It is a terrifying vision.
Death arrives. The soul is sundered from the body. The sinner begins the climb up the ladder of judgment to hear the eschatological decision of Christ. Angels stand on the upper right, demons on the lower left. Each step represents a challenge posed by a passion that the departed may have failed to effectively resist in his mortal life. Demons assail the soul, reminding him of all his past sins. If he fails one of these tests, if he is shown to be still enslaved to disordered desire and thus incapable of communion, he falls into the dark abyss, “the sterile hole of egoism,” in the words of Dumitru Staniloae, “from which no light shines forth and from which no one can exit, because such a person does not want to come out: his weakened will has become accustomed to the illusion that there is freedom in this existence for himself” (The Experience of God, VI:41).
Lord, have mercy upon us.
Staniloae affirms the Orthodox teaching on the particular judgment and distinguishes it from the final and universal judgment that will occur at the Second Coming of Christ and the renewal of the cosmos. The former does not quite enjoy the finality of the Last Judgment. Some who are condemned may yet be saved through the prayers of the Church, as we shall see in a future posting.
The risen and exalted Christ stands as Judge. From him “the life and happiness of full communion pour forth over those who lived according to His example and become like Him” (VI:53). To the righteous Christ shows himself in the brilliant light of his love. Their communion with him is irreversibly established in bliss and joy. Temporarily severed from the earthly veil imposed upon spiritual consciousness, they experience a liberation of “the spirit’s rich contents and deep functions” (VI:25). The fullness of memory is restored. They are enriched “with the knowledge of wider and deeper dimensions of reality, with its transcendental and fundamental dimensions” (VI:25).
But those who did not follow Christ and who lived their lives immersed in selfishness and the delights of their disordered desires are definitively deprived of any revelation of the spiritual life. Death burns everything in them, “as in a fire, with nothing left behind after the blaze” (1 Cor 3:13-15). Their existence is emptied of spiritual content and they are “incapable of forming or receiving such content” (VI:25). To them is spoken the terrible word of judgment: “Take the unbeliever away so that he may not see the glory of the Lord” (St Symeon Metaphrastes). At this point, Staniloae writes, the divine Son “ceases any attempt to approach them and to take them out of their attitude of refusal toward Him; this is not because He no longer wants to show them His love but because they are hardened in the passion, whose basis is denying and disobeying Him” (VI:53). The divine judgment confirms them in the state of their denial and impiety. Desire for God is lost. They are condemned to the “phantasmagoric effervescence of passion” (VI:43). This is their everlasting torment.
“Hell is a double evil,” explains Staniloae: “the will to sin, and the pain of the inability to sin. It is attachment to the sin that can no longer actually be committed and thus a refusal to seek out spiritual goods. Through inability the human being is even removed from his relationship with things, and from any egoistic transitory relationship with another person. Any relation that he has with reality is cut off. He leads a phantasmagoric, nightmarish existence. He is totally imprisoned in the hole of solitude. Only the demons and his passions bite him like serpents” (VI:44). The condemned soul loses the good of the other. He is trapped in his subjectivity, cut off from authentic reality, malignant spirits his only companions. The egotistical wall he has built around himself becomes impenetrable to love and light. Staniloae likens the perditional state to an incurable illness, a “lucid madness.” It is a total fall from the illuminating Word into the horror of the autonomous self. “He falls into a sort of dreamlike existence in which everything becomes chaotic in a senseless absurdity, without any consistency, without any search for an exit out of it, and without any hope for an exit” (VI:44).
In hell there is a total fall from the right word, which reveals a true reality; from loving acts; and from relationship with Christ, the loving divine and human Word, the Subject of the act that perfects the human person. This means that in hell the fall from the light of meanings and of communion, as well as from the image of the authentic man created after the model of God, is total. … And this total fall from meanings and communion is tantamount to madness—to the rejection of reality, which he replaces or distorts with the products of his hallucinations—and this is a source of endless torment. (VI:207)
God cannot save the damned, because he will not coercively impose his love on any person. And the damned cannot cast themselves upon the mercy of God, because they have irrevocably and irredeemably hardened themselves in their absolute rejection of God. Staniloae provides an illuminating quotation in which St John Damascene explains why God created Satan when he foreknew that he would become evil:
For overwhelming goodness He has made him, for the Lord said: Will I deprive him entirely of the good and of subsistence on account of the fact that he will become evil and will lose all the good things given to him? Not at all. Even if he becomes evil, I will not deprive him of his participation in Me, but I will give him this good: participation in Me through existence, even if he does not want to participate in Me through existence. For no one else retains and sustains those that exist except God … All that exist have their existence in God … Thus those who have existence do participate partially in the ultimate degree of goodness. Therefore there is something good in the existence of the devil, and through existence he participates in the good.
