Defending eternal Hell with Vaisnava theology?

3 10 2020

I don’t know why I keep obsessing about the question of Hell in Catholic theology. I have already stated that it wasn’t a major consideration when I was an orthodox Catholic. I have never really had scruples or an overactive sense of guilt, or a fear of punishment for that matter. My religious concerns have always been about meaning and who I want to be at the end of the day. It has always been for me about transformation and an encounter with that which is outside of me. Meaning is out there, so I have come to think. The question of whether I will be personally saved or damned, and if others will, seems a bit self-absorbed.

Nevertheless, I have been perhaps obsessively intrigued by the vehemence with which some advocates of the universal salvation of all defend their position. Why does it mean so much to them if the Christian Scripture means exactly what it says when it proclaims eternal punishments for the damned? “Just don’t be damned”, I think. “Don’t you trust God?” I might also blurt out. Life as it stands now doesn’t seem to make much sense, I don’t know why it has to make sense after we die. The mind of God is forever inaccessible.

In the above-posted interview with David Bentley Hart, again, on his book, That All Shall Be Saved, he touches on many points to defend his book, citing it as if it has almost canonical authority at this point. Hart is completely dismissive of everyone else’s arguments, and I am not going to rehash any of the polemics here. The purpose of my writing here is to posit two very preliminary and perhaps unfounded hypotheses to answer two questions Hart and his interlocutors touch upon: 1. Where did belief in universal Hell come from? and 2. Can someone be happy in Heaven knowing a loved one is in Hell for all eternity? I hope to use Krishna conscious premises to answer these questions at least in part.

The first question I will address briefly, but as no one else has stated anything close to this opinion, it has to be said. The idea of eternal Hell comes from both Scripture and the experience of the Church. (Hart dismisses the majority position in history stating simply that the “majority is often wrong.” So much for securus iudicat orbis terrarum.) Here there is a parallel to Vedic philosophy where we always have recourse to guru, sadhu, and sastra: roughly, current authority, the experience of previous holy people, and scripture. The Christian experience of sadhu would be the visions of saints, of apparitions, of monastic asceticism, and folklore. Along with strong Scriptural evidence, this clearly points to the existential gamble that human life constitutes within the Christian mystery. Eternal Hell is a reality due to the experience of the life of the Church up until very, very recently.

The more compelling question is the hypothetical one of if one can be happy in Heaven knowing that there are people just like you being eternally tormented elsewhere. Hart speaks extensively about the need to fully know the good into order to choose freely. If one does not fully know the good due to sin, one is a slave to sin, and thus not entirely free. All will be saved because all will eventually know the good, and the good (or truth) will set them free, just as Jesus indicated.

From the Gaudiya Vaishnava perspective, there are a lot of parallels and differences here. In our theology, we don’t have “good” and “evil”. When we speak of the reality of the material world around us, we say that it is a product of three modes or gunas: sattva (goodness), rajas (passion), and tamas (ignorance). On the face of it, tamas is comparable to Christian evil, and so as in the Platonic system, people only do bad things because they are in ignorance. But to a certain extent, rajas and to a lesser degree sattva are also “evil,” in that they continue to incline one toward enjoyment in the material world, and one goes up and down in the Chain of Being according to one’s actions. We have been over this, but what is most telling here is it’s not really an issue of choosing the good and rejecting evil necessarily, but of realizing that the whole material cosmic manifestation is the product of ahamkara, or false ego. That which is true (and thus good?) is our relationship with God as the Source of All Being, and that which is illusion or ignorance (and thus evil?) is thinking that we have an existence apart from God. An action that is “good” in itself can have long term “evil” consequences for us if it inclines toward our own pleasure apart from our Source.

This argument is actually paralleled from a Christian perspective by William Matthew Diem , who also is addressing Hart through the Thomist lens:

It is true that, by nature, we long for the good. But our fundamental choice, our basic freedom is not whether to pursue good or not pursue good. It is whether to pursue good for its own sake or for our sake. By that very fact that I deliberately choose injustice, I pursue the good in a way that subjects the good to me–I set myself up as the ultimate end and good placing everything else below me as a means. The fact that, for the person with perfect knowledge, what is good for me is identically good in itself does not change the choice that each of us faces between loving the good for itself and loving the good for us. 

Gaudiya theology reflects Dr. Diem’s recourse to the common good here in that we only consider our actions in relationship with our devotional service to Lord Krishna. To pursue the good for its own sake for us would be to pursue it in the light of its source: Bhagavan or the Supreme Personality of Godhead. To want a good only in relationship to us, even if the good is otherwise sattvic, is to get further mired into the economy of karma and thus the cycle of birth and death. Returning to the Catholic perspective, if a person needs to know all of the implications to themselves personally in order to “freely” act, that means that they do not love the good in itself, or in our theology, they’re still mired in anarthas accumulated over millions of lives. The “damned” are holding on to too much to be saved, they are still inclined to think of their own pleasure, their own suffering, and perhaps under the guise of “compassion,” the discomfort they feel when reflecting on the world as the Creator made it. You can only make it into the Kingdom of God when you have pure love of God, and no earlier.

As for the actual question of if one can one be truly happy in Heaven knowing of the sufferings of Hell, this is where comparative theology gets complicated. For us Hare Krishnas, as the material world (which includes the lower realms of Hell) is literally built out of false ego, it is an illusion. It is not false in the Advaita Vedanta sense, it is real but temporary. Thus, our attachments to loved ones in this lifetime are also illusory: we have lived millions of lives with millions of supposed loved ones. There is a story in the Srimad Bhagavatam of a dead child upbraiding his parents for mourning his passing. I excerpt a snippet of his discourse here:

According to the results of my fruitive activities, I, the living being, transmigrate from one body to another, sometimes going to the species of the demigods, sometimes to the species of lower animals, sometimes among the vegetables, and sometimes to the human species. Therefore, in which birth were these my mother and father? No one is actually my mother and father. How can I accept these two people as my parents?

