by Alexandre Kalomiros
As presented at the 1980 Orthodox Conference sponsored by St. Nectarios American Orthodox Church, Seattle, Washington. A hard copy of this address may be purchased from Saint Nectarios Press.
A reply to the questions: (1) Is God really good? (2) Did God create hell?
* * *
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Reverend fathers, dear brothers and sisters:
There is no doubt that we are living in the age of apostasy predicted for the last days. In practice, most people are atheists, although many of them theoretically still believe. Indifference and the spirit of this world prevail everywhere.
What is the reason for this state?
The reason is the cooling of love. Love for God no more burns in human hearts, and in consequence, love between us is dead, too.
What is the cause of this waning of men’s love for God? The answer, certainly, is sin. Sin is the dark cloud which does not permit God’s light to reach our eyes.
But sin always did exist. So how did we arrive at the point of not simply ignoring God, but of actually hating Him? Man’s attitude toward God today is not really ignorance, or really indifference. If you examine men carefully you will notice that their ignorance or indifference is tainted by a deep hate. But nobody hates anything that does not exist.
I have the suspicion that men today believe in God more than at any other time in human history. Men know the gospel, the teaching of the Church, and God’s creation better than at any other time. They have a profound consciousness of His existence. Their atheism is not a real disbelief. It is rather an aversion toward somebody we know very well but whom we hate with all our heart, exactly as the demons do.
We hate God, that is why we ignore Him, overlooking Him as if we did not see Him, and pretending to be atheists. In reality we consider Him our enemy par excellence. Our negation is our vengeance, our atheism is our revenge.
But why do men hate God? They hate Him not only because their deeds are dark while God is light, but also because they consider Him as a menace, as an imminent and eternal danger, as an adversary in court, as an opponent at law, as a public prosecutor and an eternal persecutor. To them, God is no more the almighty physician who came to save them from illness and death, but rather a cruel judge and a vengeful inquisitor.
You see, the devil managed to make men believe that God does not really love us, that He really only loves Himself, and that He accepts us only if we behave as He wants us to behave; that He hates us if we do not behave as He ordered us to behave, and is offended by our insubordination to such a degree that we must pay for it by eternal tortures, created by Him for that purpose.
Who can love a torturer? Even those who try hard to save themselves from the wrath of God cannot really love Him. They love only themselves, trying to escape God’s vengeance and to achieve eternal bliss by managing to please this fearsome and extremely dangerous Creator.
Do you perceive the devil’s slander of our all loving, all kind, and absolutely good God? That is why in Greek the devil was given the name diabolos, “the slanderer.”
But what was the instrument of the devil’s slandering of God? What means did he use in order to convince humanity, in order to pervert human thought?
He used “theology.” He first introduced a slight alteration in theology which, once it was accepted, he managed to increase more and more to the degree that Christianity became completely unrecognizable. This is what we call “Western theology.”
Did you ever try to pinpoint what is the principal characteristic of Western theology? Well, its principal characteristic is that it considers God as the real cause of all evil.
What is evil? Is it not the estrangement from God Who is Life?1 Is it not death? What does Western theology teach about death? All Roman Catholics and most Protestants consider death as a punishment from God. God considered all men guilty of Adam’s sin and punished them by death, that is by cutting them away from Himself; depriving them of His live giving energy, and so killing them spiritually at first and later bodily, by some sort of spiritual starvation. Augustine interprets the passage in Genesis “If you eat of the fruit of this tree, you will die the death” as “If you eat of the fruit of this tree, I will kill you.”
Some Protestants consider death not as a punishment but as something natural. But. is not God the creator of all natural things? So in both cases, God — for them — is the real cause of death.
And this is true not only for the death of the body. It is equally true for the death of the soul. Do not Western theologians consider hell, the eternal spiritual death of man, as a punishment from God? And do they not consider the devil as a minister of God for the eternal punishment of men in hell?
The “God” of the West is an offended and angry God, full of wrath for the disobedience of men, who desires in His destructive passion to torment all humanity unto eternity for their sins, unless He receives an infinite satisfaction for His offended pride.
What is the Western dogma of salvation? Did not God kill God in order to satisfy His pride, which the Westerners euphemistically call justice? And is it not by this infinite satisfaction that He deigns to accept the salvation of some of us?
What is salvation for Western theology? Is it not salvation from the wrath of God?2
Do you see, then, that Western theology teaches that our real danger and our real enemy is our Creator and God? Salvation, for Westerners, is to be saved from the hands of God!
How can one love such a God? How can we have faith in someone we detest? Faith in its deeper essence is a product of love, therefore, it would be our desire that one who threatens us not even exist, especially when this threat is eternal.
Even if there exists a means of escaping the eternal wrath of this omnipotent but wicked Being (the death of His Son in our stead), it would be much better if this Being did not exist. This was the most logical conclusion of the mind and of the heart of the Western peoples, because even eternal Paradise would be abhorrent with such a cruel God. Thus was atheism born, and this is why the West was its birthplace. Atheism was unknown in Eastern Christianity until Western theology was introduced there, too. Atheism is the consequence of Western theology.3 Atheism is the denial, the negation of an evil God. Men became atheists in order to be saved from God, hiding their head and closing their eyes like an ostrich. Atheism, my brothers, is the negation of the Roman Catholic and Protestant God. Atheism is not our real enemy. The real enemy is that falsified and distorted “Christianity.”
Westerners speak frequently of the “Good God” (e.g., in France le bon dieu is almost always used when speaking of God). Western Europe and America, however, were never convinced that such a Good God existed. On the contrary, they were calling God good in the way Greeks called the curse and malediction of smallpox, eulogia, that is, a blessing, a benediction, in order to exorcise it and charm it away. For the same reason, the Black Sea was called Eu xeinov Pontov — the hospitable sea — although it was, in fact, a dreadful and treacherous sea. Deep inside the Western soul, God was felt to be the wicked Judge, Who never forgot even the smallest offense done to Him in our transgressions of His laws.
This juridical conception of God, this completely distorted interpretation of God’s justice, was nothing else than the projection of human passions on theology. It was a return to the pagan process of humanizing God and deifying man. Men are vexed and angered when not taken seriously and consider it a humiliation which only vengeance can remove, whether it is by crime or by duel. This was the worldly, passionate conception of justice prevailing in the minds of a so-called “Christian” society.
Western Christians thought about God’s justice in the same way also; God, the infinite Being, was infinitely insulted by Adam’s disobedience. He decided that the guilt of Adam’s disobedience descended equally to all His children, and that all were to be sentenced to death for Adam’s sin, which they did not commit. God’s justice for Westerners operated like a vendetta. Not only the man who insulted you, but also all his family must die. And what was tragic for men, to the point of hopelessness, was that no man, nor even all humanity, could appease God’s insulted dignity, even if all men in history were to be sacrificed. God’s dignity could be saved only if He could punish someone of the same dignity as He. So in order to save both God’s dignity and mankind, there was no other solution than the incarnation of His Son, so that a man of godly dignity could be sacrificed to save God’s honor.
This paganistic conception of God’s justice which demands infinite sacrifices in order to be appeased clearly makes God our real enemy and the cause of all our misfortunes. Moreover, it is a justice which is not at all just since it punishes and demands satisfaction from persons which were not at all responsible for the sin of their forefathers.4 In other words, what Westerners call justice ought rather to be called resentment and vengeance of the worst kind. Even Christ’s love and sacrifice loses its significance and logic in this schizoid notion of a God who kills God in order to satisfy the so-called justice of God.
Does this conception of justice have anything to do with the justice that God revealed to us? Does the phrase “justice of God” have this meaning in the Old and New Testaments?
Perhaps the beginning of the mistaken interpretation of the word justice in the Holy Scriptures was its translation by the Greek word dikaiosune. Not that it is a mistaken translation, but because this word, being a word of the pagan, humanistic, Greek civilization, was charged with human notions which could easily lead to misunderstandings.
First of all, the word dikaiosune brings to mind an equal distribution. This is why it is represented by a balance. The good are rewarded and the bad are punished by human society in a fair way. This is human justice, the one which takes place in court.
Is this the meaning of God’s justice, however?
The word dikaiosune, “justice”, is a translation of the Hebraic word tsedaka. This word means “the divine energy which accomplishes man’s salvation. It is parallel and almost synonymous to the other Hebraic word, hesed which means “mercy,” “compassion,” “love,” and to the word, emeth which means “fidelity,” “truth.” This, as you see, gives a completely other dimension to what we usually conceive as justice.5 This is how the Church understood God’s justice. This is what the Fathers of the Church taught of it. “How can you call God just,” writes Saint Isaac the Syrian, “when you read the passage on the wage given to the workers? ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong; I will give unto this last even as unto thee who worked for me from the first hour. Is thine eye evil, because I am good?’” “How can a man call God just,” continues Saint Isaac, “when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son, who wasted his wealth in riotous living, and yet only for the contrition which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck, and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him lest we doubt it, and thus He bare witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for whilst we were sinners, Christ died for us!”6
So we see that God is not just, with the human meaning of this word, but we see that His justice means His goodness and love, which are given in an unjust manner, that is, God always gives without taking anything in return, and He gives to persons like us who are not worthy of receiving. That is why Saint Isaac teaches us: “Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. “He is good,” He says, “to the evil and impious.’”7
God is good, loving, and kind toward those who disregard, disobey, and ignore Him.8 He never returns evil for evil, He never takes vengeance.9 His punishments are loving means of correction, as long as anything can be corrected and healed in this life.10 They never extend to eternity. He created everything good.11 The wild beasts recognize as their master the Christian who through humility has gained the likeness of God. They draw near to him, not with fear, but with joy, in grateful and loving submission; they wag their heads and lick his hands and serve him with gratitude. The irrational beasts know that their Master and God is not evil and wicked and vengeful, but rather full of love. (See also St. Isaac of Syria, SWZOMENA ASKHTIKA [Athens, 1871], pp. 95-96.) He protected and saved us when we fell. The eternally evil has nothing to do with God. It comes rather from the will of His free, logical creatures, and this will He respects.12
Death was not inflicted upon us by God.13 We fell into it by our revolt. God is Life and Life is God. We revolted against God, we closed our gates to His life-giving grace.14 “For as much as he departed from life”, wrote Saint Basil, “by so much did he draw nearer to death. For God is Life, deprivation of life is death.”15 “God did not create death,” continues Saint Basil, “but we brought it upon ourselves.” “Not at all, however, did He hinder the dissolution … so that He would not make the infirmity immortal in us.”16 As Saint Irenaeus puts it: “Separation from God is death, separation from light is darkness … and it is not the light which brings upon them the punishment of blindness.”17
“Death,” says Saint Maximus the Confessor, “is principally the separation from God, from which followed necessarily the death of the body. Life is principally He who said, ‘I am the Life.’”18 And why did death come upon the whole of humanity? Why did those who did not sin with Adam die as did Adam? Here is the reply of Saint Anastasius the Sinaite: “We became the inheritors of the curse in Adam. We were not punished as if we had disobeyed that divine commandment along with Adam; but because Adam became mortal, he transmitted sin to his posterity. We became mortal since we were born from a mortal.”19 And Saint Gregory Palamas makes this point: “[God] did not say to Adam: return to whence thou wast taken; but He said to him: Earth thou art and unto the earth thou shall return…. He did not say: ‘in whatsoever day ye shall eat of it, die!’ but, ‘in whatsoever day ye shall eat of it, ye shall surely die.’ Nor did He afterwards say: ‘return now unto the earth,’ but He said, ‘thou shalt return,’ in this manner forewarning, justly permitting and not obstructing what shall come to pass.”20 We see that death did not come at the behest of God but as a consequence of Adam’s severing his relations with the source of Life, by his disobedience; and God in His kindness did only warn him of it.
