The Morality of Gehenna

hell 01

by Fr. Lawrence Farley

In a previous article I attempted to examine the Scriptural, patristic, and canonical evidence for a belief in Universalism, the belief that eventually all will be saved (including, according to many universalists, Satan and the demons). I concluded that the evidence all went the other way, and I reaffirmed the traditional teaching that the punishments of Gehenna will be eternal. I acknowledged in passing the legitimacy and even the necessity of trying to explain how a belief in the eternity of Gehenna can be combined with a belief in the love of God. I will attempt to do that now. But I stress that my aim is limited to trying to understand how a belief in Gehenna can be moral—making it palatable is beyond my power or intention. My goal in discussing hell is the same as C.S. Lewis’ goal when he discussed it, for, as he said (in his chapter on Hell in his The Problem of Pain),

“I am not going to try to prove the doctrine [of hell] tolerable. Let us make no mistake; it is not tolerable. But I think the doctrine can be shown to be moral”.

Orthodox writers can collect a number of voices who agree with Lewis that hell is not tolerable, and Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) has gathered a few of them in his essay “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?” in the anthology The Inner Kingdom. There we learn of St. Silouan of Mount Athos gently rebuking a hermit who delighted in the damnation of atheists. Silouan responded that one in paradise looking down on the suffering of another in hell-fire should pray for the salvation of that one, for “love could not bear this”. Whether St. Silouan meant that one should pray for those in Hades awaiting the final judgment or that one should pray for those damned after the final judgment is not entirely certain, but his main point stands: a tender heart would grieve over the salvation of the damned and should not delight in it. (Tertullian apparently and famously thought otherwise, but a tender heart should also consider his historical context. It’s easier to feel compassion for one’s persecutors if one hasn’t suffered under them.)

We begin by examining the arguments of those impugning the traditional doctrine of Gehenna as eternal.

One objection to this doctrine revolves around the incommensurability between the sin and its punishment. One feels it would be monstrously unfair of God to punish a few years of sin and rebellion with an eternity of suffering. If “an eye for an eye” is the classic expression of justice, how could an eternal hell be just?

This objection assumes that time and eternity are both linear, and that seventy years in this life and age equal an approximate number of years in the next life and the age to come. But there is no reason to think that eternity is as linear as time, or that it is like time as we experience it, continued after the Last Judgment. Rather, time and eternity are related to one another as the foundation is to the house built upon it. If the foundation is laid wrongly and askew, the house will be even more askew, and the higher the house is built, the more askew it will become. We see this even in the drawing of lines. Say I draw a line as a base and then draw another line, intending to draw the second line at a 90 degree angle from the first, but instead drawing it at an 80 degree angle. Obviously the further the second line extends, the further it will go from its intended 90 degree place. At few feet from the base, it will be a certain distance “off”, but at a few miles from the base it will be even further off. Increasing the amount of distance from the base will do nothing to correct it.

This forms a kind of analogy between the relation between time and eternity. During this life, within time, a person makes decisions which effect his heart and his life and even his ability to make future decisions. (We see this last in the case of drug addiction: an addict is not free to choose not to use the drug, because his previous choice to use the drug has resulted in impaired ability to freely choose.) If in this life one chooses darkness over light and continues along that path so that darkness becomes second-nature, then this darkness and rebellion becomes the foundation upon which eternity must be built. One thereby sets oneself up for darkness and misery in the age to come.

Thus hell is not a matter of God choosing to torture a sinner for an eternity because the sinner sinned for seventy years. Eternity will last forever no matter what (that is what “eternity” means)—the only question is: on what foundation will one’s experience of eternity be built? If for seventy years the sinner has laid a foundation of rebellion and destroyed his ability to repent and be nourished by joy, then the eternity built upon it will be one of misery—not because God chooses the amount of punishment deserved, but because of the nature of time as foundational to eternity.

Another objection to the traditional doctrine of hell is the assertion that it somehow makes God into implacable tyrant. Surely, says the objector, faced with the pain and suffering of hell, anyone would repent! This being so, how could a loving God not forgive the now-penitent sinner and rescue him from his punishment? The objector paints a picture of God petulantly saying, “No, sorry, you had your chance, now it is too late!” (We do find this portrayal of hell in some primitive versions of it. See, for example, the Qur’an: “The dwellers of hell will say to its keepers: ‘Implore your Lord to relieve our torment for one day!’…But vain shall be the cries of the unbelievers”, Surah 40:49-50.)

