“Those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love”—these words of St Isaac the Syrian have profoundly influenced the Orthodox understanding of hell and damnation. I suspect that most readers of St Isaac’s writings have long assumed that this mystical insight represents the apex of his reflections on hell. But in 1983 Sebastian Brock discovered in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, the complete text of a group of discourses that were virtually unknown in the Byzantine and Latin Churches. Unlike the well known homilies belonging to the First Part, translated into English under the title The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, these other discourses had never been translated into Greek nor into any other language (except perhaps Arabic). That they existed was known to scholars, but the one extant text in Iran was lost in 1918. And then Brock made his remarkable discovery, and in 1995 he published an English translation of the text under the riveting title The Second Part. In this volume we find three homilies specifically devoted to the Last Things. These three eschatological homilies, chapters 39, 40, and 41, reveal an Isaac of Nineveh whose understanding of hell was far more original and daring than previously suspected outside the Syrian Christian world: the damned may be “scourged by the scourge of love,” but the scourging is not forever!
As we have seen, underlying Isaac’s reflections on eschatology is his fierce conviction that retributive punishment is incompatible with the God of absolute and infinite love. Our Father wills, always wills, our good. He does not inflict unnecessary pain. If he chastises, it is always with the aim of our conversion and sanctification:
For it would be most odious and utterly blasphemous to think that hate or resentment exists with God, even against demonic beings; or to imagine any other weakness, or passibility, or whatever else might be involved in the course of retribution of good or bad as applying, in a retributive way, to that glorious divine Nature. Rather, He acts towards us in ways He knows will be advantageous to us, whether by way of things that cause suffering, or by way of things that cause relief, whether they cause joy or grief, whether they are insignificant or glorious: all are directed towards the single eternal good, whether each receives judgement or something of glory from Him—not by way of retribution, far from it!—but with a view to the advantage that is going to come from all these things. …
That is how everything works with Him, even though things may seem otherwise to us: with Him it is not a matter of retribution, but He is always looking beyond to the advantage that will come from His dealing with humanity. And one such thing is this matter of Gehenna. (II.39.3,5)
And one such thing is this matter of Gehenna—even perdition is encompassed within God’s salvific plan for humanity. Even hell can be used by God for our good.
“I am of the opinion,” announces St Isaac, “that He is going to manifest some wonderful outcome, a matter of immense and ineffable compassion on the part of the glorious Creator, with respect to the ordering of this difficult matter of Gehenna’s torment: out of it the wealth of His love and power and wisdom will become known all the more—and so will the insistent might of the waves of His goodness” (II.39.6). When I read these words I thought of St Gregory the Theologian, who was given deep understanding of the Scriptures through his contemplative experience. Similarly St Isaac now speaks to us from his own profound mystical experience. He is not content to reiterate the retributive views of theologians before him. He has been given such a transformative knowledge of the divine love that he knows that an eternal inferno is incompatible with this love—he knows this in the depth of his soul. He is not engaging in philosophical speculation. This is why St Isaac’s words possess such persuasive and compelling power. He is speaking to us as a mystagogue and holy ascetic who has been transfigured by union with God the Holy Trinity. From the solitude of the mountain the anchorite proclaims, the Kingdom of God will triumph over Gehenna.
Isaac is horrified by the teaching of an eternal hell: “It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when He created them—and whom nonetheless He created” (II.39.6). Like all of the Church Fathers, Isaac believes in God’s foreknowledge of the future. God created the world knowing full well that humanity would fall from grace, with death, sin, and hell as the consequences. It is not as if God created the world and then had to respond to the surprise of creaturely disobedience. That would reduce the Creator to a creature and would introduce mutability into the divine nature. Rather, in his foreknowledge of angelic and human sin, God in his wisdom included Gehenna within his providential plan to accomplish the final reconciliation of the wicked:
If the Kingdom and Gehenna had not been foreseen in the purpose of our good God as a result of the coming into being of good and evil actions, then God’s thoughts concerning these would not be eternal; but righteousness and sin were known by Him before they revealed themselves. Accordingly the Kingdom and Gehenna are matters belonging to mercy, which were conceived of in their essence by God as a result of His eternal goodness. It was not a matter of requiting, even though He gave them the name of requital.
