Hell and the Torturous Vision of Christ

“Paradise and hell are the same reality,” declares Fr George Metallinos. This is the central thesis of the now dominant understanding of heaven and hell in contemporary Orthodoxy. “From the moment of His Second Coming, through to all eternity,” Metallinos explains, “all people will be seeing Christ in His uncreated light.” In the end, mankind will be divided into two groups: “those who will behold Christ as paradise (the ‘exceeding good, the radiant’) and those who will be looking upon Christ as hell (‘the all-consuming fire’ of Hebrews 12:29).” Some will see Christ as their salvation and supreme good; others will see Christ as hell and reprobation. Hence it is improper, suggests Metallinos, to speak of heaven either as a reward or hell as a punishment. They are simply “the way that we individually experience the sight of Christ, depending on the condition of our heart.”

In “What is Orthodox Hell?” I raised the question whether this position accurately represents the views of the Church Fathers. It most certainly does not represent the views of the Latin Fathers, but what about the Eastern Fathers? As noted in my article, Irenei Steenberg argues that this construal departs from the patristic witness at four key points:

The biblical and patristic assertions that heaven and hell are places, and different places, must be either ignored or rendered wholly allegorical;

The biblical and patristic assertions that God actively sends the sheep to one side, the goats to the other—and not that they simply end up there by their own measure with God as passive observer—must be either ignored or rendered wholly allegorical;

The biblical and patristic assertions that Gehenna is a place in which sins are actively punished by the demons (i.e. not a place where love is simply experienced as want or separation) must be either ignored or rendered wholly allegorical;

The assertion that God’s love and God’s justice are mutually opposed (which is a false assertion, a deeply un-scriptural assertion) must be maintained, allowing for the exercise of ‘justice’ only if it is identical in form to love. It is quite correct to see God’s justice as His love in nature: i.e. God always acts in the same manner toward creation, which is a manifestation of His loving nature. But the form that this love-in-justice takes in response to sin can be radically different than the form love-in-justice takes in response to righteousness—a view strongly maintained in the Fathers, yet which must be largely abandoned to maintain this view on hell as ‘heaven experienced differently’.

I reference Steenberg’s critique, not because I am in full agreement with him (and I suspect that he would strongly disagree with my own advocacy of the universalism of St Isaac the Syrian), but because I believe it is important for Orthodox theology to be accurate in its reading of Scripture and the Fathers (and indeed in everything). If an Orthodox theologian is going to claim that his view faithfully represents the teachings of the Church Fathers, then it is crucial to demonstrate this accord. Yet as I have read through the articles that advance the popular position on hell, I have been struck by the scarcity of patristic citations, and the ones that are cited often cannot bear the theological weight placed upon them. When I mentioned this to one Orthodox priest, I was told that one must first acquire an Orthodox phronema before one can see the truth of the Orthodox position. Now I am quite sure that I have not yet acquired an Orthodox phronema; but I wouldn’t want to be the person to say that to Archimandrite Irenei, who is both a respected patristics scholar and a traditional Orthodox monk. What happens when two Orthodox phronemas collide?

Thesis: Excepting those who hoped for apocatastasis, the Eastern Fathers teach a qualified retributive understanding of the punishments of hell. I cannot presently demonstrate to you that this statement is true. I think it is, given my own limited research; but I’m happy to be proven wrong. One proof text from St John Chrysostom will suffice for the moment: “For now what takes place is for correction; but then for vengeance” (In Rom. Hom. 3.1). I really do think that the burden of proof is on anyone who wants to argue otherwise, because the theological logic demands that the eternal sufferings of the damned be deserved. If they are not, then God is unjust and is certainly not loving and merciful. St Bonaventure well states the maxim: “God cannot permit any misery to exist in us except as a punishment of sin” (Brev. III.5.3). If the eternal sufferings of the damned are not a divinely-appointed form of retributive punishment, then God is guilty of unjustly inflicting—or at least unjustly permitting, sustaining, and preserving—interminable pain and torment.

Metallinos & Company seem to think that if they can establish that the damned are responsible for their everlasting sufferings because of their spiritual obstinacy and impenitence, then God is off the hook and all is well with the netherworld. But all is not well; all is eternally and most certainly not well.

It really doesn’t matter if one says that God actively punishes the damned for their transgressions or that he passively allows the damned to suffer the consequences of their spiritual condition. God is, after all, God. As Robert W. Jenson notes, “the word ‘God’ marks the point where the metaphysical buck stops.” In his omniscience and foreknowledge, the Creator precisely “knew” that this situation would arise; and not only did he make provision for it, but by his uncreated energies he actively maintains the damned in their torment. If he didn’t, the damned would cease to exist. That is the nettle that must be grasped. All the talk about hell not being a place or hell not being a created reality is simply beside the point (as interesting as these questions are). In the final judgment God ratifies and confirms the eternal condition of spiritual agony. Yes, it is certainly true, in a sense, that “the evils in hell do not have God as their cause, but we cause them” (St Basil of Caesarea, That God is Not the Cause of Evil 3); but this observation hardly begins to adequately address the problem—and it’s hard for me to understand why anyone would think that it does.

The damned suffer, eternally and everlastingly. Their suffering is neither remedial nor educative nor rehabilitative. The damned exist in a condition beyond repentance, beyond alteration or change. Their hearts are irreversibly hardened. They are frozen in their hatred of all things holy. They are constitutionally incapable of responding to the love of their Creator with gratitude and joy. They have lost their freedom to be other than they are. They have no choice but to look at the risen Christ in all of his glory—and suffer. As Metallinos writes:

The damned—those who are hardened at heart, like the Pharisees (Mark 3:5: “in the callousness of their hearts”)—eternally perceive the pyre of hell as their salvation! It is because their condition is not susceptible to any other form of salvation. They too are “finalized”—they reach the end of their road—but only the righteous reach the end as redeemed persons. The others finish in a state of condemnation.

Note the last sentence “The others finish in a state of condemnation.” Condemned by whom? I think we know the answer.

Imagine yourself being tied to the ground. Your head is fixed so that you must always look straight up. Your eyelids are sewn open. As long as the sky is overcast, you are not too terribly uncomfortable. But now imagine the clouds dissipating, and you are exposed to the noonday sun in all of its brilliant brightness. You cannot close or shield your eyes. The light of the sun burns into your consciousness and soul. Under normal circumstances you would quickly go blind, but your eyes are miraculously restored every second. There is no escape, no relief. There is only the burning, consuming, blinding but never blinding rays of the sun. You scream in agony. And this goes on for all eternity.

This, I suggest, is something like the hell proposed by Metallinos. Is this really morally superior to the Latin understanding of the infernal privation of the beatific vision?

Kind-hearted folks may wish to mitigate the suffering of the reprobate. Perhaps, we speculate, they do not really feel pain. Some might even seek refuge in a doctrine of annihilation, which as far as I know has never been seriously promulgated by Eastern writers (though John Zizioulas seems to intimate annihilation when he speaks of the possibility of “metaphysical suicide”)—but surely annihilation is morally preferable to the everlasting torture generated by the vision of the uncreated glory of Christ. Philosopher Jonathan Kvanvig, for example, argues that in irrevocably choosing against communion with God, the damned in fact have chosen a journey into non-being and thus ultimately into annihilation. If the essence of divine love is respecting the choices we have made, would not God grant our request to be relieved of our suffering through extinction? Yet this does not appear to be an Orthodox option. Those who opt for annihilation must find a way to get around the words of Christ: “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 14:41-42).