God eternally offers the good things to the devil, but he refuses to receive them. And in the age to come, God offers the good things to all, for He is the source from which good things flow. But everyone participates in the good inasmuch as he has made himself capable. (VI:48)
But the damned have made themselves incapable! With hell God and the reprobate have apparently reached a point of no return; both find themselves in a position of helplessness and impotence. God cannot pierce the block of ice in which the damned have encased themselves, and the damned lack all desire for liberation from their frozen state. The only good God can now do for the wicked is to continue to bestow upon them the gift of existence.
Our minds and hearts instinctively object to the suggestion that we can make ourselves incorrigible. Surely God can find a way. Surely he will always reach out to the damned (us) and wheedle himself into their (our) hardened hearts. But Staniloae relentlessly advances the logic of freedom and the irredeemable nature of the impenitent soul. God forever offers himself to humanity as a loving “Thou,” and as such he “cannot be perceived except through an openness to love that is humble and full of longing. … Thus God cannot make Himself evident as a loving Person to him who does not want to receive Him in this way. Only to the one who desires Him for His love does God manifest Himself as love” (VI:46). How then do the reprobate experience the loving advances of God? As a stern and pitiless Judge:
The fact that Christ is also man would in principle leave open the possibility that He might manifest Himself to the souls being sent to hell. But when manifesting Himself to these souls, Christ would have to have a countenance devoid of the joyful light that would result from entering into communion with them, a countenance also devoid of the penetrating spirituality of such a communion. St Isaac the Syrian allowed for such a manifestation but concluded that even in this Christ does not abandon His love; rather, His love becomes suffering or the fire of Gehenna for those who are rejected. It is a painful love that therefore turns away those who are incapable of responding. But does this procure for them a true knowledge of Christ? Is it not more truly a hiding of Christ, who comforts, enlightens, and saves when He manifests Himself? Is not Christ veiled by the tormented conscience of him who dies in sin? Paradoxically, the awareness of Christ’s presence is combined with the inability to see Him in His true reality, just as the envious cannot see the goodness of the envied. This is the “dreadful” Judge. (VI:55)
St Symeon the New Theologian declares: “For the divinity, which is to say the grace of the all-Holy Spirit, has never appeared to anyone who was without faith; and, if it were to appear by some paradox among men, it would show itself as fearful and dreadful, as not illumining but burning, not as giving life but as punishing dreadfully” (VI:55).
How can divine mercy save if we immediately convert the word of forgiveness into a word of condemnation? How can the Crucified Savior save if we can only perceive him as an accusing Satan?
Lord, have mercy upon us.
“He who departs this life hardened or ‘dead’ will be hardened for eternity,” declares Fr Dumitru. “The movement in him will be a movement by which he eats himself up inside; he will be his own sleepless worm” (VI:64).
It is a terrifying, horrifying vision.
It is just a crap shoot all the way down. We are thrown into this mortal existence where we have to suffer the hardships of disaster, disease, and the tragedy of death. But wait, that’s not all! At the end of this mortal crapshoot some will be destined never to find solace. They will forever suffer the torments of hell! What a grand, cosmic plan.
Lord Jesus, have mercy on me a sinner!
And I’m so glad there are options to irrevocable conscious torment.
Where is the loving God of the Gospel in all of this? There seems to be much opinion based on pagan concepts with very little Scriptural basis. Staniloae seems far removed from the Paschal joy of the Harrowing of Hades, and the institution of the spiritual first resurrection. His theological and anthropological concepts appear very dark and flawed.
I feel like the question of the disciples is appropriate here, “Who then can be saved?”, but Staniloae won’t allow for Christ’s answer that “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Indeed, how can Christ save us if Staniloae is right that a hardened heart is impenitrable even to God? If God cannot release us from our delusion that Christ is an Accuser instead of a Savior then we cannot expect ourselves to be able to do it either. That would make us more capable of saving ourselves than God’s Gospel. But isn’t that the logical conclusion of Staniloae’s argument; that it is not the Gospel, but OURSELVES who need to be capable of releasing (saving) ourselves by means of free will? If “God forever offers himself to humanity as a loving “Thou,” and as such he “cannot be perceived except through an openness to love that is humble and full of longing,” and if “the damned lack all desire for liberation from their frozen state,” then we must somehow muster up this “openness” ourselves while in a “frozen state” incapable of mustering up “openness”. Its quite the conundrum; we freely choose to live in a delusion that robs us of the free will needed to turn away from said delusion, and thus we end up damned for eternity. BUT what if the Gospel IS capable of penetrating our frozen, deluded hearts? What if the Gospel offers back to us the freedom that we robbed ourselves of? Can we really be offended and say this usurps our free will seeing how our free will has already been usurped and held captive by a delusion?
