What is the Orthodox doctrine of hell? I honestly do not know. I do know what many Orthodox have taught about hell during the past seventy-five years or so, and I know something about what the Church Fathers taught about it during the first millenium of the Church’s history; but I cannot tell you what the Orthodox Church authoritatively and irreformably teaches about hell. My ignorance on this question is partly determined by the fact that a huge portion of the Eastern theological patrimony has never been translated into English. I read neither Greek (modern or patristic), Russian, Romanian, Serbian, or Syriac. I suspect that my position is not that different from most other English-speaking Orthodox believers, including the clergy. The fact that so much theological reflection is inaccessible to us puts us at significant disadvantage.
This doesn’t mean that the ordinary American parish priest does not believe that he knows what the authoritative Orthodox understanding of hell is. Quite the contrary. At least within English-speaking Orthodoxy a particular understanding of hell and perdition has established itself as the Orthodox position; and this understanding, we are told, is dramatically different from what is taught in Catholicism and Protestantism. Patristic scholar Archimandrite Irenei (Matthew) Steenberg has described this view as “hell is heaven experienced differently”: God does not retributively punish the damned; the damned experience God as torment because they have rejected, and eternally reject, the divine mercy and love. They cannot tolerate his inescapable presence. God does not actively inflict pain at the Last Judgment; he simply allows the damned to experience the suffering they have freely chosen, and he allows this for all eternity. This view can be found in the writings of John Romanides, George Metallinos, and Hierotheos Vlachos. For popular presentations see A Study of Hell by Nick Aiello, “Heaven and Hell in the Afterlife” by Peter Chopelas, “Hell and God’s Love” by Eric Simpson, and “Why We Need Hell” by Frederica Mathewes-Green. Yet as Steenberg notes, serious questions can be raised whether this understanding of hell as “heaven experienced differently” in fact represents the consensual teaching of the Church Fathers: “this view has little to no grounding in either the Scriptural or patristic heritage of the Church,” Steenberg argues, “and in fact that heritage very regularly makes assertions that wholly deny the possibility of this view.”
Unfortunately, it is not an easy matter for an English-speaking non-scholar to assess patristically the “hell is heaven experienced differently” thesis. Look high and low, but you will not find a comprehensive, detailed, and in-depth scholarly discussion of the eschatology of the Church Fathers, much less of the two thousand year old Eastern tradition. Perhaps such surveys are available in French, German, Russian or Greek, but alas not in English. I find this surprising—especially given how popular eschatology has been in theological circles over the past fifty years. One can find extensive discussion of what the New Testament teaches about hell, especially by Protestant scholars. And one can find extensive discussion about what the Catholic Church dogmatically teaches (or “should” dogmatically teach) about hell by Catholic theologians. But when one turns to the Church Fathers, one immediately hits a wall. In fact, it’s hard to find in-depth scholarly treatment of individual Church Fathers on this subject, with the exceptions of Origen, Gregory Nyssen, and Augustine. J. N. D. Kelly devotes a couple of pages to hell and judgment in his book Early Christian Doctrines. Jaroslav Pelikan’s first volume of The Christian Tradition is even less helpful.
The best survey in English of the eschatological beliefs of the Church Fathers is The Hope of the Early Church by the respected patristic scholar Brian E. Daley. Anyone who wishes to research the subject at hand should probably begin with this title. Daley’s book makes clear the diversity of beliefs about hell and damnation that existed among the Church Fathers. One can certainly distinguish, in a broad general way, a difference in approach between the Greek and Latin Fathers; but it would be a mistake to push the contrast too far. Excluding those who taught some form of universal salvation, both Greek and Latin Fathers affirm that the punishments of hell are divinely appointed and retributive. God eternally punishes the wicked. St John Chrysostom, one of the Three Holy Hierarchs, was particularly vivid:
It is a sea of fire—not a sea of the kind or dimensions we know here, but much larger and fiercer, with waves made of fire, fire of a strange and fearsome kind. There is a great abyss there, in fact, of terrible flames, and one can see fire rushing about on all sides like some wild animal. … There will be no one who can resist, no one who can escape: Christ’s gentle, peaceful face will be nowhere to be seen. But as those sentenced to work the mines are give over to rough men and see no more of their families, but only their taskmasters, so it will be there—or not simply so, but much worse. For here on can appeal to the Emperor for clemency, and have the prisoner released—but there, never. They will not be released, but will remain roasting and in such agony as cannot be expressed. (Homilies on Matthew 43.4)
