This article has been revised, expanded, and republished: “St Isaac of Nineveh and the Scourge of Love.”
God has created humanity for eternal communion with himself. By love he has created us for love to share in the eternal Paradise of love. Hear the words of St Isaac of Nineveh:
Paradise is the love of God, wherein is the enjoyment of all blessedness, and there the blessed Paul partook of supernatural nourishment. When he tasted there of the tree of life, he cried out, saying “Eye hath not see, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.” Adam was barred from this tree through the devil’s counsel.
The tree of life is the love of God from which Adam fell away, and thereafter he saw joy no longer, and he toiled and labored in the land of thorns. Even though they make their way in righteousness, those who are bereft of the love of God eat in their work the bread of sweat, which the first-created man was commanded to eat after his fall. … But when we find love, we partake of heavenly bread, and are made strong without labor and toil. The heavenly bread is Christ, Who came down from Heaven and gave life to the world. This is the nourishment of the angels. The man who has found love eats and drinks Christ every day and hour and hereby is made immortal. “He that eateth of this bread,” He says, “which I will give him, shall not see death unto eternity.” Blessed is he who eats the bread of love, which is Jesus! He who eats of love eats Christ, the God over all, as John bears witness, saying, “God is love.”
Wherefore, the man who lives in love reaps life from God, and while yet in this world, he even now breathes the air of the resurrection; in this air the righteous will delight in the resurrection. Love is the Kingdom, whereof the Lord mystically promised His disciples to eat in His Kingdom. For when we hear Him say, “Ye shall eat and drink at the table of my Kingdom,” what do we suppose we shall eat, if not love? Love is sufficient to nourish a man instead of food and drink. (Ascetical Homilies I.46, pp. 357-358)
We are created for Paradise and are destined for Paradise, yet at the moment of death not all are ready for Paradise. At death God effects the great separation of which Jesus speaks: “When the Son of man shall come in His glory, He shall set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left” (Matt 25:31-33). As far as I can tell, Isaac does not advance a hard-and-fast schema of judgment and eschatological life, as one might find, for example, in Met Hierotheos’ book Life After Death. Isaac’s terminology and vision are fluid. Upon repose one enters immediately into either the Kingdom/Paradise or Gehenna. There is no intermediate realm between them, though within each “there are varying degrees of recompenses” (I.6, p. 173). The general resurrection does remain future for Isaac; but he does not seem to make a clear distinction between Hades and Gehenna, as is typically done in Byzantine circles.
In the Kingdom the Blessed will together adore and delight in the Holy Trinity, each person deriving “a unique benefit from this visible sun through a single enjoyment of it common to all, each according to the clarity of his eyesight and the ability of his pupils to contain the sun’s constant effusion of light” (I.6, p. 172). Yet while the vision of the uncreated light is distinct and particular to each, no one will notice differences of rank and noetic abilities, lest it become “a cause of sadness and mental anguish” (I.6, p. 172). Everyone will experience the love of God in fullness and perfection, to the degree enabled by his spiritual condition. No one will feel jealous or envious. All will rejoice. All will know and glory in love.
But what of those who do not love God and do not desire his eternal company? What of the damned? How and why are they punished? How do they suffer? Here we enter into the most controversial dimension of St Isaac’s mystical knowledge. We begin with one of the most frequently quoted passages from his homilies:
I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love. For what is so bitter and vehement as the punishment of love? I mean that those who have become conscious that they have sinned against love suffer greater torment from this than from any fear of punishment. For the sorrow caused in the heart by sin against love is sharper than any torment that can be. It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of God. Love is the offspring of knowledge of the truth which, as is commonly confessed, is given to all. The power of love works in two ways: it torments those who have played the fool, even as happens here when a friend suffers from a friend; but it becomes a source of joy for those who have observed its duties. Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret. But love inebriates the souls of the sons of Heaven by its delectability. (I.28, p. 266)
God’s love for his creatures does not stop at the borders of hell. The creator does not cease to love the damned because they have renounced him so definitively. His mercy does not suddenly turn into wrath. Though we may speak of the damned as separated from God, we must not think that God has separated himself from them. Those in hell are not deprived of the divine love. They remain the objects of the Father’s mercy and compassion. And that is their torment! They hate God because they despise his forgiveness. They hate God because they have begun to understand the glory and happiness they have lost through their pride and foolishness. They hate God because they cannot escape his presence. They are “scourged by the scourge of love.”