Smuggled unnoticed into this picture of the penitent person in hell crying for mercy is the unexamined assumption that the people in hell remain more or less as we knew them in this life. (This was also assumed in the example brought to St. Silouan by his hermit friend.) We think of people we have known who were not really religious, but who were not openly evil either. We remember their good points, their virtues, perhaps their sense of humour. We remember their smiles as well as their frowns, and above all the times that they were good, and the times they admitted that they were wrong. It is this person, intact, as remembered, that we imagine enduring the pains of hell, and it is this which tears at our heart. Certainly love could not bear that. But I would suggest alternative picture of the lost.

We see this alternative described by C.S. Lewis in his chapter on Hell already mentioned, and portrayed dramatically in his book The Great Divorce. There those in hell were literally shadows of their former selves. All that identified them as the persons that others knew or even as human had been burned away by the sin lurking and growing inside them. Or, to vary the metaphor, the cancer of sin and self-will had eaten away all their humanity, including their free will. All that was left was sin—the hideous lust, the unrelenting rage, the suicidal self-pity. If we could look down from paradise into the place of punishment (as in St. Silouan’s scenario) we would not see a human being, much less the human being we knew (such as the atheist imagined by St. Silouan’s hermit friend). All the created humanity of the person with its potential for love, knowledge, self-transcendence, joy, and especially repentance, had long since eroded away to nothing.

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis offers us as an example of this horrible transmutation in an old lady, soaked in self-pity, perpetually grumbling and whining. Her damnation consisted of the fact that she was no longer simply a grumbler, but only a grumble. As Lewis’ guide and theologian puts it:

“The whole difficult of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing. But ye’ll have had experiences…It begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.”

The besetting sin or the interior spiritual cancer may not be grumbling or self-pity. It may be lust or anger or pride or a thousand other sins which smother the soul and erode its capacity for joy and repentance. But the final result is the same. Sin ultimately destroys the human soul, as fire destroys wood and reduces it to ashes. Looking at the pile of ash after a conflagration, one would never guess that it had once been a beautiful wooden statue. It is the same with the damned: to quote Lewis again (from his The Problem of Pain), “What is cast into hell is not a man: it is ‘remains’.”

This view of the damned may help us in dealing with several objections. It may help us to see how “love could bear this”, because what would be borne and witnessed from paradise would not the torment of a human being, but the inevitable end of a process of self-destruction. The sting to the tender heart comes from the thought that “the torments of hell are going on now, and people are suffering”. But in one sense the people we knew or anything recognizable as a human being no longer exist.

Hell and heaven therefore are in no sense parallel to each other, as the objection presupposes. They are not two different compartments of reality, with heaven on the top-floor penthouse and hell in the basement. The saved in the final Kingdom of God will not stop and reflect on the disturbing thought, “Somewhere people are suffering in hell”, as we may now stop in our peaceful and affluent neighbourhoods and think, “Somewhere in the world wars are going on and people are dying”.

To quote Lewis again,

“The thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing”.

The “remains” of human beings that constitute hell, the pile of ash—the lust, and rage, and self-pity, the psychic flickerings of rebellion and determined withdrawal into self that are all that remain out of what was once a person—these scarcely constitute reality. The Biblical picture of the end is one in which

“the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).

In that new heavens and new earth, righteousness will dwell (2 Peter 3:13). This is the vision which St. Paul described as God being

“all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28),

and this vision is true. Hell forms no part of this world, or of this reality. The entire cosmos will be lit up with the light of God. The lost will not dwell in this world; they will inhabit no corner of the cosmos. They are to be banished from it altogether, cast into “the outer darkness” (Matthew 22:13) beyond the rim of reality “where being fades away into nonentity” (Lewis, in The Problem of Pain).