For when you hear of fire, do not suppose the fire in that world to be like this: for fire in this world burns up and makes away with anything which it takes hold of; but that fire is continually burning those who have once been seized by it, and never ceases: therefore also is it called unquenchable. For those also who have sinned must put on immortality, not for honour, but to have a constant supply of material for that punishment to work upon; and how terrible this is, speech could never depict, but from the experience of little things it is possible to form some slight notion of these great ones. For if you should ever be in a bath which has been heated more than it ought to be, think then, I pray you, on the fire of hell: or again if you are ever inflamed by some severe fever transfer your thoughts to that flame, and then you will be able clearly to discern the difference. For if a bath and a fever so afflict and distress us, what will our condition be when we have fallen into that river of fire which winds in front of the terrible judgment-seat. Then we shall gnash our teeth under the suffering of our labours and intolerable pains: but there will be no one to succour us: yea we shall groan mightily, as the flame is applied more severely to us, but we shall see no one save those who are being punished with us, and great desolation. And how should any one describe the terrors arising to our souls from the darkness? For just as that fire has no consuming power so neither has it any power of giving light: for otherwise there would not be darkness. The dismay produced in us then by this, and the trembling and the great astonishment can be sufficiently realized in that day only. For in that world many and various kinds of torment and torrents of punishment are poured in upon the soul from every side. And if any one should ask, and how can the soul bear up against such a multitude of punishments and continue being chastised through interminable ages, let him consider what happens in this world, how many have often borne up against a long and severe disease. And if they have died, this has happened not because the soul was consumed but because the body was exhausted, so that had the latter not broken down, the soul would not have ceased being tormented. When then we have received an incorruptible and inconsumable body there is nothing to prevent the punishment being indefinitely extended. For here indeed it is impossible that the two things should coexist. I mean severity of punishment and permanence of being, but the one contends with the other, because the nature of the body is perishable and cannot bear the concurrence of both: but when the imperishable state has supervened, there would be an end of this strife, and both these terrible things will keep their hold upon us for infinite time with much force. Let us not then so dispose ourselves now as if the excessive power of the tortures were destructive of the soul: for even the body will not be able to experience this at that time, but will abide together with the soul, in a state of eternal punishment, and there will not be any end to look to beyond this. How much luxury then, and how much time will you weigh in the balance against this punishment and vengeance? Do you propose a period of a hundred years or twice as long? And what is this compared with the endless ages? For what the dream of a single day is in the midst of a whole lifetime, that the enjoyment of things here is as contrasted with the state of things to come. Is there then any one who, for the sake of seeing a good dream, would elect to be perpetually punished? Who is so senseless as to have recourse to this kind of retribution? (Ad Theod. 1.10)
Jonathan Edwards, stand aside! The Eastern Church can boast a fire-and-brimstone preacher as terrifying as you! Perhaps one might explain such passages as rhetorical enthusiasm; but still, it’s hard to see how they express a hell that is “heaven experienced differently.” Whatever the fire of hell may be, it is retributive, punitive, tormenting, destructive, and everlasting. “It is impossible,” St John insists, “that punishment and Gehenna should not exist” (In 1 Thes 8.4). In this world divine punishment is intended for our correction; in the next world, for vengeance (In Rom. Hom. 3.1). The damned suffer because they deserve to suffer. St John Chrysostom is not St Isaac the Syrian.
The teaching of John Chrysostom is important, as it appears to provide a strong counter-argument to the claim that the popular contemporary view represents the authoritative position of the Orthodox Church. I am unaware of a scholarly essay that explore’s Chrysostom’s view of perdition in depth, but do take a look at the chapters on judgment and hell in The Mystery of Death by Nikolaos P. Vassiliadis, which are largely dependent upon Chrysostom.
Whatever differences may exist between the Greek and Latin Fathers, they are united on the retributive, vindictive nature of the punishments of hell. A minority report does exist, of course—represented by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Isaac of Ninevah, and perhaps also Ambrose—but it is a minority report (see John Sachs, “Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology“; for an older, albeit flawed, presentation of universalism in the patristic period, see J. W. Hanson). Eventually the retributive views of Augustine in the West and the Emperor Justinian in the East prevailed.
The question of differences between the Greek and Latin Fathers raises an interesting dogmatic question: If the Latin Fathers are in fact Church Fathers, by what authority do we dismiss their views about perdition whenever they happen to differ with Eastern Fathers? Does East always trump West?