That we should further say or think that the matter is not full of love and mingled with compassion would be an opinion full of blasphemy and insult to our Lord God. By saying that He will even hand us over to burning for the sake of sufferings, torment and all sorts of ills, we are attributing to the divine Nature an enmity towards the very rational being which He created through grace; the same is true if we say that He acts or thinks with spite and with a vengeful purpose, as though He was avenging Himself. (II.39.22)
Now let me admit that I personally find the topic of foreknowledge difficult. I affirm, of course, the omniscience of God—God knows everything that can be known—but is what hasn’t happened yet something to be known? At this point we are brought into the unfathomable mystery of the relationship between eternal divinity and temporal reality. The simple fact is we have absolutely no idea what we are talking about. Perhaps some philosophers might want to accuse Isaac of a naive, or unsophisticated, understanding of eternity and time. Well, whatever divine foreknowledge means, it certainly means that God was surprised neither by the sin of Adam nor by the personal sins of human beings that created hell. Yet God created humanity regardless—and that is the essential point. If the omniscient and benevolent Deity created the world knowing, or at least fully anticipating, that mankind was going to rebel against his love and authority, then he must have made provision for this eventuality from before the beginning. He must have. Because Gehenna is that intolerable.
If we do not share St Isaac’s horror of an everlasting hell, then perhaps that says something very important about us. This, I suggest, is St Isaac’s unstated argument. It’s not just a matter of philosophical reasoning or biblical exegesis. Once one has experienced the extraordinary love and mercy of God, as Isaac had, once one has been drawn into the embrace of the Father through the Son in the Spirit, then one knows the truth—and thus one knows how to rightly interpret the Holy Scriptures and one knows how to rightly preach the gospel of Jesus Christ … and one knows the impossibility of eternal perdition.
But Isaac also believes that he is speaking from within the Holy Tradition of the Church. He is not presenting his readers with a doctrinal innovation. He is not teaching, he assures us, “things of which our former orthodox Fathers never spoke, as though we were bursting out with an opinion which did not accord with truth” (II.39.7). He invokes two respected Oriental Fathers specifically in support—Theodore of Mopsuestia and Diodore of Tarsus. One quotation from Theodore is of particular interest:
In the world to come, those who have chosen here what is good, will receive the felicity of good things along with praise; whereas the wicked, who all their life have turned aside to evil deeds, once they have been set in order in their minds by punishments and the fear of them, choose the good, having come to learn how much they have sinned, and that they have persevered in doing evil things and not good; by means of all this they receive a knowledge of religion’s excellent teaching, and are educated so as to hold on to it with a good will, and so eventually they are held worthy of the felicity of divine munificence. For Christ would never have said “Until you pay the last farthing” unless it had been possible for us to be freed from our sins once we had recompensed for them through punishments. Nor would He have said “He will be beaten with many stripes” and “He will be beaten with few stripes” if it were not the case that the punishments measured out in correspondence to the sins, were finally going to have an end. (II.39.8)
Clearly Theodore does not understand repentance and purification as being impossible after death. He declares the hope and expectation that the wicked will eventually come to see the gravity of their sin and choose the good—and thus be saved. Divine punishment is educative and of limited duration.
St Isaac presents us with a simple choice—the punishment of Gehenna is either retributive or remedial, punitive or medicinal. If the former, then God, and we, are trapped in the past; if the latter, then God, and we, are open to a future beyond our imaginings:
So then, let us not attribute to God’s actions and His dealings with us any idea of requital. Rather, we should speak of fatherly provision, a wise dispensation, a perfect will which is concerned with our good, and complete love. If it is a case of love, then it is not one of requital; and if it is a case of requital, then it is not one of love. Love, when it operates, is not concerned with the requiting of former things by means of its own good deeds or correction; rather, it looks to what is most advantageous in the future: it examines what is to come, and not things that are past. (II.39.18)
Isaac’s eschatology is soundly biblical and must be distinguished from the Origenist construals of apocatastasis that were condemned in the sixth century.