At this point perhaps someone might be tempted to invoke the famous words of St Isaac the Syrian: “those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love.” Would someone please explain to me what “love” means in this context. Love wills the good of the other. How can inescapable and hopeless anguish be judged as good for anyone? What parent would allow their child, even if he were the most wicked of the wicked, to suffer so? What kind of lover so imposes his presence on his beloved to her unremitting torment and misery? In C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, the damned are at least given the opportunity to escape to the grey town. St Isaac the Syrian would be horrified by the invocation of his words to justify the understanding of hell advanced by Metallinos. When Isaac speaks of the “scourge of love,” he is speaking of a punishment that is reparative and temporary. It is time for Orthodox writers to stop quoting these words if they are unwilling to join Isaac in his universalism.

Love cannot justify the imposition of eternal suffering. Only justice can. If the damned are condemned to look eternally on the glorified Christ and experience only agony, then this can only be justified if they deserve this doom. And this is precisely the position advanced by St John of Damascus:

Now, there are two kinds of abandonment, for there is one by dispensation which is for our instruction and there is another which is absolute rejection. That abandonment is by dispensation and for our instruction which happens for the correction, salvation, and glory of the one who experiences it, or which happens either to give others an object for emulation and imitation, or even for the glory of God. On the other hand, there is absolute abandonment, when God has done everything for a man’s salvation, yet the man of his own accord remains obdurate and uncured, or rather, incorrigible, and is then given over to absolute perdition, like Judas. May God spare and deliver us from this sort of abandonment. …

One should also bear in mind that God antecedently wills all to be saved and to attain to His kingdom. For he did not form us to be chastised, but, because He is good, that we might share in His goodness. Yet, because He is just, He does wish to punish sinners. So, the first is called antecedent will and approval, and it has Him as its cause; the second is called consequent will and permission, and it has ourselves as its cause. This last is twofold: that which is by dispensation and for our instruction and salvation, and that which is abandonment to absolute chastisement, as we have said. These, however, belong to those things which do not depend upon us. As to the things which do depend upon us, the good ones He wills antecedently and approves, whereas the evil, which are essentially bad, He neither wills antecedently nor consequently, but permits them to the free will. (On the Orthodox Faith II.29)

If I am reading him correctly, the Damascene is stating that when God abandons the wicked to eternal torment, he does so not simply out of respect for their free choices but simultaneously to fulfill justice. In the final judgment God rejects incorrigible sinners. He condemns them to absolute perdition. He ceases to will their everlasting salvation. He has done all he can for them–now is the time for retribution and punishment. It’s not that reprobation is an additional punitive measure, a punishment externally imposed upon the sinner, as happens in our criminal justice system. The divine rejection is identical to the divine abandonment. God exacts his just vengeance by refusing to deliver the damned from the spiritual condition they themselves have achieved. Or as St Gregory Palamas writes: “For then it is a time of revelation and punishment, not compassion and mercy; then is a time of revelation of the wrath, the anger, and the just retribution of God. It is a time when ‘the anger of the Lord was kindled against His people, and he stretched out His hand against them and smote them’ (Is. 5,25), as a punishment to the disobedient. Woe to him who falls into the hands of the living God” (quoted in Nikolaos P. Vassiliadis, The Mystery of Death, pp. 509-510).

(Go to “Is Repentance Possible After Death?”; for subsequent reflection on this theme go to: “Orthodoxy and the Damnation of the Damned“)

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43 Responses to Hell and the Torturous Vision of Christ

  1. An excellent summation of the issues involved, Father.

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  2. sorqaqtani says:

    Consider the possibility that suffering serves multiple purposes for living beings – it can be therapeutic (as the authors you cite talk about) but it can also be an opportunity for others to show compassion. (I’m not sure how we would ever show our love for one another if there were no suffering – what could we possibly need from each other?) So, the purpose of suffering in hell could be to elicit compassion, though the parable of Dives & Lazarus seems to plainly contradict this line of thinking.
    The point is, perhaps the suffering of those in hell serves a purpose other than to benefit those individual souls in a therapeutic way, perhaps the benefit is to others. This is repulsive to the western, individualistic way of thinking about responsibility and consequence, but the truth is, among the living, that our actions affect each other, and we both suffer and experience blessings due to others’ choices.
    Which yields another hypothesis: those in hell are damned by the judgments of the living, and the torments of hell last only as long as we resist forgiving them.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you for your interesting comment. I was hoping that it might generate some discussion, but it appears to have been overlooked. A couple of thoughts:

      (1) “The point is, perhaps the suffering of those in hell serves a purpose other than to benefit those individual souls in a therapeutic way, perhaps the benefit is to others.”

      I think this only works if Gehenna is temporary. But if it is eternal, then it’s hard to accept as morally permissible. This is getting very close to the Calvinist position in which God predestines some for his glory or to serve as a deterrence to sin. It also raises the question: If the damned eternally suffer, how does their suffering not diminish the bliss of the saved? Some theologians have even theorized that those in heaven rejoice in the just sufferings of the reprobate.

      (2) “Which yields another hypothesis: those in hell are damned by the judgments of the living, and the torments of hell last only as long as we resist forgiving them.”

      If I am refusing to forgive the damned, am I not damned?

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      • sorqaqtani says:

        >If I am refusing to forgive the damned, am I not damned?
        such a one is self-condemned?
        If the damned are held in hell by their own condemnation, their grudges against those who cannot forgive them or those whom they cannot forgive, this is a circular paradox worthy of Orthodoxy, and makes our prayers for them all the more important.
        I don’t really think time markers like “temporary” or “permanent” have meaning for the time-out-of-time that is post-eschaton. I think “eternity” is so far from what we see as “time” that it makes as much sense to talk about its duration as it does to talk about marriage of post-resurrection bodies. Whether heaven/hell is permanent or mutable, whatever that might mean in the time-after-time, I’m happy to put in that category of mysteries that we don’t best get at by logical argument, but rather discuss in terms of poetry.
        Rejoicing in the suffering of anyone is gross.

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  3. Some will see Christ as their salvation and supreme good; others will see Christ as hell and reprobation. Hence it is improper, suggests Metallinos, to speak of heaven either as a reward or hell as a punishment. They are simply “the way that we individually experience the sight of Christ, depending on the condition of our heart.”

    Patristic exegesis aside, this is where the problem is. I agree with the premise, but the conclusion does not follow. It only follows with the addition of a suppressed premise: i.e., that reward and punishment are extrinsic to what’s being rewarded or punished, and thus are externally imposed. But that would be false. The reward or punishment is, precisely, the natural consequence of the choices made by the one being rewarded or punished.