Another objection centers upon the supposed immorality of mere retribution. The objector asks, “What is the point of punishment?” Some punishment can be therapeutic, leading to the reform of the person punished. Some punishment can be a deterrent, warning others not to sin as the person being punished has sinned. But hell, the objector points out, fulfills neither of these two functions. According to the traditional understanding of an eternal Gehenna, hell’s pains will not produce repentance in the damned, so they cannot be therapeutic. And there will be no one left not already saved to profit by the example of their suffering, so hell cannot function as a deterrent either. Surely then the only point of their suffering is simple revenge—which everyone admits is unworthy of a loving God.

The objection requires us to look carefully at what is involved in damnation and what are the causes of hell’s sufferings. Once again the objection presupposes a psychologically intact person in hell, a human being as we experience human beings, persons capable of repentance. It presupposes a picture of God standing outside the prisoner’s cell, ordering external punishments, and that those punishments are the cause of the suffering. But what if the suffering is not solely (or even principally) the result of external divine orders, but the result of the self-chosen constitution of the damned themselves? If joy and life come only through self-denial, self-transcendence, and communion with God, what would be the result for someone who has destroyed all capacity for these things? God cannot give joy to someone lacking the capacity to receive it, any more than the sun and rain could nourish a flower which has plucked itself up by its own roots. The damned have chosen not to be open to the light, and so must ever be in darkness.

If the damned refuse to eat the only food the cosmos provides (which is self-transcendent communion with God) they must go forever hungry. As is often said, the doors of hell are thus locked from the inside. The damned are locked within themselves, smothered by their own adamant choice, their capacity for self-transcendence eroded to nothing, and therefore are doomed to eternal hunger and misery. Like men who have torn off their ears in a fury of self-mutilation, they have become deaf to the sound of joy and incapable of receiving it. Their suffering does not find its ultimate root in divine retribution, but in their own eternally-fixed rebellion.

Yet another objection comes with an assertion that human will ultimately will choose light and joy by virtue of it having been created by God. Defenders of the Church’s traditional understanding of hell as eternal have always had recourse to the dignity and freedom of the human will. Briefly put, people are free to choose or reject God, and God will not violate their freedom by forcing them to choose Him. They have the freedom to reject Him, thereby destroying their own capacity for love, joy, and self-transcendence if they insist upon doing so.

For some objectors, like Dr. David Bentley Hart, recourse to the sovereignty of the human will is futile. In his essay God, Creation, and Evil, he asserts that “there could scarcely be a poorer argument”. He explains thus:

“Free will is a power inherently purposive, teleological, primordially oriented toward the good, and shaped by that transcendental appetite to the degree that a soul can recognize the good for what it is. No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably”.

In a later note, he elaborates by saying that one cannot choose or not choose God the way you would a cup of coffee. One desires and chooses anything, he says, because one has an original intellectual appetite for God. He reminds his readers of what St. Maximus the Confessor teaches—that the natural will can will only God.

Here the philosopher smacks up against the exegete. Philosophical arguments about what the human will is or is not capable of are interesting, but must take an epistemological backseat to the teaching of Scripture—and the Fathers would agree. And, as we have seen, the Scriptures are fairly clear that Gehenna’s suffering is eternal. But we must still interact with Hart’s assertions about the human will. I would respond that Dr. Hart simply underestimates the power of evil.

It is true that the natural will can will only God, but no one apart from Christ has such a free and untainted natural will. To quote Dr. John Meyendorff:

“For Maximus, when man follows his natural will, which presupposes life in God…he is truly free. But man also possess another potential, determined not by his nature, but by each human person, the freedom of choice, of revolt, of movement against nature, and therefore of self-destruction…this is the gnomic will, a function of the personal life, not of nature” (from his Byzantine Theology).

The sad truth is that the human person is quite capable of misusing the inherently purposive, teleological, primordially oriented toward the good power of the will and perverting it into something entirely different. Dr. Hart might reply that such a thing could not be described as “free will”. I would not quibble about the term. But the fact is that a human being can reach such a depth that he does indeed will evil as evil, deliberately choosing to cut his own nose to spite his own face. Hart may reply that such a “deliberate” choice is not a “free” choice, but this doesn’t change the fact human beings are nonetheless capable of such self-destruction. Though lamentable, it is clearly observable that to see the good is not necessarily to desire it insatiably. Some people become capable of perverse rejection of the light, simply because they want to. Why did you do that terrible thing? “Because.” No appeal to reason or to joy can penetrate such self-chosen perversity. All such appeals founder on the terrible fact of the swollen and insane will.

