What is Orthodox Hell?

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[44].4)

And again:

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 Nineveh, 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.

(Go to “Hell and the Torturous Vision of Christ.”)

(For further discussion of Eastern Orthodoxy and hell, see “Orthodoxy and the Damnation of the Damned” and the blog series on the eschatological views of Fr Dumitru Staniloae)

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69 Responses to What is Orthodox Hell?

  1. Thank you for this balanced post.

    First, I agree entirely that there is no official, canonical articulation of hell. The popular notion which now prevails in the English world is exactly that. Not that I am interested in articulating such a view mind you. I am more interested in the intersection of this topic with Christology.

    Second, it seems that, whether the condemnations were originally part of the 5th council or not, the Church did come to believe that they were. The 5th council represents the major turning point against Origenism which came to be slowly deconstructed over the next eight or nine centuries.

    Third, did you see my posts on John Italus?

    Fourth, the cyclical view of history and the pre-existence of souls are only a symptom in the Origenist problem. The fundamental problem is the understanding of the will of God. Since, for Origen, the will is identical to God’s essence, all creation, including the Logos and the Paraclete along with the fall and redemption, are eternally willed by God. Similarly, man’s mode of willing is binary. He expresses free will only when willing against God. These problems, first condemned by St Justianian are theologically solved by St Maximus in his articulation of the gnomic mode of willing.

    I am *very* sympathetic to the notion that Orthodoxy has articulated little to nothing about hell itself. Yet, I do not see a way to resolve the conflict between the gnomic mode of willing and any form of apokatastasis; even that of St Gregory’s or St Isaac’s. And this is the ultimate question: does free will exist in the eschaton?

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Nathaniel, my apologies for not getting back to you more quickly. I just read your postings. Thank you for sharing them with us.

      If your key point is that the Orthodox Church has dogmatized a populated hell, then all I can do is register my disagreement and refer you back to Met Kallisos and Met Hilarion. From what you have quoted, Italus appears to have taught something akin to the Origenist position. He certainly was not advocating an apocatastasis as advanced by either St Gregory Nyssen or St Isaac the Syrian. If your interpretation is correct, then Met Kallistos is a heretic, yet for some reason the hierarchs of Orthodoxy have not been willing to accuse him as such and depose him. Hmmm. The fact that they have not suggests to me that the Orthodox Church does not understand the anathemas of II Constantinople or the Synodikon as imposing a belief that Gehenna, at least for human beings, is forever. As for Satan, well, I’ll leave him to St Isaac.

      But if your chief concern is how one reconciles universal salvation and the dyothelitism of St Maximus, I do not see the problem. Perhaps you’d like to elaborate further.

  2. Alan says:

    Thank you Father for a very informative article, albeit one without a solid conclusion. Perhaps the surest thing we know about Hell is that, regardless of what it actually is, we do not want to spend eternity there.

  3. ephremb says:

    Hmm…seems like there is more to retributive justice than a lot of Orthodox want to accept. And a lot more of it in the Fathers than many want to admit. But there’s hope; it’s possible that we just haven’t found the right formulations to explain it all away yet.

  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Friends, I will be away for a couple of days to attend my mother-in-law’s funeral in Cleveland. I’ll try to address everyone’s comments upon my return.

    • mary benton says:

      My prayers are with you and your family at this time of loss for you – may her spirit be forever in God’s loving care and, if such things be His will, may she embrace your son in eternity.

    • Rhonda says:

      My condolences, Fr. Aidan. May her memory be eternal! My prayers, such as they are, will be with you.

  5. Rhonda says:

    Some of the Church Fathers portrayed punitive views & some did not. However, overall for the EO this never came to be the dominant mindset as it did the West, especially among Protestantism. The reason for this I believe, is due to the differences in how the two sides view the 1st 3 chapters of Genesis.

    • PJ says:


      I just don’t think the historical data bears this out. An “optimistic” view of hell has indeed come to prevail among certain Orthodox in modern times (many of whom are western converts), but this is highly unusual in the grand scheme of Christian theology, western *and* eastern. As Father says: “A minority report.” It doesn’t mean that it’s not true, of course. But I really doubt that “River of Fire” would find a warm reception in 5th century Antioch, 10th century Constantinople, or 15th century Moscow, or even some little village in 20th century Ukraine or Egypt.

      And, like Father, I wonder how these Orthodox deal with the eschatology of ten centuries’ worth of Latin theologians, many of whom they ignore despite calling them saints. The west has, over the last hundred years or so, begun to rediscover and take seriously the eastern fathers: it is time the east returns the favor. An “eastern Christianity” is an unfulfilled Christianity, as is a “western Christianity.” You can’t know who you are if you reject half of who you were.

      • Karen says:

        PJ, good catch. Clement is not venerated as a Saint within Orthodoxy (though he is by Eastern Catholics, apparently! :-)).

        If you were to write: “If anything seems worthy of dogmatic clarity, it is the nature of heaven and hell” I would certainly be sympathetic to your feeling on this, but, obviously, I don’t think it is quite fair to characterize this debate as being over the existence of heaven and hell (more precisely, Gehenna or hell-fire). It is their nature (and how one gets and/or remains in either state) that is in question. This is not necessarily divided between nominally Orthodox and nominally western Christians either, because many (if not most) times traditionally Orthodox folk will share in most aspects of the more majority understanding as well, and there are differences of opinion on this question even among the many western Christian groups, as I’m sure you are aware. Despite the ruling of Photius the Great, Fr. Aidan’s conclusions about St. Isaac’s version of “Apocatastasis” and the status of the dogma of hell (as Gehenna) of the Eastern Orthodox Church seem quite sound at this point.

      • PJ says:

        Is Clement a saint in Orthodoxy? I thought he was proclaimed a heretic by Photius I?

      • PJ says:

        If anything seems worthy of dogmatic clarity, it is the existence of heaven and hell.

      • Karen says:

        (cont.) Effecting that repentant state, not logical certainty about every last detail of the implications of the dogmas of the Church, is the proper end of the life of the Church in this world.