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    • That conclusion (The reward or punishment is, precisely, the natural consequence of the choices made by the one being rewarded or punished), of course, is precisely that which is being addressed here. As, Fr. Aidan says, vide supra, “It really doesn’t matter if one says that God actively punishes the damned for their transgressions or that he passively allows the damned to suffer the consequences of their spiritual condition. God is, after all, God. As Robert W. Jenson notes, “the word ‘God’ marks the point where the metaphysical buck stops.” In his omniscience and foreknowledge, the Creator precisely “knew” that this situation would arise; and not only did he make provision for it, but by his uncreated energies he actively maintains the damned in their torment. If he didn’t, the damned would cease to exist. That is the nettle that must be grasped. All the talk about hell not being a place or hell not being a created reality is simply beside the point (as interesting as these questions are). In the final judgment God ratifies and confirms the eternal condition of spiritual agony.”

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I suspect that Metallinos & Company are simply unaware how very “modern” their construals of hell and damnation are. During the past century both Protestant and Catholic theologians have sought to eliminate the retributive dimension of damnation, focusing instead on damnation as self-chosen rejection of God. C. S. Lewis is perhaps the most notable, and influential, example. This is one reason why I am skeptical of the claim that the Metallinosian model accurately represents patristic teaching. I suspect that contemporary Orthodox theologians have been more influenced by modern Western developments than they care to admit. And I say this as one who is very sympathetic to these developments. I’m just about prepared now to launch a campaign to canonize Lewis as an Orthodox saint. 🙂

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      • Very true. It has long been my contention that what (for the sake of a good label) is here called the ‘Metallinosian model’ is very much the product of a modern and largely Western trend toward, well, let’s call it anti-retributivism (for the sake of another good label – can’t have too many of ’em :-/ ). And I agree, that manner of thinking has bled deeply into Eastern treatments of the subject, particularly English-language ones, and that most Orthodox who espouse it don’t really want to admit it. It is refreshing to see that you do so, especially since you are sympathetic to the anti-retributive view. And I suppose that it’s also kind of difficult for some to examine the idea that they might be simply trading one “Western pseudomorphosis” for another. But I digress.

        The really salient point here that you have made, as far as I am understanding it, is this: the anti-retributive position opens up a whole question of the lovingkindness of an omnipotent God who “allows” those creatures of his who have willfully rejected him to writhe eternally in undying agony where their worm dieth not. The only way that you are seeing to get out of such a dilemma is to adopt the universalism of St. Isaac of Nineveh, et al.; that position, however, is also problemmatic vis-a-vis the consensus patrum, which is more-or-less expressed by the Palamas quote in your conclusion.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Ephrem, you are absolutely right. I do find the “majority” report, whether Eastern or Western, morally unacceptable, unpreachable, and, if I may be so bold, contrary to the good news of Jesus Christ. As you have guessed, I am critical of the popular Orthodox account of hell, exemplified in Metallinos, because it blithely accepts eternal torment (in the name of self-determinism and freedom of choice), while at the same time violently criticizing Western construals because of their retributivism. Both affirm divinely sanctioned, if not divinely imposed, suffering that is destructive, pointless, and hopeless. Both are in the same camp, and to both St Isaac would say, ” A plague a’ both your houses!”

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  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Michael, would you mind reading (and perhaps re-reading) the passage from St John of Damascus and exegete it for me. I am somewhat confused as to where the divine act of damnation fits into his scheme. Clearly it does not belong to God’s antecedent will, so it must belong to his consequent will, right? But right after speaking of the consequent will, he then writes “These, however, belong to those things which do not depend upon us”–and I’m confused by this.

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  5. My hunch, as a non-expert in patristic exegesis, is that St. John is speaking of the overall, divine economy of salvation. That doesn’t depend on us; what depends on us is the question whether our participation in that economy will ultimately redound to our happiness or to our misery. From that point of view, the divine act of damnation is simply the making explicit of what we have brought about by our choices.

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  6. Isaac says:

    If only those who were in the Church were raised on the last day this would make more sense of these questions. But the resurrection of all of humanity immediately leads to all kinds of questions regarding what happens to people who are ignorant of Christ, or at enmity with Christ and their fellow humans. If some people will choose to always reject God forever then the annihilationist models whereby the damned are no longer human but rather “remains” (to quote CS Lewis) makes far more sense than a conscious and unending state of active punishment on the part of God, whether this is consciously retributive or merely the accidental effects of “getting too close to the sun.” I happen to think that St. Isaac (and with him the very similar beliefs of George MacDonald) are right on both accounts in the sense that the torment experienced by those in Gehenna is the love of God, but I also agree with the idea that if this experience did not eventually have an end then it would be a form of cruelty or effectively a form of retribution not much better (and perhaps even worse) than the most merciless views of Bible-only American fundamentalists.

    If the universalist view is wrong then I would favor the annihilationist view that a portion of humanity that is raised nevertheless experiences a “second death” and has an existence that is no longer conscious or human, effectively bringing and end to both suffering and sin (but also effectively thwarting God’s desire that all be saved). The only other apparent alternative (some form of active and endless torment) does not appear to make sense of the life and teachings of Jesus or ring true with the idea that “God is love.”

    As an aside, the writings of CS Lewis are the reason I eventually converted to Orthodoxy five years ago. It is kind of funny that a non-Orthodox writer would do that. Interestingly, I find his mentor George Macdonald to be far more of an “honorary Orthodox” in light of his sermons and other writings, but I didn’t know them well back then, except in the sense that they pervaded the thought and work of Lewis.

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    • Dana Ames says:

      Isaac, it is another Anglican, N.T. Wright, whose “Christian Origins” series led me to the doors of the Orthodox Church. Wright also subscribes to Lewis’ view that “the damned” are on the road to becoming “remains,” something sub-human. To my knowledge, he has never said he is an annihilationist, but ISTM that is where his & Lewis’ though ultimately lead. Can’t go there, either…

      Thanks for your comments. I’m sitting at that little corner of the table with St Isaac & St Gregory of Nyssa, Dame Julian and Fr Aidan!

      Thank you for sharing on this blog, Fr Aidan. Christ is risen!
      Dana

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Isaac and Dana (and others), you may find of interest this new essay by Thomas Talbott: “Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought.”

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      • Isaac says:

        Thanks Fr. Aidan. I have converted it to .pdf and sent it to my kindle for reading this evening. I have the book on universalism that starts with Talbott’s essay, but haven’t read this new entry.

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  7. Marc says:

    We know that the intermediate state of Sheol/Hades can mean remedial punishment/treatment for those who repose outside of the Church. Our Orthodox Dogma of the Resurrection, and the Lord Jesus Christ’s Harrowing of Hades confirms that all will hear the true Gospel and most will respond in repentance to any remedial punishment received (see 1 Peter 3:18-20 and the Church Icon of Christ pulling Adam and Eve out of Hades). Because there is no consensus of the Church Fathers concerning the nature of the Lake of Fire (Gehenna), perhaps we should give more weight to what the Holy Scriptures have to say as our best guidance. First the Scriptures tell us that the Lake of Fire is prepared for the devil and demons, not human beings (See Matthew 25:41). Next consider that Ezekiel 28:13-19 strongly suggests that the devil and demons will be annihilated. Finally consider John 3:16 and Matthew 10:28 to understand that human beings are also subject to annihilation. We must remember that the concept of natural immortality of the soul that was fully part of the Platonic and pagan philosophies of the Greco-Roman world likey influenced many of the early Christians. The concept of natural immortality seems awful close to Satan’s first lie, “you will not surely die.” Also the concept of eternal torment seems to work to Satan’s purposes to distort God’s character. Many have turned away from what they believed to be a vindictive and unjust God who would torment people for all eternity.

