Can the Dead Repent?

If someone dies without repentance, is it possible for such a person to repent after death? Fr. John Whiteford answers this question through the writings of the holy fathers of the Church.

by Fr. John Whiteford

Scripture, as explained by the Fathers of the Church, states that this is not possible.

Psalm 6:5 says:

“For in death there is none that is mindful of Thee, and in hades who will confess Thee?”

Commenting on this passage, St. John Chrysostom says:

[The Prophet David is] not implying that our existence lasts only as far as this present life: perish the thought! After all, he is aware of the doctrine of the resurrection. Rather, it is that after our departure from here there would be no time for repentance. For the rich man praised God and repented, but in view of its lateness it did him no good [Luke 16:19-31]. The virgins wanted to get some oil, but no one gave any to them [Matthew 25:1-13]. So this is what this man requests, too, for his sins to be washed away in this life so as to enjoy confidence at the tribunal of the fearsome judge (St. John Chrysostom: Commentary on the Psalms, vol. I, trans. Robert C. Hill (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1998), p. 102).

St. Jerome says:

While you are still in this world, I beg of you to repent. Confess and give thanks to the Lord, for in this world only is he merciful. Here, He is able to be compassionate to the repentant, but because there He is judge, He is not merciful. Here, He is compassionate kindness; there, He is judge. Here, He reaches out His hand to the falling; there, He presides as judge (Homily on Psalm 105[106], quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament, Vol. VII, Craig A. Blaising and Carmen S. Hardin, eds. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2008) p. 51).

St. Gregory the Theologian says:

It is better to be punished and cleansed now than to be transmitted to the torment to come, when it is the time of chastisement, not of cleansing. For as he who remembers God here is conqueror of death (as David has most excellently sung) so the departed have not in the grave confession and restoration; for God has confined life and action to this world, and to the future the scrutiny of what has been done (On His Father’s Silence, Oration 16:7).

St. Basil the Great says:

In like manner they which have grieved the Holy Spirit by the wickedness of their ways, or have not wrought for Him that gave to them, shall be deprived of what they have received, their grace being transferred to others; or, according to one of the evangelists, they shall even be wholly cut asunder—the cutting asunder meaning complete separation from the Spirit. The body is not divided, part being delivered to chastisement, and part let off; for when a whole has sinned it were like the old fables, and unworthy of a righteous judge, for only the half to suffer chastisement. Nor is the soul cut in two—that soul the whole of which possesses the sinful affection throughout, and works the wickedness in co-operation with the body. The cutting asunder, as I have observed, is the eternal separation of the soul from the Spirit. For now, although the Spirit does not suffer admixture with the unworthy, He nevertheless does seem in a manner to be present with them that have once been sealed, awaiting the salvation which follows on their conversion; but then He will be wholly cut off from the soul that has defiled His grace. For this reason “In Hades there is none that maketh confession; in death none that remembereth God,” because the help of the Spirit is no longer present (Treatise on the Holy Spirit, 40).

Blessed Theodoret says:

For this reason I beg the privilege of enjoying the cure in the present life, since I know that no cure will then be granted those departing this life with wounds, as there is no longer any room for repentance. This was exceptionally sound thinking on the part of the divine David: it is not in death but in life that one recalls God. Likewise, confession and reform do not come to the departed in Hades: God confined life and action to this life; there, however, he conducts an evaluation of performance. And in any case this is proper to the eighth day, giving no longer opportunity for preparation by good or bad deeds to those who have arrived at it; instead, whatever works you have sown for yourself you will have occasion to reap. For this reason he obliges you to practice repentance here, there being no practice of this kind of effort in Hades. He says, in fact, “Since the opportunity coming to me for repentance was lengthy, I am afraid death may precede your mercy, there being no room for confession there—hence my request for your to be quick with your mercy.” Then he instructs the listener that along with God’s loving-kindness our effort is required, too: whether we plead weakness or confusion or God’s goodness without contributing what is ours, it is of no benefit to us (Theodoret of Cyrus: Commentary on the Psalms, 1-72, trans. Robet C. Hill (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2000), p. 75).

St. Augustine says:

For in death there is no one that is mindful of Thee. He knows too that now is the time for turning unto God: for when this life shall have passed away, there remaineth but a retribution of our deserts. “But in hell who shall confess to Thee?” That rich man, of whom the Lord speaks, who saw Lazarus in rest, but bewailed himself in torments, confessed in hell, yea so as to wish even to have his brethren warned, that they might keep themselves from sin, because of the punishment which is not believed to be in hell. Although therefore to no purpose, yet he confessed that those torments had deservedly lighted upon him; since he even wished his brethren to be instructed, lest they should fall into the same (Commentary on the Psalms 6:6).