      • Karen says:

        I could be wrong, but I tend to disagree that “The River of Fire” would not have found a good reception in the 5th century Church. For one thing, it does not teach an end to the torments of Gehenna. In fact, it derives in part from the teachings of the Fathers of that time. There is evidence that St. Clement of Alexandria’s, Origin’s (not necessarily the cosmology embracing the pre-existence of souls, etc.), and St. Gregory of Nyssa’s understanding of the ultimate triumph of Christ’s love and life in the “Apocatastasis” was, at the popular level in the early Church, the predominating view. Do you know whether there are any strong criticisms of the universalism taught by their friend and fellow Bishop, St. Gregory of Nyssa, to be found in the writings of St. Basil and St. Gregory Nanzianzus? It’s likely you can find stern warnings about eternal punishment in their sermons to their flocks, but I’m asking here about actual attempts to debunk the theological speculations of St. Gregory of Nyssa in appeals to St. Gregory himself or to fellow monastics or bishops, for instance? If not, perhaps that is significant, especially added to the small hints in their private correspondence with their monastic inner circle of family members and friends that they may have actually shared the hopeful view of the end of all things that St. Gregory Nyssan articulated.

        Given what has been pointed out in Fr. Aidan’s post, I don’t think it is entirely fair to say that the Orthodox don’t take seriously the writings of the Western Fathers (particularly those of the first Millennium, who are, by Orthodox definition, Orthodox Fathers, after all). Also, I think it has been pointed out before that, from an Orthodox theological (not merely sentimental) perspective, the Eastern Orthodox Church is not “half” of the Church universal, but was, and remains that universal apostolic and catholic Church even in the wake of the Great Schism! She is complete, lacking nothing of Christ. From an Orthodox perspective, the same cannot be said for post-Schism Roman Catholicism nor for the Protestant world. That is not to say that there have not been elements of that Orthodox faith retained in the Western churches, but that the fullness remains only within Orthodoxy. I believe this is not Orthodox (regional or ethnic) triumphalism (as you seem to view it by what you write here and have written in other places)–rather, it is apostolic catholic Christian ecclesiology in its true and consistent application.

        I think the recent emphasis in Orthodox circles (and overemphasis if you like) on the possibility of an end to Gehenna, has been to counterbalance the non-Orthodox direction that was developed in the West concerning the nature of salvation and final judgment, that we would argue involved the loss, to various degrees, of true catholic and apostolic orthodox nuances and understandings of our faith.

        Also, as for “not having certain (dogmatic) knowledge of the afterlife,” Orthodox are quite certain that we will all face final judgment under the terms of Matthew 25 and that some will go into the lake of fire and experience terrible suffering and torment and that none of us wants to go there (whether it eventually comes to an end or not!)! How much more certainty about something none of us has actually yet experienced do you want? Unless you want your “God” in a comprehensible box (in which case, arguably, he is not the God of Jesus Christ), it seems to me we have to live with a number of tensions and paradoxes of faith and Christian life (which is, by Orthodox definition, living/dynamic and relational/personal). The Pharisees weren’t too happy about the way Jesus answered a lot of their questions of dogma either (as they posed those questions), but the nature of spiritual reality (man’s encounter with the living Christ) as it unfolds in the human heart is such that static, purely rational “answers” based on “dogma” as propositional logical formulations, are inadequate to effect the true repentant state of heart that brings one into a living communion with Christ.

  6. Karen says:

    Nathaniel, for what it’s worth, Bp. Kallistos (Ware), one of more well-known of the Orthodox proponents of a hopeful (as opposed to dogmatic) form of “Trinitation Universalism”, argues exactly this point when he says in his book, The Orthodox Church, to teach that everyone must be saved is a heresy because it denies free will.

  7. Fr. Robert J. Royer says:

    I saw the title of this post and immediately thought “parish council meetings.”

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Haha! I intentionally phrased the title to allow a little bit of humor just like this. And I agree with your sentiment. I’ve never experienced an Orthodox parish council meeting, but I sure have experienced plenty of Episcopal annual parish meetings and monthly Vestry meetings. Talk about perdition! :)

  8. Gabe Martini says:

    Great summary of thoughts on this complicated subject. Now if only we had an answer! ;-)

    • Nope, the theoretical stuff does not disconcert me. The practicaloint remains the same: we ought to try to avoid going there!

      P.S. For vague teaching on the subject, the CCC can hardly be best.

      • Drew says:

        Thank you Fr. Aiden. I stumbled upon your blog through another one I frequently visit and I’m so glad I did! Your homily about your soon deeply moved me to my core even though I’m not yet a father. You have good reasons to believe you will see your son again. May his memory be eternal and may you be encouraged by this post by Dr. Richard Beck. Blessings!http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2013/04/love-and-freedom-conditionalism-vs.html?m=1

        • Drew says:

          Fr. Aidan, did you get a chance to look at the link I sent you?

          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Yes I did, Drew. Thank you. I was particularly struck by this passage:

            Here the deep problem with conditionalism comes into view. If our affections are disordered there is no way we can “chose our way” toward God. Something deep within us is confused and disoriented. We want the wrong things. So if God wants us to turn toward the Kingdom God can’t just abandon us to our choices. God can’t just step back and say, “I love you. And because I love you I will step back to grant you freedom.” That’s a recipe for disaster. Because freedom isn’t about the absence of external pressure or force. Freedom, rather, is about getting our choices aligned with our affections. But if we want the wrong things to begin with how are we to make good choices?

            Hellists posit a point where God abandons the damned to their choices, either because the damned have reached a point where they are impervious to the grace of God or because the appointed time-limit has expired. St Isaac, however, refused to give up on the power and patience of God’s omnipotent love.

          • Drew says:

            Thank you Fr. for taking the time to engage the content of the essay. I know 5 Orthodox Christians and am pretty sure 3 of those 5 would not even read the essay because it comes from a protestant blog and has the word “experimental” in the title. To them, that word would probably signal heresy. I too was deeply struck by the passage you cited. I have really appreciated much of Dr. Becks thoughts. I am a protestant that is really in love with much of Eastern Orthodox theology. To many purists (perhaps on both sides) I would be viewied with suspicion if not as a heretic. I’m trying to work my way through this life serving Christ even though I’m really bad at it.