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    • Isaac says:

      I don’t really disagree with anything you write here. I think a strong biblical case can be made for annihilationism as well as for universalism (and as far as that goes for eternal and conscious retributive punishment in hell). I have always believed that Christ “preaching to those in prison” extended to all humans past and present ever since I read that thought in the writings of CS Lewis, and Met. Alfeyev’s book on the subject has only made that conviction stronger. I think an Orthodox Christian can safely claim that no person experiences Gehenna due to ignorance of the Gospel. But I still don’t see a reason to bring the damned into a “resurrection of judgment” if they will be shortly destroyed in the Lake of Fire unless there is something about the nature of humanity itself that requires raising it up like a single organism (after which the pruning takes place).

      I have certainly met a fair number of people who object to Christianity on the basis that they believe it is simply the Christian teaching that God will torture most people in hell forever for the most trivial and arbitrary of reasons. And of course the people who taught them all thought they were merely being faithful to scripture.

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      • Marc says:

        In the New Creation God’s presence will be fully manifested so evil can no longer exist. We know human beings are capable of repentance and reconcilliation, but we have no revelation to suggest Satan and the demons are anything other than evil. My conjecture is that Satan and the demons have been under death sentence since their fall and whether they are joined by any human beings remains to be seen. It maybe that as St. Isaac asserts, repentance is still possible after entering the Lake of Fire. If this is true, then perhaps all human beings will be saved and given the gift of immortality

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  8. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    One of my readers sent me a passage from the 13th century Book of the Bee. I thought I would pass it on to the general readership:

    SOME of the Fathers terrify us beyond our strength and throw us into despair; and their opinion is well adapted to the simple-minded and trangressors of the law. Others of them encourage us and bid us rely upon Divine mercy; and their opinions are suitable and adapted to the perfect and those of settled minds and the pious. In the ‘Book of Memorials’ it is thus written: ‘This world is the world of repentance, but the world which is to come is the world of retribution. As in this world repentance saves until the last breath, so in the world to come justice exacts to the uttermost farthing. And as it is impossible to see here strict justice unmingled with mercy, so it is impossible to find there strict justice mingled with mercy.’ Mâr Isaac says thus: ‘Those who are to be scourged in Gehenna will be tortured with stripes of love; they who feel that they have sinned against love will suffer harder and more severe pangs from love than the pain that springs from fear.’ Again he says: ‘The recompense of sinners will be this: the resurrection itself will be their recompense instead of the recompense of justice; and at the last He will clothe those bodies which have trodden down His laws with the glory of perfection. This act of grace to us after we have sinned is greater than that which, when we were not, brought our nature into being.’ Again he says: ‘In the world which is to come grace will be the judge and not justice.’ Mâr Theodore the Expositor says: ‘Those who have here chosen fair things will receive in the world to come the pleasure of good things with praises; but the wicked who have turned aside to evil things all their life, when they are become ordered in their minds by penalties and the fear that springs from them, and choose good things, and learn how much they have sinned by having persevered in evil things and not in good things, and by means of these things receive the knowledge of the highest doctrine of the fear of God, and become instructed to lay hold of it with a good will, will be deemed worthy of the happiness of the Divine liberality. For He would never have said, “Until thou payest the uttermost farthing,” unless it had been possible for us to be freed from our sins through having atoned for them by paying the penalty; neither would He have said, “he shall be beaten with many stripes,” or “he shall be beaten with few stripes,” unless it were that the penalties, being meted out according to the sins, should finally come to an end.’ These things the Expositor has handed down in his books clearly and distinctly.

    So also the blessed Diodorus, who says in the ‘Book of the Dispensation1:’ ‘A lasting reward, which is worthy of the justice of the Giver, is laid up for the good, in return for their labours; and torment for sinners, but not everlasting, that the immortality which is prepared for them may not be worthless. They must however be tormented for a short time, as they deserve, in proportion to the measure of their iniquity and wickedness, according to the amount of the wickedness of their deeds. This they will have to bear, that they suffer for a short time; but immortal and unending happiness is prepared for them. If it be then that the rewards of good deeds are as great (in proportion to them) as the times of the immortality which are prepared for them are longer than the times of the limited contests which take place in this world, the torments for many and great sins must be very much less than the greatness of mercy. So then it is not for the good only that the grace of the resurrection from the dead is intended, but also for the wicked; for the grace of God greatly honours the good, but chastises the wicked sparingly.’

    Again he says: ‘God pours out the wages of reward beyond the measure of the labours (wrought), and in the abundance of His goodness He lessens and diminishes the penalty of those who are to be tormented, and in His mercy He shortens and reduces the length of the time. But even thus He does not punish the whole time according to (the length of) the time of folly, seeing that He requites them far less than they deserve, just as He does the good beyond the measure and period (of their deserts); for the reward is everlasting. It has not been revealed whether the goodness of God wishes to punish without ceasing the blameworthy who have been found guilty of evil deeds (or not), as we have already said before. * * * * * * * * * * * * * *3 But if punishment is to be weighed out according to sin, not even so would punishment be endless. For as regards that which is said in the Gospel, ‘These shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal4;’ this word ‘eternal’ (le-`âlam) is not definite: for if it be not so, how did Peter say to our Lord, ‘Thou shalt never wash my feet5,’ and yet He washed him? And of Babylon He said, ‘No man shall dwell therein for ever and ever6,’ and behold many generations dwell therein. In the ‘Book of Memorials’ he says: ‘I hold what the most celebrated of the holy Fathers say, that He cuts off a little from much. The penalty of Gehenna is a man’s mind; for the punishment there is of two kinds, that of the body and that of the mind. That of the body is perhaps in proportion to the degree of sin, and He lessens and diminishes its duration; but that of the mind is for ever, and the judgment is for ever.’ But in the New Testament le-`âlam is not without end. To Him be glory and dominion and praise and exaltation and honour for ever and ever. Amen and Amen.

    Perhaps it is possible to hold out the hope of universal salvation, even while holding a retributive understanding of divine justice, as long as the suffering inflicted is of a finite, limited nature. But the problem I see here is that it divorces the inflicted suffering from the conversion of the will. Once the punishment ends, it ends. If the sinner remains impenitent, now what?

    My thanks to the reader who sent me the above citation.

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  9. StephenUSA says:

    Why all the fuss? Isn’t it all pretty clear from Our Lord’s own words regarding life after death, glory vs pain? Such as that of Lazarus and the rich man. One drop of water was all the rich man asked for in the afterlife, and it was denied him. Sounds permanent, sounds serious, sounds painful, sounds real, sounds adult. Or straining’s camels through needle eyes? Dude, all that is true. The real question is, why do I in my sloth not take up monastic vows and perpetually ask forgiveness? Cause this religion is so damn hard. I probably shouldn’t even call myself Christian anymore. Just slacker.

