In A.D. 754 Emperor Constantine convened a counsel of bishops in Hieria to condemn the veneration of icons and prohibit the practice in the catholic Church. It identified itself as the “Holy, Great, and Ecumenical Seventh Synod.” Twenty three years later, the Empress Irene summoned a second seventh ecumenical council to repudiate the Synod of Hieria and restore the veneration of icons—the Second Council of Nicaea. The synodical acts (minutes) record that the definitions of the iconoclastic synod were examined by the bishops one by one and refuted when necessary. The following exchange is of particular interest for those concerned about the dogmatic status of everlasting perdition:
Definition 18. Gregory reads: “If any one confess not the resurrection of the dead, the judgment to come, the retribution of each one according to his merits, in the righteous balance of the Lord that neither will there be any end of punishment nor indeed of the kingdom of heaven, that is the full enjoyment of God, for the kingdom of heaven is not meat and drink but righteousness joy and peace in the Holy Ghost, as the divine Apostle teaches, let him be anathema.”
Epiphanius reads: “This is the confession of the patrons of our true faith the holy Apostles, the divinely inspired Fathers—this is the confession of the Catholic Church and not of heretics.”1
This exchange came to my attention via Craig Trulia’s article “Nicea II’s Teaching on Eternal Damnation, Origen, and Apocatastasis.” Mr Truglia treats Epiphanius’ statement as if it were an authoritative conciliar pronouncement. That’s an understandable mistake, given the exclamation of approval (“This is the confession …”); but it misunderstands how a church council defines dogma. If we wish to learn what a council has doctrinally determined, we look to its decrees and canons. Conversations between the bishops may help us to better interpret the decrees and canons, but they do not represent the dogmatic voice of the council.
I do not doubt that the anathema read by Gregory accurately states what many, most, or all of the bishops believed in 787; in that sense it is a valuable piece of historical evidence. In particular it tells us that the Church then taught (1) that God retributively punishes the damned and (2) that this punishment is everlasting. SS Augustine and Justinian would have been pleased. That the Church of the 8th century taught everlasting perdition does not surprise, but that she also taught everlasting retributive punishment may raise an Orthodox eyebrow or two. That’s what the Latins teach, not us. But these two passages from St Sophronius of Jerusalem’s Synodal Letter (680) confirm the retributive reading:
From thence he will come again to make judgement of the living and the dead, and to repay each one according to the actions which each has performed, whether someone has performed good and beautiful deeds, or foul and blameworthy. (2.3.17)
Being free of all their lawless babblings and walking in the footsteps of our Fathers, we both speak of the consummation of the present world and believe that that life which is to come after the present life will last forever, and we hold to unending punishment; the former will gladden unceasingly those who have performed excellent deeds, but the latter will bring pain without respite, and also indeed punishment, on those who became lovers of what was vile in this life and refused to repent before the end of their course and departure hence. (2.4.4)2
But is this what the Orthodox Church popularly teaches today? The answer is no. Orthodox bishops, priests, theologians are keen to distinguish the Eastern understanding of hell from the Roman Catholic doctrine. We do not believe that the philanthropic Trinity would endlessly punish his children. Fr John Romanides speaks for many Orthodox:
All human beings will see the glory of God, and from this point of view they have the same end. Everyone will certainly see the glory of God, the difference being that, whereas the saved will see the glory of God as sweetest light without evening, the damned will see the same glory of God as consuming fire, as fire that will burn them. It is a true and predictable fact that we shall all see the glory of God. Seeing God, that is to say, His glory and His Light, is something that will happen whether we want it or not. The experience of this Light, however, will be different for the two categories…. The Church does not send anyone to Paradise or to Hell, but it prepares the faithful for the vision of Christ in glory, which everyone will have. God loves the damned as much as the Saints. He wants all to be cured, but not all accept the cure that He offers.
Paradise and Hell do not exist from the point of view of God, but from the point of view of human beings. God will love everyone equally. He will send His grace to all, in the same way as He will send His grace to all, in the same way as He “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Saint Matthew 5:45). But everyone will not accept God’s grace in the same way. Some will see God as Light and other as fire.
From this point of view, therefore, we Orthodox Christians agree with the most liberal people in the world. No message can be more liberal than that of the Holy Fathers of the Church, who not only stress that, ‘Son, we’ll all go to the same place’, as an old lady told me, but also emphasize that God loves everyone equally: the damned and the saved, the glorified and the saints, Angels and devils, good and bad, prostitutes and chaste … God loves all human beings equally, He loves everyone without distinction. From God’s point of view, God saves everyone. He wants the salvation of all human beings, and he has preordained salvation for all.
