Last night I was reading a tract titled Juridical Justification Theology by Dr Kharalambos Anstall and Fr Michael Azkoul. The authors express what has now become recognized as the Orthodox understanding of perdition:
It can be truly said that the God of love is eternally present to answer our knock on His door for help. We know that He forgives all–and that His mercy is boundless. He utterly respects our personhood and does not force Himself upon us. Thus He plays no part in the infliction of punishment, most especially not eternal punishment. In the final analysis of Orthodox theology, damnation consists entirely in the voluntary rejection of God by us. We have the Gospel, the Prophets, the Apostles, the Martyrs, the Fathers, and the Mystical Body of Christ (the Church) with which we can choose to associate or from which we can elect to walk away. The choice of acceptance or rejection of His love (in all of its manifestations) is ours alone to make, purely by voluntary exercise of our God-given free will. Yet, despite our often contrary and wayward decisions, we are never rejected by the God of love; He merely awaits with infinite patience and mercy our remorse, contrition, eventual humility, repentance and, most importantly, our determination to return to His loving care.
Damnation, then, is seen by Orthodox Christians solely as the inevitable consequence of our expressed desire to renounce and reject God. Simply postulated, condemnation to hell is always self-inflicted. We do not consider the fires of hell to be material flames but rather a burning inversion of the radiant light of Divine love, once willfully spurned and rejected. Hatred of God and rejection of His love are entirely human choices. To think contrarily, thereby entering into negativism and inversion, is a particularly pernicious deceit of the devil–the father of lies. (pp. 25-26)
As noted in my earlier article “Hell and the Scourge of Divine Love,” this position represents the majority view of modern Orthodox theologians. What the authors do not acknowledge is that this free-will explanation of hell also represents the views of most modern Catholic and Protestant theologians. Given their fierce polemic against Western theology, I suggest that the authors are guilty of gross irresponsibility. One does not have to look very hard to find Western theologians who fundamentally agree with Anstall and Azkhoul. Their book was published in 1997. It’s not as if Catholic and Protestant theologians have been hiding their eschatological views under a bushel. Have Anstall and Azkhoul never read C. S. Lewis? If anyone wants to read more about modern presentations of the free-will doctrine of hell, I recommend Hell: The Logic of Damnation by Jerry Walls (Methodist) and Visions of a Future: A Study of Christian Eschatology by Zachary Hayes (Catholic). Orthodox theologians should be congratulating their Western counterparts for finally coming around to the proper Orthodox understanding.
But a caveat needs to be raised at this point. Western theologians are well aware that the free-will doctrine of hell that they now espouse is different in critical ways from the retributive doctrine taught for well over a millenia in the Western Church. But Orthodox theologians like Romanides, Metallinos, Anstall and Azkhoul, and many others apparently believe that their position is identical to that of the Eastern Fathers. Based on my limited research, I believe that the Eastern Fathers (excepting those who espoused some version of apocatastasis) taught a retributive doctrine of damnation: at the final judgment God rejects incorrigible sinners by abandoning them to their destiny—this is their deserved punishment (see “What is Orthodox Hell?” and “Hell and the Torturous Vision of Christ“).
The retributive nature of the final judgment, as classically taught by the Orthodox Church, appears to be confirmed in the hymnody of the Eastern Church. Consider the witness of the Sunday of the Last Judgment:
The books will be opened and the works of all men laid bare:
The vale of tears will echo with gnashing of teeth;
The sinners will mourn in vain, as they depart to eternal damnation.
Thy judgements are just, O Lord Almighty!
(Vespers, Tropar in Tone 6 on Lord, I Have Cried …)
When the thrones are set in place and the books are opened,
Then God will take His place on the judgment-seat. What a fearful sight! As the angels stand in awe and the river of fire flows by: What shall we do, who are already condemned by our many sins,
As we hear Christ call the righteous to His Father’s Kingdom,
And send the wicked to eternal damnation?
Who among us can bear that terrible verdict? Hasten to us, Lover of mankind and King of the universe: Grant us the grace of repentance before the end and have mercy on us!
(Doxasticon, Tone 8, at Lord, I Have Cried…)
Do not reject me from Thy presence, in anger, Lord;
Do not let me hear Thee sending me away accursed to the fire.
But let me then enter with Thy saints
Into the joy of Thine eternal bridal-chamber.
(Matins Canon, Tropar of Ode 9)
Then each man’s secrets will be openly brought before Thee,
And those who have never repented shall weep and lament,
Departing to the outer fire;
But with gladness and rejoicing
The company of the righteous shall enter the heavenly bridal chamber!
(Sticheron in Tone 6, at the Praises)
For the Judge is come to pass sentence on all of the inhabited earth!
And who shall bear to stand before His face in the presence of the angels,
Calling us to account for our actions and thoughts by night or by day?
(Sticheron in Tone 6, at the Praises)
Do not let me hear thee say: take what is thy due! Lord, As Thou sendest me from Thy presence;
Do not let me hear Thee say:
Depart from me into the fire of the accursed!
But may I hear Thy words of blessing to the righteous.
(Matins Canon, Tropar of Ode 6)
The day is upon us; the judgement is now at the door.
Be vigilant, my soul.
Kings and princes, the rich and poor are gathering,
And each shall receive the due reward for what he has done.
(Matins Canon, Tropar of Ode 4)
The Lord comes to punish sinners and to save the righteous.
Let us tremble and lament,
And call to mind that day when our hidden secrets will be disclosed
And He will pay us what is due.
(Matins Canon, Tropar of Ode 9)
(My thanks to Archimandrite Irenei Steenberg for bringing these texts to my attention.)
The image presented, as we should expect, is one of judgment. The divine Judge judges, condemns, and punishes the wicked and iniquitous. The damned may have brought their fate upon themselves by their own free will; but that fate is sealed and eternally confirmed by God Almighty. Of course, as one other Orthodox theologian has reminded me, the Church’s hymnody needs to be interpreted through the hermeneutic of Pascha and the unconditional love of the Savior.
Orthodox theologians and apologists need to be careful about declaring that the modern Orthodox construal of hell is nothing but a re-statement of the Fathers. It is not. It lacks the retributive dimension that we find in the patristic and liturgical testimony. This doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, at least not in my opinion. It just means that there’s been a development of doctrine.
A plea to my readers: if you know of any patristic or pre-modern evidence that supports the modern Orthodox doctrine of hell, please bring it to my attention.
And if you are wondering how I can still hope for universal salvation …