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    • Isaac says:

      I’ve never heard a convincing argument that the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus refers to the final Judgment of humanity vs. an intermediate state after death or simply works on the level of an object lesson. A man does come back from the dead (a few if you count those running around Jerusalem) and a man does apparently bridge the abyss. I think the parable could refer to the final destiny of humanity,but so could the business about paying the uttermost farthing.

      Why all the fuss? Because ideas about hell cause deep spiritual wounds in people. Because the nature of hell reflects the nature of God and people want to know that they are not following and worshiping a cosmic tyrant. Finally, because many, many people have given up on following Christ because they find the teachings on hell they were exposed to so revolting they could not maintain their integrity by keeping both things.

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      • StephenUSA says:

        Oh, I meant why all the fuss about wondering what Hell might be like. It seems to me that Our Lord said things about Hell which we might to do well to consider at face value. For if indeed they are as He said, it’s pretty damn scary and pretty darn hard to avoid. But not impossible, of course. That it is hard doesn’t make God a cosmic tyrant; to me it gives Christianity real meant, none of this modern, “Hey, do whatever you want, God’s mercy in the end will take care of you.” Which renders our free will and participation in His activity mute. Which ain’t what I always understood the Orthodox way to be. Granted, toll-houses had it deficiencies, but it erred on the side of reality.

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  10. mary benton says:

    sorqaqtani’s comment is indeed fascinating, “another hypothesis: those in hell are damned by the judgments of the living, and the torments of hell last only as long as we resist forgiving them.”

    Another concept, though admittedly not supported by any Scripture or Fathers (East or West), is based on C.S. Lewis’s “Out of the Silent Planet” where he wrote of the occasional “bent” hnau as being “unbodied”. Perhaps the truly unrepentant, having misused their free will, are “unsouled” and the rest of their essence is “recycled” (just as our human bodies, when permitted to decay, become the fertilizer for more and different life). Conscious torment would not be eternal – just for the moment of realization that they are truly finite (the resistance of this realization being the foundation of sin, i.e. wanting to be god) – and nothing is wasted.

    I actually like sorqaqtani’s hypothesis better than my own. My point in posting it is that we cannot know the mind of God or understand His love and justice. Yet we can trust it to be better than anything we can imagine or hope for.

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  11. dino says:

    sorqaqtani’s comment reminded me of something…
    Elder Paisios’ metaphor came to mind:

    In Hell there is a gigantic table at the centre of which lies a huge Chalice containing the most desirable ever drink, the most desirable ever Light (etc etc…) All who sit around this table have a gigantic ladle attached to their hand. But they are unbelievably miserable and utterly desperate: No matter how hard they try, they know the ladle is too long to ever reach their own mouth and they are in the most unbearable darkness, alone and tormented by dryness.

    In Paradise the situation looks similar. People around the same enormous table, the same immeasurably long ladles attached, but with one key difference: They are not trapped inside that “enclosement” of the Self, through thinking of the Other first, they enjoy the ‘First Commandment’ (they enjoy the Light and Love and that quenching of their thirst from that “Chalice”) through the ‘Second Commandment’ by feeding each other lovingly…

    The title of Met. J. Zizioulas’ most famous work, “Being as Communion“, is (in my mind), a key notion to an Orthodox ‘phronema’ on Heaven and Hell, (no matter how various Fathers interpret these at times).
    What I mean to say is that one’s “enclosement” inside of his ego (one’s inability to relate to God and to any other, through various degrees of egocentricity) is his degree of Hell.
    If I am my god, and this Lie has become my mode of being, God cannot be seen as my God or my heaven, and perhaps the fact that He actually is, makes things worse for those who desire the Truth to be a Lie and the Lie to be the Truth, as Sartre said: “others are my Hell”… (and vice versa of course)…

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  12. William says:

    A couple of brief points that might be worth making (might not, too), and I’ll try not to elaborate on them much:

    1) It seems to me that most people I’ve heard argue against God being “retributive” are not using that word in the sense that you seem to be getting at in the paragraph where you quote Robert W. Jensen. It seems that most who oppose calling God “retributive” are specifically trying to avoid the suggestion that God has to balance some scales or that he is vindictive or vengeful. That seems to be the main point such people are trying to make.

    2) The “hell is heaven experienced differently” viewpoint is not homogenous among all the people who espouse it. I’ve heard it explained in a variety of ways that aren’t always compatible with each other. Related to this, it seems to me to be a bit inaccurate to write it off as some Western-influence modern notion. I’ve read things that seem to support this view (or a version of this view) in Symeon the New Theologian and Maximus the Confessor and others (and Symeon quotes St. John Chrysostom at one point to outline his own view). It’s also hard for me to easily consider it a “minority report” because, though the number of writers espousing this viewpoint may be few, they are particularly influential writers who have been held up as exemplars by a majority, including by a majority of those who never left us writings to clue us in on their views of these matters.

    Sorry for not going into more detail. I only have a moment to dash out these points, but I’d be interested if anyone found them worth commenting on.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thanks, William, for your two comments. Let me briefly reply to the second. I’d love to see a strong patristic case for the “hell is heaven experienced differently” position. I just don’t think that the advocates of this position have done so yet. I have no problem with someone taking St Maximus or St Symeon (or the two of them together) and saying, I’m going to run with them and propose their understanding as normative for Orthodoxy; but I also believe that one then needs to look at the entirety of their writings to consider everything they have to say about damnation, hell, retribution, and the final judgment–and this has not been done, not by a long-shot (or if it has been done, it’s not available in English). What one finds instead is a few patristic citations, perhaps coupled with an appeal to infallible mystical authority. The latter particularly annoys me, because it prematurely closes the research that needs to be done and the debate that needs to be had.

      Has the “hell is heaven experienced differently” been influenced by modern Western reflection? That is an interesting question, and I do not know the answer. It is certainly been influenced by the West in one important way–namely, as a polemic against the West. This, I suggest, is the reason why the exponents of the position seem incapable of presenting the “Western” understanding of hell (and there is no one Western understanding of hell) in an accurate and honest way. I hope it is clear that I am no fan of the traditional punitive model of damnation, and so I have no problems with anyone critiquing it. But that critique needs to be grounded on an accurate and careful reading of key Western theologians. Instead, we are presented with caricatures.

      Perhaps even more importantly, Metallinos & Co. need to acknowledge that the punitive model no longer reigns in Catholicism or mainstream Protestantism. The Western critique of the punitive model has been withering over the past hundred years or longer. The traditional model has been supplanted by what has been called the free-will model, which means that the difference between the Metallinosian construal of hell and the now popular Western construals of hell is very small, if not nonexistent. Consider, for example, this quotation from the popular Catholic writer Peter Kreeft:

      Since God is love, since love is the essence of the divine life, the consequence of loss of this life is loss of love. … Though the damned do not love God, God loves them, and this is their torture. The very fires of Hell are made of the love of God! Love received by one who only wants to hate and fight thwarts his deepest want and is therefore torture. If God could stop loving the damned, Hell would cease to be pure torture. If the sun could stop shining, lovers of the dark would no longer be tortured by it. But the sun could sooner cease to shine than God cease to be God. … The lovelessness of the damned blinds them to the light of glory in which they stand, the glory of God’s fire. God is in the fire that to them is Hell. God is in Hell (“If I make my bed in Hell, Thou art there” [Ps 139:8]) but the damned do not know Him. (Every Thing You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven, pp. 233-235)

      Egads, Kreeft sounds like he is channeling St Isaac! But the decisive influence on Kreeft is not Orthodox writers (I doubt he’s read any) but C. S. Lewis; and Lewis’s writings date back to the 40s.

