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Hans Kung on Eternal Punishment, Hell, and Reconciliation

Hans Kung, a well known Swiss Theologian, in his book "Eternal Life," gives some interesting insight into these subjects. On pages 140-143 he writes (be sure and see his recap at the end of this article):

Why then at this very point should we want to stick to the letter of the Bible and to take absolutely literally metaphorical speech about the "eternal fire"? Darkness, weeping, gnashing of teeth, fire: all these are harsh-sounding metaphors for the menacing possibility that a person may completely miss the meaning of his life. In their day even Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Jerome and Ambrose interpreted the fire metaphorically. "Fire" is a metaphor for God's wrath, "eternal" is not always understood in the strict sense in Hebrew, Greek and modern linguistic usage ("this goes on eternally" means "an indefinitely long time"). In the "eternal punishment" (Matt. 25:46) of the Last Judgment the stress lies on the fact that this punishment is definitive, final, decisive for all eternity, but not on the eternal duration of the torment. Neither in Judaism nor in the New Testament is there any uniform view of the period of punishment for sin. In addition to statements about eternal punishment, there are texts which assume a complete destruction ("eternal corruption", 2 Thes. 1:9). And throughout Church history, in addition to the traditional dualism, the possibility of annihilation or even universal reconciliation (restitutio omnium, apocatastasis ton panton) have been defended.

But, however the scriptural texts are interpreted in detail, the "eternity" of the punishment of hell may never be regarded as absolute. It remains subject to God, to his will and his grace. And individual texts suggest -- in contrast to others -- a reconciliation of all, an act of universal mercy. As Paul -- for instance -- says in the Letter to the Romans: "God has imprisoned men in their own disobedience only to show mercy to all mankind" (Rom. 11:32). And anyone who thinks he knows better should listen to the verses immediately following, which Paul takes almost entirely from the Old Testament: "How rich are the depths of God -- how deep his wisdom and knowledge -- and how impossible to penetrate his motives or understand his methods! Who could ever know the mind of the Lord? Who could ever be his counsellor? Who could ever give him anything or lend him anything? All that exists comes from him; all is by him and for him. To him be glory for ever! Amen" (Rom 11:33-36).

. . . . . To insist on the problematic character of the idea of eternal punishment in hell -- which on the whole only plays a small part in the New Testament -- is not the same thing as questioning the biblical idea of judgment which runs right through the New Testament. Dying into God, as we observed, has a judicial-purifying character. As will become clearer later, a superficial universalism which regards all human beings as saved from the very outset would not do justice to the seriousness of life, to the importance of moral decisions and the weight of the individual's responsibility. Whether the punishment of hell is eternal or not, a person is fully responsible, not only before his conscience -- which is the voice of his practical reason -- but also before the absolutely final authority, before which his reason is also responsible. And it would certainly be presumptuous for a person to seek to anticipate the judgment of this absolutely final authority. Neither in one way nor in the other can we tie God's hands or dispose of him. There is nothing to be known here, but everything to be hoped.

What then is to be said about hell and the punishment of hell? We can now recapitulate what has been said:

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