St Isaac of Nineveh and the Scourge of Love

God has created humanity for eternal communion with himself. By love he has created us for love to share in the Trinitarian paradise of love. Hear the inspiring words of St Isaac of Nineveh:

Paradise is the love of God, wherein is the enjoyment of all blessedness, and there the blessed Paul partook of supernatural nourishment. When he tasted there of the tree of life, he cried out, saying “Eye hath not see, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath pre­pared for them that love Him.” Adam was barred from this tree through the devil’s counsel.

The tree of life is the love of God from which Adam fell away, and thereafter he saw joy no longer, and he toiled and labored in the land of thorns. Even though they make their way in righteousness, those who are bereft of the love of God eat in their work the bread of sweat, which the first-created man was commanded to eat after his fall. . . . But when we find love, we partake of heavenly bread, and are made strong without labor and toil. The heavenly bread is Christ, Who came down from Heaven and gave life to the world. This is the nourishment of the angels. The man who has found love eats and drinks Christ every day and hour and hereby is made immortal. “He that eateth of this bread,” He says, “which I will give him, shall not see death unto eternity.” Blessed is he who eats the bread of love, which is Jesus! He who eats of love eats Christ, the God over all, as John bears witness, saying, “God is love.”

Wherefore, the man who lives in love reaps life from God, and while yet in this world, he even now breathes the air of the resurrection; in this air the righteous will delight in the resurrection. Love is the Kingdom, whereof the Lord mystically promised His disciples to eat in His Kingdom. For when we hear Him say, “Ye shall eat and drink at the table of my Kingdom,” what do we suppose we shall eat, if not love? Love is sufficient to nourish a man instead of food and drink. (I.46, Ascetical Homilies, pp. 357-358)

We are created for Paradise, yet at the moment of death not all are ready for Paradise. At death a separation of sheep and goats take effect, anticipating the final separation of which Jesus speaks (Matt 25:31-46); but unlike Roman Catholic doctrine this separation is not definitive and set. As far as I can tell, Isaac does not advance a hard-and-fast schema of judgment and eschatological life, as one finds, for example, in Met Hierotheos’ book Life After Death. Isaac’s terminology and vision are fluid. Upon repose one enters immediately into either Paradise or Gehenna. There is no intermediate realm between them, though within each “there are varying degrees of recompenses” (I.6, p. 173). The general resur­rection remains future for Isaac; but he does not make a clear distinction between Hades and Gehenna, as is commonly done in contemporary Orthodox circles.

In the Kingdom the Blessed will together adore and delight in the Holy Trinity, each person deriving “a unique benefit from this visible sun through a single enjoyment of it common to all, each according to the clarity of his eyesight and the ability of his pupils to contain the sun’s constant effusion of light” (I.6, p. 172). Yet while the vision of the uncreated light is distinct and particular to each, no one will notice differences of rank and noetic abilities, lest it become “a cause of sadness and mental anguish” (I.6, p. 172). All will experience the love of God in fullness and perfection, to the degree enabled by his or her spiritual condition. No one will feel jealous or envious. All will rejoice. All will know and glory in love.

But what of those who do not love God and do not desire his company? What of the damned? Here we enter into the most striking dimension of Isaac’s mystical vision. We begin with one of the most frequently quoted passages from his homilies:

I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love. For what is so bitter and vehement as the punishment of love? I mean that those who have become conscious that they have sinned against love suffer greater torment from this than from any fear of punishment. For the sorrow caused in the heart by sin against love is sharper than any torment that can be. It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of God. Love is the offspring of knowledge of the truth which, as is commonly confessed, is given to all. The power of love works in two ways: it torments those who have played the fool, even as happens here when a friend suffers from a friend; but it becomes a source of joy for those who have observed its duties. Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret. But love inebriates the souls of the sons of Heaven by its delectability. (I.28, p. 266; emphasis mine)

God’s love for his creatures does not stop at the borders of hell. The Creator does not cease to will the salvation of the damned because they have renounced him. His mercy does not suddenly turn into wrath. Though we may speak of the damned as separated from God, we must not think that he has separated himself from them. Those in hell are not deprived of his grace. They remain the objects of his mercy and compassion . . .  and that is their tor­ment! The damned hate God because they despise his forgiveness; they hate God because they regret the happiness they have lost through their pride and foolishness; they hate God because they can neither abide nor escape his presence. They are “scourged by the scourge of love.”