      As I said, the free-will model of hell has become the dominant model in both Catholicism and mainline Protestantism, but name just one Orthodox theologian or apologist who has acknowledged this. Romanides grew up in the U.S. Did he never read Lewis? Did he never read any of the Western critiques of the retributive model? Is it not possible that he “breathed” in these critiques when he was at Yale? Do you not find it curious that the “hell is heaven experienced differently” position gets developed at the same time that Lewis, Barth, Rahner, Balthasar, Ratzinger, Moltmann and a host of other Western theologians are advancing their own critiques of the retributive model of hell? In any case Metallinos & Co. need to do a lot more work to persuade me that their position repristinates the consensual teaching of the Eastern Fathers. And they need to jettison the anti-Western polemic.

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      • Isaac says:

        I’ve heard Kreeft refer to “an Orthodox monk” when describing the love of God as the source of the torture of those in hell idea. My impression is that he has done very little reading of Orthodox writers, but has at least done a superficial gloss because he will occasionally mention Orthodox perspectives in his various lectures.

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  13. Dan S. says:

    Maybe I am all wrong here, but here it goes.

    I have come to understand the love of God the Father through the experience of my own Fatherhood. I am the daughter of 2 girls that my wife and I have adopted from China. They are the apple of my eye. I love them so much that I have never thought anyone was capable of loving another so much. I would do anything for them, give anything for them. They are my very life, my joy my happiness. It is in them that I see Christ’s tender love. They have been my experience of God’s love, and it is from this paradigm that my image of God’s love has emerged (is still yet emerging) (cf Eph 3:14-15 Douay-Rheims).

    Now, maybe that’s a bad way to do theology, from a subjective theological reflection such as this.
    But how can God’s love for us be any less than the love I have for my children. In fact, I think it is safe to say that my love is but a miniscule part of the totality of God’s love for us, His children. My love is but a speck of sand in the vastness of God’s love for us. He would do anything, give anything, sacrifice anything, for us, wouldn’t He?

    I don’t mean to mitigate free-will here, but I can never fathom retribution upon my girls. I could never fathom punitive punishment for my love is unconditional. How can God’s perfect love be any less.

    That is why so much of this just doesn’t make sense, deep down in my heart. Just as I could never put my children in everlasting agony, how could the Father?

    Maybe this is all wrong. I’m no theologian. But I know the depth of my love for my girls.
    It just doesn’t make sense in the knowledge of my heart.

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    • dino says:

      That’s certainly part of the reason why F. Metalinos and co. struggle to put across the importance of Man’s interpretation of God’s love (which is Paradise par excellence) as Hell…
      Most ascetical Fathers seem to come to an understanding of the fact that we have this infinitely huge gamut of interpretation of all being, all the way from hell to heaven, from completely self-centred and Grace-less to the opposite

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  14. PJ says:

    I’ve always pictured the resurrection to be too … physical, corporeal, material … to support the idea that all humans are experiencing the same phenomenon in different ways. Are the saints going to walk around the New Jerusalem, entranced by the light of Christ, only to stumble upon the damned cringing in alleyways? Sounds rather … this worldly. Perhaps my imagining of the “new heavens and new earth” is simplistic. This is the same problem I have with the classic Catholic explanation that “heaven” is the vision of God. It seems to me that if we are raised in bodies, we will be doing a lot more than simply gazing at God — or else why would we need our whole body? Now perhaps we will “see” God in everything … but still.

    As I’ve said before, my major problem with universalism is the fact that, if true, the Church has been hideously and horrendously wrong about the very nature of God. For a God who allows eternal punishment is very different from a God who restores all His creations to glory. It seems that acceptance of universalism would also necessitate a rejection of the Church as the pillar and ground of truth. Let’s not fool ourselves: If she can err on such a grave matter, what else can she err about? Abortion? Homosexual marriage? The nature of the Eucharist? Predestination? Etc.

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    • Marc says:

      Regarding your point concerning Church dogma, I am unaware that the Orthodox Church has a dogma regarding the nature of the Lake of Fire. There are certainly a lot of opinions on the matter, but I don’t believe a dogma exists. The Orthodox dogma regarding the intermediate state is defined in the teaching on the Harrowing of Hades. Because of the belief that salvation can be found after death, the Orthodox tend to be more hopeful regarding the Last Judgment.

      As to the nature of the Resurrection, It is often overlooked that there is a new earth as well as the New Jerusalem. It is very likely that we will engage in creative and productive activities on the new earth, as well as worship God in the New Jerusalem.

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  15. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I came across the following citation from St Maximus the Confessor. As will be clear, it is germane to the topic of my article:

    What is more wretched and oppressive than anything else, to speak truly–and if it makes me grieve just to mention it, then how much worse to suffer it (have mercy, O Christ, and save us from this pain!)–is separation from God and his holy powers, and belonging to the devil and the evil demons, a state which lasts forever, without any prospect of our ever being liberated from this dire situation. … And more punishing, more severe than any situation. … And more punishing, more severe than any penalty is to be joined forever with those who hate and are hated–even apart from torture, and all the more with it–and to be separated from the one who loves and is loved. (Letter 1; PG 91, 389A-B; quoted in Frederick W. Norris, “Universal Salvation in Origen and Maximus,” in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, p. 71)

    Note that the principal metaphor St Maximus uses for hell is one of separation from God. It is this separation that is the principal punishment of hell. I think the citation may also support a retributive understanding of eternal punishment. Are there tortures above and beyond the separation from God? What are they?

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    • dino says:

      Based on the notion of Hell being rooted in a being’s (whether we are talking of a human or a demon) freedom, we can certainly say this about the experience of hell -in this life (as for the afterlife, I can only speculate in my delusion):

      Hell -at least the Hell that can be experienced in this life at rare occasions, (and which is far more often than not a most edifying lesson)- is an experience of unbearable isolation, of total separation and blackness, but, (based on our freedom of choice) must have at its root, as its cause, a cultivation of “ME” as the ‘one and only god’, and inevitably this leads to an interpretation of all “others” as a problem to my unsatisfiable persona.
      The

      “tortures above and beyond the separation from God”

      in my understanding, are the terror of realising that making little ‘me’ a god -in my preposterous and unquenchable pride-, makes the actual Emperor of pride (the devil), my real god and master!, this encounter is the worst hell for a man that has not come to know God.
      However, the ascetic who has reached a prior knowledge of God, and a contempt of himself and of the tribulations that satan can unleash on him – after long years of experience- is pained even more deeply by the separation from God and His grace (due to pride or due to an other cause perhaps) than from the terror of encountering the Enemy face to face… This is a very very rare individual indeed though. I would say that Saint Silouan, Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Elder Porphyrios, and Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra are some examples of persons (of our recent years) that would fall in that rare category.

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    • Marc says:

      If the energies of God are required to exist, then complete separation from God can only mean annihilation.