How do we know this? Because even Hell is salvation (the human being is preserved) and Hell is a way of making perfect, but it is Hell and not Paradise. Because the one who is damned is incapable of progress, he is unable to accept progress towards perfection. Why? Because his conscience has been hardened, his heart has grown hard. He remains so egoistic and self-centered that his personality cannot develop from selfishness to unselfishness. Since he cannot develop anymore, he is perfected in his selfishness. Even Hell is evil for him. Although it is not punishment from God’s point of view, it is punishment from the human point of view.3
The God of love only wills the salvation of human beings. In the eschaton all will be immersed in the divine glory. The redeemed will experience this glory as bliss and joy; the damned, as torment. In other words, God does not cause the eternal suffering of the reprobate; they bring it upon themselves, much as a heroin addict who refuses treatment brings upon himself the consequences of his drug use. The wicked, Romanides tells us, have not availed themselves of the divine therapy; hence they are incapable of experiencing the presence of God as anything but wrath and condemnation. Perhaps we might imagine the last judgment something like this: We are brought into a room filled with the uncreated light, infinitely brighter than 10,000 suns. Everywhere we turn, there is this blazing, inescapable illumination. Those whose eyes have been transformed in the Spirit will see God to their joy and happiness (God is their paradise); but those with untransformed eyes will find the light an excruciating, interminable, irrelievable torture (God is their hell). Romanides contends that he is accurately representing the consensual view of the Fathers, both East and West. I’m dubious. It’s easy enough to find patristic citations that clearly state that in his justice God actively punishes the wicked; it’s not so easy to find citations that suggest that the wicked suffer because they cannot abide the intense presence of God. That would cast the divine Judge in the role of a passive spectator. I suppose it’s possible to construe Epiphanius’s statement in a way that approximates the “hell is heaven experienced differently” position; but that really seems to be stretching things, both lexically and philosophically. Epiphanius, after all, speaks of retribution according to merit. In the words of our Lord: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me” (Matt 25:41-43). Christ does not say “You have departed” but “Depart!”
If in their obdurate selfishness the damned suffer eternally, it is because God has determined that they deserve to suffer eternally. That is what retribution means. And if God determines that the damned should suffer eternally, then this is his ultimate, final, and just will. As David B. Hart has so cogently argued, in the eschaton God’s consequent will becomes his antecedent will.4 If he did not positively will the continuing existence of the lost in their irremediable condition of ill-being, they would disappear from existence. The final future reveals both God’s original purposes and his eternal character. If he continues to preserve the damned in their condition of ill-being, then this must be understood as divine reprobation and condign punition; otherwise he would be guilty of injustice. Everlasting damnation thus reveals that the divine love is not absolute and unconditional. In the eschatological end, justice (if it be justice) triumphs over mercy; the wicked are everlastingly subjected to God’s holy wrath. Such is the logic of the creatio ex nihilo. Romanides’ intent is clear. He wishes to absolve God of responsibility for the sufferings of the damned. Through a lifetime of iniquity and impenitence, they have freely chosen their fate. They have no one to blame but themselves. Romanides’ proposal, therefore, belongs to the free-will model of hell (“the doors of hell are locked from the inside”), which has become the dominant model in Catholic and Protestant theology.5 His Eastern construal differs from most Western free-will proposals in this one respect: the damned suffer not because of their alienation from the divine source of life but from the intensity of the divine presence. But this difference is minor and simply boils down to different metaphorical preferences. The “outer darkness” is no less a mode of the divine presence than the “consuming fire.” Romanides’ claim that hell is not punishment from God’s point of view but only from the point of view of the damned cannot be sustained, nor do I think that either Epiphanius or Sophronius would have found it coherent. It forgets what it means for God to be God and eschaton to be eschaton.6 Paradise and hell are not the same, no matter whose point of view we are considering. In their hardness of heart, the damned suffer everlastingly. This suffering serves no redemptive purpose, because not only are the damned incapable of altering their hardness of heart but so is their Creator! It’s as if God has created a rock he cannot lift. Why then does God condemn the reprobate to unendurable existence? If the infliction of retributive punishment is morally unacceptable, why not put them out of their misery? Would that not be the compassionate thing to do? We euthanize animals to relieve them of their extreme suffering; but according to Romanides, preserving the damned in an irreversible condition of ill-being and misery is an act of love. Nonsense and balderdash!