Long before I became acquainted with St Isaac the Syrian, the above represented my understanding of hell. I learned it first from C. S. Lewis. He taught me that hell is locked from the inside. The damned freely choose their perdition, refusing all solicitations to return to their Creator and Redeemer. For all eternity they obstinately refuse to make even the smallest step toward the Good, for they have reached the point where they are irre­deem­ably defined by their preference for self and autonomy. The condemned individual “has his wish,” writes Lewis—”to live wholly in the self and to make the best of what he finds there. And what he finds there is Hell.”1 This view isn’t quite identical to Isaac’s, but close enough. Lewis’s disciple, Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft, draws even closer to the great Syrian mystic:

In reality, the damned are in the same place as the saved—in reality! But they hate it; it is their Hell. The saved love it, and it is their Heaven. It is like two people sitting side by side at an opera or a rock concert: the very thing that is Heaven to one is Hell to the other. Dostoyevski says, “We are all in paradise, but we won’t see it.”

Hell is not thrust upon us from without. Hell grows up from within, a spiritual cancer. It emerges from our freedom and eats away that freedom, just as a cancer eats its host.

Hell is not literally the “wrath of God.” The love of God is an objective fact; the “wrath of God” is a human projection of our own wrath upon God, as the Lady Julian saw—a disastrous misinterpretation of God’s love as wrath. God really says to all His creatures, “I know you and I love you,” but they hear Him saying, “I never knew you; depart from me.” It is like angry children misinterpreting their loving parents’ affectionate advances as threats. They project their own hate onto their parents’ love and experience love as an enemy—which it is: an enemy to their egotistic defenses against joy. . . .

Hell is not just punishment for sin; Hell is sin itself in its consummation. Sin is its own punishment just as “virtue is its own reward”. It is the state of spiritual death. The wages of sin is sin. . . .

Since God is love, since love is the essence of the divine life, the consequence of loss of this life is loss of love. . . . Though the damned do not love God, God loves them, and this is their torture. The very fires of Hell are made of the love of God! Love received by one who only wants to hate and fight thwarts his deepest want and is therefore torture. If God could stop loving the damned, Hell would cease to be pure torture. If the sun could stop shining, lovers of the dark would no longer be tortured by it. But the sun could sooner cease to shine than God cease to be God.

“Our God is a consuming fire.” All that can be consumed, will be consumed, so that only the unconsumable will remain. Self must be consumed, must die, in order to rise. There is no other way to eternity. The blessed embrace that blessed death of the sinful self they hate, and it is to them supreme bliss. The damned refuse it (but that does not make it any less necessary; the fire burns on whether we feel it as life-giving warmth or destructive pain), and it is their supreme torture. Thus Heaven and Hell are the very same objective reality, the only one there is, the only game in town: the fire of God’s love, which is His essential being. In a sense, everything is Heaven. Earth is Heaven as a seed. Purgatory is Heaven’s kindergarten. Hell is Heaven refused. Heaven is Heaven accepted.

The lovelessness of the damned blinds them to the light of glory in which they stand, the glory of God’s fire. God is in the fire that to them is Hell. God is in Hell (“If I make my bed in Hell, Thou art there” [Ps 139:8]) but the damned do not know Him.2

The reprobate experience God’s self-communication as wrath and judgment, for they project their own wrath and self-hatred upon him. Hell, we might say, is heaven experienced dif­fer­ently. I embraced Kreeft’s construal as soon as I read it in the mid-80s and incorporated it into my parochial catechesis. It represents the ecumenical doctrine as presently taught in 21st century Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and mainline Protestantism. Retributivists can still be found in all Christian traditions, but the Lewis-Kreeft construal of hell as self-exclusion from joy has most certainly established itself as the normative position. As Pope John Paul II explains: “Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.”3 Various differences can be discerned in these accounts of hell; but they are united in the judgment that it is from love, and not out of a concern to punish, that God honors the eschatological finality of creaturely decision. Jonathan Kvanvig classifies this as the issuant model of hell:

An adequate conception of hell must be an issuant conception of it, one that portrays hell as flowing from the same divine character from which heaven flows. Any other view wreaks havoc on the integrity of God’s character.4

Respect for the sinner’s definitive choice of self-damnation issues from the divine love. In this sense, but only in this sense, the words on the gates of Dante’s inferno remain true:

Justice the founder of my fabric moved:
To rear me was the task of Power divine,
Supremest Wisdom, and primeval Love.