In light of our reading of the eschatological homilies, the oft-quoted famous words of St Isaac of the scourging of the “scourge of love” take on a very different meaning. Read the passage yet once again:
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)
The scourging of the “scourge of love” is nothing less than God’s work of purification in the hearts of the wicked. The chastisement that God imposes in hell is educative, remedial, and reparative. God scourges in order to bring the damned to salvation, to bring them into a knowledge both of his mercy and of their sin and its terrible consequences for themselves and for God’s creation. Even Gehenna falls into God’s redemptive purposes. Its purpose is to eventually create within the hearts of the condemned the stirrings of faith and repentance, thus allowing them to experience God precisely as love and not as torture. Only thus are the sufferings and anguish of the damned, caused by the inescapable presence of Love, morally tolerable.
St Isaac would emphatically reject any suggestion that the damned are beyond redemption. God would never have created a cosmos whose history would conclude, even for a small portion of those he has brought into being, with Gehenna. And it is unthinkable that he would have so constructed the after-life that the wicked would be incapable of turning their hearts to Christ and appealing to his forgiveness. The Lord’s face is set “all the time towards forgiveness” (II.40.13). His grace is like an ocean that knows no measure.
Here is where philosophy ends and mystery begins. Philosophers tell us that God so values human (libertarian) freedom that an eternal populated hell must remain a possibility, if not a definite certainty. Every human being is given an opportunity to definitively accept or reject God, and God will respect this choice, even if it means the individual’s suffering and destruction (see, for example, The Problem of Hell by Jonathan L. Kvanig and Hell: The Logic of Damnation by Jerry L. Walls). This has become the ecumenical justification for everlasting perdition. Freedom ultimately triumphs over Love. But the Syrian mystic refuses to be trapped by this philosophical problem, for the God who rose from the dead on Easter morning is not trapped by it:
Accordingly we say that, even in the matter of the afflictions and sentence of Gehenna, there is some hidden mystery, whereby the wise Maker has taken as a starting point for its future outcome the wickedness of our actions and wilfulness, using it as a way of bringing to perfection His dispensation wherein lies the teaching which makes wise, and the advantage beyond description, hidden from both angels and human beings, hidden too from those who are being chastised, whether they be demons or human beings, hidden for as long as the ordained period of time holds sway. (II.39.20)
Gehenna will end. Through his goodness and beauty God will overcome evil. The damned will be saved, not by force or coercion, but by the chastisement of love that will ultimately bring them to the true understanding of the happiness they have always hoped and dreamed for. St Isaac does not speculate further. He simply presents us with the confident hope that the infinitely wise and good God will restore and consummate his creation in Love.
In his essay “Universalism of Salvation: St Isaac the Syrian,” Catholic theologian Waclaw Hryniewicz summarizes St Isaac’s understanding of apocatastasis in these words:
In the sufferings of Gehenna Isaac perceives a hidden mystery. Gehenna has no sense in itself. The wise Creator knew that it would disclose its purpose in the future. Iniquity and willfulness of rational creatures will not remain in them for ever in the state called Gehenna. God is able to carry out His work to the very end. The mystery of Gehenna remains provisionally hidden before humans, angels and demons. …
Isaac belongs to those Christian mystics who do not exaggerate the power of evil. In his eyes human sin is infinitely small in comparison with the infinite mercy of God. The torments of Gehenna are caused by self-exclusion from the great feast in the Kingdom of heaven, by a person’s inability to participate in the love of God. Yet they will come to an end, although here on earth we do not know when it will take place. Gehenna is a consequence of sin which also will have its end. If God punishes, He does it out of love, in order to heal a sick freedom of rational creatures. Sinners in Gehenna are not deprived of the compassionate love of God. The purpose of punishment is change for the better, purification and conversion. The punishment ceases when this purpose is achieved. The sinners are not deprived of God’s love even in their infernal state. They can always count on His help. God’s justice and mercy are inseparable. He awaits with love all His creatures at the end of their purification. If evil, sin and Gehenna do not have their origins in God, how can they be eternal? …
According to Isaac, Gehenna can only be temporary and provisional, permeated by God’s love and mercy. He would not allow a punishment which would deny His own nature. The punishment has a therapeutic and correctional meaning. It is always connected with His “compassionate intentions and purpose” to set us on the upright path, and not to bring us to perdition. Gehenna’s torment is “a matter of immense and ineffable compassion.” It must have its end and achieve its purpose. For this reason it is subject to a limit. It is not for eternity and will last only for a fixed period, decreed by God’s wisdom. The punishments, measured out in correspondence to the sins, are finally going to have an end. The eternal punishment would be a monstrous reality unworthy of God. Who thinks otherwise has not overcome an”infantile way of thinking,” “the childish opinion of God.” (The Challenge of Hope, pp. 82-83)
Hilarion Alfeyev describes Isaac’s vision of Gehenna as akin to the Catholic doctrine of purgatory: “Gehenna is a sort of purgatory rather than hell: it is conceived and established for the salvation of both human beings and angels. However, this true aim of Gehenna is hidden from those who are chastised in it, and will be revealed only after Gehenna is abolished. According to Isaac, all those who have fallen away from God will eventually return to Him because of the temporary and short torment in Gehenna that is prepared for them in order that they purify themselves through the fire of suffering and repentance.” It is unclear to me why Isaac believes that the true aim of hell, namely, salvation, will be hidden from the wicked. How does this not lead to a despair that makes repentance impossible? But perhaps even ultimate despair can become the occasion of total surrender to God.