Long before I became acquainted with St Isaac the Syrian, the above represented my understanding of hell. I think I learned it first from C. S. Lewis. From Lewis I learned that hell is always locked from the inside. The damned freely choose their perdition. Obstinately, and eternally, they refuse to make even the smallest step toward the Good. They have reached the point where they are completely and irredeemably defined by their preference for self and autonomy. The reprobate “has his wish,” writes Lewis—”to live wholly in the self and to make the best of what he finds there. And what he finds there is Hell” (The Problem of Pain, p. 123). This view isn’t quite identical to St Isaac’s, but close enough. Lewis’s disciple, Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft, draws even closer to Isaac:
In reality, the damned are in the same place as the saved—in reality! But they hate it; it is their Hell. The saved love it, and it is their Heaven. It is like two people sitting side by side at an opera or a rock concert: the very thing that is Heaven to one is Hell to the other. Dostoyevski says, “We are all in paradise, but we won’t see it.” … Hell is not literally the “wrath of God.” The love of God is an objective fact; the “wrath of God” is a human projection of our own wrath upon God, as the Lady Julian saw—a disastrous misinterpretation of God’s love as wrath. God really says to all His creatures, “I know you and I love you,” but they hear Him saying, “I never knew you; depart from me.” It is like angry children misinterpreting their loving parents’ affectionate advances as threats. They project their own hate onto their parents’ love and experience love as an enemy—which it is: an enemy to their egotistic defenses against joy. …
Since God is love, since love is the essence of the divine life, the consequence of loss of this life is loss of love. … Though the damned do not love God, God loves them, and this is their torture. The very fires of Hell are made of the love of God! Love received by one who only wants to hate and fight thwarts his deepest want and is therefore torture. If God could stop loving the damned, Hell would cease to be pure torture. If the sun could stop shining, lovers of the dark would no longer be tortured by it. But the sun could sooner cease to shine than God cease to be God. … The lovelessness of the damned blinds them to the light of glory in which they stand, the glory of God’s fire. God is in the fire that to them is Hell. God is in Hell (“If I make my bed in Hell, Thou art there” [Ps 139:8]) but the damned do not know Him. (Every Thing You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven, pp. 230, 233-235)
This is the construal of hell and its sufferings that I preached for most, if not all, of my active ministry. I think it is fair to say that it represents what might rightly be called the ecumenical doctrine, as presently taught in 21st century Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and mainline Protestantism. No doubt retributivists can still be found in all Christian traditions, but the Lewisian construal of hell as self-exclusion from joy has most certainly established itself as the normative position. As Pope John Paul II explains, “Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.” Various differences can be discerned in these accounts of hell; but they are united in the judgment that it is from love, and not out of a concern to punish, that God respects the eschatological finality of creaturely decision. Jonathan Kvanvig classifies this as the issuant conception of hell (see The Problem of Hell).