But can we not at least agree that the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553) dogmatically asserted the eternity of hell and rejected all forms of universalism? My quick answer: no. I say this for two reasons. First, scholars continue to debate whether the fifteen anti-Origen anathemas were in fact officially promulgated by the council. In his 1990 collection Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils Norman Tanner excludes the fifteen anathemas because “recent studies have shown that these anathemas cannot be attributed to this council” (p. 106). Richard Price believes that on the strong urging of Emperor Justinian the council fathers approved the anathemas prior to the formal opening of the council. What dogmatic authority do these anathemas therefore possess? There is no mention of them in the acts of the council (Richard Price, The Acts of the Council of Constantinople of 553, pp. 270-286). Second, even if we assume that the anathemas enjoy conciliar authority, we still need to interpret them. The hermeneutics of dogmatic statements has not been a subject to which Orthodox theologians have paid much attention, yet the subject is unavoidable. Surely we cannot just quote anathemas as if that closes all theological discussion and debate. That would be to engage in a form of dogma-fundamentalism. Dogmatic statements need to be interpreted with as much care and judiciousness as we interpret Holy Scripture. They do not fall from heaven. Their meaning, much less their application, is not always clear and plain. They are promulgated by bishops at a specific juncture of history to address specific heresies and false teachings. A quick perusal of the fifteen anathemas reveal that the formulation of apocatastasis that is condemned intrinsically belongs to a whole package of strange sixth century Origenist teachings. It would be a mistake, therefore, to assume that the bishops intended also to condemn the universalism of St Gregory Nyssen or St Isaac of Syria (who was born a century after the council), both of whose eschatologies are notably free from the Origenist understanding of the cyclical nature of history and the pre-existence of souls. As Met Kallistos Ware notes:
There is, however, considerable doubt whether these fifteen anathemas were in fact formally approved by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. … Apart from that, however, the precise wording of the first anathema deserves to be carefully noted. It does not speak only about apocatastasis but links together two aspects of Origen’s theology: first, his speculations about the beginning, that is to say, about the preexistence of souls and the precosmic fall; second, his teaching about the end, about universal salvation and the ultimate reconciliation of all things. Origen’s eschatology is seen as following directly from his protology, and both are rejected together.
That the first of the fifteen anathemas should condemn protology and eschatology in the same sentence is entirely understandable, for in Origen’s thinking the two form an integral unity. At the beginning, so he believed, there was a realm of logikoi or rational intellects (noes) existing prior to the creation of the material world as minds without a body. Originally all these logikoi were joined in perfect union with the Creator Logos. Then followed the precosmic fall. With the exception of one logikos (which became the human soul of Christ), all the other logikoi turned away from the Logos and became, depending on the gravity of their deviation, either angels or human beings or demons. In each case they were given bodies appropriate to the seriousness of their fall: light-weight and ethereal in the case of angels; dark and hideous in the case of demons; intermediate in the case of human beings. At the end, so Origen maintained, this process of fragmentation will be reversed. All alike, whether angels, human beings, or demons, will be restored to unity with the Logos; the primal harmony of the total creation will be reinstated, and once more “God will be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). Origen’s view is in this way circular in character: the end will be as the beginning.
Now, as we have noted, the first of the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas is directed not simply against Origen’s teaching concerning universal reconciliation, but against his total understanding of salvation history—against his theory of preexistent souls, of a precosmic fall and a final apocatastasis—seen as a single and undivided whole. Suppose, however, that we separate his eschatology from his protology; suppose that we abandon all speculations about the realm of eternal logikoi; suppose that we simply adhere to the standard Christian view whereby there is no preexistence of the soul, but each new person comes into being as an integral unity of soul and body, at or shortly after the moment of the conception of the embryo within the mother’s womb. In this way we could advance a doctrine of universal salvation—affirming this, not as a logical certainty (indeed, Origen never did that), but as a heartfelt aspiration, a visionary hope—which would avoid the circularity of Origen’s view and so would escape the condemnation of the anti-Origenist anathemas.
Because of the significant differences between the universalism of Origen and his sixth century disciples and the universalism of Gregory Nyssen and Isaac the Syrian, we cannot directly apply the sixth century anathemas to the eschatological views of Gregory and Isaac. It is precisely considerations like these that led Met Hilarion Alfeyev to conclude that an Orthodox understanding of apocatastasis and the non-eternity of hell may legitimately be advanced (see The Mystery of Faith, p. 217).
Is there a dogmatically binding dogma of hell in the Eastern Orthodox Church? I do not see how this can be confidently asserted in the affirmative. A diversity of beliefs about the last judgment and perdition existed in the patristic period, and this diversity continues to the present. The Orthodox Church has yet to speak its definitive word.