  9. Our Bishop explained Hell as the rejection of God’s love resulting in the eternal suffering of being exposed to that which one rejects. That the love of God burns brightly, and if one chooses the darkness they will suffer in its intensity. That seems like a good place to start when explaining Hell.

  10. V. Rev. A. James Bernstein says:

    Christ is Risen! Some think that my Conciliar Press booklet: “Heaven and Hell: The Divine Fire of God’s Love is helpful. It can be seen here:
    http://www.conciliarpress.com/products/Heaven-and-Hell%3A-The-Divine-Fire-of-God%27s-Love.html Also the last chapter of my book “Surprised by Christ” discusses this issue. In Christ.

  11. A book was published several years ago called ‘Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion’ by Alan Segal that’s a fascinating anthropological history of the development of ideas of the afterlife through Judaism, into the Second Temple period, into early Christianity and in the rise of Islam. Basically, for folks not wanting to read more than 700 pages on the topic, it seems that in the Patristic period, there were a number of apocryphal and pseudepigraphic sources in circulation regarding the particulars of the Heavens, the New Heavens and the New Earth, and Hades/Gehenna/Tartarus that the Fathers seem to cite fairly freely while endorsing none of them, in much the same way that I Enoch and other similar works are referenced in regard to the topic of angels.

    From an Orthodox perspective, we’re told enough of the future state of those who reject God’s Love to inspire repentance and prayer, and that’s about it. As I frequently point out when asked about evolution and Genesis 1-3, the Holy Scriptures (and the rest of Holy Tradition for that matter) weren’t delivered to us by God to answer all of our idle curiosities, but rather to give us the one thing that is needful; to answer the questions that we really should be asking, if only we were wise enough.

  12. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Okay, friends. I’m about to leave for the airport. I may not be available to approve new postings for a day or two, so if your comment gets hung up in the moderation queue, please be patient.

    I do ask every to keep on topic and to please avoid polemics.


  13. Rhonda says:

    My comment was not directly referring only to Hell nor even to the Orthodox understanding of Hell. I was referring instead to the overall mindsets of punitive vs. non-punitive in relation to the writings of the Church Fathers. How punitative or non-punitative is one’s mindset seems to have a direct correlation to one’s views of Hell. As Fr. Aidan correctly stated, the Orthodox have not specifically defined authoritatively & irreformably a clear doctrine concerning Hell, hence there is “wiggle room” for a variety of views within Orthodox Tradition. Also, remember that those “optimistic” views of Hell stem from 1) the belief that God is unchanging & 2) God is infinite Love. Less “optimistic” views of Hell, shall we call them, violate both of these precepts as 1) God changes (& drastically so!); & 2) God’s love is not only no longer infinite, but God Himself is no longer Love (so who or what is He?). So those of you that are “less optimistic” regards Hell, please give those of us that are “more optimistic” a little consideration before rejecting our arguments outright.

    the eschatology of ten centuries’ worth of Latin theologians, many of whom they ignore despite calling them saints.

    Just which “ten centuries of Latin theologions” are we ignoring? Those from the inception of the Church at Pentecost through 1054AD? Or those in the ten centuries since? Yes, those in the 1st 1,000 of Church History (pre-schism) we venerate as Saints (even St. Augustine every June 15!). Those afterwards, no, we don’t (sorry, no St. Thomas Aquinas); but that should not be an issue since neither does the RCC venerate those of the EOC after that time.

    FWIW yes, the Orthodox do read the Latin Fathers, especially those pre-schism. We even read the writings of RC (& even Protestant) theologions, but through the centuries since 1054AD it is easy to see the rapidly increasing theological differences. Furthermore, the differences were becoming apparent even before the Great Schism. It is not so much that we Orthodox “reject” the writings of Latin theologions. Many we consider Orthodox while others are acceptable given certain clarifications or qualifications. Many times it is a matter of interpretation &/or translation just as with the Holy Scriptures. But rather we Orthodox tend to reject the theological deductions later made from their works…IOW we don’t like the way others “connected their dots”. All of the Church Fathers are to be read with discernment & in proper context; none of them taught or wrote perfect theology all of the time. Just because some Church Father said or wrote some statement/passage does not mean that we blindly accept it as true or correct; this goes for all of the Fathers, both Greek & Latin.

    An “eastern Christianity” is an unfulfilled Christianity, as is a “western Christianity.” You can’t know who you are if you reject half of who you were.

    Sorry, but I must disagree with you here! I readily admit that the Great Schism was a horrible thing & I pray that it will someday be healed; however, I seriously doubt that will happen. Orthodoxy teaches the fullness of the Faith, not 1/2 of the Faith! When I began visiting my current Orthodox parish 10+ years ago, I also was visiting a local RC parish. I studied much written by both groups & prayed long before I was received into Orthodoxy. Trust me when I say, I did not “reject half of who” I am in Christ! Instead I accepted the fullness of who I am in Christ!

    The EOC & RCC are not sister churches, nor are we each 1/2 of a church. We do not believe that the Church is supposed to be “One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic” & it sure would be nice if we all got along. Such a belief refutes the words of Christ Himself as the gates of Hades have prevailed over the Church. Instead we believe that the Church is “One, Holy, Catholic & Apostolic” overwhich Hades cannot prevail.

    Some of our words may be the same & some of our differences may be purely semantic, but beyond that we have great theological differences from our understanding resulting from our respective mindsets that cannot be dismissed with the mere wave of the hand. For the EO unity is of the one Faith based in Christ fulfilled by the one Eucharist. For the RC unity is under one man the Pope & unity of Faith is pretty much irrelevant.