Cassiodorus says:

This may elicit the question, why does he say that in death no one is mindful of God, whereas then we can be made to tremble more by the imminent anger of God? But when we speak of those unmindful of God, this properly refers to the unfaithful. Isaiah said of them: For those in hell will not praise thee, nor will those who are dead bless thee. When Paul says: In the name of of Jesus let every knee bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, the statement should be taken as referring only to the faithless and obstinate, who deserve to have no trust placed in their confession. So the psalmist rightly hastens to gain acquittal here, since once the sun has set nothing remains except deserved retribution. Who shall confess to thee in hell? We must mentally add “to win pardon.” Compare Solomon’s words on impious men: For they will say among themselves, repenting and groaning for anguish of spirit, and the rest. Then too we know that the rich man who saw Lazarus settled in peace confessed his evil plight, but he was not heard praying for help because it is in this world that confession connotes also obtaining pardon. To help us realize that some distinction is being made in the words of the verse, in death means passing from life, whereas in hellmeans hugging the place where souls are known to endure what they have deserved. There is total denial that a confession can be made in each of these situations (Cassiodorus: Explanation of the Psalms, Vol. 1, trans. P. G. Walsh, (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), p. 94f).

We find a very similar passage in Isaiah 38:18-19, which Cassiodorus references:

For they that are in the grave shall not praise thee, neither shall the dead bless thee, neither shall they that are in Hades hope for thy mercy. The living shall bless thee, as I also do: for from this day shall I beget children, who shall declare thy righteousness.

St. Cyril of Alexandria says:

What is said in the psalm verse contains sentiments similar to this passage, What value is there in my death if I descend into corruption? Dust will not praise you or proclaim your marvels [Psalm 29[30]:9]. In other words, once dead, and enclosed in the gates of Hades, they will cease giving praise. Nothing further could be added to what has been achieved; instead, they will remain in the condition in which they were left, and will await the time of the general judgment. So he is saying that it is the living, with the power of doing good on receipt of benefits who will bless you, as I do (Cyril of Alexandria: Commentary on Isaiah, Vol. II, trans. Robert C. Hill (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2008), p. 300).

So here you have all of the Three Great Hierarchs, along with two great Latin Saints, St. Cyril of Alexandria (the preeminent Father of the Third Ecumenical Council), as well as two notable patristic commentators all saying essentially the same thing: the time for repentance is in this life.

If you have not repented before death, it will then be too late.

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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.

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Will Unbaptized Children Go To Hell if they Die?

by Fr. John Hainsworth

baby baptism all the way underOften on the heart and mind – will unbaptized children go to hell?

No. The Orthodox Church does not believe that children are born guilty of Adam’s sin and that unless freed of that guilt through baptism and communion they will die without God’s mercy. Such a notion is pernicious both for its barbarism and for its distortion of God. Do we really think that God is so small that He is bound by our rites, the rites He has given us? God is sovereign, and He will have mercy on whom He has mercy and judgment on whom He has judgment (Romans 9:15).

We can talk about sin and guilt in three ways.

First there is primordial sin, the sin of Adam. We understand this not in terms of inherited guilt, but in terms of a fallen world. Primordial sin introduced sickness, suffering, evil, and death into God’s perfect creation (1 John 5:19; Romans 5:12). We are born into Adam’s sin in that we are born into a fallen world. But without our participation, there is no guilt.

Second, there is generational sin, which we see in terms of specific propensities to sin. A child of alcoholics, for example, will inherit not the guilt of his parents but the tendency to sin as they did, or other sins associated with this generational heritage.

Again, we do not have to submit to this sinful heritage, we do not have to carry it on ourselves.

Finally, there is personal sin, the stuff we do ourselves, whether as perpetuation of the general fallenness of this world, the generational fallenness of our parents or surroundings, or as the invention of sins of our own. A person becomes guilty when they personally sin.

infant bap

A child is not guilty until they make sin a personal decision, either consciously or unconsciously.

It is true that baptism is the washing away of sin, and one could say that it seems senseless to baptize a child if they have no inherited guilt to wash away. However, Christ’s sacrifice, in to which we are baptized, was a sacrifice of His whole life as a submission to God —

“not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42)

and His death on the Cross not only washed away our sins, but also destroyed death itself. When we are baptized we are baptized into His life and death (Romans 6:4), and we become co-beneficiaries of a life which finally brought God and man into a union of love and a harmony of will. The infant is initiated into that union. This initiation will include the forgiveness of their sins, but is not limited to that forgiveness.

The life and death of Christ, which reverses the primordial, generational, and personal falleness of this world, is what the child enters through baptism.

Click here to read “What Happens to a Child in Baptism?”

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.

Source

 

St. John of Damascus On Hell

by John Sanidopoulos

lake-of-fire

Below are some very characteristic and very important passages from Saint John of Damascus on the subject of Hell:

1. Hell is not God’s punishment, but it is a state of receptivity. It appears that Hell and Paradise as “places” do not exist. There is only God, who is present in all places (omnipresent).

