Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: III.XXXVIII

Last Judgment by Giotto, Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy.


If a society can only stand on its justice, and if justice is “the power of life and death”; then any person or institution other than the sovereign having that power will lead to the destruction of the commonwealth. This, Hobbes says, is even more true when it comes to eternal life and eternal death, which are both greater than any reward or punishment that can be given in this world (XXXVIII.1). And so we’d better understand the nature of heaven and hell and how one gets to each if we don’t want our commonwealth to be undone by a bunch of pious people giving their full devotion to an authority higher than that of the earthly sovereign.

Both heaven and hell are, Hobbes wants us to understand, actual places. That is, they are (or at least, someday will be) geographic locations with dimension, shape, etc. In other words, like the universe, they are bodies with matter and substance. Just as there was a physical garden of Eden wherein Adam and Eve lived a bodily existence, so someday there will be an eschatological physical heaven and hell:

The comparison between that eternal life which Adam lost, and our Saviour by his victory over death hath recovered, holdeth also in this: that as Adam lost eternal life by his sin, and yet lived after it for a time, so the faithful Christian hath recovered eternal life by Christ’s passion, though he die a natural death, and remain dead for a time (namely, till the resurrection). For as death is reckoned from the condemnation of Adam, not from the execution, so life is reckoned from the absolution, not from the resurrection of them that are elected in Christ. (XXXVIII.3)

In other words, the “death” of Adam that was executed as his judgment for sin was the immediate spiritual separation from God—Adam’s physical death only came much later. In the same way, the physical life of a believer is promised in the future rather than immediately delivered—what we get when we believe is a restored spiritual union. Hobbes’s emphasis here is on the promise that the coming eternal life will be a physical life in a real place, not an airy spiritual existence without substance. Such an insubstantial existence might be the temporary situation of a soul between death and resurrection, but we need not waste much time speculating about so temporary and unknown a situation.

Hobbes has already argued about the temporal existence of the Kingdom of God. In this chapter he extends that to include the final heaven promised to all believers, though he says that since this isn’t the way we’re necessarily used to thinking about heaven,

I do but propound it, maintaining nothing in this, or any other paradox of religion, but attending the end of that dispute of the sword concerning the authority… by which all sorts of doctrine are to be approved or rejected, and whose commands, both in speech and writing, whatsoever be the opinions of private men, must by all men that mean to be protected by their laws be obeyed. (XXXVIII.5)

Because Hobbes’s views of the Kingdom of God appear to be so radical, rather than hinge his philosophy on it he will simply state it and then wait for the English church to settle on its final belief system before making this point foundational to his system.

Hell likewise has a physical existence, as we see both literally and metaphorically in scripture. If heaven is the physical location of the Kingdom of God, so hell is the place of punishment outside of that kingdom. As we read the descriptions of hell in the Bible, Hobbes urges us to balance well the literal and metaphorical meanings. So, for example, when the Bible talks about the “shame and contempt” (Dan. 12:2) that some will be raised to at the resurrection:

All which places design metaphorically a grief and discontent of mind, from the sight of that eternal felicity in others which they themselves through their own incredulity and disobedience have lost. And because such felicity in others is not sensible but by comparison with their own actual miseries, it followeth that they are to suffer such bodily pains and calamities as are incident to those who not only live under evil and cruel governors, but have also for enemy the eternal king of the saints, God Almighty. (XXXVIII.14)

So it is the case that there is both literal truth in the description—that those suffering will experience shame and contempt; and metaphorical truth—that those suffering will experience a kind of shame and contempt that we understand from being in similar circumstances in the real world. The same kind of analysis applies to the devil—there is an actual being or person who accuses and torments, but it is in Hobbes’s view an office that is filled rather than a single being who always fills it. (This is akin to the theory that “James Bond” is a code name, rather than a single spy who has that name who just keeps changing actors.)

So how does one get from being on the track to hell to being on the road to heaven? Here, Hobbes is mostly orthodox in his statements, if a bit loose in his vocabulary and inclining toward what would become known in the twentieth century as the New Perspective on Paul:

Salvation of a sinner supposeth a precedent Redemption; for he that is once guilty of sin is obnoxious to the penalty of the same, and must pay (or some other for him) such ransom as he that is offended, and has him in his power, shall require. And seeing the person offended is Almighty God, in whose power are all things, such ransom is to be paid, before salvation can be acquired, as God hath been pleased to require…. Our Saviour Christ, therefore, to redeem us… did make that sacrifice and oblation of himself at his first coming, which God was pleased to require for the salvation, at his second coming, of such as in the meantime should repent and believe in him. (XXXVIII.25)

Where Hobbes stands out is not in his view of how one gets to heaven, but in his view of the context where that process happens. We must think about the act of salvation, according to Hobbes, as an act of conquest:

For salvation is set forth unto us, a glorious reign of our king, by conquest, not a safety by escape. And therefore, there where we look for salvation, we must look also for triumph; and before triumph, for victory; and before victory, for battle, which cannot well be supposed shall be in heaven. (XXXVIII.17)

And so heaven, the future and eternal Kingdom of God, is a place full of people taken captive by God and brought into covenant with Him by the work of Christ.

So again, we are left with Hobbes’s odd mixture of his political theory and his scriptural hermeneutic. In Hobbes’s defense, the past couple of decades have seen a renaissance of the idea of the Kingdom of God as a this-worldly event. As Christians have had to struggle with societal redefinitions of things like gender and marriage, a great effort has been put into reflecting on the theology of the body, the nature of resurrection, and the relationship between the “already” existing world and the “not yet” but coming Kingdom of God. While I’ve not read anyone who goes as far as Hobbes does, these various writers are at least engaging topics in a way he would appreciate—despite their radically differing conclusions about sovereignty in the church.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.

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