    If you think I am wrong, then research the history & compare the theology of the Uniates vs. the RCC. To be “in communion with Rome” all that is required is for the Uniates to commemorate the Pope during Divine Liturgy; otherwise they (the Uniates) are free to believe & practice as they wish. No need to believe in purgatory or the immaculate conception or transubstantiation, the papal claims of infallibility of teaching or the treasury of merits with indulgences. Even the addition of the filioque to the Creed, basically a semantic difference which blew up into a major cause of the Great Schism, is unnecessary. Rome tried to make it obligatory, but the Uniates refused until finally Rome decided that some Orthodox in communion were better than none. Imagine…the filioque was so important that it facilitated the Great Schism, but not so important as to be required for “communion with Rome”! This willingness to settle for mere papal unity vs. unity of Faith is why I chose to become Orthodox over Roman Catholic. No, I did not rely purely on EO sources; I gave the Romans their due through lots of study & reading of RC sources as well.

    • PJ says:


      Father said he doesn’t want Catholic-Orthodox polemic. So I’m going to disengage from this conversation. There’s a lot of interesting work on Catholic ecclesiology that I fear you’ve missed, but this isn’t the time or place to unpack it. Have a great night!

      • PJ says:

        I don’t mean to make assumptions. It’s just that from your response I can see that there are aspects of Catholic ecclesiology that you somewhat misunderstand. For instance, this idea that Catholic unity is built upon “one man.” I certainly didn’t mean to imply you haven’t done your research. But this is just a complicated matter. You might like the work of Louis Bouyer, especially “The Church of God.” Also, Benedict’s ecclesiological work, which is at once Augustinian and eastern-flavored.

      • Rhonda says:

        I did not see Father’s comment about polemic before I posted mine or else I would not have posted. Also, sorry for the omitted /blockquote /bold which put everything in bold type as if I was screaming. I was not & only meant to emphasize certain words, not whole paragraphs…I shall go back to using good old-fashioned ” ” ;-)

        I do study Catholic theology as well as that of Protestant circles. I have close family that are both & I have attended religious services with them. I also have an evangelical brother that is currently in seminary so I stay up-to-date in that arena as well. I am neither anti-Catholic nor anti-Protestant. I just refuse to believe the mantra that all beliefs are equally true & valid as I know better after 38 years of traipsing through more religious denominations than I can possibly remember, even a non-Christian one. If they were we would only have 1 religion on this planet, not 40,000+ (or whatever that number is now).

        I have experience (much study & frequent attendance) in liturgies both East & West. Both are beautiful in their own right, no argument there. Please quit making assumptions about such things as what I have & have not done or read or not read. Much to my husband’s disapproval I have OCD when it comes to buying of high-end books; that’s okay though as he is the same way with high-end barrel racing horses & equestrian equipment ;-) Almost all have been read &/or used for research, another OCD trait which you stimulate (I am thankful BTW!) I am not a cradle Orthodox & traversed far & wide until I found my home on the Orthodox reservation.

        I am EO & you are RC…well & good…peace!

    • Alexander Roman says:

      Dear Rhonda,

      First of all, please do not refer to us Eastern Catholics as “Uniates” – it is a highly pejorative and otherwise offensive term. We don’t refer to Orthodox as “so-called Orthodox” or “Eastern schismatics” – I hope you understand.

      As for the differences between Eastern Catholics and Roman Catholics, while there may be “Orthodox in communion with Rome” types who affirm what you have outlined above, they are the exception to the rule. EC parishes, such as my own, that don’t use the Filioque have dropped it because it is not our tradition, not because we reject it as heretical and as something we have no relation to. I too have studied this matter for more than 25 years and have come to the conclusion that Rome has NEVER said the Spirit proceeds actively from the Son as He does from the Father. Eastern Catholics believe that the Mother of God was always “All Holy” and “Ever Immaculate” while the West’s Immaculate Conception dogma came about because of the Augustinian view of Original Sin. As for Purgatory – the East prays for those who have died so that they may be loosed from their sins etc. And there were Orthodox who understood and accepted the idea of Purgatory (St Peter Mohyla of Kyiv who insisted on keeping this term in his Catechism). There were Orthodox saints like St Dmitri of Rostov who understood and accepted the Immaculate Conception and there were Orthodox brotherhoods of the Immaculate Conception in the 17th and 18th centuries as well whose members took the “bloody vow” to defend the IC to the death.

      It is not that EC’s reject RC doctrines while “pretending” to be in union with Rome – we see this as two different ways of seeing the same Reality based on local theological/canonical traditions.

      Alexander Roman, PhD

      • Rhonda says:

        I just saw your reply & I will be responding to it in a day or so. I am taking an intensive 3-wk. Psychology class with lots of academic work as I prepare to enter grad school in January. I also need time to collect information & resources for my reply so that my response will not be viewed as polemic. For now, please accept my apology for any offense. It was truly unintended.

        I, along with most EO do not use terms such as Uniate or Heterodox in a perjorative manner, for that is not the purpose of such terms which is to show differentiation. Both terms have a common & broad usage in this respect. Uniate for me is to differentiate EO that are in communion with Rome from those EO that are not. The term Heterodox differentiates those that adhere to beliefs other than Orthodox beliefs. I do not believe that Uniates, RCs & Heterodox faithful are heretics &/or schismatics. Such words save typing space & time as well as help readibility. I am aware that some do use these terms in demeaning & insulting fashion. When I see another Orthodox do so, I will take the liberty to “check” them. I also do refrain from labelling others with whom I dialogue with & about as heretics & schismatics. Again, I will check another Orthodox for such labelling, it is unnecessary & uncalled for as such language is not conducive to dialogue.

        For now though, please accept my apology until I can comment further :-)

        • Alexander Roman says:

          Dear Rhonda,

          First of all, all the best in your academic work! I remember how painful my doctoral studies in sociology were and still wonder if I have fully recovered from them by now . . .