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  16. dino says:

    Indeed Marc, but at the same time it is the subjective experience of total separation we are alluding to here, the individual interpretation.
    This reminds me of what Elder Sophrony once said, that the dark and torturous hades of total annihilation looming over you, horrible though it feels, can seem like a paradisial salvation once you experience the far worse state of total despair (subjectively) totally separated from God.
    Please do keep in mind that we are talking about experiences in this, and not the next life though!

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  17. Pingback: What is Orthodox Hell? | Koinonia

  18. Jeremy says:

    “If the eternal sufferings of the damned are not a divinely-appointed form of retributive punishment, then God is guilty of unjustly inflicting—or at least unjustly permitting, sustaining, and preserving—interminable pain and torment.”

    Not necessarily. It seems to me that Metallinos’ model of hell does not pose the moral problem you attribute to it, at least not in the form that I understand it. My conception of hell (though admittedly formed by non-scholarly Orthodox writings and on ideas taken from C.S. Lewis) is that the damned experience the light of God’s presence burning in them as fire due to their rejection of God, and yes this lasts for eternity. But here’s the thing: they could at any moment repent and accept the grace of god, and instantly their torment would turn to joy. That is, no one is stopping them from repenting, only their own stubbornness, although of course it is true they will persist in their stubbornness forever. In other words free will is still operating, therefore it is not God who permits, sustains, and preserves their pain but they themselves.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you for your comment, Jeremy. It forced me to go back and take a look at Metallinos’s article. The crucial thing to remember is that when Fr George speaks of hell he is not talking about the intermediate state (i.e., hades). He is talking about the final state of condemnation established by the general resurrection and the last judgment. Hence he speaks of the damned as finalized: they have reached the end of their road. The damned are incapable of repenting, which is why they do not. Hence I believe that Metallinos and the other Eastern advocates of this model would disagree with you when you write “they could at any moment repent and accept the grace of god, and instantly their torment would turn to joy.” The damned are truly and eternally damned, for they are totally and irrevocably enslaved to self. They are incorrigible and beyond redemption. They are evil.

      At this point Metallinos & Company are thoroughly traditional. Everyone, East and West, agrees that the damned do not repent because they do not want to repent. The damned may seek relief from their pain, much as the wounded on a battlefield will cry out for help; but they will never repent, can never repent. They are eternally stabilized and confirmed in their evil. I do not know if Metallinos would actually say that the damned have lost their free will; but for all practical purposes that is precisely what has happened. The final judgment simply confirms this fact.

      Where Metallinos & Co. depart from the mainstream tradition is their insistence that God does not punish for retributive purposes. Hell is not a punishment, Metallinos says. The damned suffer because they see the uncreated glory of God as consuming fire. They are incapable of experiencing God as anything but burning, destructive fire. This is not God’s fault, Metallinos insists. The fault lies with the damned. They are responsible for their condition. They could have chosen otherwise. They could have lived their lives otherwise. They could have repented and begun the ascent of theosis. But they did not, and so for them there is only the noetic experience of consuming fire.

      Metallinos’s analysis is governed by a concern to “justify” hell. He does not want anyone to think that God is in any way responsible for the sufferings of the reprobate. Responsibility lies exclusively with the damned themselves. They alone are accountable for their perdition. The odd thing here, though, is that whereas in Western construals of perdition the emphasis is on the privation of the beatific vision, and thus on the sufferings caused by God’s “absence” (which of course is never a real absence), in the Metallinosian construal the emphasis is located in the presence of God. By divine will the damned are directly exposed to the glory of God—unlike Moses, they have no rock to hide behind—and the sufferings are “caused” by the imposed encounter with God. The damned have no choice but to eternally look upon the glory of God and suffer. Yes, the reason they experience God as hell rather than as heaven is because they chose to become evil; yet the fact remains that God also chooses to maintain them in eternal existence, he chooses to expose them to his burning glory, and he chooses to permit them to suffer everlastingly, to no remedial purpose. As theodicy, the Metallinosian project fails, IMHO.

      My apologies for this detour through Metallinos, Jeremy, when you stated up-front that your own thoughts on the matter have been principally influenced by C. S. Lewis. Do the damned really have the choice to repent and turn to God in Lewis’s vision of hell? I know that they do in The Great Divorce (and the man with the whispering creature on his shoulder does in fact avail himself of this opportunity); but how seriously are we to take this? In The Problem of Pain Lewis does not mention this possibility. He insists, rather, on the finality of the state of condemnation:

      I believe that if a million chances were likely to do good, they would be given. But a master often knows, when boys and parents do not, that it is really useless to send a boy in for a certain examination again. Finality must come sometime, and it does not require a very robust faith to believe that omniscience knows when. … I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man “wishes” to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.

      In the end, says Lewis, God has no choice but to leave them alone.

      The interesting question is whether Lewis in fact advocates a form of annihilation for the damned. My sense is that he is deeply troubled by the assertion of eternal conscious torment. To minimize the horror Lewis proposes that the damned have ceased to be human. They are only “remains.” They have become their sin. In The Last Battle Ginger the cat loses the good of reason and becomes a dumb beast. In The Great Divorce the man with the ventriloquist’s dummy on his shoulder disappears into the dummy. Hence Lewis speculates:

      It is, of course, impossible to imagine what the consciousness of such a creature—already a loose congeries of mutually antagonistic sins rather than a sinner—would be like. There may be a truth in the saying that “hell is hell, not from its own point of view, but from the heavenly point of view.”

      Which is the morally superior vision of hell, Metallinos’s or Lewis’s?

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      • dino says:

        I think that the position of CS Lewis as well as that of Fr. George Metalinos and co, would not be that much different from each other if they were worded in the manner that Elder Sophronios and Elder Aimilianos seem to talk about the subject -when they do talk about it that is…
        In my understanding, their position (that of the experienced Elders who have reached a stage beyond “illumination” and talk from that, rather than from an assimilation and synthesis of philosophical and theological studies) is that we condition our perception of God and others in time, and that this perception can vary immensely according to them, from
        (1) the perfection of “the only perfect human” (the Divine Logos – Christ) which is the extreme of Love (and remembrence) of God and others (through God) as well as the “hate” (and oblivion) of self;
        to
        (2) the extreme of Hate of (and oblivion of) God and others (through God) as well as love of (and remembrence of) self (who has somewhat taken the –untruthful– position of our ‘god’).
        After time “is no more”, we are in Truth,
        which is beyond time and space, and since that truth is He who said I Am the Truth, -depending on our previous self-“conditoning”-, we have an immense variation of perception of this Truth again, but it cannot then change in the way we change now, we have been set on a ‘timeless’ trajectory…
        However, their understanding of God’s mercy and their belief in it and in His providence within time is so ‘scandalous’ that they both seem to believe -at times- that an immeasurable amount of people are saved at their last seconds, or are taken out of the temporary ‘Hades’ (from no until the Last Judgememnt) through the intercession of the saints’ prayers…
        Their understanding (often bor from ascetic experience) of the immense gamut of possible perception of God’s Light (from ‘Hell’, all the way to Heaven) is as removed from ‘just two states’ as possible, and therefore does not merit a simple black or white (somewhat protestant) notion, and all this makes questions of “moral superiority” between one’s or the other’s vision of hell somewhat simplistic mental constructions rather than real issues…