Thus, the pangs that one has viewing one’s afflicted loved ones is also maya, it is the assumption that one had a relationship with these particular people that one hasn’t had with millions of other spirit souls just like them previously. It is to prefer some to others who you don’t know, which is contrary to the inclinations of the Supreme Lord, who views all equally.

The other contrast is that our afterlife isn’t about knowing everything perfectly, because love isn’t about knowing things when you come down to it. Those in our highest heaven, Goloka Vrindavan, don’t even know that Krishna is God, and He likes it that way. Those in the Heavens below it don’t know about Goloka Vrindavan, or know it very vaguely, and instead serve the Supreme Personality of Godhead in other forms and moods. The purpose of our existence is bhakti, love in action or devotional service, not jnana (knowledge). The mother doesn’t need to know or be constantly aware that her baby’s heart is beating at a 110 beats per minute, that his current temperature is 98.4. degrees, that he is will marry a woman named Sarah or that he will die at the age of 84 from pancreatic cancer. There is so much we don’t know when we love, but ultimately what is desirable about others is what is given to that person by the Desirable Himself: Krishna or the All-Attractive. Outside of their relationship with God, it’s just temporary accidents.

From the Christian perspective, one can state that by default the vision of the Just will not be the vision that we have now. I am not saying necessarily that they will see entirely the vision of the damned and glory in it. Nor am I even indicating that Hell will be eternal necessarily. What I am implying here is that our beatitude in either system isn’t dependent on a “bird’s eye view” of all Creation and History, as we can’t possibly conceive of what that will mean from our perspective, and also that knowledge isn’t necessarily that important to begin with. As I stated previously, illusion is the essence of love in our theology: in Goloka, Krishna is just a cowherd boy who plays the flute and likes to steal butter. Knowing that He’s the creator who made millions of (temporary) hells in millions of universes is not a consideration for any of the people who love Krishna in His most intimate realm. Does that we mean that we know more than the cowherd girls of Vraja who think about Krishna night and day like any girl with a puppy love crush? If you think that, I feel sorry for you.

Is there a good Vaishnava approach to the horrors of Hell and the suffering of souls trapped there for what seems to be an eternity? I will have recourse to someone else’s telling of the story of Ramanuja and the mantra “Om Namo Narayana”:

It was to him that Mahapurna directed his disciple Ramanuja to go and receive the Vaishnava mantra with all its subtle meanings. But despite sincere and persistent efforts by Ramanuja, Goshthipurna refrained from initiating him into the secret mantra. Not once but eighteen times did Ramanuja knock at his doors. After the eighteenth attempt, Ramanuja broke down and shed tears of dejection. Goshthipurna relented and gave him the sacred eight-syllabled mantra with its mystic meaning but warned him not to divulge it to all and sundry. A breach of promise, he warned, would result in Ramanuja going to hell.

Ramanuja was overjoyed. He acquiesced to the condition. However on the way back he was filled with compassion for the multitude of people who were caught in the rigmarole of worldly troubles. He was excited at the prospect of doing something good. He reached the Vishnu temple at Goshthipura, beckoned all the people he saw with these words: “Please come near the temple. I will give you a priceless jewel.” Soon a vast sea of people converged. “Repeat, O people, thrice after me,” Ramanuja proclaimed loudly “the mantra that will free you from the tribulations of the world.” The whole area reverberated with the sound of the Narayana mantra. Goshthipurna was furious but Ramanuja was not perturbed. The compassionate saint that he was, Ramanuja decided that it was worthwhile for him to go to hell if he could secure the liberation of millions of people. Goshthipurna’s heart melted when he witnessed this person with a loving heart and not just a brain. It was his turn to seek forgiveness. With a voice choked with emotion he muttered “Pardon my offence. How can I grasp your greatness?” You are our great Lord! Emberumanar!

Hart cited Archimandrite Sophrony as a contemporary Orthodox theologian who also believed in universal salvation, but as I read about him and his spiritual father, St. Silouan of Mount Athos, I can confirm their universalism but also recall one of Silouan’s saying to “Keep your mind in Hell and despair not,” and also a related sentiment, “Everyone will be saved, and only I will be damned.” The prospect of spending all of eternity or a seeming eternity in Hell is not a bludgeon with which to beat other people over the head, but a sentiment with which to judge ourselves. Ramanuja’s and Silouan’s sentiments are related in that sense. You don’t free the human race through sleight of metaphysical syllogism or unpopular feats of Scriptural exegesis, but with a lot of suffering, toil, and tears. To paraphrase the apocryphal Franciscan saying, you have to work as if it is all up to you, and hope and pray that the salvation of all is all up to God.



3 responses

5 10 2020

Yes, his comments on the God of the OT really reinforce that for me. God has to conform to Hart’s standards or else God isn’t God. Talk about pride.

5 10 2020

I agree with Karl’s comment and given the unfruitfulness of the Universal Salvation/ Hell debate, Hart’s motives take on a sinister hue, another blow in the ongoing leveling of The Church to fit egalitarian mantras and satiate our lust for praise. Oh we are such good people aren’t we professor.

4 10 2020

Personally I’m more interested in the idea of Jesus as Cosmic Restorer and deliverer of Justice and Healing than the idea of people smiling/burning in the afterlife. After a while, all of the back and forth about Hell becomes almost funny, as if we could know anything about it with certainty.

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