Speaking of Hell and Damnation: Contrasting the Ultimate and Penultimate

I'm a weird person, theologically speaking. I'm a person who believes in the universal reconciliation of all things who likes to talk about hell, damnation and judgment. You can blame George MacDonald for the former, and Johnny Cash for latter.

How can that combination make any sense?

Well, one way to do it is adopt a purgatorial view of hell, hell as purification. But the other way to think about it is to borrow from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's contrast between the ultimate and the penultimate.

The end and/or culmination of all things is the "ultimate," the final and last season of history when "God will be all in all" (1 Cor. 15.28).

Before the ultimate is the penultimate, the season before final judgment and the "new heavens and the new earth." The ultimate is in our future, today we live in the penultimate, in the time before the end and/or renewal of all things.

With that distinction in mind, let me make an observation about damnation and hell.

Strong language about damnation and hell--"God's gonna cut you down" in the words of Johnny Cash--is proper to the penultimate. During the penultimate the language of hell and damnation names God's judgment upon history, God's anger and pathos in the face of human violence and wickedness. The language of damnation and hell is the language of prophetic indictment and rebuke. We need this language in the penultimate to resist and speak against the darkness.

The trouble comes when we shift hell and damnation from the penultimate to the ultimate. You lose the prophetic register when hell is shifted from the penultimate to the ultimate. Saying "God's gonna cut you down" in the penultimate is harsh but spoken in hope, to encourage repentance. Think of Jonah preaching "God's gonna cut you down" to Nineveh. The language of damnation turned Nineveh. By contrast, speaking of hell and damnation in ultimate terms is hopeless. There's no chance for repentance when hell is in the ultimate. When hell is in the ultimate damnation becomes The End.

So all that to say, when I speak about damnation and hell I'm speaking in the penultimate, singing in the prophetic key. I'm saying "God's gonna cut you down" to the wicked and the violent.

When, however, I speak about the reconciliation of all things, I'm speaking of the ultimate, about the end of all things when, in the words of Julian of Norwich, "All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

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