What is the Orthodox doctrine of hell? I honestly do not know. I do know what many Orthodox have taught about hell during the past hundred years or so, and I know something about what the Church Fathers taught about it during the first millennium of the Church’s history; but I cannot tell you what the Orthodox Church authoritatively and irreformably teaches about hell, beyond the fact that it is a horrifying possibility and therefore a destiny best avoided. As the Orthodox Church sings at the Saturday Vespers of the Sunday of the Last Judgment:
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!
The hymns of the Sunday of the Last Judgment might seem to give the definitive word, yet they, like the Scriptures, need to be interpreted in light of Pascha and the totality of the Holy Tradition.
My inability to present a definitive answer to the question “What does the Orthodox Church authoritatively and irreformably teach about hell?” is partly determined by the fact that a huge portion of the Eastern theological patrimony has never been translated into English. I read neither Greek, Russian, Romanian, Serbian, or Syriac. I suspect that my position is not that different from most other English-speaking Orthodox believers, including the clergy. The fact that so much theological reflection is inaccessible to us puts us at significant disadvantage. This doesn’t mean that the ordinary American parish priest does not believe that he knows what the authoritative Orthodox understanding of hell is. Quite the contrary. Over the past century a compelling, construal of hell and perdition has been received as the Orthodox position; and this construal, we are often told, is dramatically different from what is taught in Catholicism and Protestantism. Archimandrite [now Bishop] Irenei Steenberg has described this view as “hell is heaven experienced differently.” God does not retributively punish the damned, nor does he separate himself from them. He continuously pours oug his uncreated Light upon all humanity, yet because the lost have rejected the divine mercy and love, they experience the Light as torment. God does not actively inflict anguish and pain at the Last Judgment; rather, he allows the damned to experience the suffering they have freely and irreversibly chosen. Hell is hatred of Love and refusal of communion. This view may be found in the writings of John Romanides, George Metallinos, Hierotheos Vlachos, Dumitru Staniloae, Vladimir Lossky, and Jean-Claude Larchet. Differences exist between these theologians, but they are united in pushing retributive considerations to the background and emphasizing perdition as self-damnation. For popular presentations see “The River of Fire” by Alexandre Kalomiros; A Study of Hell by Nick Aiello; “Heaven and Hell in the Afterlife” by Peter Chopelas; “Hell and God’s Love” by Eric Simpson; and “Why We Need Hell” by Frederica Mathewes-Green. The “hell is heaven experienced differently” view can perhaps be traced back to St Maximus the Confessor and St John of Damascus; yet as Steenberg notes, questions can be raised whether it represents the consensual teaching of the Church Fathers: “this view has little to no grounding in either the Scriptural or patristic heritage of the Church, and in fact that heritage very regularly makes assertions that wholly deny the possibility of this view.” At the very least, we may say that the Tradition presents us with a diversity of testimonies that resist easy harmonization (see the patristic citations I compiled ten years ago).
Unfortunately, it is not an easy matter for an English-speaking non-scholar to assess the patristic roots of the “hell is heaven experienced differently” thesis. Search high and low but you will not find a comprehensive, detailed, and in-depth scholarly discussion of the eschatology of the Church Fathers, much less of the two-thousand-year old Eastern tradition—at least not in English. I find this surprising. We can find extensive discussion of what the New Testament teaches about hell, especially by Protestant scholars, and we can find extensive discussion about what the Catholic Church dogmatically teaches about hell by Catholic theologians; but when one turns to the Church Fathers (excepting Origen, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Augustine of Hippo), we hit a wall. J. N. D. Kelly devotes a couple of pages to hell and judgment in his book Early Christian Doctrines. Jaroslav Pelikan’s first volume of The Christian Tradition is even less helpful. The best survey in English of the eschatological beliefs of the Church Fathers is The Hope of the Early Church by Brian E. Daley. Anyone who wishes to research the subject at hand should probably begin with this title. Daley’s book makes clear the diversity of beliefs about hell and damnation that existed among the Fathers. One can certainly distinguish a difference in approach between the Greek and Latin traditions; but it would be a mistake to push the contrast too far. Excluding those who taught some form of universal salvation, both Greek and Latin Fathers affirm that the chastisements of hell are divinely appointed and everlasting in duration. The Latins tend to emphasize the retributive dimension, but this dimension is certainly not absent in the Eastern Fathers. St John Chrysostom, one of the Three Holy Hierarchs, is particularly vivid:
It is a sea of fire—not a sea of the kind or dimensions we know here, but much larger and fiercer, with waves made of fire, fire of a strange and fearsome kind. There is a great abyss there, in fact, of terrible flames, and one can see fire rushing about on all sides like some wild animal. … There will be no one who can resist, no one who can escape: Christ’s gentle, peaceful face will be nowhere to be seen. But as those sentenced to work the mines are given over to rough men and see no more of their families, but only their taskmasters, so it will be there—or not simply so, but much worse. For here one can appeal to the Emperor for clemency, and have the prisoner released—but there, never. They will not be released, but will remain roasting and in such agony as cannot be expressed. (Homilies on Matthew 43.4)
For when you hear of fire, do not suppose the fire in that world to be like this: for fire in this world burns up and makes away with anything which it takes hold of; but that fire is continually burning those who have once been seized by it, and never ceases: therefore also is it called unquenchable. For those also who have sinned must put on immortality, not for honour, but to have a constant supply of material for that punishment to work upon; and how terrible this is, speech could never depict, but from the experience of little things it is possible to form some slight notion of these great ones. For if you should ever be in a bath which has been heated more than it ought to be, think then, I pray you, on the fire of hell: or again if you are ever inflamed by some severe fever transfer your thoughts to that flame, and then you will be able clearly to discern the difference. For if a bath and a fever so afflict and distress us, what will our condition be when we have fallen into that river of fire which winds in front of the terrible judgment-seat. Then we shall gnash our teeth under the suffering of our labours and intolerable pains: but there will be no one to succour us: yea we shall groan mightily, as the flame is applied more severely to us, but we shall see no one save those who are being punished with us, and great desolation. And how should any one describe the terrors arising to our souls from the darkness? For just as that fire has no consuming power so neither has it any power of giving light: for otherwise there would not be darkness. The dismay produced in us then by this, and the trembling and the great astonishment can be sufficiently realized in that day only. For in that world many and various kinds of torment and torrents of punishment are poured in upon the soul from every side. And if any one should ask, and how can the soul bear up against such a multitude of punishments and continue being chastised through interminable ages, let him consider what happens in this world, how many have often borne up against a long and severe disease. And if they have died, this has happened not because the soul was consumed but because the body was exhausted, so that had the latter not broken down, the soul would not have ceased being tormented. When then we have received an incorruptible and inconsumable body there is nothing to prevent the punishment being indefinitely extended. For here indeed it is impossible that the two things should coexist. I mean severity of punishment and permanence of being, but the one contends with the other, because the nature of the body is perishable and cannot bear the concurrence of both: but when the imperishable state has supervened, there would be an end of this strife, and both these terrible things will keep their hold upon us for infinite time with much force.