Precisely, Michelle. I agree wholeheartedly. My next post will qualify a bit the dark pessimism of Staniloae’s vision (and let’s remember, he is simply advancing what has long been the traditional view); but ultimately his understanding of human freedom renders impossible “with God all things are possible.”
I’ve been depressed for days working on this series. 😦
I wonder, though, if Staniloae is only subject to a flaw in his argument. The flaw would lie here; “But does this procure for them a true knowledge of Christ? Is it not more truly a hiding of Christ, who comforts, enlightens, and saves when He manifests Himself? Is not Christ veiled by the tormented conscience of him who dies in sin? Paradoxically, the awareness of Christ’s presence is combined with the inability to see Him in His true reality, just as the envious cannot see the goodness of the envied. This is the “dreadful” Judge.” He is saying that a person who does not welcome Christ’s love is delusional because they do not see Christ as He truly is; the person cannot see His goodness because of the state of their heart. This may be too simplistic on my part but maybe damnation is when a person DOES see Christ’s goodness, and hates it; when a person is totally free from delusion because they see exactly the reality of Christ’s love, and hates it. Wouldn’t this be blasphemy of the Holy Spirit; to hate what is Good while free from all delusions about this Goodness? To know exactly Who God is, and to know exactly who they themselves are, and to still prefer the hate they possess. The objection here will be that it would be insanity to prefer what is the cause of your own destruction, under the assumption that all person seek to preserve their own ego. But I don’t know if I buy that assumption. The person I am describing hates not only God but themselves also. Would you really have to be delusional/isane to do so? Or just really, really, really hateful? I have personally known people who appear (I say “appear” because I do not claim to know the depths of their hearts) to hate the love they receive from others, who appear to not love others (not even to their own children), and who appear to hate themselves.
You have expressed well the traditional doctrine of freely-chosen damnation. I suspect Staniloae might agree with you. He presents a couple of different arguments about why the damned reject God. Perhaps he might say, in rejoinder, that it’s not a matter of either/or but of both. I’m not sure.
Thomas Talbott might ask that if a person truly understood, in all of its ramifications, that God alone is the good that he desires for himself, whether he could rationally and freely reject God. See, e.g., his articles “Freedom, Damnation, and the Freedom to Sin with Impunity” and “Misery and Freedom.”
Staniloae seems to come close to the view that true freedom requires the ability to eternally damn oneself against one’s good and self-interest. Thus his statement: “[The human person] is truly free only if he knows that he can eternally oppose God” (VI:49). Is this true?
I think what needs to be distinguished is what does it mean to “know” something/someone, and how does this knowledge affect our will? Could one objectively comprehend what it would mean to hate someone/something without actually experiencing this hatred? For example, a mother loves her child, yet is capable of consciously comprehending what it would be like to hate her child without actually hating her child. Does this kind of knowledge then make her free to then abandon her love and choose this hatred instead? Or must one existentially/subjectively experience love and/or hate in order to “know” love and/or hate? If so, then would it even be possible then to “know” both love and hate for someone/something at the same time? Or would the experience of one (love or hate) enslave your will in complete opposition to the other? For example, a mother knows existentially/subjectively experiences love for her child, and yet existentially/subjectively experiences hate for her child. Is this even possible? Could she then choose to side with hatred over love? If so then I suppose one could also existentially/subjectively know the love of Christ, and yet hate Christ at the same time, and then ultimately decide to prefer one over the other. Or would the experience of love enslave the mother’s will in complete opposition to hatred for her child (or vise versa)?
Staniloae seems believe in the idea of enslavement of the will, and that it is impossible to experience both a existential/subjective love and hatred for Christ at the same time, and thus when this existential/subjective love is absent then you necessary fall slave to the delusion about Christ as Accuser. In conclusion, if it is possible to existential/subjectively love and hate at the same time without an enslavement of the will, then maybe damnation is possible (yet then so is universal salvation since our wills stay free); but if Staniloae is correct then we indeed can become enslaved, and thus delusional (in which case I personally would hold to the idea that the Gospel offers back to us the freedom that we robbed ourselves of, and that God will usurps our free will seeing how our free will has already been usurped and held captive by a delusion).
