by Fr. George Metallinos
Part Three of his series on Paradise and Hell in the Orthodox Tradition.
The experience of Paradise or hell is beyond words or senses. It is an uncreated reality, not a created one. The Franks created the myth that Paradise and hell are both created realities. It is a myth that the damned will not be looking upon God; just as the “absence of God” is equally a myth. The Franks had also perceived the fires of hell as something created (e.g. Dante’s Inferno). Orthodox tradition has remained faithful to the Scriptural claim that the damned shall see God (like the rich man of the parable), but will perceive Him only as “an all-consuming fire.”
The Frankish scholastics accepted hell as punishment and the deprivation of a tangible vision of the divine essence. Biblically and patristically however, “hell” is understood as man’s failure to collaborate with Divine Grace, in order to reach the “illuminating” view of God (Paradise) and selfless love.
Consequently, there is no such thing as “God’s absence,” only His presence. That is why His Second Coming is dire (“O, what an hour it will be then,” we chant in the Laudatory hymns). It is an irrefutable reality, toward which Orthodoxy is permanently oriented: I anticipate resurrection of the dead …. The damned – those who are depraved at heart, just like the Pharisees – eternally perceive the pyre of hell as their salvation! It is because their condition is not susceptible to any other form of salvation. They too are “finalized” – they reach the end of their road – but only the righteous reach the end of the road as saved persons. The others finish as damned. “Salvation” to them is hell, since in their lifetime, they pursued only pleasure.
The rich man of the parable had
“enjoyed all of his riches.”
The poor Lazarus uncomplainingly endured
The Apostle Paul expresses this (1 Cor 3:13-15):
“Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire”
The righteous and the unrepentant shall both pass through the uncreated “fire” of divine presence, however, the one shall pass through unscathed, while the other shall be burnt. He too is “saved,” but only in the way that one passes through a fire. Efthimios Zigavinos (a 12th century theologian) indicates:
“God is fire that illuminates and brightens the pure, and burns and obscures the unclean.”
And Theodoritos Kyrou (regarding this “saving”) writes:
“One is also saved by fire, being tested by it,”
just as when one passes through fire. If he has an appropriate protective cover, he will not be burnt? otherwise, he may be “saved,” but he will be charred!
Consequently, the fire of hell has nothing in common with the Frankish “purgatory,” nor is it created, nor is it punishment, or an intermediate stage. A viewpoint such as this is virtually a transferal of one’s accountability to God. The accountability is entirely our own, whether we choose to accept or reject the salvation (healing) that is offered by God. “Spiritual death” is the viewing of the uncreated light, of divine glory, as a pyre, as fire. St. John the Chrysostom in his 9th homily on Corinthians I, notes:
“Hell is neverending… sinners shall be judged into a never-ending suffering. As for the ‘being burnt altogether,’ it means this: that he does not withstand the strength of the fire.”
And he continues:
“And he (St. Paul) says, it means this: that he shall not be thus burnt also-like his works-into nothingness, but he shall continue to exist, only inside that fire. He therefore considers this as his ‘salvation.’ For it is customary for us to say ‘saved in the fire,’ when referring to materials that are not totally burnt away.”
Scholastic perceptions-interpretations, which, through Dante’s work (Inferno) have permeated our world, have consequences that amount to idolatrous views. An example is the separation of Paradise and hell as two different places. This has happened, because they did not distinguish between the created and the uncreated. Also, the denial of hell’s eternity, with their idea of the “restoration” of everything, or the concept of a “good God” (Bon Dieu).
God is indeed benevolent (Mt 8:17), since He offers salvation to everyone. (He wants all to be saved. .. per I Tim 2:4) However, the words of our Lord, as heard during the funeral service, are formidable:
I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just.
Equally manufactured is the concept of “theodicy,” which applies in this case. Everything is finally attributed to God alone (i.e., if He intends to redeem or condemn), without taking into consideration man’s “collaboration” as a factor of redemption. Salvation is possible, only within the framework of collaboration between man and Divine Grace.
According to the blessed Chrysostom,
“the utmost, almost everything, is God’s; He did however leave something little to us.”
That “little something” is our acceptance of God’s invitation. The robber on the cross was saved,
“by using the key request of remember me…”
Finally, idolatrous is also the perception of a God becoming outraged against a sinner, whereas we mentioned earlier that God “never shows enmity.” This is a juridical perception of God, which also leads to the prospect of “penances” in confessions as forms of punishment, and not as medications (means of healing).