Here we come to impenetrable mystery of evil. If Hell is “so nearly Nothing”, then evil also partakes of perverse unreason. And to see evil in its essence, we must turn from debating about men and look for a moment at the devil. It is true that universalists assert the eventual salvation of the devil, or at least (like Origen) allow for its possibility. But as the devil now is, we see in him the very form of evil. At the risk of overdosing the reader on C.S. Lewis, I would refer to his portrayal of the devil-possessed figure of Weston, the “Un-man” in his Perelandra. In this figure, we see unmasked the inner nature of evil as “a union of malice with something nearly childish…Deep within when every veil had been pierced [there was] nothing but a black puerility, an aimless empty spitefulness”. In the devil we find an abyss of unreason, a perverse fixity and commitment to rebellion, even when it is known to be futile and self-defeating and leads to damnation. It is this evil, this disease, which swallows up and consumes the human will. If Christ possessed an unfallen natural will, and all men now possess a gnomic will, another term must be found for this damned will, which chooses puerile spitefulness in the face of joy. Such a will currently exists in the devil. How could one deny that it could not also come to exist in men in the next life?

This is especially so since after human beings leave this world through death, they will share with the devil one thing: a direct vision of God. At one time, our tradition asserts, the devil was an unfallen angel, and like all angels enjoyed the direct vision of God. Hart might insist that to see the good truly is to desire it insatiably, but the devil once saw the good truly and he did not desire it insatiably. Instead, he rejected it absolutely, with the result that his will was transformed into what it now is—not a gnomic will like ours, capable of deliberation and choice, but one fixed in hopeless rebellion and futile spite. It seems that there is something in the combination of the direct vision of God and definitive choice that fixes the human will into its final choice. Those oriented towards the light see God after this life, and the choice for God fixes them into a place of joy, bringing healing and true eternal freedom, restoring their natural wills. Those oriented towards the darkness see God and their rejection of Him fixes them into a place of eternal ruin, as their humanity and capacity for joy and repentance utterly break apart. Their gnomic wills become transformed to a will like the devil, their souls decaying and collapsing into ash and phantom nonentity. That is why Christ condemns them into a place prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41), because they have now become petrified ruins, devoid of hope, like the devil and his angels. It is not true that the will ultimately will choose the good because the will was created by God. The devil’s will was once also created by God, but the Scripture is clear that he will be “tormented day and night forever and ever”, as one who has forever rejected the good (Revelation 20:10).

Finally, we examine the objection that the eternity of hell involves the defeat of God’s will. God wills that all men be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), and God sent His Son to save the whole world (John 3:17). How could it be that God’s will suffer defeat, and that love could not finally win? Our reply brings us to the final mystery, as well as to the necessity of asking ourselves about the nature of God’s final victory.

Much of the pang and disquiet one feels about asserting that God’s will shall not be finally done comes from the fact that this flies in the face of our desire for a happy ending. By using the term “a happy ending” I do not mean to denigrate. For me scarcely anything is more important than a happy ending; the desire for one is built into our spiritual DNA, and is almost indistinguishable from the virtue of hope. Animals take things as they come; human beings hope for happy endings. A desire for a happy ending is part of what it means to be made in the image of God.

That is why the Scripture asserts emphatically that history will indeed culminate in one, in what Tolkien famously called “a eucatastrophe”. Julian of Norwich declared that at the end, “all manner of thing will be well”, echoing St. Paul’s declaration that at the end God would be all in all. We have suggested above that this will be so, in that all the cosmos will be filled with the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. All that is, all that exists, will then be filled with light and joy. The lost have no place there, for they will have declined into mere phantoms, fading into nonentity, as creatures who no longer are. This fact may be mourned, but it cannot stand in the way of joy. Otherwise the lost would possess a kind of veto over the saved, and their misery possess a veto power over joy.