The one critical difference we find among the various ecclesial traditions relates to the question of the irreversibility of the state of perdition. For Catholicism and most forms of Protestantism, once an individual finds himself in the condition of damnation, he is frozen in it forever. He is incapable of repentance, incapable of altering his fundamental decision to reject God. He can only suffer the destruction and misery he has chosen. Pope Benedict XVI well represents this position:

With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell.5

Many Orthodox would agree with this. St John of Damascus writes that the “fall is to the angels just what death is to men. For, just as there is no repentance of men after their death, so is there none for the angels after their fall.”6 Others, however, point to the Ortho­dox practice of praying for the departed. They believe that some, though perhaps not the most incorrigibly impenitent, may be saved through the prayers of the Church and the divine mercy. This appears to have been the position of St Mark of Ephesus. This, I take, is the majority opinion within Orthodoxy today. But there are also theolo­gians, for instance Met Kallistos Ware, who believe that we may genuinely hope that all may be saved. Ware’s position strongly resembles the contingent universalism articu­la­ted by Hans Urs von Balthasar.7 In any case, the majority of Orthodox agree that those who are condemned to Gehenna at the final judgment are beyond hope. For the damned there is only unrelenting torment and agony: they cannot but experience God as their hell. Greek theologian George Metallinos states the dominant Orthodox position:

Paradise and hell are not two different places. (This version is an idolatrous concept.) They signify two different situations (ways), which originate from the same uncreated source, and are perceived by man as two, different experiences. Or, more precisely, they are the same experience, except that they are perceived differently by man, depending on man’s internal state. This experience is: the sight of Christ inside the uncreated light of His divinity, of His “glory”. From the moment of His Second Coming, through to all eternity, all people will be seeing Christ in His uncreated light. That is when “those who worked good deeds in their lifetime will go towards the resurrection of their life, while those who worked evil in their lifetime will go towards the resurrection of judgment” (John 5, 29). In the presence of Christ, mankind will be separated (“sheep” and “goats”, to His right and His left). In other words, they will be discerned in two separate groups: those who will be looking upon Christ as paradise (the “exceeding good, the radiant”) and those who will be looking upon Christ as hell (“the all-consuming fire”, Hebrews 12,29).

Paradise and hell are the same reality. This is what is depicted in the por­trayal of the Second Coming. From Christ a river flows forth: it is radiant like a golden light at the upper end of it, where the saints are. At its lower end, the same river is fiery, and it is in that part of the river that the demons and the unrepentant (“the never repentant” according to a hymn) are depicted. This is why in Luke 2, 34 we read that Christ stands “as the fall and the resurrection of many”. Christ becomes the resurrection into eternal life, for those who accepted Him and who followed the suggested means of healing the heart; and to those who rejected Him, He becomes their demise and their hell.

Patristic testimonies: Saint John of Sinai (of the Ladder) says that the uncreated light of Christ is “an all-consuming fire and an illuminating light”. Saint Gregory Palamas observes: “Thus, it is said, He will baptize you by the Holy Spirit and by fire: in other words, by illumination and punishment, depending on each person’s predisposition, which will bring upon him that which he deserves.” Elsewhere: The light of Christ, “albeit one and accessible to all, is not partaken of uniformly, but differently”.

Consequently, paradise and hell are not a reward or a punishment (con­demnation), but the way that we individually experience the sight of Christ, depending on the condition of our heart. God doesn’t punish in essence, although, for educative purposes, the Scripture does mention punishment. The more spiritual that one becomes, the better he can comprehend the language of the Scripture and our traditions. Man’s condition (clean–unclean, repentant–unrepentant) is the factor that determines the acceptance of the Light as “paradise” or “hell”. . . .