“The tree of knowledge itself,” says Theophilus of Antic, “was good, and its fruit was good. For it was not the tree, as some think, that had death in it, but the disobedience which had death in it; for there was nothing else in the fruit but knowledge alone, and knowledge is good when one uses it properly.”21 The Fathers teach us that the prohibition to taste the tree of knowledge was not absolute but temporary. Adam was a spiritual infant. Not all foods are good for infants. Some foods may even kill them although adults would find them wholesome. The tree of knowledge was planted by God for man. It was good and nourishing. But it was solid food, while Adam was able to digest only milk.
So in the language of the Holy Scriptures, “just” means good and loving. We speak of the just men of the Old Testament. That does not mean that they were good judges but that they were kind and God-loving people. When we say that God is just, we do not mean that He is a good judge Who knows how to punish men equitably according to the gravity of their crimes, but on the contrary, we mean that He is kind and loving, forgiving all transgressions and disobediences, and that He wants to save us by all means, and never requites evil for evil.22 In the first volume of the Philokalia there is a magnificent text of Saint Anthony which I must read to you here:
God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honor Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind. [Chap. 150]23
You see now, I hope, how God was slandered by Western theology. Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas and all their pupils contributed to this “theological” calumny. And they are the foundations of Western theology, whether Papist or Protestant. Certainly these theologians do not say expressly and clearly that God is a wicked and passionate being. They rather consider God as being chained by a superior force, by a gloomy and implacable Necessity like the one which governed the pagan gods. This Necessity obliges Him to return evil for evil and does not permit Him to pardon and to forget the evil done against His will, unless an infinite satisfaction is offered to Him.
We open here the great question of pagan, Greek influence on Christianity.
The pagan mentality was in the foundation of all heresies. It was very strong in the East, because the East was the crossroad of all philosophical and religious currents. But as we read in the New Testament, “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” So when heresies flourished, Orthodoxy flourished also, and although it was persecuted by the mighty of this world, it always survived victorious. In the West, on the contrary, the pagan Greek mentality entered in unobtrusively, without taking the aspect of heresy. It entered in through the multitude of Latin texts dictated by Augustine, bishop of Hippo. Saint John Cassian who was living then in the West understood the poison that was in Augustine’s teachings, and fought against it. But the fact that Augustine’s books were written in Latin and the fact that they were extremely lengthy did not permit their study by the other Fathers of the Church, and so they were never condemned as Origen’s works were condemned in the East. This fact permitted them to exercise a strong influence later in Western thought and theology. In the West, little by little knowledge of the Greek language vanished, and Augustine’s texts were the only books available dating from ancient times in a language understood there. So the West received as Christian a teaching which was in many of its aspects pagan. Caesaro-papist developments in Rome did not permit any healthy reaction to this state of affairs, and so the West was drowned in the humanistic, pagan thought which prevails to this day.24
So we have the East on the one side which, speaking and writing Greek, remained essentially the New Israel with Israelitic thought and sacred tradition, and the West on the other side which having forgotten the Greek language and having been cut off from the Eastern state, inherited pagan Greek thought and its mentality, and formed with it an adulterated Christian teaching.
In reality, the opposition between Orthodoxy and Western Christianity is nothing else but the perpetuation of the opposition between Israel and Hellas.
We must never forget that the Fathers of the Church considered themselves to be the true spiritual children of Abraham, that the Church considered itself to be the New Israel, and that the Orthodox peoples, whether Greek, Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Romanian, etc., were conscious of being like Nathaniel, true Israelites, the People of God. And while this was the real consciousness of Eastern Christianity, the West became more and more a child of pagan, humanistic Greece and Rome.
What were the principal characteristics of this difference of thought between Israel and paganism? I call your attention to this very important matter.
Israel believes in God.
Paganism believes in creation. That is to say, in paganism creation is deified. For the pagans, God and creation are one and the same thing. God is impersonal, personified in a multitude of gods.
Israel (and when we speak of Israel we mean the true Israel, the spiritual sons of Abraham, those who have the faith given by God to His chosen people, not those who have abandoned this faith, The real sons of Abraham are the Church of Christ, and not those carnal descendants, the Jewish race), Israel knows that God and creation are two radically different kinds of existence. God is self existent, personal, eternal, immortal, Life and the Source of life, Existence and the Source of existence; God is the only real Existence: Ὁ ὬΝ, the Existing, the Only Existing; this is the meaning of the article Ὁ.25
Creation, on the contrary, has no self-existence. It is totally dependent on the will of God. It exists only so long as God wants it to exist. It is not eternal. It had no existence. It was null, it was completely nothing. It was created out of nothingness.26 By itself it has no force of existence; it is kept in existence by God’s Energy. If this loving Energy of God ever stops, creation and all created beings, intellectual or non-intellectual, rational or irrational will vanish into non-existence. We know that God’s love for His creation is eternal. We know from Him that He will never let us fall into non-existence, from which He brought us into being. This is our hope and God is true in His promises. We, created beings, angels, and men, will live in eternity, not because we have in us the power of eternity, but because this is the will of God Who loves us. By ourselves we are nothing. We have not the least energy of life and of existence in our nature; that which we have comes entirely from God; nothing is ours. We are dirt of the earth, and when we forgot it, God in His mercy permitted that we return to what we are, in order that we remain humble and have exact knowledge of our nothingness. 27 “God,” says Saint John Damascene elsewhere, “can do all that He wills, even though He does not will all things that He can do — for He can destroy creation, but He does not will to do so. (Ibid. I, 14), 28
In the Great Euchologion (Venice, 1862), a fundamental liturgical book of the Church, we read:
“O God, the great and most high, Thou Who alone hast immortality”
[7th prayer of Vespers, p. 15]
“Thou Who alone art life-giving by nature… O only immortal”
[Ode 5, Funeral Canon for Laymen, p. 410]
“Thou art the only immortal.”
“The only One Who is immortal because of His godly nature”
[Ode 1, Funeral Canon for Laymen, p. 471]
This is the faith of Israel.
What is the teaching of paganism? Paganism is the consequence of the loss of contact with God. The multitude of the sins of humanity made men incapable of receiving the divine light and of having any union with the Living God. The consequence was to consider as something divine the creation which they saw before them every day.
Paganism considers creation as being something self-existent and immortal, something that always existed and will always exist. In paganism the gods are part of creation. They did not create it from nothingness, they only formed the existing matter. Matter can take different forms. Forms come into existence and vanish, but matter itself is eternal. Angels, demons, and the souls of men are the real gods. Eternal by their nature, as is matter itself, they are, however, higher than matter. They might take different material forms in a sequence of material existences but they remain essentially spiritual.
So in paganism we see two fundamental characteristics:
- An attributing of the characteristics of godhood to the whole of creation, that is: eternity, immortality, self-existence.
- A distinction between the spiritual and the material and an antagonism between the two as between something higher and something lower.
Paganism and humanism are one and the same thing. In paganism, man is god because he is eternal by nature. This is why paganism is always haughty. It is narcissism. It is self-adoration. In Greece, the gods had human characteristics. Greek religion was the pagan adoration of man. The soul of man was considered his real being, and was immortal by nature.
So we see that in paganism the devil succeeded in creating a universal belief that men were gods and so did not need God. This is why pride was so high in Greece and why humility was inconceivable. In his work The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes the following words: “Not to resent offenses is the mark of a base and slavish man.” The man who is convinced by the devil to believe in the error that his soul is eternal by nature, can never be humble and can never really believe in God, because he does not need God, being God himself, as his error makes him believe.
This is why, from the very first, the Fathers of the Church, understanding the danger of this stupid error, warned the Christians of the fact that, as Saint Irenaeus puts it: “The teaching that the human soul is naturally immortal is from the devil” (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, III, 20. 1). We find the same warning in Saint Justin (Dialogue with Trypho 6. 1-2), in Theophilus of Antioch (To Autolycus 2.97), in Tatian (To the Greeks 13), etc.
Saint Justin explains the fundamental atheism which exists in the belief of the natural eternity and immortality of the human soul. He writes: “There are some others who, having supposed that the soul is immortal and immaterial, believe though they have committed evil they will not suffer punishment (for that which is immaterial is also insensible), and that the soul, in consequence of its immorality needs nothing from God” (Dialogue with Trypho 1).
Paganism is ignorance of the true God, an erroneous belief that His creation is divine, really a god. This god, however, who is Nature, is impersonal, a blind force, above all personal gods, and is called Necessity (anagkhç). In reality, this Necessity is the projection of human reason, as a mathematical necessity governing the world, It is a projection of rationalism upon nature. This rationalistic Necessity is the true, supreme blind god of the pagans. The pagan gods are parts of the world, and they are immortal because of the immortality of nature which is their essence. In this pagan mentality, man is also god like the others, because for the pagans the real man is only his soul,29 and they believe that man’s soul is immortal in itself, since it is part of the essence of the universe, which is considered immortal in itself and self-existent. So man also is god and a measure of all things.
But the gods are not free. They are governed by Necessity which is impersonal.
It is this pagan way of thought that was mixed with the Christian teaching by the various heresies. This is what happened in the West, too. They began to distinguish not between God and His creation, but between spirit and matter.30 They began to think of the soul of man as of something eternal in itself, and began to consider the condition of man after death not as a sleep in the hands of God, but as the real life of man,31 to which the resurrection of the dead had nothing to add and even the need of the resurrection was doubtful. The feast of the Resurrection of our Lord, which is the culmination of all feasts in Orthodoxy, began to fall into second place, because its need was as incomprehensible to the Western Christians as it was to the Athenians who heard the sermon of the Apostle Paul.
But what is more important for our subject, they began to feel that God was subject to Necessity, to this rationalistic Necessity which was nothing else but human logic. They declared Him incapable of coming into contact with inferior beings like men, because their rationalistic, philosophical conceptions did not permit it, and it was this belief which was the foundation of the hesychast disputes; it had already begun with Augustine who taught that it was not God Who spoke to Moses but an angel instead.
