The Real Hell: A Lesson In Ontology

by Fr. Stephen Freeman

hell buttonOriginally entitled “The Real Hell – Is There Such a Thing?”

Because sometimes the people of God need a basic lesson in the nature of existence…

On one of the roads leading into my small city a billboard has recently appeared. It is part of a larger campaign by a nationally known evangelist who is to have a revival in Knoxville. The sign is simple. In very large bright yellow letters (all caps), the sign says: HELL IS REAL. In small letters beneath it, in white, that can be read as your car nears the sign is the statement: so is heaven. Like the small bulletin boards outside of many Southern churches, this sign belongs to a part of our culture that has been with us a long time. But every time I see this sign, my mind turns to the subject of ontology (the study of the nature of being). Thus I offer today some very basic thoughts on the subject of being – a classical part of Christian theology.

The first thing I will note is that you cannot say Hell is real and Heaven is real and the word real mean the same thing in both sentences. Whatever the reality of Heaven, Hell does not have such reality. Whatever the reality of Hell, Heaven is far beyond such reality.

St. Athanasius in his De Incarnatione, sees sin (and thus hell) as a movement towards “non-being.” The created universe was made out of nothing – thus as it moves away from God it is moving away from the gift of existence and towards its original state – non-existence. God is good, and does not begrudge existence to anything, thus the most creation can do is move towards non-being.

I’m certain that the intent of the billboard was to suggest that hell is not imaginary or just a folk-tale. It is certainly neither of those things. But in Orthodox spiritual terms I would say that hell is a massive state of delusion, maybe the ultimate state of delusion. It is delusional in the sense that (in Orthodox understanding) the “fire” of hell is not a material fire, but itself nothing other than the fire of the Living God (Hebrews 12:29). For those who love God, His fire is light and life, purification and all good things. For those who hate God, His fire is torment, though it be love.

And these are not simply picky issues about the afterlife – they are very germane issues for the present life. Christ Himself gave this “definition” of hell:

“And this is condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).

It is of critical importance for us to understand that being, reality, life, goodness, beauty, happiness, truth are all synonymous with reality as it is gifted to us by God. Many things that we experience in our currently damaged condition (I speak of our fallen state) which we describe with words such as

“being, reality, life, goodness, beauty, happiness, truth, etc.”,

are, in fact, only relatively so and are only so inasmuch as they have a participation or a relationship with the fullness of being, reality, life, etc.

Tragically in our world, many live in some state of delusion (even most of us live in some state of delusion). Christ said,

“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”

We are not pure in heart, and thus we do not see God, nor do we see anything in the fullness of its truth. Our delusion makes many mistakes about reality. The most serious delusion is that described by Christ, when we prefer darkness to light because our deeds are evil.

I have in my own life known what moments in such darkness are like – and I have seen such darkness in the hearts and lives of others many times. The whole of our ministry and life as Christians is to move from such darkness and into the light of Christ. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship (communion) one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1John 1:7)

Is hell real? Only for those who prefer to see the Light of God as darkness. Our lives are often quite “hellish” precisely because they are not real, not authentic, not sharing in the common life that can only come from the Lord and Giver of Life.

Is heaven real? Yes, indeed, and everything else is only real as it relates to that reality. God give us grace to walk in the Light.

End of the ontology lesson.

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About Fr. John A. Peck

Director of the Preachers Institute, priest in the Orthodox Church in America, award-winning graphic designer and media consultant, and non-profit administrator.
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