“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).