Here is the final and all but impenetrable mystery—that joy will triumph in spite of those who would wish otherwise, and the world will not eternally be held captive to wills that refuse it. God’s victory and our triumph and joy do not forever hang upon the devilish dog in the manger and the black puerility that would destroy it. Mere and sterile philosophizing might declare that the loss of the single soul means the overthrow of God’s will and the defeat of love’s sovereignty. It is not so. A glance at the final verses of the Apocalypse (Revelation 22:14-15) reveals that it is not so. In that apostolic and apocalyptic picture, outside the city are the dogs and murderers and idolaters and everyone who loves lying. They have chosen their own cramped and airless souls instead of joy, and have been pushed outside the city, into the outer darkness, beyond the rim of the world. Inside the city, God is all in all, and every manner of thing is well. Everyone in the world is blessed, for they have washed their robes and have the right to the tree of life.

Love’s victory does not depend upon us, and cannot be thwarted by anyone, including the churlish impenitence of the lost.

The doctrine of hell is not tolerable. But it is consistent with morality and with a belief in the love and final victory of God. Its presence in the Scriptures does not indicate an inconsistency there, but simply that reality and the depths of the human response to God are more varied and complex than philosophers might first imagine.


Is Hell Real?

by Fr. Stephen Freeman

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

Picture-of-Hell-211x300On 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 everytime 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.

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.

Source: Glory to God for All Things blog

How Christ Purified Heaven

Christ preachingby Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon

Jesus rose from the dead, not in order to return to the earth but in order to enter

“into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (Hebrews 9:24).

His priesthood is heavenly;

“if he were on earth, he would not be a priest” (8:4).

His priestly service, commenced on Calvary, was perfected when,

“not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood he entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (9:12).

The Lord’s Ascension, then, is essential to the work of the Atonement. According to a theme developed chiefly in the Epistle to the Hebrews, God united us to Himself—made us “at one” with Himself—not only by the Son’s assumption of our humanity in the Incarnation, but also by this Son’s bearing our humanity home to the Divine Presence. In his Ascension, God thereby eradicates every vestige of our alienation from Him. I believe this theme elicits four considerations:

First, the Lord’s ascent on high is the counterpart to his descent into hell. Just as, in dying,

“he went and preached to the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19),

so, in his ascent into heaven,

“he became the cause (aitios) of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:9).

He met angelic spirits in both places: in hell the fallen spirits and in heaven

“an innumerable company of angels” (12:22).

In summary, an ontological postulate of his Lordship required that

“that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth” (Philippians 2:10).

Second, Jesus entered into heaven in order to cleanse and consecrate

“the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands” (Hebrews 9:11),

“the true tabernacle the Lord pitched and not man” (8:2).

This hallowing of heaven, which corresponds to the harrowing of hell, was an essential part of the Atonement. Just as the earthly sanctuary was cleansed and consecrate with the blood of sacrificial offerings, so it was necessary that heavenly sanctuary should be purified

“with better sacrifices than these” (9:23).

It is a foundational teaching of Holy Scripture that man has no communion with God, even in heaven, except in and through the blood of the Lamb. His blood is the instrument of the expiation and purification of all things, including

“heaven itself” (9:24).

For even

“the heavens are not pure in His sight” (Job 15:15).

Because Christ’s cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary—clearly affirmed in the Epistle to the Hebrews—is not, I believe, a theme much developed in later theology, a word of explanation may be in order: We may start by reflecting that sin—alienation from God—did not begin on earth but in heaven. There was sin in heaven before there was sin on earth. The rebellious demons instructed and encouraged men to rebel against God. Prior to Christ’s cleansing of it, heaven was still infected by vestiges of that demonic rebellion.

A particularly distressing aspect of that contamination was the ability of Satan to stand before the Almighty as man’s Accuser. But

“now salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of His Christ have come, because the Accuser of our brethren, who indicted them day and night before our God, has been cast down” (Revelation 12:10).

Third, by the blood-purification of the heavenly tabernacle, the Accuser has been replaced by the Advocate (cf. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 3.17.3). In heaven he ever lives to intercede for us (Hebrews 7:25). This thesis is not limited to the Epistle to the Hebrews. John, for instance, writes,

“we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And he himself is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:1).