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  19. dino says:

    Also, the question, which can potentially see God as the one Who “maintains them in existence rather than honouring their desire for annihilation (in hell)” seems to somewhat miss the point on another issue, (as well as that of “time” and “outside of time”),:
    that all persons (within an infintely variable gamut of possible subjective “perception/experience” of God’s presence/reality/truth might I add – sowhere so we draw the line for “annihilation desire” or not?), have been given the irrevocable gift of eternal self-determination which is one of the indispensable causes of Heaven (but cannot be ‘blamed’ as a cause for hell). They have also (we believe) been given more chances of understanding the Truth – even after death for most, in the intermediate state of hades!- so that no mouth can blame God…
    Also, there is an experiential understanding of God’s “blamelessness” which doesn’t come from reasoning (such as eg: “If David composed a beautiful hymn to God, he cannot be blamed if I now take it and twist it into a black magic epiclesis…”) but from what Saints who encountered Him -yet still maintained the eternity of hell- saw of Him. I am here, particularly reminded of St Silouan’s vision of the all-forgiving and all-loving Christ, which made him never ever doubt God’s “blamelessness” concerning hell – it just made him share in God’s “Hell of Love” for those who are not saved…
    St Silouan wanted (like Christ) to be crucified and partake of hell instead of the damned but this very desire makes one unable to experience the hell of the selfish (even though it makes us able to experience the “hell” of love as elder Sophrony terms it). But true love (as an energy coming from God) is always tied up with Heaven, it might ‘encompass hell’ and be in communion with the damned (at least from the point of view of the one who loves them), yet it is a “Heavenly” hell! the Saints are (to various degrees) in the ineffable joy of the Heaven of humble love, whether in heaven or hell. The opposite is true of those who do not want communion, they are in hell whether in hell or in paradise…

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  20. Seraphim says:

    I have not read all the comments, but I certainly appreciate Fr.’s post. This is my personal take on this matter. I do believe heaven and hell are places. Christ is the first-fruit of the the resurrected, and He had a physical body. A changed body, yes, but physical nonetheless. The Gospels are plain about this. Our bodies will be resurrected and changed, as Christ’s was. Therefore, bodies must have a place to dwell with at least a kind of physical aspect.

    Second, I do believe that while universalism has always been believed by some, and while the Church has not spoken dogmatically on the issue of hell, we have to deal with the fact that the consensus of the Fathers admits the more traditional view of hell. This “River of Fire” theology is an attempt to grapple with a difficult concept: a loving God who can allow some of His creation, no matter how wicked, to suffer for eternity. Today’s Orthodox Christians want to paint the Orthodox Church as different from the Western churches in that we don’t put our emphasis on judicial terminology and God as the wrathful judge who condemns people to eternal firey torment. They try to get God off the hook by saying, “God just wants to love you. It’s your own sorry internal state that makes you feel like you’re in hell.” I’m sorry, but this has always sounded very new-agey to me. And by the way, I agree with Fr. that the “River of Fire” view makes God no more merciful than the traditional view. In fact, from what I can see, it makes Him less merciful because while in the traditional view God creates a place/reality which will torment the sinner and leaves him there to endure it, the “River of Fire” view makes God Himself, loving or not, more so a direct cause.

    Finally, I want to offer my own perspective. It may not help anyone, but it’s another way of viewing this. Christ says in Matt. 25:41 that the “everlasting fire [is] prepared for the devil and his angels.” Hell is not created for mankind. Satan and his angels rebelled against God and God cast them out of heaven and will judge and condemn them to hell. However, they will not be alone. Christ makes it clear that we can only serve one master, the one we will love and the other we will despise. And Christ says in John 12:26, “If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also.” Where the master is, there is the servant also. If the devil is in hell, all who have loved and served him will be with him. Just like those who love and serve Christ will be with Him in heaven. There is NO middle ground. Is God supposed to say to a person who rejected Him, “Well you rejected Me, but I guess you’re not *that* bad, so you don’t get heaven or hell. We’ll put you in this special middle ground where you feel neither bliss nor torment”? It simply doesn’t work that way, nor should it. Christ says in Matt. 8:11-12, ” And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I believe Christ makes it clear that to be anywhere except the Kingdom of God is to be in hell. This also makes sense given the destruction of the world in the flood, in which to be outside of the ark meant certain death. And the Church is called the “ark of salvation.”

    All this being said, let me close by saying that I think many people, including Christians, miss the biggest point: fire and darkness are not what make hell hell. What makes it hell is utter loneliness: being utterly cut off from God and even our fellow man. Look up and read the exchange between St. Macarius and the skull of the pagan. To be cut off from God and man is hell and this is NOT what God wants for us. In fact, Christ lived through hell himself to keep us from it. By this, I mean His passion. In His passion He was utterly abandoned by even his close disciples. In His crucifixion He was separated from His fellow man and left to suffer. And being cast out of the holy city and hanged upon a tree, He was cursed and cast out of the presence of God. Even darkness He experienced as the darkness covered the earth while He suffered. Christ has truly gone through hell so that we might be delivered from it. What more can we ask of Him? If reject this, if we reject Him and, thus, cling to the devil as our master, what can we really expect other than hell, in all it’s agony?

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  21. Rhonda says:

    I heard the following on an AFR podcast while driving home this afternoon so I looked it up. I have been looking for a good blog post to put it on given we have been discussing God’s divine justice over several blogs or at least we have ended up on the subject it seems frequently…

    Divine Justice vs Human Justice:
    When Elder Paisios was asked what makes the difference between a saint and the rest of us he said they have divine justice instead of human justice.

    Here is how the Elder described Divine Justice:
    Suppose two men are sitting at the table to eat. In front of them, there is a plate with ten peaches. If one of them greedily eats seven peaches leaving three for his friend, he is being unfair to him, this is injustice.

    Instead, if he says: “Well, we are two and the peaches are ten. So, each one of us is entitled to eat five peaches.” If he eats the five peaches and leaves the other five for his friend, then he applies human justice; that is why, many times, we go to court to find human justice.

    However, if he understands that his friend likes peaches very much, he can pretend that he is not very fond of them and eat only one, and then says to him: “Please eat the rest of the peaches, as I don’t really like them; besides, my stomach aches and I should not eat any more.” This person has divine justice; he prefers to be unfair to himself by human standards and be rewarded for his sacrifice by God’s grace, which he will abundantly receive.

    The true Christian must never condemn, or press charges against his fellow men, even if someone takes by force his clothes. There is a difference between those people who believe in Christ and those who do not. Christians abide by the law of divine justice whereas the unfaithful ones by the law of human justice.

    Divine justice is such a higher standard than human justice. Isn’t it true that most of us are imbued with the notion of human justices assuming that what is asked of us is equality for all? Often even this is difficult. Divine justice is much more. It involves charity and compassion based on a love of others. It requires a capability to sacrifice our own desires for the benefit of others.

    The Elder says, “If we acquire divine justice, ignore ourselves, and love God and our fellow men, then God will take care of us and will see that we have everything.”

    Source: Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain, pp 61-62, 67

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