This post began as a comment – a response to serious questions about the nature of hell (Is Hell Real?) and recent treatments of Scriptural literalism. I offer this edited version as a new post for the sake of those who don’t follow comments closely…
Dear Reader, I want to state immediately that you should be at peace about the state of Orthodoxy. My earlier post (Is Hell Real?) is not meant to question the “reality” of hell in the sense that you are using the word – though it is meant to make us think a great deal more about what we mean when we say “real” – about which I’ll say more in a moment.
And, on matters of Biblical interpretation, I utterly reject the nonsense of liberal Christianity and its handling of Scriptures (much as I reject their handling by Protestant fundamentalists – they are two sides of the same coin). But, again, I want to press the point of our understanding of the Scriptures beyond the flat literalism of modern Protestantism (whether fundamentalist or liberal). Some may find my pressing of this point to be less than helpful. If so, they should ignore these posts.
On What I Mean by “Real”
Modern thought, including modern Protestant thought, tends to think of “reality” as consisting of only one kind of thing. So, if we say “real,” we mean “true,” “actual,” not “make-believe,” not an “imagination.” And this is the way the word is used whether it is referring to green dragons, God, heaven, hell, what I ate last week, etc. It is this singular, univocal meaning and singular understanding of “real” that I am challenging. I think of this “singular” meaning for “real” as false and misleading. I often refer to it as “flat,” or “literalistic.” My goal is to help readers, on a popular level, understand better the Orthodox teaching on the nature of things – on the world as sacrament – on the character of truth and reality – and thus the nature of our salvation.
The fathers, when addressing this topic, understand that truth and being (and thus “reality” and what is “real”) are qualities that belong to God alone. As St. Gregory the Theologian said, “Inasmuch as we say ‘God exists,’ we don’t exist. Inasmuch as we say, ‘We exist,’ God does not exist.” What he meant by this is that the character of God’s existence is such that no other “existing” thing can be compared to the existence of the true God. The Baptismal prayer calls God, hyperousia, “supersubstantial,” or “beyond being.” St. Basil the Great calls God, “the only truly existing…” St. Athanasius notes that everything created was created out of nothing, and is thus “nothing” by its nature. If we were left utterly to ourselves, we would simply cease to exist because we were and are created “out of nothing.” According to St. Athanasius, the kind of existence we have is utterly a gift. It is sustained by the good will of the good God. But such an existence cannot be compared with the existence and being of God. It is not self-existence, but gift.
However, the good God who brought us into existence out of nothing, also intends for us the gift of union with Himself, which is the gift of eternal life, a participation in the Divine life. Thus the fathers use the language of the created participating in the uncreated (God). St. Maximus the Confessor even says that we become “uncreated” by grace. This is the doctrine that is called “theosis,” divinization.
If divinization is thought of in terms of “being,” then it can be described as a movement from created existence (by nature) towards uncreated existence (by grace).
I have used the word “real” in the sense and meaning of the statement,”God alone is real,” i.e. “God is the only truly existing one.” Those things are real that have participation in God and only insomuch as they have participation in God. Those things that resist such participation, that rebel are not “not existing” (or else we couldn’t even speak of them), but they are moving in a direction that is opposite from true existence, and are moving towards what they came from (nothing). In the fathers there is thus a distinction between things that do not exist (ouk ousia) and things that are tending toward non existence (me ousia). Because existence is the gift of God, and God does not take back the gift He has given, the most we can do in our rebellion is move towards me ousia (relative non-existence, a “not real” reality).
When I suggest that hell is “not real,” I do not mean that there is no such thing, but that the nature of what we call “hell,” is at heart a movement away from reality (God), a choice towards non-existence, something that is essentially inauthentic. C.S. Lewis’ imagery of hell as the “gray town” in The Great Divorce, is a very rich play on this thought.
On the Biblical Stories
There are many kinds of stories in the Bible. Protestant fundamentalism has, more or less, decided that there is only one kind of story in the Scriptures and only one kind of truth that has any usefulness and that is a literal, historical kind of story or truth. Thus the story of Adam and Eve is seen as only having value and only being of use if it is a description of a “factual” event. It would understand a “factual” event to mean that if I were present as an observer on the day of Adam’s creation, I would see the event of the clay being formed into the first homo sapiens, etc. This same kind of literalism is applied across the board to all OT stories. Either they are true in that way (it is reasoned), or they are lies, fictions and worse.
Protestant liberalism (in its most extreme forms) agrees with this kind of singular reading. Liberalism, however, uses this singular approach to discredit anything that seems to be questionable as a “factual,” newspaper kind of event. And it uses these attacks to undermine the authority of the Church, the faith, etc. This allows liberalism to proceed to create its own “truths” and build the fantasy world of its own private dreams and continue to create misery in the name of God.
When this topic of “factuality” (in the sense propagated by Protestant fundamentalism and liberalism) is addressed in the Fathers (which is rarely the case when any particular OT story is being invoked), it is clearly understood that the stories in Scripture have a number of “levels” of meaning, a number of possibilities, a variety of uses. The story of Adam and Eve and the Creation is handled more literally by some of the fathers, and quite figuratively by others (I’ve referenced Peter Bouteneff’s work on the patristic use of the Creation chapters and recommend it again). The issue of Adam and Eve and history is not a debate within the historic Orthodox Church. It was and is a debate between Protestant fundamentalists and Protestant liberals that arose with special vehemence in response to Darwin’s theories. It is their battle, not ours. Many Orthodox, living here in the West, have decided that the Orthodox should take sides in that debate – but I suggest that they are mistaken. The debate is a non-issue because both liberals and fundamentalists have a wrong understanding of Scripture and history.
For some, Orthodoxy can seem simply like a more defensible version of conservative Christianity, with sacraments). Orthodoxy is neither conservative nor liberal – it is Orthodoxy. It need have no reference to the conversations that are happening outside. Orthodoxy was Orthodox when there were no denominations. The only measure of Orthodoxy is its participation in the Truth. Too many people bring the baggage of their former Christianity(ies) with them and try to graft it onto the trunk of the Orthodox