Let us not then so dispose ourselves now as if the excessive power of the tortures were destructive of the soul: for even the body will not be able to experience this at that time, but will abide together with the soul, in a state of eternal punishment, and there will not be any end to look to beyond this. How much luxury then, and how much time will you weigh in the balance against this punishment and vengeance? Do you propose a period of a hundred years or twice as long? And what is this compared with the endless ages? For what the dream of a single day is in the midst of a whole lifetime, that the enjoyment of things here is as contrasted with the state of things to come. Is there then any one who, for the sake of seeing a good dream, would elect to be perpetually punished? Who is so senseless as to have recourse to this kind of retribution? (Ad Theod. 1.10)
Jonathan Edwards, stand aside! The Eastern Church can boast a fire-and-brimstone preacher as terrifying as you! Perhaps one might explain such passages as rhetorical enthusiasm; but still, it’s hard to see how they express a hell that is “heaven experienced differently.” Whatever the fire of hell may be, it is retributive, punitive, tormenting, destructive, and everlasting. “It is impossible,” St John insists, “that punishment and Gehenna should not exist” (In 1 Thes 8.4). In this world divine punishment is intended for our correction; in the next world, for vengeance (In Rom. Hom. 3.1). The damned are forever punished by God because they deserve to be punished. St John Chrysostom is not St Isaac the Syrian. The teaching of the Golden Mouth is important, as it provides weighty counter-evidence to the popular Orthodox view. I am unaware of a scholarly work that explore’s Chrysostom’s view of perdition in-depth, but do take a look at the chapters on judgment and hell in The Mystery of Death by Nikolaos P. Vassiliadis.
The Latin and Greek Fathers are largely united on the retributive nature of hell: God justly punishes the reprobate. A minority report does exist, however—represented by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St Gregory of Nyssa, St Ambrose of Milan, St Isaac of Nineveh. According to this report, God punishes principally to teach, correct, convert, purify. When this purpose cannot be achieved, the infliction of suffering serves no further purpose—hence the incoherence and pointlessness of everlasting divine retribution (see Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis; John Sachs, “Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology“; also see the now dated Universalism The Prevailing Doctrine of The Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years by J. W. Hanson). Tragically, the retributive views of Augustine in the West and the Emperor Justinian in the East prevailed, and the minority report was filed away. The emergence in Orthodoxy of the “hell is heaven experienced differently” doctrine might be seen as the report’s partial recovery. Doctrine develops and is still developing.
The question of differences between the Greek and Latin Fathers raises an interesting dogmatic question: If the Latin Fathers are in fact Church Fathers, by what authority do we dismiss their views about perdition whenever they happen to differ with Eastern Fathers? Does East always trump West?
But can we not at least agree that the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553) dogmatically defined the eternity of hell and rejected all forms of universalism? My quick answer is no, but rather than rehearsing the arguments, I refer you to “Apocatastasis: The Heresy that Never Was” and “The Dogmatic Status of Apokatastasis.” Let’s just say that because of the significant differences between the condemned universalism of the sixth-century Origenists and the universalism of St Gregory Nyssen and St Isaac the Syrian, the question of duration is still open. Met Hilarion Alfeyev submits that an Orthodox formulation of apocatastasis may still be legitimately advanced:
There is also an Orthodox understanding of the apokatastasis, as well as a notion of the non-eternity of hell. Neither has ever been condemned by the Church and both are deeply rooted in the experience of the Paschal mystery of Christ’s victory over the powers of darkness. (The Mystery of Faith, p. 217; also see Andrew Louth, “Eastern Orthodox Eschatology“)
Is there a binding and irreformable dogma of hell in the Eastern Church? A diversity of beliefs about the last judgment and perdition existed in the patristic period, and this diversity continues to the present: eternal retribution, eternal self-damnation, and aeonic purgation. The Orthodox Church has yet to speak its definitive word.
(6 May 2013; rev.)