          Words have a habit of taking on a life of their own, as you well know. “Uniate” didn’t have the connotation way back when that it does now. Personally, it doesn’t bother me. But I’m Greek Catholic and that is how my Church has always been called. “Uniate” could also refer, as I’m reminded by an Old Rite Orthodox friend, those Old Believers who are united with the Moscow Patriarchate or the “United Believers.” “Uniate” is just something no Eastern Catholic wants to be called. No need to add any further research to the matter (which is doubtless the last thing you need in your busy scholastic life!). No apology needed either, but thank you for your kindness and understanding. Alex

  14. fr john cox says:

    Though it’s a small part of the equation we shouldn’t ignore the fact that our expectations of theology are different. A couple of comments up PJ expresses his dismay at the lack of an Orthodox dogmatic teaching on hell. I on the other hand am unconcerned. Perhaps it’s my simplicity (in the intellectual rather than spiritual sense) coming through but it’s enough for me to know that it is possible to be cut off from God in a state of (possibly eternal?) teeth gnashing. I don’t need to know anymore. The carrot of God’s love and communion is enough for me. I don’t need the stick of details about how bad hell is, or who is going there, or for how long.

  15. Chrissy says:

    I think the Paschal Homily by St. John Chrysostom, is enough for thoughts on my afterlife, “…For the Master is gracious and receives the last even as the first; He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first. He has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one He gives, and to the other He is gracious. He both honors the work and praises the intention.”

  16. PJ says:


    One thing I will say, however: It is simply undeniable that the Orthodox Church lost part of its heritage because of the Schism, inasmuch as its heritage is partially Latin. For instance, the Latin liturgical tradition — which was unique long before “1054” — is almost totally absent from Orthodox ecclesial life. Granted, there are a smattering of “western rite” parishes, but the bulk of Orthodoxy long ago ceased to interact with the Latin liturgical distinctives. The same can be said for Latin theological distinctives. I believe that the key to healing the schism is recognizing that eastern and western Christianity are different but complementary — and that true flourishing will come only through harmonious unity. I hope I’ve come off with the irenic tone I’ve intended. Again, have a good night. God bless!

  17. PJ says:

    (The same can be said for the Catholic Church regarding eastern liturgical and theologian distinctives.)

  18. mary benton says:

    I personally do not think of hell much at all. I pray that God is merciful and I believe that He is – infinitely merciful and loving. He is the “fullness” of my longing – not Orthodoxy or Catholicism (no offense intended to either of our churches, both of which include saints and scoundrels). If we make Him our longing, then I believe we will know the oneness (with God and each other) for which we were created and for which Christ gave Himself.

    • Isaac says:

      Okay, but this is all a focus on what a convinced Christian ought to do. A concern that many people have regarding hell isn’t so much needing to understand what it is exactly so they know what they should do themselves, but because they are worried about parents and siblings and spouses and children that clearly died either in ignorance about God or open enmity with God or so damaged by their short experience on earth that they were in no condition to make a conscious and free decision about God the whole time they lived. There are people within the various Christian traditions who appear to be saying “tough luck” and that not only will these people be in conscious torment for eternity but God, who could choose to stop it at any time, is the one actively causing their torment. That is when the whole question becomes disturbing and not easily laid aside to at least some Christians.

      • mary benton says:

        When I think of those I love or have cared about dying without knowledge or acceptance of Christ, I consider this: could I possibly love them more than God? If I should long for them to know God’s love and peace, could God not? Could He prefer to grant/allow them eternal torment? Not the God I believe in.

        No matter what scripture or Church Fathers anyone quotes, I will not believe in a God who is less loving than I am. How God’s love is manifest to those who are lost is not my business. My business is only to love Him, to trust in His love and pray to be His instrument.

      • Karen says:

        Mary, yes, that’s pretty much where I land as well. Certainly, God loves far more than I can. It gives me great hope and peace.

      • Karen says:

        Very well said, Isaac. That’s precisely what is at issue.

        And, PJ, that passage does indeed speak to this issue, but that doesn’t mean it is any clearer why a Christian sinner whose love for Christ (made manifest in love of neighbor as per Matthew 25) is very imperfect and a “Gentile/unbeliever” sinner whose love for God (also made manifest in love for neighbor–Romans 2 allows that the “unbeliever/Gentile” also sometimes also obeys God speaking through his conscience) is also nevertheless imperfect will have a different fate in the Eschaton. That’s not necessarily what you are implying, but it is exactly what was taught in many of the Evangelical circles I formerly traveled, and especially true of Calvinist schemes. Scripture is clear there is absolutely nobody who merits salvation based upon their obedience to the law of God, because there is nobody who has never sinned. Beyond that, however, we know that God’s desire is that everyone be saved and that He is merciful to all “without partiality”, so what does this mean for those who genuinely (and sincerely), if imperfectly, heeded God’s voice speaking to their conscience, but who never consciously or explicitly embraced Christian faith during their lifetimes (largely because of the accidents of their birth and circumstances, as we see is true for most of the world’s population throughout history)?

        The deeper I look at the motives of my own heart and what has empowered me to “follow Christ” even in the feeble and inadequate way that I now do, the more I see how the ways of God are very hidden and how deep are the mysteries of the workings of His grace. So much so, that there is doubt in my mind that any human in this life can make a fully conscious and informed decision to reject God. It seems to me only the demons were in a position to do that. Even Adam and Eve had to be deceived in order to fall into sin. Their lust played a role, but they were first deceived which is why the Fathers taught that they could be redeemed, while the demons could not. So this leaves a shred of hope that there will be something remaining within every human being, no matter how corrupted and fallen into sin, that will make their repentance possible when they are able to see God for Who He truly is (that is, in the particular judgment).

      • PJ says:

        It seems to me that Romans 2 speaks to this: “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”

      • Marduk says:

        Dear Isaac,

        When I came into Catholicism from Oriental Orthodoxy, I learned about a thing called “invincible ignorance.” In the Catholic understanding of things, the situations you propose (except “enmity with God”) do not necessarily merit hell, but God will judge them according to their works and conscience.

        When a lot of Saints from all Traditions nearly unanimously testify that “few will be saved,” it’s possible they may be referring to glorification before Final Judgment. I do believe in the concept of eternal punishment, but I think and hope very few will be bound for eternal punishment, though very few as well will never go through what Latin Catholics call “temporal punishment” (named “Purgatory” by many, especially Latin, Catholics).