And Paul, for his part, declares that Christ’s heavenly advocacy on our behalf is a component of Redemption, for he

“died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us” (Romans 8:34).

Fourth, by his ascent into heaven, Christ makes heavenly blessings available to us on earth (cf. Ephesians 4:8). In particular, Christ’s Ascension provides an “entrance” for us. We, too, have access to the Throne (Hebrews 4:16; 12:22-24). Even now, in and through his blood, there is

“a better hope, by which we draw nigh to God” (Hebrews 7:19).

Paradise & Hell: Now and Forever

by Fr. George Metallinos

Part Four of his four-part series on Paradise and Hell in the Orthodox Tradition.

The mystery of Paradise-hell is also experienced in the life of the Church in the world. During the sacraments, there is a participation of the faithful in Grace, so that Grace may be activated in our lives, by our course towards Christ. Especially during the Divine Eucharist, the uncreated-Holy Communion-becomes inside us either Paradise or hell, depending on our condition. But mostly, our participation in Holy Communion is a participation in Paradise or hell, throughout history. That is why we beseech God, prior to receiving Holy Communion, to render the Precious Gifts inside us not as judgment or condemnation, or as eternal damnation.

Participation in Holy Communion is thus linked to the overall spiritual course of the faithful. When we approach Holy Communion uncleansed and unrepentant, we are condemned (burnt). Holy Communion inside us becomes the “inferno” and “spiritual death.” Not because it is transformed into those things of course, but because our own uncleanliness cannot accept Holy Communion as “Paradise.” Given that Holy Communion is called

“medication for immortality” (St. Ignatius the God-bearer, 2nd century),

the same thing exactly occurs as with any medication. If our organism does not have the prerequisites to absorb the medication, then the medication will produce side-effects and will kill instead of heal. It is not the medication that is responsible, but the condition of our organism. It must be stressed, that if we do not accept Christianity as a therapeutic process, and its sacraments as spiritual medication, then we are led to a “religionizing” of Christianity; in other words, we “idolatrize” it.

And unfortunately, this is a frequent occurrence, when we perceive Christianity as a “religion.”

St. Basil the Great tells us:

“Everything we do is in preparation of another life.”

Our life must be a continuous preparation for our participation in “Paradise” -our community with the Uncreated. And everything begins from this lifetime. That is why the Apostle Paul says:

“Behold, now is the opportune time. Behold, now is the day of redemption.” (2 Cor 6:2).

Every moment of our lives is of redemptive importance. Either we gain eternity, the eternal community with God, or we lose it. Consequently, we can now understand why oriental religions and cults that preach reincarnations are injuring mankind; they are virtually transferring the problem to other, (nonexistent of course) lifetimes. The truth is, however, that only one life corresponds to each of us, whether we are saved or condemned. This is why St. Basil the Great continues:

“Those things therefore that lead us towards that life, we need to say should be cherished and pursued with all our might; and those that do not lead us there, we should disregard, as something of no value.”

This is the criterion of Christian living.

A Christian continuously chooses whatever favors his salvation. We gain Paradise or lose it and end up in hell, in this lifetime. As St. John the Evangelist says:

He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (Jn 3:18)

Consequently, the work of the church is not to “send” people to Paradise or to hell, but to prepare them for the final judgment. The work of the Clergy is therapeutic and not moralistic or character-shaping, in the temporal sense of the word. The essence of life in Christ is preserved in monasteries – naturally wherever they are Orthodox and of course patristic. The purpose of the Church’s offered therapy is not to create “useful” citizens and essentially “usable” ones, but citizens of the celestial (uncreated) kingdom. Such citizens are the Confessors and the Martyrs, the true faithful, the saints.

However, this is also the way that our mission is supervised: What are we inviting people to? To the Church as a Hospital and a Therapy Center, or just an ideology that is labelled “Christian?”

More often than not, we strive to secure a place in “Paradise,” instead of striving to be healed. That is why we focus on rituals and not on therapy. This of course does not signify a rejection of worship. But, without ascesis (spiritual exercise, ascetic lifestyle, act of therapy), worship cannot hallow us. The Grace that pours forth from it remains inert inside us. Orthodoxy doesn’t make any promises to send mankind to any sort of Paradise or hell; but it does have the power-as evidenced by the incorruptible and miracle-working relics of our saints (incorruptibility=theosis)-to prepare man, so that he may forever look upon the Uncreated Grace and the Kingdom of Christ as Paradise, and not as Hell.



