unconscionable to modern believers, Bulgakov alleges, because it is the creation of a ‘penitentiary theology’ which can only conceive of the afterlife for sinners as an “exemplary prison” of punishments of infinite duration. In other words, we take Scriptural images of postmortem punishment in too literal a fashion, and give them content by applying the cruel injustices of our own penitentiary systems. Bulgakov finds an echo on this point in the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar (who, as recent scholarship has convincingly shown, was influenced by both Soloviev and Bulgakov, and especially by the latter on questions of eschatology). Balthasar, reflecting on impossibility of hoping for universal salvation in medieval Latin theology, notes in passing: “[The period of High Scholasticism] is also the period in which Christian princes hold banquets in the halls of their castles and citadels while their enemies languish in lifelong imprisonment in the dungeons below” (Theo-Drama V, 317). Is it any surprise, then, Balthasar seems to say, that possibilities for healing in the afterlife are foreclosed to the imaginations of those who, like the Geneva Christians, can calmly countenance the imposition of death on souls God has summoned to continual repentance?
If there truly is a dialectical relationship between our ability to conceive of a dignified forgiveness and justice co-existing in the afterlife and our ability to instantiate this co-existence (however approximately) here on earth, then it incumbent upon us to purify our visions of earthly punishment in the light of the divine justice and mercy of Christ’s cross. We must become perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect. And if there in reality a ‘profound evolution of dogma’ underway in both the East and West on the issue of universal salvation, it will only become manifest as we continue to attend to the dignity of Christ in every human face.
Roberto J. De La Noval is a doctoral student in theology at the University of Notre Dame.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.