It is in this context of Necessity, which even gods obey, that we must understand the Western juridical conception of God’s justice. It was necessary for God to punish man’s disobedience. It was impossible for Him to pardon; a superior Necessity demanded vengeance. Even if God was in reality good and loving, He was not able to act lovingly. He was obliged to act contrary to His love; the only thing He could do, in order to save humanity, was to punish His Son in the place of men, and by this means was Necessity satisfied.
This is the triumph of Hellenistic thought in Christianity. As a Hellenist, Origen had arrived at the same conclusions. God was a judge by necessity. He was obliged to punish, to avenge, to send people to hell. Hell was God’s creation. It was a punishment demanded by justice. This demand of justice was a necessity. God was obliged to submit to it. He was not permitted to forgive. There was a superior force, a Necessity which did not permit Him to love unconditionally.
However, Origen was also a Christian and he knew that God was full of love. How is it possible to acknowledge a loving God Who keeps people in torment eternally? If God is the cause of hell, by necessity then there must be an end to it, otherwise we cannot concede that God is good and loving. This juridical conception of God as a instrument of a superior, impersonal force or deity named Necessity, leads logically to apokatastasis, “the restoration of all things and the destruction of hell,” otherwise we must admit that God is cruel.
The pagan Greek mentality could not comprehend that the cause of hell was not God but His logical creatures. If God was not really free, since He was governed by Necessity, how could His creatures be free? God could not give something which He did not possess Himself. Moreover, the pagan Greek mentality could not conceive of disinterested love. Freedom, however, is the highest gift that God could give to a creature, because freedom makes the logical creatures like God. This was an inconceivable gift for pagan Greeks. They could not imagine a creature which could say “no” to an almighty God. If God was almighty, creatures could not say “no” to Him. So if God gave men His grace, men could not reject it. Otherwise God would not be almighty. If we admit that God is almighty, then His grace must be irresistible. Men cannot escape from it. That means that those men who are deprived of God’s grace are deprived because God did not give His grace to them. So the loss of God s grace, which is eternal, spiritual death, in other words, hell, is in reality an act totally dependent on God. It is God Who is punishing these people by depriving them of His grace, by not permitting it to shine upon them. So God is the cause of the eternal, spiritual death of those who are damned. Damnation is an act of God, an act of God’s justice, an act of necessity or cruelty. As a result, Origen thought that if we are to remain Christians, if we are to continue to believe that God is really good, we must believe that hell is not eternal, but will have an end, in spite of all that is written in the Holy Scriptures and of what the Church believes. This is the fatal, perfectly logical conclusion. If God is the cause of hell, hell must have an end, or else God is an evil God.
Origen, and all rationalists who are like him, was not able to understand that the acceptance or the rejection of God’s grace depends entirely on the rational creatures; that God, like the sun, never stops shining on good or wicked alike; that rational creatures are, however, entirely free to accept or reject this grace and love; and that God in His genuine love does not force His creatures to accept Him, but respects absolutely their free decision.32 He does not withdraw His grace and love, but the attitude of the logical creatures toward this unceasing grace and love is the difference between paradise and hell. Those who love God are happy with Him, those who hate Him are extremely miserable by being obliged to live in His presence, and there is no place where one can escape the loving omnipresence of God.
Paradise or hell depends on how we will accept God’s love. Will we return love for love, or will we respond to His love with hate? This is the critical difference. And this difference depends entirely on us, on our freedom, on our innermost free choice, on a perfectly free attitude which is not influenced by external conditions or internal factors of our material and psychological nature, because it is not an external act but an interior attitude coming from the bottom of our heart, conditioning not our sins, but the way we think about our sins, as it is clearly seen in the case of the publican and the Pharisee and in the case of the two robbers crucified with Christ. This freedom, this choice, this inner attitude toward our Creator is the innermost core of our eternal personality, it is the most profound of our characteristics, it is what makes us that which we are, it is our eternal face — bright or dark, loving or hating.
No, my brothers, unhappily for us, paradise or hell does not depend on God. If it depended on God, we would have nothing to fear. We have nothing to fear from Love. But it does not depend on God. It depends entirely upon us, and this is the whole tragedy. God wants us to be in His image, eternally free. He respects us absolutely. This is love. Without respect, we cannot speak of love. We are men because we are free. If we were not free, we would be clever animals, not men. God will never take back this gift of freedom which renders us what we are. This means that we will always be what we want to be, friends or enemies of God, and there is no changing in this our deepest self. In this life, there are profound or superficial changes in our life, in our character, in our beliefs, but all these changes are only the expression in time of our deepest eternal self. This deep eternal self is eternal, with all the meaning of the word. This is why paradise and hell are also eternal. There is no changing in what we really are. Our temporal characteristics and our history in life depend on many superficial things ‘which vanish with death, but our real personality is not superficial and does not depend on changing and vanishing things. It is our real self. It remains with us when we sleep in the grave, and will be our real face in the resurrection. It is eternal.
Saint John of the Ladder says somewhere in his work that “before our fall the demons say to us that God is a friend of man; but after our fall, they say that He is inexorable.” This is the cunning lie of the devil: to convince us that any harm in our life has as its cause God’s disposition; that it is God Who will forgive us or Who will punish us. Wishing to throw us into sin and then to make us lose any hope of freeing ourselves from it, they seek to present God as sometimes forgiving all sins, and sometimes as inexorable. Most Christians, even Orthodox Christians, have fallen into this pit. They consider God responsible for our being pardoned or our being punished. This, my brothers, is a terrible falsehood which makes most men lose eternal life, principally because in considering God s love, they convince themselves that God, in His love, will pardon them. God is always loving, He is always pardoning, He is always a friend of man. However, that which never pardons, that which never is a friend of man, is sin, and we never think of it as we ought to. Sin destroys our soul independently of the love of God, because sin is precisely the road which leads away from God, because sin erects a wall which separates us from God, because sin destroys our spiritual eyes and makes us unable to see God’s light. The demons want to make us always think of our salvation or our eternal spiritual death in juridical terms. They want us to think that either salvation or eternal death is a question of God’s decision. No, my brothers, we must awaken in order not to be lost. Our salvation or our eternal death is not a question of God s decision, but it is a question of our decision, it is a question of the decision of our free will which God respects absolutely. Let us not fool ourselves with confidence in God’s love. The danger does not come from God; it comes from our own self.
Many will say: “Does not Holy Scripture itself often speak about the anger of God? Is it not God Himself who says that He will punish us or that He will pardon us? Is it not written that ‘He is a rewarded of them that diligently seek Him’ (Heb. 11:6)?33 Does He not say that vengeance is His and that He will requite the wickedness done to us? Is it not written that it is fearful to fall into the hands of the living God?”34
In his discourse entitled That God is not the Cause of Evil, Saint Basil the Great writes the following: “But one may say, if God is not responsible for evil things, why is it said in the book of Esaias, ‘I am He that prepared light and Who formed darkness, Who makes peace and Who creates evils’” (45:7). And again, “There came down evils from the Lord upon the gates of Jerusalem” (Mich. 1:12). And, “Shall there be evil in the city which the Lord hath not wrought?” (Amos 3:6). And in the great Ode of Moses, “Behold, I am and there is no god beside Me. I will slay, and I will make to live; I will smite, and I will heal” (Deut. 32:39). But none of these citations, to him who understands the deeper meaning of the Holy Scriptures, casts any blame on God, as if He were the cause of evils and their creator, for He Who said, “I am the One Who makes light and darkness,” shows Himself as the Creator of the universe, not that He is the creator of any evil…. “He creates evils,” that means, “He fashions them again and brings them to a betterment, so that they leave their evilness, to take on the nature of good.”35
As Saint Isaac the Syrian writes, “Very often many things are said by the Holy Scriptures and in it many names are used not in a literal sense … those who have a mind understand this” (Homily 83, p. 317).
Saint Basil in the same discourse36 gives the explanation of these expressions of the Holy Scriptures: “It is because fear,” says he, “edifies simpler people,” and this is true not only for simple people but for all of us. After our fall, we need fear in order to do any profitable thing and any good to ourselves or to others. In order to understand the Holy Scriptures, say the Fathers, we must have in mind their purpose which is to save us, and to bring us little by little to an understanding of our Creator God and of our wretched condition.
But the same Holy Scriptures in other places explain to us more accurately who is the real cause of our evils. In Jeremias 2:17, 19 we read: “Hath not thy forsaking Me brought these things upon thee? saith the Lord thy God…. Thine apostasy shall chastise thee and thy wickedness shall reprove thee; know then, and see that thy forsaking Me hath been bitter to thee, saith the Lord thy God.”
The Holy Scriptures speak our language, the language which we understand in our fallen state. As Saint Gregory the Theologian says, “For according to our own comprehension, we have given names from our own attributes to those of God.”37 And Saint John Damascene explains further that what in the Holy Scriptures “is said of God as if He had a body, is said symbolically … [it contains] some hidden meaning, which through things corresponding to our nature, teaches us things which exceed our nature.”38
However, there are punishments imposed upon us by God, or rather evils done to us by the devil and permitted by God. But these punishments are what we call pedagogical punishments. They have as their aim our correction in this life, or at least the correction of others who would take a lesson from our example and correct themselves by fear. There are also punishments which do not have the purpose of correcting anybody but simply put an end to evil by putting an end to those who are propagating it, so that the earth may be saved from perpetual corruption and total destruction; such was the case in the flood during Noe’s time, and in Sodom’s destruction.39
All these punishments operate and have their purpose in this corrupted state of things; they do not extend beyond this corrupted life. Their purpose is to correct what can be corrected, and to change things toward a better condition, while things can still change in this changing world. After the Common Resurrection no change whatever can take place. Eternity and incorruptibility are the state of unchangeable things; no alterations whatever happen then, only developments in the state chosen by free personalities; eternal and infinite developments but no changing, no alteration of direction, no going back. The changing world we see around us is changing because it is corruptible. The eternal New Heavens and New Earth which God will bring about in His Second Coming are incorruptible, that means, not changing. So in this New World there can be no correction whatever; therefore, pedagogical punishments are no longer necessary. Any punishment from God in this New World of Resurrection would be clearly and without a doubt a revengeful act, inappropriate and motivated by hate, without any good intention or purpose.
If we consider hell as a punishment from God, we must admit that it is a senseless punishment, unless we admit that God is an infinitely wicked being.
As Saint Isaac the Syrian says: “He who applies pedagogical punishments in order to give health, is punishing with love, but he who is looking for vengeance, is devoid of love. God punishes with love, not defending Himself — far be it — but He wants to heal His image, and He does not keep His wrath for long. This way of love is the way of uprightness, and it does not change with passion to a defense. A man who is just and wise is like God because he never chastises a man in revenge for wickedness, but only in order to correct him or that others be afraid” (Homily 73).