The Experience of Paradise or Hell

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

“every suffering.”

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).


Paradise and Hell are the Same Reality

by Fr. George Metallinos

Part Two of his series on Paradise and Hell in the Orthodox Tradition

This is what is depicted in the portrayal of the Second Coming. From Christ a river flows forth: it is radiant like a golden light at the upper end of it, where the saints are. At its lower end, the same river is fiery, and it is in that part of the river that the demons and the unrepentant (“the never repentant” according to a hymn) are depicted. This is why in Lk 2:34 we read that Christ stands as the fall and the rising (resurrection) of many.

Christ becomes the resurrection into eternal life, for those who accepted Him and who followed the suggested means of healing the heart; and to those who rejected Him, He becomes their demise and their hell.

There exist numerous patristic testimonies: St. John of the Ladder says that the uncreated light of Christ is

“an all-consuming fire and an illuminating light.”

St. Gregory Palamas observes:

“Thus, it is said, He will baptize you by the Holy Spirit and by fire: in other words, by illumination and punishment, depending on each person’s predisposition, which will bring upon him that which he deserves.”

Elsewhere, The light of Christ,

“albeit one and accessible to all, is not partaken of uniformly, but differently.”

Consequently, Paradise and hell are not a reward or a punishment (condemnation), but the way that we individually experience the sight of Christ, depending on the condition of our heart. God does not punish in essence, although, for educative purposes, the Scripture does mention punishment. The more spiritual one becomes, the better he can comprehend the Scripture and our traditions. Man’s condition (clean-unclean, repentant unrepentant) is the factor that determines the acceptance of the Light as “Paradise” or “hell.”

(3) The anthropological issue in Orthodoxy is that man will eternally look upon Christ as Paradise and not as hell; that man will partake of His heavenly and eternal Kingdom.

And this is where we see the difference between Christianity as Orthodoxy and the various other religions. The other religions promise a certain “blissful” state, even after death. Orthodoxy however is not a quest for bliss, but a cure from the illness of religion, as the late Fr. John Romanides so patristically teaches. Orthodoxy is an open hospital within history (“spiritual infirmary” according to St. John the Chrysostom), which offers the healing (catharsis) of the heart, in order to finally attain “theosis”-the only destination of man. This is the course that has been so comprehensively described by Fr. John Romanides and the Rev. Metropolitan of Nafpaktos, Hierotheos (Vlachos); it is the healing of mankind, as experienced by all of our Saints.

This is the meaning of life in the body of Christ (the Church) and the Church’s reason for existence. St. Gregory Palamas (in his 4th Homily on the Second Coming) says that the pre-eternal will of God for man is

“to find a place in the majesty of the divine kingdom”

to reach theosis. That was the purpose of creation. And he continues:

“But even His divine and secret kenosis, His god-human conduct, His redemptory passions, and every single mystery (in other words, all of Christ’s opus on earth) were all providentially and omnisciently pre-determined for this very end (purpose).”

(4) The important thing, however, is that not all people respond to this invitation of Christ, and that is why not everyone partakes in the same way of His uncreated glory. This is taught by Christ, in the parable of the rich man and the poor Lazarus (Luke, Ch. 16). Man refuses Christ’s offer, he becomes God’s enemy and rejects the redemption offered by Christ (which is a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit-it is within the Holy Spirit that we accept the calling of Christ). This is the “never repentant” person referred to in the hymn. God “never bears enmity,” the blessed Chrysostom observes; it is we who become His enemies; we are the ones who reject Him. The unrepentant man becomes demonized, because he has chosen to. God doesn’t want this. St. Gregory Palamas says:

“…for this was not My pre-existing will; I did not create you for this purpose; I did not prepare the pyre for you. This undying pyre was pre-fired for the demons who bear the unchanging trait of evil, to whom your own unrepentant opinion attracted you.”

“The co-habitation with mischievous angels is arbitrary (voluntary).”

In other words, it is something that is freely chosen by man.