  19. Isaac says:

    I was thinking today that along with there not quite being a definitive Orthodox teaching on hell there isn’t really one on “paradise” or “heaven” as far as that goes. Some Orthodox appear to believe that a person goes to heaven (which is some other, almost Platonic, location) and others believe that there is no heaven or hell until the Final Judgment. Some Orthodox appear to believe in a Dantian cosmology of three stories to reality with heaven on the top floor, the earth on the middle floor, and hell in the basement rather than the idea that this very creation itself will be remade as a “new heavens and new earth.” All that to say that the lack of consensus or the diffusion of theological ignorance among otherwise devout practitioners is probably irrelevant to a discussion of these things in the long run. I think the idea that heaven and hell are essentially the experience of the unmitigated presence of Christ in his glory is simply the right one. It makes sense of scripture and it makes sense of reconciling a loving God with unending torments with fire and undying worms. The alternative is a created hell and that is very problematic for what is says about God. If people feel judged by me not because I am judging them but because my relative virtue makes them feel judged by themselves that is a far cry from me actually actively pointing out their flaws and failings. If God cant’ put an end to sin without the suffering of those who have developed a dependency on sin for their own identity that is a far cry from him punishing people in a created torture chamber for active retribution with no ultimate goal of redemption in mind forever and ever. With all that said, however, most things outside of the Creed can’t be called the official teaching of the Church. Even so, it is the Orthodox view I would share with possible converts if they asked.

    And I agree with Mary’s view that we can’t out love God which is why I tend to believe universalism (with full freedom of each creature in choosing to repent) is probably true. But that is not a view I would convey to a potential convert or just an interested non-Orthodox person as anything more than a hopeful speculation of myself and a few other Orthodox.

    • mary benton says:

      Isaac – you make some interesting points. One question, which goes beyond the scope of this particular post, is what happens when people try to establish a definitive teaching: you end up with Catholicism. :-). (I say this as a Catholic – with a touch of sardonic humor.)

  20. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have returned home from the funeral. I am trying to catch up on the comments over the past several days. In the meantime, I offer this story from the desert fathers for your reflection (or amusement):

    They told about a monk who dwelt on the mountain and spent his days there. Two young men were with him, his disciples, one of whom was lazy about spending time in prayer, nor was there any zeal in that young man’s soul to make his ministry pleasing to the Lord.

    The elder who was his teacher frequently admonished the young man and instructed him to be diligent about praying: and he taught him and said to him: “My son, know that there is nothing worse for a monk than to abandon his prayers; and there is nothing that Satan, the adversary, wants more than for us to stop praying. Beware, my son, lest Satan prove too strong for you in this struggle.”

    The elder exhorted the monk and rebuked him; but he could not reform him nor convert him from his laziness and indolence. While things were at such a pass, the brother died.

    The elder wanted to know what had happened with his disciple and whither he had gone; so he remained in his dwelling as a solitary and afflicted his soul with fasting and prayer and lengthy vigils. When he had prolonged his labors, he asked the Lord to show him what he wanted to know; and the Lord sent him a dream. Asleep, the elder saw in his dream one of the angels.

    The angel took him by the hand and led him into the mansion of the just and into the dwelling place of the saints. The elder marveled at the peace and joy of those residing in these rooms; and the angel said to him, “These are the ones who pleased the Lord with their works; as Christ said in the Gospel, ‘In My Father’s house are many mansions!'”

    Then the angel led the elder into another place where sinners suffered punishment. There, where the elder saw various torments and where there was loud thunder, fear gripped him because of the horror of this terrifying sight.

    The angel, however, said to him, “Fear not and be comforted! You are going to learn about him for whom you afflicted yourself in penance!” So the elder’s heart was comforted and his soul was buoyed up.

    Then he saw a huge cauldron like a broad ark and there was a blazing fire in it and its flames were boiling up. There were men standing in the cauldron; and some were in flames, up to their neck, some up to their chest, some up to the lower part of their belly, and others up to their knees. When he saw them he marveled at them; and then he saw his lazy disciple standing at prayer in the midst of the fire, with flames up to his belly button.

    The elder said to him, “I was your teacher, and didn’t I threaten you with this? I warned you but you weren’t afraid! O, my son, how it grieves me to see what has befallen you!”

    The elder wept; but his disciple said to him, “Abba, don’t be weeping like that, because I can tell you something really true that will cheer you up: I am standing on a bishop’s shoulders!”

    When the elder’s dream was finished he awoke from sleep and praised the Lord mightily.

    (Cited in The Faith of the Early Fathers, III:260)

    It’s no fun to be a bishop.

    And I suspect that many a parish pastor might be tempted to answer the question “What is Orthodox hell?” with the answer: bishops! :)

  21. Claire says:

    Fr. Aidan,

    I am sorry for your family’s loss. Memory eternal.

    Regarding the post and the discussion–in THE DESTINY OF MAN, Berdyaev says some interesting things about the subjectivity vs. the objectivity of hell. He posits that hell is not ontological, but psychological. Here are some quotations:

    Do not imagine the Kingdom of God in too human a way as the victory of the “ good ” over the “ wickcd ”, and the isolation of the “ good ” in a place of light and of the “ wicked ” in a place of darkness. Not to do so presupposes a very radical change in moral actions and valuations. The moral will must be directed in the first place towards universal salvation. ..The “ good ” must take upon themselves the fate of the “ wicked ”, share their destiny and thus further their liberation. I may create hell for myself and, alas, I do too much to create it. But I must not create hell for others, not for a single living being.