So we see that God punishes as long as there is hope for correction. After the Common Resurrection there is no question of any punishment from God. Hell is not a punishment from God but a self condemnation. As Saint Basil the Great says, “The evils in hell do not have God as their cause, but ourselves.”40
One could insist, however, that the Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers always speak of God as the Great Judge who will reward those who were obedient to Him and will punish those who were disobedient, in the day of the Great Judgment (II Tim. 4:6-8). How are we to understand this judgment if we are to understand the divine words not in a human but in a divine manner’? What is God’s judgment?
God is Truth and Light. God’s judgment is nothing else than our coming into contact with truth and light. In the day of the Great Judgment all men will appear naked before this penetrating light of truth. The “books” will be opened. What are these “books”? They are our hearts. Our hearts will be opened by the penetrating light of God, and what is in these hearts will be revealed. If in those hearts there is love for God, those hearts will rejoice seeing God’s light. If, on the contrary, there is hatred for God in those hearts, these men will suffer by receiving on their opened hearts this penetrating light of truth which they detested all their life.
So that which will differentiate between one man and another will not be a decision of God, a reward or a punishment from Him, but that which was in each one’s heart; what was there during all our life will be revealed in the Day of Judgment. If there is a reward and a punishment in this revelation — and there really is — it does not come from God but from the love or hate which reigns in our heart. Love has bliss in it, hatred has despair, bitterness, grief, affliction, wickedness, agitation, confusion, darkness, and all the other interior conditions which compose hell (I Cor. 4:6).
The Light of Truth, God’s Energy, God’s grace which will fall on men unhindered by corrupt conditions in the Day of Judgment, will be the same to all men. There will be no distinction whatever. All the difference lies in those who receive, not in Him Who gives. The sun shines on healthy and diseased eyes alike, without any distinction. Healthy eyes enjoy light and because of it see clearly the beauty which surrounds them. Diseased eyes feel pain, they hurt, suffer, and want to hide from this same light which brings such great happiness to those who have healthy eyes.
But alas, there is no longer any possibility of escaping God’s light. During this life there was. In the New Creation of the Resurrection, God will be everywhere and in everything. His light and love will embrace all. There will be no place hidden from God, as was the case during our corrupt life in the kingdom of the prince of this world.41 The devil’s kingdom will be despoiled by the Common Resurrection and God will take possession again of His creation.42 Love will enrobe everything with its sacred Fire which will flow like a river from the throne of God and will irrigate paradise. But this same river of Love — for those who have hate in their hearts — will suffocate and burn.
“For our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). The very fire which purifies gold, also consumes wood. Precious metals shine in it like the sun, rubbish burns with black smoke. All are in the same fire of Love. Some shine and others become black and dark. In the same furnace steel shines like the sun, whereas clay turns dark and is hardened like stone. The difference is in man, not in God.
The difference is conditioned by the free choice of man, which God respects absolutely. God’s judgment is the revelation of the reality which is in man.
Thus Saint Macarius writes:
“And as the kingdom of darkness, and sin, are hidden in the soul until the Day of Resurrection, when the bodies also of sinners shall be covered with the darkness that is now hidden in the soul, so also the Kingdom of Light, and the Heavenly Image, Jesus Christ, now mystically enlighten the soul, and reign in the soul of the saints, but are hidden from the eyes of men… until the Day of Resurrection; but then the body also shall be covered and glorified with the Light of the Lord, which is now in the man’s soul [from this earthly life], that the body also may reign with the soul which from now receives the Kingdom of Christ and rests and is enlightened with eternal light. (Homily 2)
Saint Symeon the New Theologian says that it is not what man does which counts in eternal life but what he is, whether he is like Jesus Christ our Lord, or whether he is different and unlike Him. He says, “In the future life the Christian is not examined if he has renounced the whole world for Christ’s love, or if he has distributed his riches to the poor or if he fasted or kept vigil or prayed, or if he wept and lamented for his sins, or if he has done any other good in this life, but he is examined attentively if he has any similitude with Christ, as a son does with his father.”
Saint Peter the Damascene writes: “We all receive God’s blessings equally. But some of us, receiving God’s fire, that is, His word, become soft like beeswax, while the others like clay become hard as stone. And if we do not want Him, He does not force any of us, but like the sun He sends His rays and illuminates the whole world, and he who wants to see Him, sees Him, whereas the one who does not want to see Him, is not forced by Him. And no one is responsible for this privation of light except the one who does not want to have it. God created the sun and the eye. Man is free to receive the sun’s light or not. The same is true here. God sends the light of knowledge like rays to all, but He also gave us faith like an eye. The one who wants to receive knowledge through faith, keeps it by his works, and so God gives him more willingness, knowledge, and power” (Philokalia, vol. 3, p. 8).
I think that by now we have reached the point of understanding correctly what eternal hell and eternal paradise really are, and who is in reality responsible for the difference.
In the icon of the Last Judgment we see Our Lord Jesus Christ seated on a throne. On His right we see His friends, the blessed men and women who lived by His love. On His left we see His enemies, all those who passed their life hating Him, even if they appeared to be pious and reverent. And there, in the midst of the two, springing from Christ’s throne, we see a river of fire coming toward us. What is this river of fire? Is it an instrument of torture? Is it an energy of vengeance coming out from God in order to vanquish His enemies?
No, nothing of the sort. This river of fire is the river which “came out from Eden to water the paradise” of old (Gen. 2:10). It is the river of the grace of God which irrigated God’s saints from the beginning. In a word, it is the out-pouring of God’s love for His creatures. Love is fire. Anyone who loves knows this. God is Love, so God is Fire. And fire consumes all those who are not fire themselves, and renders bright and shining all those who are fire themselves (Heb. 12:29).
God many times appeared as fire: To Abraham, to Moses in the burning bush, to the people of Israel showing them the way in the desert as a column of fire by night and as a shining cloud by day when He covered the tabernacle with His glory (Exod. 40:28, 32), and when He rained fire on the summit of Mount Sinai. God was revealed as fire on the mountain of Transfiguration, and He said that He came “to put fire upon the earth” (Luke 12:49), that is to say, love, because as Saint John of the Ladder says, “Love is the source of fire” (Step 30, 18).
The Greek writer, Fotis Kontoglou said somewhere that “Faith is fire, and gives warmth to the heart. The Holy Spirit came down upon the heads of the apostles in the form of tongues of fire. The two disciples, when the Lord was revealed to them, said “Did not our heart burn within us, while He talked with us in the way?” Christ compares faith to a “burning candle.” Saint John the Forerunner said in his sermons that Christ will baptize men “in the Holy Spirit and fire.” And truly, the Lord said, “I am come to send fire on the earth and what will I if it be already kindled? Well, the most tangible characteristic of faith is warmth; this is why they speak about “warm faith,” or “faith provoking warmth.” And even as the distinctive mark of faith is warmth, the sure mark of unbelief is coldness.
Do you want to know how to understand if a man has faith or unbelief? If you feel warmth coming out of him — from his eyes, from his words, from his manners — be certain that he has faith in his heart. If again you feel cold coming out of his whole being, that means that he has not faith, whatever he may say. He may kneel down, he may bend his head humbly, he may utter all sorts of moral teachings with a humble voice, but all these will breathe forth a chilling breath which falls upon you to numb you with cold.43
Saint Isaac the Syrian says that “Paradise is the love of God, in which the bliss of all the beatitudes is contained,” and that “the tree of life is the love of God” (Homily 72).
“Do not deceive yourself,” says Saint Symeon the New Theologian, “God is fire and when He came into the world, and became man, He sent fire on the earth, as He Himself says; this fire turns about searching to find material — that is a disposition and an intention that is good — to fall into and to kindle; and for those in whom this fire will ignite, it becomes a great flame, which reaches Heaven…. this flame at first purifies us from the pollution of passions and then it becomes in us food and drink and light and joy, and renders us light ourselves because we participate in His light” (Discourse 78).
God is a loving fire, and He is a loving fire for all: good or bad. There is, however, a great difference in the way people receive this loving fire of God. Saint Basil says that “the sword of fire was placed at the gate of paradise to guard the approach to the tree of life; it was terrible and burning toward infidels, but kindly accessible toward the faithful, bringing to them the light of day.”44 The same loving fire brings the day to those who respond to love with love, and burns those who respond to love with hatred.
Paradise and hell are one and the same River of God, a loving fire which embraces and covers all with the same beneficial will, without any difference or discrimination. The same vivifying water is life eternal for the faithful and death eternal for the infidels; for the first it is their element of life, for the second it is the instrument of their eternal suffocation; paradise for the one is hell for the other. Do not consider this strange. The son who loves his father will feel happy in his father’s arms, but if he does not love him, his father’s loving embrace will be a torment to him. This also is why when we love the man who hates us, it is likened to pouring lighted coals and hot embers on his head.
“I say,” writes Saint Isaac the Syrian, “that those who are suffering in hell, are suffering in being scourged by love…. It is totally false to think that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is a child of the knowledge of truth, and is unquestionably given commonly to all. But love’s power acts in two ways: it torments sinners, while at the same time it delights those who have lived in accord with it” (Homily 84).
God is love. If we really believe this truth, we know that God never hates, never punishes, never takes vengeance. As Abba Ammonas says, “Love never hates anyone, never reproves anyone, never condemns anyone, never grieves anyone, never abhors anyone, neither faithful nor infidel nor stranger nor sinner nor fornicator, nor anyone impure, but instead it is precisely sinners, and weak and negligent souls that it loves more, and feels pain for them and grieves and laments, and it feels sympathy for the wicked and sinners, more than for the good, imitating Christ Who called sinners, and ate and drank with them. For this reason, showing what real love is, He taught saying, ‘Become good and merciful like your Father in Heaven,’ and as He rains on bad and good and makes the sun to rise on just and unjust alike, so also is the one who has real love, and has compassion, and prays for all.”45
Now if anyone is perplexed and does not understand how it is possible for God’s love to render anyone pitifully wretched and miserable and even burning as it were in flames, let him consider the elder brother of the prodigal son. Was he not in his father’s estate? Did not everything in it belong to him? Did he not have his father’s love? Did his father not come himself to entreat and beseech him to come and take part in the joyous banquet? What rendered him miserable and burned him with inner bitterness and hate? Who refused him anything? Why was he not joyous at his brother’s return? Why did he not have love either toward his father or toward his brother? Was it not because of his wicked, inner disposition? Did he not remain in hell because of that? And what was this hell? Was it any separate place? Were there any instruments of torture? Did he not continue to live in his father’s house? What separated him from all the joyous people in the house if not his own hate and his own bitterness? Did his father, or even his brother, stop loving him? Was it not precisely this very love which hardened his heart more and more? Was it not the joy that made him sad? Was not hatred burning in his heart, hatred for his father and his brother, hatred for the love of his father toward his brother and for the love of his brother toward his father? This is hell: the negation of love; the return of hate for love; bitterness at seeing innocent joy; to be surrounded by love and to have hate in one’s heart. This is the eternal condition of all the damned. They are all dearly loved. They are all invited to the joyous banquet. They are all living in God’s Kingdom, in the New Earth and the New Heavens. No one expels them. Even if they wanted to go away they could not flee from God’s New Creation, nor hide from God’s tenderly loving omnipresence. Their only alternative would be, perhaps, to go away from their brothers and search for a bitter isolation from them, but they could never depart from God and His love. And what is more terrible is that in this eternal life, in this New Creation, God is everything to His creatures. As Saint Gregory of Nyssa says, “In the present life the things we have relations with are numerous, for instance: time, air, locality, food and drink, clothing, sunlight, lamplight, and other necessities of life, none of which, many though they be, are God; that blessed state which we hope for is in need of none of these things, but the Divine Being will become all, and in the stead of all to us, distributing Himself proportionately to every need of that existence. It is plain, too, from the Holy Scriptures that God becomes to those who deserve it, locality and home and clothing and food and drink and light and riches and kingdom, and everything that can be thought of and named that goes to make our life happy” (On the Soul and the Resurrection).46
In the new eternal life, God will be everything to His creatures, not only to the good but also to the wicked, not only to those who love Him, but likewise to those who hate Him. But how will those who hate Him endure to have everything from the hands of Him Whom they detest? Oh, what an eternal torment is this, what an eternal fire, what a gnashing of teeth!