The experience of paradise or hell is beyond words or the senses. It is an uncreated reality, and not a created one. The Franks created the myth that paradise and hell are both created realities. It is a myth, that the damned will not be looking upon God; just as the “absence of God” is equally a myth. The Franks had also perceived the fires of hell as something created (e.g. Dante’s Inferno). Orthodox tradition has remained faithful to the Scriptural claim that the damned shall see God (like the rich man of the parable), but will perceive Him only as “an all-consuming fire”. The Frankish scholastics accepted hell as punishment and the deprivation of a tangible vision of the divine essence. Biblically and patristically however, “hell” is understood as man’s failure to collaborate with Divine Grace, in order to reach the “illuminating” view of God (paradise) and selfless love (per Corinthians I, 13:8): “love . . . does not demand any recipro­ca­tion”). Consequently, there is no such thing as “God’s absence”, only His presence. That is why His Second Coming is dire (“O, what an hour it will be then”, we chant in the Laudatory hymns). It is an irrefutable reality, toward which Orthodoxy is perma­nently oriented (“I anticipate resurrection of the dead . . .”)

The damned—those who are depraved at heart, just like the Pharisees (Mark 3:5: “in the callousness of their hearts”)—eternally perceive the pyre of hell as their salvation! It is because their condition is not susceptible to any other form of salvation. They too are “finalized”—they reach the end of their road—but only the righteous reach the end of the road as saved persons. The others finish as damned. “Salvation” to them is hell, since in their lifetime, they pursued only pleasure. The rich man of the parable had “enjoyed all of his riches”. The poor Lazarus uncomplainingly endured “every suffering”. The Apostle Paul expresses this (Corinthians I, 3: 13-15): “Each person’s work, whatever it is, will be tested by fire. If their work survives the test, then whatever they built, will be rewarded accordingly. If one’s work is burnt by the fire, then he will suffer losses; he shall be saved, thus, as though by fire.” The righteous and the unrepentant shall both pass through the uncreated “fire” of divine presence, however, the one shall pass through unscathed, while the other shall be burnt. He too is “saved”, but only in the way that one passes through a fire. Efthimios Zigavinos (12th century) observes in this respect: “God as fire that illuminates and brightens the pure, and burns and obscures the unclean.” And Theodoritos Kyrou regarding this “saving” writes: “One is also saved by fire, being tested by it”, just as when one passes through fire. If he has an appropriate protective cover, he will not be burnt, otherwise, he may be “saved”, but he will be charred!

Consequently, the fire of hell has nothing in common with the Frankish “purgatory”, nor is it created, nor is it punishment, or an intermediate stage. A viewpoint such as this, is virtually a transferal of one’s account­ability to God. But the accountability is entirely our own, whether we choose to accept or reject the salvation (healing) that is offered by God. “Spiritual death” is the viewing of the uncreated light, of divine glory, as a pyre, as fire.

The contemporary Orthodox understanding of hell is often portrayed, particularly in apologetic contexts, as morally superior to the Catholic and Protestant conceptions of hell. This certainly holds if we are comparing it to traditional juridical models; but as we have seen, mainline Catholicism and Protestantism appear to have adopted non-retributive views very similar to the Orthodox. What I want to ask now is, What would St Isaac think about the river of fire formulation of hell? His statement that the damned are “scourged by the scourge of love” is often quoted by Eastern writers and pastors. They do not see eternal torment as a moral problem. The lost have freely chosen their doom. They have shaped themselves into the kind of people who despise their Creator. They hate the demands he makes upon them. They abhor his self-giving and loathe his presence. Their rejection of his love is definitive and irrevocable. The lost, therefore, are alone responsible for their fate. That they should suffer everlastingly is meet and right. Proponents of the river of fire model, however, fail to observe that the cause of their suffering is precisely God himself. Unlike the self-separation presentation of hell that we find in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, the river of fire model thrusts the damned into the midst of fiery Love. The veil of divine hiddeness is finally removed. There is no place to run, no cave in which to sequester oneself, no hole to crawl into. Everywhere there is only the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in consuming self-manifestation. The uncreated Light blazes forth throughout creation. The walls of narcissistic consciousness collapse. The One who will be—and now is—all in all invades the soul. The agony is unbearable, yet no relief can be found. The conflagration cannot be extinguished. Do not speak to the reprobate of the joys of heaven. God is their hell. Consider this explanation offered by Peter Chopelas:

Experiencing God’s presence and His in-filling transforming Energies in glory or in torment, as Paradise or as Punishment, is the heaven and hell of the Bible. Not something God did to us, but rather something we did to ourselves. God unconditionally pours out His love on all, WHETHER WE WANT IT OR NOT, whether we are ready for it or not, when we enter the afterlife.