Most Christians are content to accept the eternal reality of hell, in all of its horror, but not Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov. “It is simply unacceptable,” he declares, “to imagine that from all eternity God prepares hell as a destination for his creatures. This would be a contradiction of the divine plan and thus a victory of evil! … The Father who sends his Son knows that even hell is his domain and that ‘the fate of death’ is transformed into the ‘gate of life.’ Even the despair of hell is wounded by the hope it already contains, and the Church teaches the Christian not to despair” (In the World, Of the Church, pp. 29, 33).
St Isaac is well aware that the eschatological hope of apocatastasis can be exploited to justify laxity and wickedness. This does not lead him to dilute the glorious revelation of grace and triumph, however. The full proclamation of the mystery of Gehenna leads us to wonder and amazement and finally to silent adoration (II.39.1). And so Isaac summons his readers to repentance. No one wants to experience the torments of hell, he tell us, even for a single moment. Far better to begin the ascent to God now. Now is the time to repent; now is the time to accept the forgiveness of God and to begin living the union of love:
Let us beware in ourselves, my beloved, and realize that even if Gehenna is subject to a limit, the taste of its experience is terrible, and the extent of its bounds escapes our very understanding. Let us strive all the more to partake of the taste of God’s love for the sake of perpetual reflection on Him, and let us not have experience of Gehenna through neglect. (II.40.1).
The call to repentance flows from the gospel and the hope of universal salvation.
St Isaac of Nineveh has presented us with a glorious vision of the future, a vision grounded in his mystical experience of the God of Jesus Christ and his contemplative reading of the Scriptures. “In every epoch,” Alfeyev writes, “the christian world needs to be reminded of this universal love of God for his creation because in every epoch there is a strong tendency within Christianity to replace the religion of love and freedom taught by Jesus with a religion of slavery and fear” (The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, pp. 300-301). We need not fear the proclamation of the unconditional love of God and the triumph of his Kingdom. It is this gospel that transforms our lives and gives birth to the Church. As the saint reminds us, “Divine hope uplifts the heart, but fear of Gehenna crushes it” (I.51, p. 384).
O the astonishment at the goodness of our God and Creator! O power for which all is possible! O immeasurable kindness toward our nature, that He will even bring sinners back into existence! … Where is Gehenna, that can afflict us? Where is the torment that terrifies us in many ways and quenches the joy of His love? And what is Gehenna as compared with the grace of His resurrection, when he will raise us from Sheol and cause our corruptible nature to be clad in incorruption, and raise up in glory what has fallen into Sheol? Come, men of discernment, and be filled with wonder! Whose mind is sufficiently wise to wonder worthily at the bounty of our Creator? His recompense of sinners is that instead of a just recompense, he rewards them with resurrection, and instead of those bodies with which they trampled upon His law, He robes them with the glory of perfection. That grace whereby we are resurrected after we have sinned is greater than the grace which brought us into being when we were not. (I.51, p. 388)