Depart from Me, ye cursed, into the everlasting inner fire of hatred,”47 saith the Lord, because I was thirsty for your love and you did not give it to Me, I was hungry for your blessedness and you did not offer it to Me, I was imprisoned in My human nature and you did not come to visit Me in My church; you are free to go where your wicked desire wishes, away from Me, in the torturing hatred of your hearts which is foreign to My loving heart which knows no hatred for anyone. Depart freely from love to the everlasting torture of hate, unknown and foreign to Me and to those who are with Me, but prepared by freedom for the devil, from the days I created My free, rational creatures. But wherever you go in the darkness of your hating hearts, My love will follow you like a river of fire, because no matter what your heart has chosen, you are and you will eternally continue to be, My children.
1 “This is evil: estrangement from God.” St. Basil the Great, That God is Not the Cause of Evils, “ELLHNES PATERES THS EKKLHSIAS” [Greek Fathers of the Church) 7, 112 (hereafter cited as EPE). “As many … as stand apart in their will from God, He brings upon them separation from Himself; and separation from God is death.” St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5. 27.2. “Men, rejecting eternal things and through the counsel of the devil turning toward the things of corruption, became the cause to themselves of the corruption in death.” St. Athanasius the Great On the Incarnation 5 (Migne, PG 25. 104-105). “For as much as he departed from life, just so much did he draw nearer to death. For life is God; deprivation of life is death. So Adam was the author of death to himself through his departure from God.” St. Basil the Great (PG 31. 945).
2 “The redemptive sacrifice … was accomplished in order to re-establish the formerly harmonious relation be-tween heaven and earth which sin had overturned, to atone for the flaunted moral law, to satisfy the affronted justice of God.” Encyclical Letter for Pascha 1980 of Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios, Episkepsis (in Greek), no. 229, 15 April 1980.
3 “Truly foolish, therefore, and lacking all understanding and mind is he who says there is no God. Alongside him no less in this madness is he who says that God is the cause of evils. I consider their sins to be of equal gravity because each one similarly denies the good; the former denies that He exists at all, while the latter defines Him as not being good; for if he is the cause of evils, He is clearly not good; so from both sides there is a denial of God.” St. Basil the Great, EPE, op. cit., 7, 90.
4 “But someone will say, verily Adam fell, and by disregarding the divine commandment he was condemned to corruption and death, but how were the many made sinful on his account? What do his transgressions have to do with us? How is it that we who were not even born were condemned along with him, and yet God says, ‘The fathers shall not be put to death for the children and the sons shall not be put to death for the fathers; everyone shall die in his own sin’? (Deut. 24:18). Surely, then, that soul that sins shall die; but we became sinners through the disobedience of Adam in this way: For Adam was created for incorruption and life, and his life in the Paradise of delight was holy, his whole mind was continually caught up in divine visions, and his body was tranquil and serene, since every shameful pleasure was calmed, for there was no disturbance of intemperate emotions in him. However, since he fell under sin and sank into corruption, thence pleasures and pollutions penetrated into the nature of the flesh, and so there was planted in our members a savage law. Nature became diseased with sin through the disobedience of the one, i.e., Adam; thus the many also became sinners, not as transgressing together with Adam ? for they did not exist at all ? but as being from his nature which had fallen under the law of sin… because of disobedience, human nature in Adam became infirm with corruption, and so the passions were introduced into it….” St. Cyril of Alexandria, Interpretation of the Epistle to the Romans (PG 74. 788-789). “And furthermore, if they who were born from Adam became sinners on account of his sinning, in all justice, they are not liable, for they did not become sinners of themselves; therefore the term ‘sinners’ is used instead of ‘mortals’ because death is the penalty of sin. Since in the first-fashioned man nature became mortal, all they who share in the nature of the forefather consequently share mortality also.” Euthymios Zigabenos, Interpretation of the Epistle to the Romans 5:19.
5 It means something totally different from what we customarily mean by the term “justice.” This ignorance has caused us to consider as touchstones of Orthodoxy some very strange theories, most particularly the juridical conception of salvation which is based upon a justice that resembles the Necessity (ANAGKH) of the ancients, and oppresses not only man but God also, and gives a gloomy aspect to Christianity. See the relevant study of S. Lynonnett, “La Soteriologie Paulienne,” Introduction a la Bible Il, (Belgium: Desclees Bc Bower), p. 840.
6 “If a man readily and joyfully accepts a loss for the sake of God, he is inwardly pure. And if he does not look down upon any man because of his defects, in very truth he is free. If a man is not pleased with someone who honors him, nor displeased with someone who dishonors him, he is dead to the world and to this life. The watchfulness of discernment is superior to every discipline of men accomplished in any way to any degree.
“Do not hate the sinner. For we are all laden with guilt. If for the sake of God you are moved to oppose him, weep over him. Why do you hate him? Hate his sins md pray for him, that you may imitate Christ Who was not wroth with sinners, but interceded for them. Do you not see how He wept over Jerusalem? We are mocked by the devil in many instances, so why should we hate the man who is mocked by him who mocks us also? Why, O man, do you hate the sinner? Could it be because he is not so righteous as you? But where is your righteousness when you have no love? Why do you not shed tears over him? But you persecute him. In ignorance some are moved with anger, presuming themselves to be discerners of the works of sinners.
“Be a herald of God’s goodness, for God rules over you, unworthy though you are; for although your debt to Him is so great, yet He is not seen exacting payment from you, and from the small works you do, He bestows great rewards upon you. Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright (cf. Ps. 24:8, 144:17), His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good,’ He says, ‘to the evil and to the impious’ (cf. Luke 6:35). How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong: I will give unto this last even as unto thee. Is thine eye evil because I am good?’ (Matt. 20:12-15). How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? (Luke 15:11 ff.). None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it; and thus He bare witness concern-ing Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for whilst we are sinners Christ died for us! (cf. Rom. 5:8). But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change [i.e., as regards the state after death, which St. Isaac mentions again a little below].
“Far be it that we should ever think such an iniquity that God could become unmerciful! For the property of Divinity does not change as do mortals. God does not acquire something which He does not have, nor lose what He has, nor supplement what He does have, as do created beings. But what God has from the beginning, He will have and has until the [uneoding] end, as the blest Cyril wrote in his commentary on Genesis. Fear God, he says, out of love for Him, and not for the austere name that He has been given. Love Him as you ought to love Him; not for what He will give you in the future, but for what we have received, and for this world alone which He has created for us. Who is the man that can repay Him? Where is His repayment to be found in our works? Who persuaded Him in the beginning to bring us into being Who intercedes for us before Him, when we shall possess no [faculty of] memory, as though we never existed? Who will awake this our body [Syriac: our corruption] for that life? Again, whence descends the notion of knowledge into dust? O the wondrous mercy of God! O the astonishment at the bounty of our God and Creator! O might for which all is possible! O the immeasurable goodness that brings our nature again, sinners though we be, to His regeneration and rest! Who is sufficient to glorify Him? He raises up the transgressor and blasphemer, he renews dust unendowed with reason, making it rational and comprehending and the scattered and insensible dust and the scattered senses He makes a rational nature worthy of thought. The sinner is unable to comprehend the grace of His resurrection. Where is gehenna, that can afflict us? Where is perdition, that terrifies us in many ways and quenches the joy of His love? And what is gehenna as compared with the grace of His resurrection, when He will raise us from Hades and cause our corruptible nature to be clad in incorruption, and raise up in glory him that has fallen into Hades?
“Come, men of discernment, and be filled with wonder! Whose mind is sufficiently wise and marvelous to wonder worthily at the bounty of our Creator? His recompense of sinners is, that instead of a just recompense, He rewards them with resurrection, and instead of those bodies with which they trampled upon His law, He enrobes them with perfect glory and incorruption. [St. Isaac speaks here of those who have repented, as is evident from other similar passages in his book.) That grace whereby we are resurrected after we have sinned is greater than the grace which brought us into being when we were not. Glory be to Thine immeasurable grace, O Lord! Behold, Lord, the waves of Thy grace close my mouth with silence, and there is not a thought left in me before the face of Thy thanksgiving. What mouths can confess Thy praise, O good King, Thou Who lovest our life? Glory be to Thee for the two worlds which Thou hast created for our growth and delight, leading us by all things which Thou didst fashion to the knowledge of Thy glory, from now and unto the ages. Amen.” St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 60.
8 “‘For God so loved the world as to give His Only-begotten Son unto death for it.’ Not that He could not have redeemed us by another means, but He wished to manifest to us His boundless love, and to draw us near Him through the death of His Only-begotten Son. Indeed, if He had anything more precious than His Son, He would have given it for our sakes, in order that through it our race would be found nigh to Him. Out of His abundant love, He was not pleased to do violence to our freedom, although it was possible for Him to do so; but He let it be in order that we would draw nigh to Him with the love and volition of our own will.” St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 81.
9 “In times of despondency, never fail to bear in mind the Lord’s commandment to Peter, to forgive a person who sins seventy times seven, For He who gave this command to another will Himself do far more.” St. John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 26, (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1978), p. 147.
10 “A man who is just and wise is like God because he never chastises a man in revenge for wickedness, but only in order to correct him, or that others be afraid.” St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 73. “God granted this great benefit to man: that he not abide in sin unto eternity.” Theophilus of Antioch, 2.26.