The one critical difference we find among the various ecclesial traditions relates to the question of the irreversibility of the state of perdition. For Catholicism and most forms of Protestantism, once an individual finds himself in the condition of damnation, he is frozen in this condition eternally. He is incapable of repentance, incapable of altering his fundamental decision to reject the mercy of God. He can only suffer the destruction and misery he has chosen. Pope Benedict XVI well represents this position:
With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell. (Spe salvi 45)
Many Orthodox would agree with this. St John of Damascus, for example, writes that the “fall is to the angels just what death is to men. For, just as there is no repentance of men after their death, so is there none for the angels after their fall” (De Fide Orthodoxa 2.4). Others, however, point to the Orthodox practice of praying for the departed. They believe that some, though perhaps not the most incorrigibly impenitent, may be saved through the prayers of the Church and the divine mercy. This appears to have been the position of St Mark of Ephesus. This, I take, is the majority opinion within Orthodoxy today. But there are also some Eastern theologians, for example, Met Kallistos Ware, who believe that we may genuinely hope that all may, but not necessarily will, be saved. Ware’s position strongly resembles the hopeful universalism articulated by Hans Urs von Balthasar in his book Dare We Hope “That All Men be Saved?” In any case, virtually all Orthodox agree that those who are condemned to Gehenna at the Final Judgment are beyond hope—for them there is only eternal, unrelenting torment and agony, for they cannot but experience God as their hell. Greek theologian George Metallinos states the dominant Orthodox position:
Paradise and hell are the same reality. This is what is depicted in the portrayal of the Second Coming. From Christ, a river of fire 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 Luke 2:34 we read that Christ stands “as the fall and the resurrection of many.” Christ becomes the resurrection into eternal life for those who accepted Him and who followed the means given for the healing the heart. To those who rejected Him, however, He becomes their separation and their hell. … 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 doesn’t punish in essence, although, for educative purposes, the Scripture does mention punishment. The more spiritual that one becomes, the better he can comprehend the language of the Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Man’s condition (clean-unclean, repentant-unrepentant) is the factor that determines the acceptance of the Light as “paradise” or “hell.” … The damned—those who are hardened at heart, like the Pharisees (Mark 3:5: “in the callousness of their hearts”)—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 [sincerely pious] reach the end as redeemed persons. The others finish in a state of condemnation. “Salvation” to them is hell, since in their lifetime, they pursued only pleasure.
The Orthodox understanding of hell is often portrayed, particularly in polemical contexts, as morally superior to the Catholic and Protestant conceptions of hell. This certainly holds if we are comparing it to traditional models; but as we have seen, mainline Catholicism and Protestantism appear to have adopted non-retributive views very similar to the Orthodox. But what I want to ask now is, What would St Isaac think about the contemporary understanding of hell within Orthodoxy? His statement that the damned are “scourged by the scourge of love” is often quoted by Eastern writers. That the damned suffer eternally is not seen as a moral problem by these writers. After all, the condemned have chosen this destiny. They have voluntarily accepted the consequences of their rejection of God’s love and mercy. They have freely embraced their doom. That they suffer is therefore meet and right. It is often not noted, however, that the cause of their suffering is precisely God himself. Consider this explanation offered by Peter Chopelas:
Experiencing God’s presence and His in-filling transforming Energies in glory or in torment, as Paradise or as Punishment, is the heaven and hell of the Bible. Not something God did to us, but rather something we did to ourselves. God unconditionally pours out His love on all, WHETHER WE WANT IT OR NOT, whether we are ready for it or not, when we enter the afterlife.
Here we have the loving God imposing himself upon those who have rejected him to their eternal torment and agony. Given that the damned are incapable of repentance, given that they are incapable of responding to the divine love with anything other than hatred, given that they cannot escape from what, for them, is an intolerable situation, how is this not punishment of the worst imaginable kind? This is not chastisement, for the damned are beyond education and reform. This is torture.
With the final condemnation of the impenitent to Gehenna, has not the God of love in fact become the God of retributive, punitory justice? The time for mercy is over; now is the time for punishment, “the punishment of love.” Precisely at the point when humanity loses its freedom to accept God’s offer of mercy and forgiveness, and thus becomes subject to everlasting anguish, we have no choice but to appeal to divine justice. Only justice–the damned deserve to suffer–could morally justify the horror of hell. In the words of St Gregory Palamas: “For then it is a time of revelation and punishment, not compassion and mercy; then is a time of revelation of the wrath, the anger, and the just retribution of God. … Woe to him who falls into the hands of the living God.”
What then has become of the God of love? Is the Final Judgment the end of mercy? How can hell be the good that the heavenly Father wills for the damned?
But the “scourge of love” is not St Isaac’s last word on Gehenna.