Both the rich man and Lazarus were looking upon the same reality, i.e., God in His uncreated light. The rich man reached the Truth, the sight of Christ, but could not partake of it, as Lazarus did. The poor Lazarus received “consolation,” whereas the rich man received “anguish.” Christ’s words, that they:

“have Moses and the prophets”

– for those still in the world – signifies that we are all inexcusable. Because we have the Saints, who have experienced theosis and who call upon us to accede to their way of life so that we too might reach theosis like they did. We therefore conclude that those who have chosen evil ways-like the rich man-are inexcusable.

Our stance towards our fellow man is indicative of our inner state, and that is why this will be the criterion of Judgment Day, during Christ’s Second Coming. This doesn’t imply that faith, or man’s faithfulness to Christ is disregarded; faith is naturally a prerequisite, because our stance towards each other will show whether or not we have God within us. The first Sundays of the Triodion preceding Lent revolve around fellow man. On the first of these Sundays, the (seemingly pious) Pharisee justifies (sanctifies) himself and rejects (derogates) the Tax-collector. On the second Sunday, the “elder” brother (a repetition of the seemingly pious Pharisee) is sorrowed by the return (salvation) of his brother. Likewise seemingly pious, he too had false piety, which did not produce love.

On the third (carnival) Sunday, this stance reaches Christ’s seat of judgment, and is evidenced as the criterion for our eternal life.

Paradise & Hell in the Orthodox Tradition

By Fr. George Metallinos

This is part one of a four part series on Paradise and Hell by the Dean of the Athens University School of Theology.

On Meatfare Sunday, as we prepare for the commencement of the Holy and Great Lent, we commemorate the Second and Incorruptible Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The expression “we commemorate” confirms that our Church, as the Body of Christ, reenacts in its worship the Second Coming of our Lord as an event and not just something that is historically expected. The reason is that through the Divine Eucharist, we are transported to the celestial kingdom, to meta-history. It is in this Orthodox perspective that the subject of Paradise and hell is approached.

Continue reading Paradise & Hell in the Orthodox Tradition

Heaven & Hell in the Afterlife Acc. To The Bible

By Peter Chopelas

ALJ115I (Fr. John) came across this excellent article recently, and used it to craft an important sermon on heaven and hell in the afterlife according to the Scriptures and the teaching of the Orthodox Church, and found it to be an excellent and thorough resource for this important homiletic topic. Since then, I’ve come to discover just how quickly this essay has spread throughout the English speaking Orthodox world.

An early draft of this article was edited by Archpriest Thomas Hopko, retired dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (OCA), and this final copy has the approval of His Grace Lazar Puhalo (OCA), noted theologian, retired archbishop of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and abbot of New Ostrog Monastery near Vancouver, British Columbia.

John Kalomiros wrote: “I read the article by P. Chopelas carefully. I believe that it is correct. It certainly contributes to a meaningful idea of God and to a correct understanding of the nature of Heaven and Hell. … the general concept that heaven and hell only represent how a man’s soul responds in the presence of the light of God is sound and patristic. Certainly the problem of how Christians receive the teaching of the Church on Heaven and Hell is not only a linguistic problem arising from false translations, but it is also a conceptual and cultural problem.”

Fr. James Bernstein of St. Paul’s Antiochian Orthodox Church, Briar, WA, wrote: “I thought that the material that you wrote on Heaven and Hell was very good. I especially appreciated the detailed word analysis that I intend to include in my catechetical presentation of the subject. I present a full session on Heaven and Hell in my catechism series which is now up to about 27 sessions!”

Pani Frederica Matthewes-Green, author, lecturer, and wife of an Antiochian Orthodox priest, said: “…thanks for all your hard work on this. It is extremely helpful… God bless you…” and, “I think the concept is fascinating and have begun incorporating this information into my speeches.”


The idea that God is an angry figure who sends those He condemns to a place called Hell, where they spend eternity in torment separated from His presence, is missing from the Bible and unknown in the early church. While Heaven and Hell are decidedly real, they are experiential conditions rather than physical places, and both exist in the presence of God. In fact, nothing exists outside the presence of God. Continue reading Heaven & Hell in the Afterlife Acc. To The Bible