11 “And God saw all the things that He had made, and behold, they were very good.” Genesis 1,31. “[God) created everything which has good qualities, but the profligacy of the demons has made use of the productions of nature for evil purposes, and the appearance of evil which these wear is from them and not from the perfect God.” Tatian Address to the Greeks 17. “The construction of the world is good, but the life men live m it is bad.” Ibid. 19. “For nothing from the first was made evil by God, but all things good, yea, very good.” Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus 2. 17. “Pour l’hebreau, le sensible n’est pas mauvais, ni fautif. Le mal ne vient pas de la matiere. Le monde est tres bon.” [“For the Hebrew, perceptible things are not evil, nor are they deceptive (lit., erroneous). Evil does not come from matter. The world is ‘very good.’”] C. Tresmontant, Essai sur la Pensee Hebraique (Paris, 1953). “There is nothing that exists which does not partake of the beautiful and the good.” St, Dionysius the Areopagite, On the Divine Names (PG 3. 704). “For even if the reasons why some things come about escapes us, let that dogma be certain in our souls, that nothing evil is done by the good.” St. BasiI the Great, EPE, 7, 112. “For it is not the part of a god to incite to things against nature…. But God, being perfectly good, is eternally doing good.” Athenagoras, Embassy 26.
12 “The devil is evil in such wise, that he is evil in disposition, but not that his nature is opposed to good.” St. Basil the Great, EPE, 7, 112. “Since God is good, whatever He does, He does for man’s sake. But whatever man does, he does for his own sake, both what is good and what is evil.” St Anthony the Great, Philokalia, vol. 1, chap. 121.
13 “For God made not death, neither hath He pleasure in the destruction of the living; for He created aIl things that they might have their being, and the generations of the world were healthful; and there is no poison of destruction in them, nor the kingdom of Hades upon the earth.” Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-14. “For God created man to be immortal and made him to be an image of His own eternity. Nevertheless, through envy of the devil came death into the world.” Wisdom of Solomon 2:23-24.
14 “And so he who was made in the likeness of God, since the more powerful spirit [the Holy Spirit] is separated from him, becomes mortal.” Tatian, Address to the Greeks 7.
15 “For as much as he departed from life, just so much did he draw nearer to death. For God is life; depriva-tion of life is death. So Adam was the author of death to himself through his departure from God, in accordance with the scripture which says: ‘For behold, they that remove themselves from Thee shall perish.’” Psalm 72: 27.
16 “Thus God did not create death, but we brought it upon ourselves out of an evil disposition. Nevertheless, He did not hinder the dissolution on account of the aforementioned causes, so that He would not make the infirmity immortal in us.” St. Basil the Great (PG 31. 345).
17 “But as many as depart from God by their own choice, He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord. But separation from God is death, and separation from light is darkness,… It is not, however, that the light has inflicted upon them the penalty of darkness.” St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5. 27:2. “But others shun the light and separate themselves from God….” Ibid., 5. 28:1.
18 Philokalia, vol. 2, p. 27 (Greek edition), St. Maximus the Confessor.
19 “We became the inheritors of the curse in Adam. Certainly we were not punished as though we had disobeyed that command along with him, but because he became mortal, he transmitted the sin to his seed; we were born mortals from a mortal.” St. Anastasius the Sinaite, 19. Vide I.N. Karmirh, SUNOYIS THS DOGMATKHS THS ORQODOXOU EKKLHSIAS, s. 38.
20 “Man’s transgression against the Creator’s righteousness brought the soul’s death sentence into effect; for when our forefathers forsook God and chose to do their own will, He abandoned them, not subjecting them to constraint. And for the reasons we have stated above, God lovingly forewarned them of this sentence. But he forbore and delayed in executing the sentence of death upon the body; and while He pronounced it, He relegated its fruition to the future in the abyss of His wisdom and the superabundance of His love for man. He did not say to Adam: ‘return to whence thou wast taken,’ but ‘earth thou art, and unto earth thou shalt return’ (Gen. 3:19). Those who hear this with understanding can also comprehend from these words that God ‘did not make death’ (Wisdom 1:13), either the soul’s or the body’s. For when He first gave the command, He did not say: ‘in whatsoever day ye shall eat of it, die!,’ but ‘In whatsoever day ye shall eat of it, ye shall surely die’ (Gen. 2:17). Nor did He afterwards say: ‘return now unto earth,’ but “Thou shalt return’ (Gen. 3:19), in his manner forewarning, justly permitting and not obstructing what should come to pass.” St. Gregory Palamas, Physical Theological Moral and Practical Chapters 51 (PG 1157-1160).
21 “The tree of knowledge itself was good, and its fruit was good. For it was not the tree that had death in it, as some think, but the disobedience which had death in it; for there was nothing else in the fruit but knowledge alone; but knowledge is good when one uses it properly.” Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus 2. 25. “The tree did not engender death, for God did not create death; but death was the consequence of disobedience.” St. John Damascene, Homily on Holy Saturday 10 (PG 96. 612a).
22 “‘And what is a merciful heart?’ It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he continually offers up tearful prayer, even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner he even prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns in his heart without measure in the likeness of God.” St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 81.
23 “It is not God who is hostile, but we; for God is never hostile.” St. John Chrysostom (PG 61. 478).
24 Vide. I.S. RWMANIDHS, TO PROPATORIKON AMARTHMA, (Athens, 1957).
25 “Therefore, we believe in one God: one principle, without beginning, uncreated, unbegotten, indestructible and immortal, eternal, unlimited, uncircumscribed, unbounded, infinite in power, simple, uncompounded, incorporeal, unchanging, unaffected, unchangeable, inalterate, invisible, source of goodness and justice, light intellectual and inaccessible; power which no measure can give any idea of but which is measured only by His own will, for He can do all things whatsoever He pleases; Maker of all things both visible and invisible, holding together all things and conserving them, Provider for all, governing and dominating and ruling over all in unending and immortal reign; without contradiction, filling all things, contained by nothing, but Himself containing all things, being their Conserver and first Possessor; pervading all substances without being defiled, removed far beyond all things and every substance as being supersubstantial and surpassing all, super-eminently divine and good and replete; appointing all the principalities and orders, set above every principality and order, above essence and life and speech and concept; light itself and goodness and being insofar as having neither being, nor anything else that is derived from any other; the very source of being for all things that are, of life to the living, of speech to the articulate, and the cause of all good things for all; knowing all things before they begin to be; one substance, one godhead, one virtue, one will, one operation, one principality, one power, one domination, one kingdom; known in three perfect Persons and adored with one adoration, believed in and worshipped by every rational creature, united without confusion and distinct without separation, which is beyond understanding. We believe in Father and Son and Holy Spirit in Whom we have been baptized. For it is thus that the Lord enjoined the apostles: ‘Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” St. John Damascene, Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 1. 8.
26 “He created without matter.” St, John Chrysostom (PG 59. 308).
27 St. John Damascene, op. cit. 1. 14.
28 St. John Damascene, op. cit. 1. 8.
29 “The soul without the body can do nothing, whether good or evil. The visions which some see concerning those things that are yonder are shown to them by God as a dispensation for their profit. Just as the lyre remains useless and silent if there is no one to play, so the soul and body, when they are separated, can do nothing.” St. Athanasius the Great.
30 “For each of these, after its kind, is a body, be it angel, or soul, or devil. Subtle though they are, still in substance, character, and image according to the subtlety of their respective natures they are subtle bodies.” St. Macarius the Great, Fifty Spiritual Homilies 4, 9.
31 “Let us go and behold in the tombs that man is bare bones, food for worms and a stench.” Great Euchologion, (Venice, 1862), p. 415. “For just as the light when it sets in the evening is not lost, so man also is given over to the grave as if setting; yet he is preserved for the dawn of the resurrection.” St. John Chrysostom.
32 “He who berates the Creator for not making us sinless by nature, does naught but esteem the irrational nature above the rational.” St. Basil the Great, EPE, 7, 110.
33 Also, “Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward.” Hebrews 10:35.
34 “For if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries, He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Hebrews 10:26-31.
35 St. Basil the Great, op. cit. 7, 94-96. In this particular passage, St. Basil carefully makes a distinction between the Greek verbs ktizw and dhmiourgew, both of which are generally translated into English as “create.” However, ktizw has a long history, beginning with the Sanskrit kshi, which, as in early Greek, meant “to people a country,” “to build houses and cities,” “to colonize.” Later, in Greek, the word came to mean “to establish,” “to build up and develop,” and finally, “to produce,” “create,” “bring about.” Having in mind these other connotations of the verb ktizw, St. Basil discerned the proper implication of the word in this context and hence made a point of emphasizing this distinction.
36 Ibid. 7.98.
37 St. Gregory the Theologian, Fifth Theological Oration 22 (PG 36. 15 7).
38 St. John Damascene, op. cit. 1.11.
39 “Famines and droughts and floods are common plagues of cities and nations which check the excess of evil. Therefore, just as the physician is a benefactor even if he should cause pain or suffering to the body (for he strives with the disease, and not with the sufferer), so in the same manner God is good Who administers salvation to everyone through the means of particular chastisements. But you, not only do you not speak evilly of the physician who cuts some members, cauterizes others, and excises others again completely from the body, but you even give him money and address him as savior because he confines the disease to a small area before the infirmity can claim the whole body. However, when you see a city crushing its inhabitants in an earthquake, or a ship going down at sea with all hands, you do not shrink from wagging a blasphemous tongue against the true Physician and Savior.” St. Basil the Great, op. cit. 7, 94. “And you may accept the phrase ‘I kill and I will make to live’ (Deut. 32:39) literally, if you wish, since fear edifies the more simple. ‘I will smite and I will heal’ (Deut. 32:39). It is profitable to also understand this phrase literally; for the smiting engenders fear, while the healing incites to love. It is permitted you, nonetheless, to attain to a loftier understanding of the utterance. I will slay through sin and make to live through righteousness. ‘But though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day’ (II Cor. 4:16). Therefore, He does not slay one, and give life to another, but through the means which He slays, He gives life to a man, and He heals a man with that which He smites him, according to the proverb which says, ‘For thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from death’ (Prov. 23:14). So the flesh is chastised for the soul to be healed, and sin is put to death for righteousness to live…. When you hear ‘There shall be no evil in a city which the Lord hath not wrought’ (cf. Amos 3:6), understand by the noun ‘evil’ that the word intimates the tribulation brought upon sinners for the correction of offenses. For Scripture says, ‘For I afflicted thee and straitened thee, to do good to thee’ (cf. Deut. 8:3); so too is evil terminated before it spills out unhindered, as a strong dike or wall holds back a river.
“For these reasons, diseases of cities and nations, droughts, barrenness of the earth, and the more difficult conditions in the life of each, cut off the increase of wickedness. Thus, such evils come from God so as to uproot the true evils, for the tribulations of the body and all painful things from without have been devised for the restraining of sin. God, therefore, excises evil; never is evil from God…. The razing of cities, earthquakes and floods, the destruction of armies, shipwrecks and all catastrophes with many casualties which occur from earth or sea or air or fire or whatever cause, happen for the sobering of the survivors, because God chastises public evil with general scourges.
“The principal evil, therefore, which is sin, and which is especially worthy of the appellation of evil, depends upon our disposition; it depends upon us either to abstain from evil or to be in misery.