Here we have the loving God imposing himself upon those who reject him to their eternal torment and agony. Given that the damned are incapable of repentance, given that they are incapable of responding to the divine love with anything other than hatred, given that they cannot escape from what, for them, is an intolerable state, how is this not punishment of the worst imaginable kind? This is not chastisement, for the damned are beyond education and reform. This is torture.8

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With the final condemnation of the impenitent, has not the God of love in fact become the God of punitive justice? The time for mercy is over; now is the time for the “punishment of love.” God’s antecedent salvific will has collapsed into his consequent retributivist will. Precisely at the point when humanity loses its freedom to embrace God’s offer of salvation—and therefore becomes subject to interminable anguish—we have no choice but to appeal to divine justice. Only if the damned deserve to suffer can the horror of hell be morally justi­fied. Such was the view of St Gregory Palamas: “For then it is a time of revelation and punishment, not compassion and mercy; then is a time of revelation of the wrath, the anger, and the just retribution of God. . . . Woe to him who falls into the hands of the living God.”9  Yet recall the Syrian’s bracing dictum: “God is not one who requites evil, but He sets evil aright” (II.39.15, The Second Part).10

What then has become of the God of infinite Love? Is the final judgment the end of mercy? How can Gehenna be the good that the heavenly Father eternally wills for the damned?

But the “scourge of love” is not St Isaac of Nineveh’s last word on Gehenna.11

(19 March 2013; rev.)

Footnotes

[1] C. S. Lewis The Problem of Pain, p. 123.

[2] Peter Kreeft, Every Thing You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven, pp. 230, 233-235.

[3] John Paul II, General Audience (28 July 1999).

[4] Jonathan Kvanvig, The Problem of Hell, p. 136.

[5] Benedict XVI, Spe salvi 45)

[6] John of Damascus, De Fide Orthodoxa 2.4; see David Bradshaw’s article “Patristic Views on Why There Is No Repentance after Death,” in The Unity of Body and Soul in Patristic and Byzantine Thought, ed. A. Usacheva, S. Bhayro, and J. Ulrich (Brill, 2021), 192-212.

[7] The question of irrevocable impenitence remains open in Orthodoxy: see “Afterlife Possibilities: Is There Repentance Beyond Death?” and “Is Post-Mortem Repentance Possible for Mortal Sinners?

[8] For my critique of the contemporary Orthodox model of damnation, see “Divine Retribution, Hell, and the Development of Dogma” and “Divine Presence and the River of Fire.” Nothing changes, I should add, if we substitute the image of the “outer darkness” for the image of “consuming fire.” Both intimate a mode of divine presence that generates unbearable suffering.

[9] Quoted in Nikolaos P. Vassiliadis, The Mystery of Death, pp. 509-510.

[10] See “St Isaac the Syrian and the Punitive God of the Scriptures.” As we shall see in the next article of this series, Isaac sees that the unconditionality of the divine love logically damns all doctrines of everlasting perdition. If the scourging of love were to continue interminably, it would become retributive punishment; but that is impossible! Retribution is unworthy of the God who is triune Love. Nor will it do to appeal to the antecedent and consequent wills of God, as if the distinction magically protects the character of God from the logic of the eschaton. As David Bentley Hart observes: “Under the canopy of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, the consequent is already wholly virtually present in the antecedent” (That All Shall Be Saved, p. 82; see “Revealing the God Behind the Curtain“).

[11] For a helpful presentation of Isaac’s eschatology, see Hilarion Alfeyev, “The Life of the Age to Come.”

(Go to “The Triumph of the Kingdom Over Gehenna”)

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1 Response to St Isaac of Nineveh and the Scourge of Love

  1. For the the final say has to be ‘His mercy endures forever….’ Which in one Psalm alone He presses on us 29 times! Why should His mercy NEED to endure forever, unless someone needed it to? I cannot see that God who never changes, and that is love, and faithfulness TO those being unfaithful, of which He specifically tells us, I AM faithful, even when YOU are faithless, will not include, as Paul tells us ALLin ALL in Christ. For myself, if my heart as a mere mortal is big enough to see this, and want this, how much bigger the God whose Image I bear? I cannot worship a God who would leave just one! And yet, over and over we are told it is the one that He goes after.

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