    Man’s moral will ought never to aim at relegating any creature to hell or to demand this in the name of justice. It may be possible to admit hell for oneself, because it has a subjective and not an objective existence. I may experience the torments of hell and believe that I deserve them. But it is impossible to admit hell for others or to be reconciled to it, if only because hell cannot be objectified and conceived as a real order of being. It is hard to understand the psychology of pious Christians who calmly accept the fact that their neighbours, friends and relatives will perhaps be damned. I cannot resign myself to the fact that the man with whom I am drinking tea is doomed to eternal torments. If people were morally more sensitive they would direct the whole of their moral will and spirit towards delivering from the torments of hell every being they had ever met in life. It is a mistake to think that this is what people do when they help to develop other men’s moral virtues and to strengthen them in the true faith. The true moral change is a change of attitude towards the “ wicked ” and the doomed, a desire that they too should be saved, i.e. acceptance of their fate for oneself, and readiness to share it. This implies that I cannot seek salvation individually, by my solitary self, and make my way into the Kingdom of God relying on my own merits. Such an interpretation of salvation destroys the unity of the cosmos. Paradise is impossible for me if the people I love, my friends or relatives or mere acquaintances, will be in hell—if Boehme is in hell as a “ heretic ”, Nietzsche as “ an antichrist ”, Goethe as a “ pagan ” and Pushkin as a sinner. Roman Catholics who cannot take a step in their theology without Aristode are ready to admit with perfect complacency that, not being a Christian, Aristotle is burning in hell. All this kind of thing has become impossible for us, and that is a tremendous moral progress. If I owe so much to Aristotle or Nietzsche I must share their fate, take tieir torments upon myself and free them from hell. Moral consciousness began with God’s question, “ Cain, where is thy brother Abel? ” It will end with another question on the part of God: “Abel, where is thy brother Cain? ”

    There was a time when the intimidating idea of hell retained the herd- man within the church ; but now this idea can only hinder people from entering the church. Human consciousness has changed. It is clear to us now that we cannot seek the Kingdom of God and the perfect life out of fear of hell ; that such fear is a morbid emotion robbing our life of moral significance and preventing us from reaching perfection or working for the Kingdom of God. The fear of hell used as a spur to the religious life is a partial experience of hell, entrance into the moment in which hell is revealed. Therefore those who make religious life dependent upon the fear of damnation actually thrust the soul into hell.
    Hell is immanent and subjective through and through, there is nothing transcendental and ontologically real about it. It is the state of being utterly closed in, of having no hope of breaking through to anything transcendent and of escaping from oneself. Hell is the experience of hopelessness, and such an experience is entirely subjective. The rise of hope is a way out.

    A higher and maturer consciousness cannot accept the old-fashioned idea of hell ; but a too light-hearted, sentimentally optimistic rejection of it is equally untenable. Hell unquestionably exists, it is revealed to us in experience, it may be our own lot. But it belongs to time and therefore is temporal. Everything that is in time is temporal. The victory of eternity over time, i.e. the bringing-in of the temporal into eternity, is victory over hell and its powers. Hell is an aeon or an aeon of aeons, as it says in the Gospel, but not eternity. Only those are in hell who have not entered eternity but have remained in time. It is impossible, however, to remain in time for ever : one can only remain in time for a time.


    • Karen says:

      Following up on the quote from Berdyaev, in Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit, Elder Porphyrios (of Greece, reposed in 1991) is quoted as saying:

      “You are unable to be saved alone, if all others are not also saved. It is a mistake for one to pray only for oneself, for one’s own salvation. We must pray for the entire world, so that not one is lost.”

      “I am not afraid of hell and I do not think about Paradise. I only ask God to have mercy on the entire world as well as on me.”

      This is the only approach that my heart can live with. I’m encouraged by this material from Berdyaev, too. Thanks for sharing it.

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thanks, Claire, for sharing these quotations from Berdyaev.

      • Claire says:

        What do you think about his take on things?

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Claire, I hesitate to comment on the passages from Berdyaev, without reading the entirety of The Destiny of Man, or at least the chapter on hell. But I find myself in total agreement with his critique of the easy acceptance of hell, especially hell for others: “It is hard to understand the psychology of pious Christians who calmly accept the fact that their neighbours, friends and relatives will perhaps be damned. I cannot resign myself to the fact that the man with whom I am drinking tea is doomed to eternal torments.” Amen. The horror of hell must never be accepted, much less embraced. The gospel of the resurrection forbids it!

        Hell, of course, exists in man. This, I take it, is what Berdyaev means by the subjective. I know from my experience that hell exists as a terrible possibility for myself. Hence the need for continual prayer and repentance. I am reminded of the story of St Antony the Great:

        “When blessed Antony was praying in his cell, a voice spoke to him, saying, “Antony, you have not yet come to the measure of the tanner who is in Alexandria.” When he heard this, the old man arose and took his stick and hurried into the city. When he had found the tanner, he said to him, “Tell me about your work, for today I have left the desert and come here to see you.” He replied, “I am not aware that I have done anything good. When I get up in the morning, before I sit down to work, I say that the whole of this city, small and great, will go into the Kingdom of God because of their good deeds, while I alone will go into eternal punishment because of my evil deeds. Every evening I repeat the same words and believe them in my heart.” When blessed Antony heard this he said, “My son, you sit in your own house and work well, and you have the peace of the Kingdom of God; but I spend all my time in solitude with no distractions, and I have not come near the measure of such words.”

        I spent today reading Sergius Bulgakov’s discussion of damnation and eternal hell in his The Bride of the Lamb. Though Bulgakov is way above my pay-grade, I do hope to share some of what I have read in a post in the near future. Perhaps you will find Bulgakov of interest.

  22. Claire says:

    Fr. Aidan, Thank you for your response. I will look for Bulgarov, though I’m assuming he’ll be above my pay grade too. As for the tanner in the St. Antony story, I can think of many people for whom it would such a strategy would bring about immediate, even dangerous, despair.

    I’m pondering Berdyaev’s comment that human consciousness has changed. I believe that the former Met. Jonah (not sure what to call him now) also said something along those lines–though I don’t have a citation, it was something about how scare tactics regarding hell don’t work in our time, so we shouldn’t use them.

    Could a change in consciousness (from the way it was at the eras of the fathers) be key to this discussion? So many of the saints seemed to have had no trouble assuming the damnation of the vast majority of humankind (quotations below.) Might the fact that a lot of contemporary people find this unbearable signify that we’re somehow different than they were? And if so, what might this change imply for the way we struggle with theology?