“Of the other evils, some are shown to be struggles for the proving of courage… while some are for the healing of sins… and some are for an example to make other men sober.” St. Basil the Great, op. cit. 7, 98-102.
40 Ibid. 7, 92.
41 “The devil became the ‘Prince of matter.’” Athenagoras, Embassy, 24, 25. “They [the demons] afterwards subdued the human race to themselves … and … sowed all wickedness. Whence also the poets and mythologists, not knowing that it was the angels and those demons who had been begotten by them that did these things to men, and women, and cities, and nations which they related, ascribed them to God Himself.” St. Justin Martyr Second Apology 5.
42 “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.” I John 3:8.
43 Fotis Kontoglou, “EKKLHSIASTIKA HMEROLOGIA,” OrqodoxoV TupoV, “Church Calendars,” Orthodoxos Typos] 131 (Athens), 1 January 1971.
44 St. Basil the Great, Homily 13. 2, Exhortation to Holy Baptism (PG 31. 428 and 95, 1272).
45 “BIBLIOQHKH ELLHNWN PATERWN” [Library of Greek Fathers], vol. 40, pp. 60-61.
46 “‘I am father, I am brother, I am bridegroom, I am dwelling place, I am food, I am raiment, I am root, I am foundation, all whatsoever thou willest, I am.’ ‘Be thou in need of nothing, I will be even a servant, for I came to minister, not to be ministered unto; I am friend, and member, and head, and brother, and sister, and mother; I am all; only cling thou closely to me. I was poor for thee, and a wanderer for thee, on the Cross for thee, in the tomb for thee, above I intercede for thee to the Father; on earth I am come for thy sake an ambassador from my Father. Thou art all things to me, brother, and joint heir, and friend, and member.’ What wouldest thou more?” St. John Chrysostom, Homily 76 on the Gospel of Matthew (PG 58. 700).
47 “‘The end of the world’ signifies not the annihilation of the world, but its transformation. Everything will be transformed suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye…. And the Lord will appear in glory on the clouds. Trumpets will sound, and loud, with power! They will sound in the soul and conscience! All will become clear to the human conscience. The Prophet Daniel, speaking of the Last Judgment, relates how the Ancient of Days, the Judge, sits on His throne, and before Him is a fiery stream (Dan. 7:9-10). Fire is a purifying element; it burns sins. Woe to a man if sin has become a part of his nature: then the fire will burn the man himself. This fire will be kindled within a man; seeing the Cross, some will rejoice, but others will fall into confusion, terror, and despair. Thus will men be divided instantly. The very state of a man’s soul casts him to one side or the other, to right or to left.
“The more consciously and persistently a man strives toward God in his life, the greater will be his joy when he hears: ‘Come unto Me, ye blessed.’ And conversely: the same words will call the fire of horror and torture on those who did not desire Him, who fled and fought or blasphemed Him during their lifetime!
“The Last Judgment knows of no witnesses or written protocols! Everything is inscribed in the souls of men and these records, these ‘books’, are opened at the Judgment. Everything becomes clear to all and to oneself.
“And some will go to joy, while others — to horror.
“When ‘the books are opened,’ it will become clear that the roots of all vices lie in the human soul. Here is a drunkard or a lecher: when the body has died, some may think that sin is dead too. No! There was an inclination to sin in the soul, and that sin was sweet to the soul, and if the soul has not repented of the sin and has not freed itself from it, it will come to the Last Judgment also with the same desire for sin. It will never satisfy that desire and in that soul there will be the suffering of hatred. It will accuse everyone and everything in its tortured condition, it will hate everyone and everything. ‘There will be gnashing of teeth’ of powerless malice and the unquenchable fire of hatred.
“A ‘fiery gehenna’ — such is the inner fire. ‘Here there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.’ Such is the state of hell.” Archbishop John Maximovitch, “The Last Judgment,” Orthodox Word (November- December, 1966): 177-78.
My recent social media conversations with Fr James Rooney reminded me of Alexandre Kalomiros’ address “The River of Fire.” Roman Catholics appear to be unaware that most Orthodox consider the traditional Catholic construals of hell to be problematic, if not heterodox. The dispute about the divine love is not just between Catholics and universalists, but between Catholics and Orthodox. The Western commitment to retributive punishment makes ecumenical dialogue on eternal damnation difficult. There are two incompatible models at work here.
Kalomiros is criticized, probably justly, for caricaturing the traditional Western understanding of God. Even so, his polemic hits home more often than not. I suspect that students of Origen will also want to point out that he misunderstands the Adamantine.
“The River of Fire” is available online in multiple places, but the text is a mess. I have tried here to clean it up and bring the punctuation into conformity with American English rules.
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“ Kalomiros is criticized, probably justly, for caricaturing the traditional Western understanding of God. Even so, his polemic hits home more often than not.”
I remember that YouTube video of RC Sproul that Layton Flowers uploaded where he snapped at the audience: “What’s wrong with you people! They (Adam and Eve) defied the infinite GOD!”
I also remember an evangelist clarifying that the Gospel was summed up as being saved from Hell.
And Billy Graham saying the good news is the lightening of Gods wrath hit Christ instead of you.
So yeah, I’d say Kalomiros steel manned it.
Thanks, Fr it it’s a great article.
On my first read of “River of Fire”, possibly in 2006, I could barely keep my eyes from moving to the next word, phrase and sentence fast enough to take it all in, because what I was taking in was leaving me breathless with hope. It doesn’t go all the way, but it’s a very short step from here to UR (which I had already basically come to believe), and I was reading for the first time some good patristic theological support for a truly good God. This and Fr Anthony Hughes’ “Ancestral Sin vs Original Sin” (I needed an easily-readable summary as well) were the things that made me do a double-take, so to speak, in considering Orthodoxy to be a place I might actually land after my time in the Evangelical Protestant wilderness. It was the first indication I had of the significance of the differences in Eastern Christianity vis-a-vis Western. I’m not even sure where on the Internet I first encountered it – providentially led there, whatever the URL trail 🙂
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I agree with you Dana that UR is but a short step from The River of Fire, though Kalomiros goes out of his way to insist that the gift of freedom entails the possibility of irrevocable self-alienation from God. But if God is love in the way that he describes, then we must find ourselves wondering how he could abandon sinners to hell, even if that hell is God himself.
QUOTE: “Do you see, then, that Western theology teaches that our real danger and our real enemy is our Creator and God? Salvation, for Westerners, is to be saved from the hands of God!”
Having spent the better part of 25 years in serious Western theology, first with Fundamentalist Anabaptists and then with stern and strict Calvinists, I must say that this one sentence is the truth of the whole matter. While some preachers tried to mitigate this by saying that the “fear of God” is simply reverent awe, the fact of the matter is that I, and perhaps many others in these congregations, couldn’t help but seeing God as the enemy and Christ as standing between Him and a good whuppin’.
And with Dana, once I discovered THE RIVER OF FIRE I was overwhelmed by it. It took our Father out of the realm of angry and implacable enemy and made me responsible before Him, rather than cringing hoping that He wouldn’t smite me.
Wow! This almost describes the river of fire or lava in my forth-coming novel, Kingdom of Light.
“No, nothing of the sort. This river of fire is the river which “came out from Eden to water the paradise” of old (Gen. 2:10). It is the river of the grace of God which irrigated God’s saints from the beginning. In a word, it is the out-pouring of God’s love for His creatures. Love is fire. Anyone who loves knows this. God is Love, so God is Fire. And fire consumes all those who are not fire themselves, and renders bright and shining all those who are fire themselves (Heb. 12:29).”
Lovely post, in a lot of ways! I do even remember some ‘Western’ theologians or preachers saying something about how we must be saved from God. Isn’t that almost the first lie in the Garden, the one by which Satan deceived Adam and Eve? That they had to be saved from God’s desire to restrict something good to themselves and not share with them what would benefit them also?
And, it makes so much sense for justice to go hand-in-hand with mercy! To me, justice implies that things should be made right – be made just. Tormenting the wicked forever in hell does not justify them, and the desire of justice is to see all the world made just – as it should be. So to be just and to be the justifier of the wicked are not opposing things, but complementary things, if they are not one thing!
However, I disagree that some amount of fear is necessary for us to do any good thing. I believe that Jesus has come to save us from the slavery of fear. Perhaps, to some (not necessarily the ‘simple’) fear is an improvement, but I think that, for the most part, it is no aid but rather the cause of evil. I believe most evil is done, or is been for fear of suffering or death or loss or whatever it is that is feared. It is the kindness of God that is meant to lead us to repentance. And love casts out fear – perfect love casts out all fear – but to the degree that we are saved (transformed in love, become one with the Fire), so also does fear lose its power over us.
But I hope for the River of Fire to transform all – I hope that, in consuming the wicked, it will transform the wicked (and have not all of us some wickedness, some fear, some loathing, some hatred, something less than love and faith in our hearts?). That, as it burns them, it will enter into them, and they, too (or rather, we all) may be fire in the River of Fire.
I think it depends on fear of what. Fear that one’s sinful life is empty and fragile and must one day crash around one’s ears is a good thing, likewise fear that one’s sin will harm oneself or others, or fear that one is losing sight of one’s own good and if God. This kind of fear I think is the “fear of the Lord” which is the beginning of wisdom.
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Hmm. I suppose, from certain places, it might be a ‘beginning of wisdom’. Such is certainly better than perpetrating atrocity after atrocity without any concern that it will ever come back to one. But I really don’t think all human beings are in that place… would like to perpetrate atrocity after atrocity. Some struggle against sin, but hate it, as St. Paul writes in Romans chapter 7. Some earnestly desire to love, but lack the knowledge or power to do so rightly and perfectly. And why would I fear losing sight of my good and God, unless I want to keep that sight? And if I want to keep that sight, is it not an offense against the faith in God I ought to have, the trust which is suitable to one so good as He, to fear that I will lose that which both He and I desire that I should have?
Where is fear if one knows that God intends the best for one? If one truly knows that God intends the best for one, one will desire that best, for does not everyone desire whatever he or she sees to be the best for him or herself (and, if someone does not have that desire, well, I cannot fathom what such a person’s experience would be, but I don’t see that such a person’s fears could be better than his or her desires)? And, knowing that God has the power to bring His intentions about, if one intends God’s intentions, knowing them to be the Good, I do not see what space is left for fear. And since Jesus become Man that we might be children of God, I think it is that relationship and trust, which excludes any possibility of fear, that He means us to have: to know God intends our best, and so knowing to desire what God intends, and to know that no power can thwart God’s intentions. Does this make more sense?