Ive read a little bit of Thomas Talbot. I was introduced to him thanks to skimming through your blogs 🙂
Fr. Aidan, Is it not probable that this “traditional view,” is more formed by the pagan concepts so prevalent in the Greco-Roman world than the revelations of Holy Scripture? No where in Holy Scripture is the concept of natural immortality of the soul supported. This is a corruption of the Faith from the pagan world. Immortality is a gift of God given in the first resurrection (see Revelation 20:6). Human beings remain alive after the death of their bodies not because they are naturally immortal, but because they were created to live in the spiritual and material realms. We are created tripartite with a spirit, soul, and body (see 1 Thessalonians 5:23). The spirit gives life to the soul when the body dies. The condition of the spirit determines whether one experiences the first resurrection to full spiritual life, or awaits judgment and potential eternal death and annihilation with Satan and the demons (see Matthew 10:28 and John 3:16). The teaching of the Church regarding the Harrowing of Hades, and the experience of the rich man coming to his senses in Luke 16:19-31, gives us hope that all human beings may be saved. Although we cannot know the outcome of the final judgment, the Holy Scriptures reveal to us that the lake of fire is prepared for Satan and the demons, not human beings. If repentance is possible even after entering the lake of fire, as St. Isaac opines, perhaps only Satan and the demons will perish and be destroyed in the end.
Marc, I would not myself characterize the traditional Orthodox understanding of eternal damnation, as espoused by Staniloae and others, as pagan. It is grounded in a Christian understanding of the person and human freedom and the evangelical requirement to unite oneself to Christ in faith and repentance. I do not know why Christian eschatology developed the way it did, but I think it doubtful that it can be attributed to pagan sources.
As far as the immortality of the soul, what Christian theologians would disagree with you that the soul is created and thus freely maintained by the creative will of God? Though I did not touch on this in my article on the immortality of the soul, Staniloae expressly writes:
Ultimately Staniloae grounds the immortality of the soul on the “impossibility” that God would allow any disruption in relationship between the Creator and the human being.
But that all being said, I share your disquiet regarding eternal damnation. I’m siding with St Isaac of Ninevah on apokatastasis. 🙂
Fr. Aidan, You offer no Scriptural basis for your observations and objections to my reflections. Last I checked, the Holy Scriptures still remain at the center of Holy Apostolic Tradition. As Orthodox Christians, we must be guided by the Holy Scriptures, and not by the opinions of Church Fathers that lie outside the revelation of Holy Scriptures or the dogma of the Church.
Marc, I wasn’t aware that we are involved in an argument. 🙂
No argument my friend and brother in the Faith. Only a call to differentiate between what is authoritative, and what is opinion.
I have witnessed people, myself included, who have held to delusional perceptions concerning this or that, only to finally be released from such delusions after enough persistent pricks to the conscious. Its true some people are more stubborn than others to the point that reasoning with them or appealing to their heart seems a fruitless endeavor, however can we really proclaim to know that certain people are absolutely, irrevocably impenetrable? Do we really possess the knowledge needed to be able to say that about people? If we thought we had that knowledge about someone then we would have no choice but to despair over that person. And I think Stanilaoe is entreating us to despair by claiming to have knowledge of the impenetribility of people. But if we admit that we do not, and cannot have this knowledge about people, then doesn’t that necessarily mean that the possibility of hope for ALL people is opened up to us? If we do not possess the knowledge needed to despair over a person, then we can continue to have hope for that person.
Von Balthasar said as much in his treatise on this issue. The older I get, the more the view held by Stanilaoe (the traditional view, I guess) seems incompatible with the Gospel. It almost always feeds into an individualist notion of salvation that lacks love, generosity, imagination.
I don’t know Von Balthasar. I will look him up 🙂 I agree with your statement too. The Gospel seems to me better understood by the heart rather than the head.
Michelle – I highly recommend looking in to Von Balthasar. He was probably the greatest Catholic theologian of the 20th century and had a very significant influence on St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I would recommend starting with Love Alone is Credible and then either Dare We Hope or Engagement with God.
Fr. Aidan – Maybe this quote from Padre Pio will help cheer you up:
“I believe that not a great number of souls go to hell.
God loves us so much. He formed us in his image. God loves us beyond understanding.
And it is my belief that when we have passed from the consciousness of the world,
when we appear to be dead, God, before He judges us, will give us
a chance to see and understand what sin really is.
And if we understand it properly, how could we fail to repent?”
I’d be very interested in finding a reference for the St. Pio quote. Do you happen to have it handy?