 

on hell 1
“And so we know, that God does not punish anyone in the future, but everyone makes themselves receptive to share in God. And so to share in God is a delight, while not sharing in Him is hell.” (“Against the Manicheans”, PG 94:1545D-1548A)
2. Hell exists not because the damned are overdue, but because the damned remain unchangeable in their desire for sin. And again we see that only the omnipresent God will exist in the future age because, as he says, the object desired by sinners will not exist. What will exist is only what will be desired by the righteous, that is, God.
on hell 2
“… after death, there is no means for repentance, not because God does not accept repentance – He cannot deny Himself nor lose His compassion – but the soul does not change anymore … people after death are unchangeable, so that on the one hand the righteous desire God and always have Him to rejoice in, while sinners desire sin though they do not have the material means to sin … they are punished without any consolation. For what is hell but the deprivation of that which is exceedingly desired by someone? Therefore, according to the analogy of desire, whoever desires God rejoices and whoever desires sin is punished.” (“Against the Manicheans”, PG 94:1573??)
Here we observe the following: since God accepts repentance, this means that there are those who are damned, because the sinner does not express repentance. So, their soul freely and definitively chooses sin. Illustrative of the above is the following:
on h ell 3
“God forever supplies good things even to the devil, but he does not want to receive it.” (“Against the Manicheans”, PG 94:1569B)
The above passage continues:
on hell 4
“God forever supplies good things even to the devil, but he does not want to receive it. And in eternity God supplies good things to all because He is the source of good things gushing forth goodness to all, while everyone makes themselves receptive, and they share in the good … those who do not have habitual pleasures and suffer without being healed, without God making hell, but because we lay out hell for ourselves, and indeed nor did God make death, but we ourselves caused this for us.”

So we can say that the exact Orthodox doctrine teaches that:

In the Eternal Kingdom there are not separate places, but states of sharing in and being receptive to God. So Hell and Paradise are names of states experienced and not “places”.

In the Eternal Kingdom only God exists, whose light some will experience as Paradise and others as Hell.

Hell and Paradise will be experienced not because God condemns or rewards people, but because they freely chose the state they will be in. Indeed, proof of Hell being a free choice is that God accepts repentance, but there is no expression of repentance for God to accept them because the person “does not want it”.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

 

Gehenna – the Torment of God’s Love

elijah

by St. Isaac the Syrian

From Ascetical Homilies 27:

“In love did God bring the world into existence; in love is God going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of the One who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised.”

“God’s recompense to sinners is that, instead of a just recompense, God rewards them with resurrection.”

“If zeal had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did God the Word clothe himself in the body, using gentleness and humility in order to bring the world back to his Father?”

“Let us not be in doubt, O fellow humanity, concerning the hope of our salvation, seeing that the One who bore sufferings for our sakes is very concerned about our salvation; God’s mercifulness is far more extensive than we can conceive, God’s grace is greater than what we ask for.”

“Sin, Gehenna, and Death do not exist at all with God, for they are effects, not substances. Sin is the fruit of free will. There was a time when sin did not exist, and there will be a time when it will not exist. Gehenna is the fruit of sin…”

From Ascetical Homilies 48:

“As for me I say that those who are tormented in Gehenna are tormented by the invasion of love. What is there more bitter and violent than the pains of love? Those who feel they have sinned against love bear in themselves a damnation much heavier than the most dreaded punishments. The suffering with which sinning against love afflicts the heart is more keenly felt than any other torment. It is absurd to assume that the sinners in Gehenna are deprived of God’s love.”

“Love is offered impartially. But by its very power it acts in two ways. It torments sinners, as happens here on earth when we are tormented by the presence of a friend to whom we have been unfaithful. And it gives joy to those who have been faithful.”

“That is what the torment of Gehenna is in my opinion: remorse. But love inebriates the souls of the sons and daughters of heaven by its delectability.”

“This is the aim of Love. Love’s chastisement is for correction, but it does not aim at retribution…But the man who considers God an avenger, presuming that he bears witness to His justice, the same accuses Him of being bereft of goodness. Far be it, that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness! The aim of His design is the correction of men.”

From Ascetical Homilies 51:

“Even in the matter of afflictions — the judgment of Gehenna, say — there bides a hidden mystery, whereby the Maker has taken as a starting point our patent willfulness, using even Gehenna as a way of bringing to perfection His greater dispensation. If the world to come proves entirely the realm of mercy, love, and goodness, how then a final state that claims requital for its measure?”

“God is not One who requites [i.e. requires payback for] evil, but He is One who sets evil right.”

“That we should think that Gehenna is not also full of love and mingled with compassion would be an insult to our God. By saying He will deliver us to suffering without purpose, we most surely sin. We blaspheme also if we say that He will act with spite or with a vengeful purpose, as if He had a need to avenge Himself.”

“Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good’, He says ‘to the evil and to the impious.’ How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers?…How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth?…Where, then, is God’s justice, for while we are sinners Christ died for us!”

Source

 

 

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

The Gates of Hell are Locked from the Inside

by Dn Joseph Gleason

locked from the insideC.S. Lewis said the gates of hell are locked from the inside. It is real, and people actually go there. But they are there by their own consent. Hell is a place of self-exile.

This position avoids the extremes of both the Universalists and the Calvinists.

Universalists say,

“Everybody goes to heaven.”

They protect the truth about God’s good character; but they fail to protect us from carelessness.  If hell is real, then we need to know about it. Otherwise, why be vigilant? Why watch out for our souls?

Five-point Calvinists believe that God unilaterally decides who goes to heaven, and who goes to hell. Those predestined for damnation are unable to repent, and are unable to escape their fearful destiny. Calvinists acknowledge the reality of hell, and so they do protect us from carelessness. However, they fail to keep us from slandering God’s character.

If we visualize an American courtroom, we see a judge who does take pleasure in bringing criminals to justice. And if hell were a matter of divine, retributive justice — if this was divine wrath carried out upon someone who deserves it — then of course God would take some pleasure in that.  Yet Scripture says that 

God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23, 33:11).

In Luke 15, Jesus tells the story of the Prodigal Son. This is a rebel who says,

“I want my inheritance now!”

He then squanders his inheritance in waste, riot, and wantonness. His so-called friends abandon him, and he ends up working in a pigpen. He becomes so hungry, filthy and miserable that he dreams about eating the pods he feeds to the pigs.

Then he wakes up. He remembers that the servants in his father’s house are treated better than this. In humility and repentance, he returns home.

The father does not say, “How are you going to pay off your debt?” “Who will be your substitute, so that I can get him back for what you did?” No, he sees his wayward son coming home, and he runs to him, and he hugs him. “My son’s home! My son is home!”  That is what the Father does with each of us when we return “home” to Him. There is not a hint of retributive justice; not a hint of wrath.

The father has the fatted calf killed for a grand feast. The father and his younger son proceed with a great celebration, but the older brother does not celebrate. In anger, he stands outside the father’s house. The father talks to the older son and pleads with him. The father wants him to celebrate as well! But the older son refuses. Avoiding the word “brother,” he says,

“That son of yours has wasted your money and has gone out with whores…”

and he describes his brother’s past in the worst possible way.

The father was happy that his younger son had come home, but the older brother hated his brother, more so than he loved his father. He kept himself out of the celebration feast, because he would rather be in an emotional hell, than to forgive. He would rather be estranged from his father, than to reconcile with his brother. And so it will be, I believe, on the Last Day. Some people will demand the right to hold a grudge; demand that they not be forced to reconcile with “that person, that spouse of mine, that parent of mine, that neighbor of mine…” And they will love the grudge more than they will love their God.

Where will the father be? He will not miss the feast. He will not stay away from his younger son. The father goes back inside the house, and he rejoices with his son. And the older brother — by avoiding his younger brother — is also avoiding the father. By failing to forgive, he cuts off the relationship. It is self-exile. The gates of hell are locked from the inside.

Calvinists believe that God’s sovereignty is so powerful that human freedom is nothing. If He wants you to go to hell, you have no chance to escape.

Universalists believe God’s Love is so powerful that human freedom is nothing. If He wants you to go to heaven, you have no chance to escape.

In the 17th century northeastern United States, Puritan congregations morphed into today’s Universalists. Calvinist Puritans became Unitarian Universalists. How did that happen? Ultimately, it is because they are both two sides of the same coin: They both believe that the sovereignty of God trumps everything, and that there is no true freedom for the individual person.

In contrast to both, Orthodoxy says,

“God is giving you true freedom. If you want to follow Christ and go to heaven, none of your sins will be held against you. But, if you refuse to forgive your brother, God will not force you. If you choose to stay outside the wedding banquet, then you will spend eternity in a hell that you yourself have selected.”

You will nurse that grudge and hold onto it. And since you never let go of the grudge, you’re never going to let go of the suffering, you’re going to never let go of the torment, and you’re never going to rejoice in knowing that your brother has come home, and has been forgiven.

Throughout one’s life, God urges His people to say,

“Thy will be done.”

God’s will is reconciliation: reconciliation between Him and you; between you and your spouse; between you and your child; between you and everyone else, regardless of what they have done. This is His will. However, if we spend our lives refusing to say,

“Thy will be done,“

Lewis says the point comes where God respects our freedom and replies, “Okay, thy will be done.

And that will determine how we spend all of eternity.

– – –

Source

This article is abridged and adapted from a homily.