    “.. on the threshing floor few are the grains carried into the barns, but high are the piles of chaff burned with fire.” -Saint Gregory the Great,

    “It is certain that few are saved.” -Saint Augustine

    “Out of one hundred thousand sinners who continue in sin until death, scarcely one will be saved.” -Saint Jerome

    What I am about to tell you is very terrible, yet I will not conceal it from you. Out of this thickly populated city with its thousands of inhabitants not one hundred people will be saved. I even doubt whether there will be as many as that!” -Saint John Chrysostom,

    “I do not speak rashly, but as I feel and think. I do not think that many priests are saved, but that those who perish are far more numerous.” -Saint John Chrysostom

    “Christ’s flock is called “little” (Luke 12:32) in comparison with the greater number of the reprobates.” -Saint Bede the Venerable

    “How few the Elect are may be understood from the multitude being cast out.” -Saint Hilary of Poitiers

    “The majority of men shall not see God, excepting those who live justly, purified by righteousness and by every other virtue.” -Saint Justin Martyr

    “There are a select few who are saved.” -Saint Thomas Aquinas,

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Stay tuned. :)

    • PJ says:

      How can I disavow the reality of hell when such saintly men affirm it with all possible vigor? They are holier than I will ever be!

      And yet I am by nature deeply uncomfortable with the notion of eternal punishment. Especially since most of my family and friends are not Christian. And while some of them lead rotten lives, others are more virtuous than I am.

      The sensibilities of a modern man strain against hell — but should we not bow before the patristic consensus? Who’s to say that we’ve grown more sensitive to the suffering of others — rather than more insensitive to the sinfulness of man and the holiness of the Lord!

  23. joe conder says:

    As a new Orthodox Christian, former western Christian, I guess I am not sure there is as wide a gulf between the traditional “western” view of hell and the prevailing “eastern” viewas is being depicted. I am not sure that hell isn’t both “retributive” and also “God’s love experienced differently”. Even if hell is the latter, that won’t make it any less horrible for those experiencing it, although there seems to be an underlying assumption here that it would be. God’s love is, in one sense, fearsome. I think part of the problem is in our indulgent western culture we think of “love” always primarily in terms of kindness and gentleness. Certainly there is an aspect of that to God’s love, but there is also a demanding, passionate aspect. God’s love is most often depicted in scripture as the love of a passionate man for a woman. Thus, I don’t really understand calling the prevailing eastern view the “optimistic” version as some have done here. I see both visions of hell as fearful, and, again, I’m not sure they are much different. Joe

  24. Pingback: What is Orthodox Hell? | Koinonia

  25. jrmigs says:

    Pardon me for not reading every comment, but perhaps we should look to the iconography in addition to the written/spoken tradition. (someone may have already made this point.

    In virtually every icon (cf. http://percaritatem.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/christ-resurrection-icon.jpg) Christ is depicted standing on or above the broken gates. I am told that since hell is not gated, any who will may leave. Does this entail universalism – not at all. Those who stay, choose to and may continue to do so unto ages of ages.

  26. Rhonda says:

    “I’m trying to work my way through this life serving Christ even though I’m really bad at it.”
    Hey, we all are. There are those we call “Saints”, they were very good at it, although I doubt that any of them would have agreed ;-)

    Purists! Bah! :-(

  27. Hi Fr. Aidan, This is a good post and discussion. I wonder sometimes how wise it is for ANY of us to take Church Fathers’ sermons as “dogmatic assertions”. Sermons in any age are aimed at a specific audience with specific issues in mind. Can a preacher “riff” on a Scriptural image to either put the fear or love of God into his hearers without meaning to be declaring a dogmatization of an aspect of “The Faith”? I think so. Metaphors and images are intended to touch AN aspect of the human experience and motives, some lower and some higher. That is why you cannot take ANY single biblical image whether of Christ’s or St. Paul and create an entire dogmatic structure around it. The primary issue with the current view of hell (at least in my mind) is not so much its eternal nature, nor necessarily that it may have an element of retribution in it, but that it is wrapped up within the penal-substitutionary atonement model in which the only escape is to believe that God killed Jesus instead of you and we’re supposed to love such a god.

    It is reality some people are motivated by fear of punishment and yet that does not make a dogma that God is an eternal tormenter. It just means that the possibility of God being omnipotent enough to do that may get someone to consider their ways. The possibility that I can live in the presence of an omnipotently loving God who stands at the door and begs me to come in to the party but I won’t because of who I have become is also a harrowing hellish possibility that may motivate me to consider my ways. Neither need be understood as a final, all encompassing dogmatic assertion of the state of eternity, but as a universal reality that we WILL stand in some kind of relationship to a God who has loved us enough to die for us in eternity. As others mentioned, no matter what hell really is, we should be afraid of being there.

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thanks for the comment, Steve. You raise an interesting question about how we properly draw doctrine from homilies; but we might also widen the question to include hymns, parables, ascetic counsel, and so forth. I do not know the answer to that question. I don’t even have a good guess. :)

      • Hi Father, Indeed. However, I think the same applies to those sources too. No single Parable or scripture verse provides a comprehensive dogmatic statement. No single troparion, kontakion, stichera or canon verse outlines the entire creedal dogmas, in fact one must know the dogmatic creeds of the Church to properly interpret many of them. Ascetical counsels cannot be generally used as dogmatic teachings because they address human failure and are prescriptive not descriptive for the most part. We’d all agree that no single sentence or source (including scripture verses), no matter how eloquent, explicates fully the creedal dogmas of the Church, however none may flatly contradict them. In general, unless a hymn or source flatly contradicts a dogma it seems that Orthodoxy has a great deal of tolerance for pious play with the images and metaphors and opinions about how things might work or might be explained in a manner to help someone “get” an aspect of the faith.

    • Rhonda says:

      Great comment & thoughts, Steve! Thanks.

  28. I just stumbled upon Fr Ted Bobosh’s blog series on hell and damnation. It begins with the article “Hell, no?” Readers will find this series of interest. The series can also be downloaded here.

  29. Orthodox Ruminations says:

    Reblogged this on Orthodox Ruminations.

  30. Taylor says:

    “It is hardly complimentary to God that we should choose him as an alternative to hell.” —C.S. Lewis

  31. Pingback: Hell | All Along the Watchtower

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