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.