PS. I tend to think the ‘fear of the Lord’ that is the ‘beginning of wisdom’ is the awe before the magnificence and power of the I AM. I understand why it can be called fear, for no word is strong enough to convey the sense of that knowledge, of our smallness and littleness, of the greatness and infinitude and wonder of the Consuming Fire, whom no man can know and no man can judge and no man can demand, yet it is not what I would ordinarily call fear: the fear, say, of evil things happening to oneself or others. But to some an encounter with Love might be a thing to be feared as pain, to those who have not yet known Love enough to trust Him absolutely. We all may be there, to some degree (I do not know), but if so what fear we may have before Him is the vestige or taint of our sin, though it may be inescapable for a time, until we have see that Fire well enough to trust Him fully.
You are quite right: fear of the Lord is the said to be merely the *beginning* of wisdom, while James says perfect love drives out fear. When we are furthest from God we neither love him nor fear for ourselves: wisdom starts by fearing for our sinful selves, whereupon we flee to the one in whom we need no longer fear.
So, I think I may have failed to say what I meant adequately clearly. Unless it is so that there is someone who truly wants to be miserable and to cling to misery, and thus fear God knowing that He desires the happiness of all creatures and that He is powerful, fear necessarily and inherently involves sin, because fear involves that one on some level believe at least one of the following: God does not earnestly desire my good and that of all of creation, OR, God does not have the power to make me and all of creation happy.
Thus, no fear is wisdom, for fear is predicated on a lie: unless one is speaking of the sense of overwhelming awe at the infinitude of God’s Greatness, but while that may correlate with ‘fear for my sinful self’ it will correlate with that fear only if I still believe a lie about God: namely, that He does not truly want to save me, or that He is not powerful enough to do so. If I believe neither of those lies, even the knowledge that, if I remain in my sins, I will die in those sins, will not make me fear for myself in the presence of God, because I will know that God is not my enemy: He is my Savior, and He has more than enough power to save me from my true enemy, sin, and this He wants to do.
There is truth here that is clarifying; we have made of God an enemy, and we hate Him; it feels like the answer to a question i had not realized i was asking. but as a Papist, I would offer a word for good St Anselm, yes he does speak of infinite offense and satisfaction; take it or leave it, but interestingly enough in his third prayer to Mary, lines 150 – 160, he declares that hell will be redeemed and even the fallen angels will be restored, so there’s that, for what its worth.
Anselm really said that?
By the glorious Son of your virginity,
all just men who died before his birth exult
that their captivity is broken down,
and the angels wish each other joy 
in the rebuilding of their half-ruined city.
O woman, uniquely to be wondered at,
and to be wondered at for your uniqueness,
by you the elements are renewed, hell is redeemed,
demons are trampled down and men are saved, 
even the fallen angels are restored to their place.
O woman full and overflowing with grace,
plenty flows from you
to make all creatures green again.
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Wow very interesting, thanks for sharing this (coincidentally I am a different David to the one above btw!)
I find it very curious that the prayer seems to specify that it is only *just* men whose captivity is broken down, before going on to suggest that even the fallen angels are redeemed. I understand that the ‘just’ qualifier would normally have been introduced to align with the idea that Christ went only to some separate realm of the dead reserved for Old Testament saints rather than Hell proper (or that he otherwise only redeemed a certain portion of the dead).
So strange to combine that qualifier with the second more universalist-leaning statement. Perhaps it’s just that the earlier line is taken from traditional wordings of Christ’s harrowing.
One grows tired and bored with such simplifications and caricatures of “Western” theology (whatever that is supposed to mean). It’s an ungenerous, uncharitable reading of one sliver of Christian theology. This blog is interesting at times, but this post is just garbage.
At times too much can be made of it, but there is a real difference even going as far back as the 5th century. You are just being blind to reality otherwise.
Sean, I agree with you that Kalomiros is guilty of caricature and outright misrepresentation. I know that many, perhaps most, post-Vatican II Catholics will not recognize themselves in his description of Western theology. But that being said, juridical divinity is alive and well in Western Christianity, particularly in parts of Catholicism and evangelicalism. I’ve been reminded of this in reading the Catholic critical reviews of TASBS. The key issue always comes back to the question “What does it mean to say that God is love?” Answer: it doesn’t mean that it excludes eternal retribution. Nor does it even mean, as one Thomist told me, that it excludes the Latin doctrine of (preteritional) predestination, as found in Augustine and Aquinas. God is free in his love to elect only a portion of humanity to eternal salvation. As sinners we do not have a claim upon his love. He owes us nothing. Precisely here I am reminded how different the classical Catholic understanding of God is from the Orthodox understanding. One of the merits of Kalomiros’s article is that it directs us to the testimonies of Eastern Fathers that appear to directly contradict punitive conceptions of deity. So despite its flaws–and you are right to point them out–the article has its purpose, if only to remind traditional Catholics and Protestants that the oldest Church on the planet understands the God of the gospel differently than they do. It’s’ not just a universalism versus everyone else debate. There is definitely an East-West dimension here. As Dana above remarked, it’s but a short step from the God portrayed by Kalomiros to universal salvation.
“It’s’ not just a universalism versus everyone else debate. There is definitely an East-West dimension here.”
And correspondingly, it seems as though there is an inner-outer dimension here as well. The Orthodox tradition seems more oriented toward the contemplative, interior dimension of Christianity. In many ways the mystics of the west (John of The Cross, Meister Eckhart, Thomas à Kempis, Nicholas of Cusa, Hildegard of Bingen, et al.) have more in common with the Eastern church (and even with Asian spiritual traditions) than with the tradition from which they emerged. From my reading of these figures, the God of retributive justice is denied and universalism is nearly always explicitly or implicitly embraced. It is an understatement to say that western mystics have had a very strained relationship with their own tradition and their universalism is likely a strong contributing factor in their marginalization.
Essays like “River of Fire” suffer from a false understanding of the Fall. (See the quote above from Saint Anastasius the Sinaite and others.) They all assume an innocent Adam, created de novo, at a time where there was no death at all. Death enters through Adam. We, of course, know that is not true. There was never a time when living organisms on earth did not die.
So, if they get that part hugely wrong, why we would believe that they know what they are talking about with regard to a River of Fire. When do we ever trust an essay, when the parts we happen to know something about are so obviously wrong?
Someone, perhaps Dr. Hart, needs to rehabilitate the whole fire as purgation idea (if it can be rehabilitated) and cleanse it of these errors. Then we can decide if it makes sense.
Looking at the East vs West division (and then of course which East, Eastern Orthodox various Oriental Orthodox or the Assyrian Church of the East, the most East of East, with differences between then, and different at different times, look for example to the so-called ‘Jesus Sutras’ of Chinese part of the Assyrian Church), I assume given the article we are mostly talking about Eastern Orthodox (with the influence of St Issac from the Assyrian Church upon Eastern Orthodoxy). While between difference between the Latin derived West and Greek derived East is exaggerated often and the above does contain obvious caractures and simpilications of the complex and diverse theological heritage at is Western forms of Christianity, their spirituality and diverse expressions over time (no less so then the diversity within Eastern Orthodoxy for that matter, an issue sometimes concerning to some Eastern Orthodox just as the former is to some Western Christians, Catholic or Protestant, when they find their tradition is more diverse they have to been lead to believe), I also think it is fair to say that more judical trend tended to take hold more in the West than the East. The Eastern, speaking of course in genrealities tends to focus more on the defeat of death, while the West over time become more concerned over forgiveness of sin, and often within the judical law-court model, while there is much to be praised in the Western heritage, I do think this emphasis was mistaken move, particularly where it removed from a diagonstic role into the preception of God’s judgement and character (leading to forensic atonement etc, and dengerating at times into view others above have encountered above, I know I did, in which Christ saves us from God basically.
I also assume it was the over-influence of St Augustine with his understanding of predestination and that massive mis-reading of Romans which held capative Western thought on the matter. But then again, St Augustine was just being rigorously logical of the implications of what it means if God brings about a reality in which some do, or even could, end up in eternal torment and desolation. The fact is is, he just spelt out what it means if you are signed up to that view, even as possiblity, that if any end in eternal torment, beccause God is God, then they were and are predetermined to go there, so perhaps here Western infernalists to given them their credit were just being more brutally honest, particularly Calvin (who was also the most honest of what that meant for God’s character). The truth is if you are an infernalist, even in the mode presented above, you affirm predestination to damnation whether you wish to admit it or not.
That said, I think as Father Kimel himeself pointed out here:
This has not been the majority view in Eastern Orthodoxy for much of it’s history (being more, though not exclusively from universalists or those with universalist sympathies), with allot more ‘fire and brimstone’ judgement present. The move to this view as the majority view seems similar to me as the arising in the West of the CS Lewis type view of infernalism, which attempts to protray it as self-isolation and degeration, with the door ‘locked from the inside’ rather then God directly grilling them for eternity. Although the hard-line view exist in some Catholic and evangelical circles (more to do for culture war reasons I think now then ‘commitment to what the tradition/Bible teaches’), more generally I have found where infernalism is affirmed in the West it tends to be defined in such ‘Lewisian’ terms (think the Great Divorce or his Problem with Pain books). Perhaps it is different in the States I don’t know, but on this side of the Pond that is my experience if you aren’t in the more cultic of evangelical/charistimatic churches, which are a minor aspect of Christian expression here and in Europe, and often enough even in those circles with the long-lasting and stable ones.
I tend to see both this and the Lewis move to become the more domination expressions of infernalism as motivated by the same realisation and desire, the picture of God directly tormenting, torturing and burning people, is incompatible with claims He is Love, He is the Good, that He wishes all to be saved. It is the recognition of the imcompatablity of the one claim with the other, the one belongs to at best a cold, terrifying deity which worked in paganism where not only were gods not necessarly good in any way, and were often aribitary and cruel, but reality itself was seen as at it’s heart choatic, indifferent and cruel, or even with the view of the unmoved mover, who was too distiant to have any real awareness or concern of humans or their suffering that far away from the prefection of the stars. But with saying that God, not a god, is Love, that reality itself is Love and compassion, well such a position is impossible, hence these moves to try and justfy the unjustifble.
But of course both just emphasis the problem, with the Lewisian move, God allows and indeed places people into states and areas where they allowed to degenerate into sub-human (s NT Wright once tried to justfy there was no concentration camps in the new creation by essentially saying there actually were), twisted forms of their true selves and is all predicated on God leaving them into this state form which they can never open the door. After all, is someone has no arms or legs, it doesn’t matter if the door is locked on the inside does it, they still can’t open it, it exposes God’s love to be really callous indfference, indeed as something inhuman (again read the Great Divorce, you can see this very dynamic in place, and then it is worth asking yourself just who is the damned in some of those pictures), with of course again, those who end in that state predetermined there by God as who He is is as Creator. But the river of fire is hardly better, here again they locked in place, never able to change, to be tortured for eternity by God, in fact screaming their heads of while the redeemed dance in joy, that is picture from a horror house. Much like dragging someone with very senestive skin that burns in direct sunlight onto the beach where they burn and suffer while everyone else enjoys the tan.
Basically it all just emphasises that no matter how slice it, infernalism is evil, and is incompatible with Christian claims of God and reality.