We are led to this conclusion: if Epiphanius has enunciated the dogmatic will of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, then the popular “river of fire” understanding of damnation is heretical. If it is not heretical, then a significant correction of doctrine has taken place. In both Orthodox catechetical instruction and preaching, hell as retributive punishment for our sins has been replaced by hell as self-inflicted incapacity to enjoy God. How then can the opponents of universal salvation insist that further correction is impossible? Apokatastasis is the logical conclusion of the intuitions and motivations that underlie the river of fire model of hell. The theological trajectory is clear and enjoys the strong patristic support of St Gregory of Nyssa and St Isaac the Syrian. If the word “correction” disturbs, substitute the word “refinement,” “clarification,” or “development.” The result is the same.
Romanides is correct. God is absolute love, and his love is a consuming fire. He is also correct when he writes that “even Hell is salvation.” How could it be otherwise? From beginning to end, the Lord wills our good and well-being, never our ill-being. For this reason he cannot and will not be satisfied until the wicked have been made pure and their wills converted to love and adoration. The dross of evil will be consumed in the eternal flames of the Holy Spirit. Love will be all in all. Again I ask, How could it be otherwise? Perhaps better than any theologian in the history of the Church, George MacDonald apprehended most truly and most deeply the consuming fire of omnipotent Love:
He is a consuming fire, that only that which cannot be consumed may stand forth eternal. It is the nature of God, so terribly pure that it destroys all that is not pure as fire, which demands like purity in our worship. He will have purity. It is not that the fire will burn us if we do not worship thus; but that the fire will burn us until we worship thus; yea, will go on burning within us after all that is foreign to it has yielded to its force, no longer with pain and consuming, but as the highest consciousness of life, the presence of God.7
Such is the glorious Spirit-inspired development of doctrine that the Orthodox mind must know and will know—and in its profoundest depths does know—to be true and genuine. Does it not resonate in the depths of your being? Does not this gospel of God’s absolute, unconditional, and consuming love inflame your heart with hope and transcendent joy?
But why has it taken so long for God to correct his Church and refine her teaching? Why did he tarry? We do not know. But why think we are still not in the early days of the Church?
 The Seventh General Council, p. 423.
 Pauline Allen’s English translation of the Synodal Letter may be found in Sophronius of Jerusalem and Seventh-Century Heresy. On the eschatology of the Church Fathers, see Brian Daley, Hope of the Early Church. Seven centuries after St Sophronius, St Gregory Palamas would declare: “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” (quoted in Nikolaos P. Vassiliadis, The Mystery of Death, pp. 509-510).
 Empirical Dogmatics of the Orthodox Church (pagination unknown). I have not read this book and have taken the citations from the net. If I have misinterpreted Romanides’ position, please let me know so I can make the necessary corrections. In my opinion, “The River of Fire” by Alexandre Kalomiros remains the most compelling presentation of this model of damnation. Also see “Paradise and Hell in Orthodox Tradition” by George Metallinos and “Heaven and Hell in the Afterlife According to the Bible” by Peter Chopelas.
Several years ago Bishop Irenei Steenberg criticized the popular “hell is but heaven experienced differently” position on the now-defunct Monachos forum. In 2015 he was asked about his view in an interview. Here is his response:
You raise a big and a heated point. And you’re right that I have written and spoken about some of these questions, and have been criticized for not following what has become a popular line in modern day discussions. A tremendous amount of the discussion that takes place, particularly on the internet (which really is just the avenue for fruitless discussion), focuses on this idea that has become immensely popular since the mid-1980s that there is no distinction between heaven and hell—that they are one place that is “experienced differently.” Now, this simply is not to be found in the Tradition of the Church, save for, as near as I have ever been able to discern, two paragraphs in the entire history of the Church—one from St. Gregory of Nyssa and one from St. Isaac the Syrian. Two paragraphs … paragraphs. Not books, not lives, but paragraphs.
I trust I’m not the only one who is amused by the irony that universalist saints Gregory and Isaac are the the two principal sources behind the teaching.
 See Thomas Talbott’s entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought.”
 See my article “Divine Presence and the River of Fire,” as well as the constructive conversation between Zach Manis and myself in the comments.
(Go to “Unconditional Divine Love“)