Charles Williams, one of C.S. Lewis’ circle of friends, once wrote a book entitled, The Descent into Hell. In it he chronicles the slow inexorable damnation of a soul. Choices made or not made – a chronicle more of spiritual ennui than of willful rebellion – it is a very sobering novel.
There is an understanding of hell that goes far beyond the typical lake of fire and burning Gehenna. Those images, though Biblical, frequently do not speak to the full existential character of hell. Thus it becomes something of a commonplace in our time to think of hell much like heaven – just one of the alternatives we face in life after death. Neither are considered alternatives within the present or having anything to do with daily life other than as eventual consequences.
This is a tragedy, both for its failure to give a more compelling account of the “nowness” of the Kingdom of God (which Christ certainly preached – Luke 17:21), and for its frequent caricature of hell which falls far short of describing the emptiness of humanity apart from God.
The Orthodox faith, particularly in its liturgical cycle, makes much of the descent of Christ into Hades. The service on Holy Saturday is very much about this descent noting that the victory of Christ over death and hell, begins first in hell (I am using “hell” and “hades” interchangeably at this point – a common practice within Church language).
The closest thing to a definition of hell given in Scripture is not the imagery of burning gehenna, but in a statement Christ makes in the Gospel of John. “This is condemnation, that Light has come into the world, and men preferred darkness to the Light” (John 3:19). This image is, for me, far more poignant than the lake of fire and such. The weakness found in the frightening, graphic imagery of the fire, gnashing of teeth, etc., are their passive character. It is easily translated into something that is done to us. It might even imply that one would have wanted things to be different.
The verse in John implies just the opposite – hell (condemnation) is what it is – only because we want it so. As a priest this portrayal of condemnation has been by far the most helpful approach in dealing pastorally with people. It is not the threat of what someone (God) may do to them, but the existential reality of what you are doing to yourself – even now.
For some, thinking about hell as a choice sounds absurd. They reason within themselves, “Who would willingly choose hell?” I think to myself, “Plenty of people – I meet them all the time and sometimes I am one of them.”
In the gospel the story of the rich young ruler is the story of someone who meets Christ, is loved by Christ, and is invited into the intimacy of discipleship by Christ himself! The cost, however, is everything he owns. And we are told he went away sad because he was rich. He went away sad, but he went away. Human beings frequently choose something other than God – even though it makes them sad – because they love darkness more than they love the light.
That is the story of our descent into Hell. It is a movement away from God, away from the light and a descent into darkness, alienation, and self-love. It is a hell that infects our hearts even in the present and has the potential for becoming the very definition of the state of our souls beyond the grave.
But this is where the liturgical celebration of Christ’s descent into hell becomes particularly joyful. The love of God is such that He entered into hell – into the depths of darkness where we had plunged ourselves. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,” refers not only to the Gentiles who can now hear the gospel, but to those souls in Hades who behold the Light of Christ in the midst of that great darkness.
“Hell was embittered!” is the refrain in St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal homily. The darkness did not want to give up its captives.
St. Silouan of Mt. Athos (+1938) heard from God, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” It ranks among the most peculiar sayings in the lives of any of the saints. For him it meant that he was to enter into the despair and darkness of others, in prayer, but not to despair himself. He was to pray for the world as though we were responsible for the sins of all. He was, like Christ, to follow love to its complete conclusion and extend his love to the uttermost. This is the love that we see on the Cross – the love of God that reaches even to the depths of hell.
If we are not bound by forensic imagery, but instead understand heaven and hell as the state of the soul before God, then we can see far more clearly the extent of the love of God. “Lo, if I make my bed in hell, Thou art there” (Psalm 139:8). It also is the measure of the love that is expected of us. Thus we are commanded to forgive even our enemies.
On a day to day basis we are called to descend into the darkness of those about us and pray. We should pray for Light, for forgiveness for grace to do whatever mysterious work it does in creating a clean heart. To follow the path of Christ always leads us to the Cross – but we should see that the Cross stands firmly in the midst of man’s darkness. Glory to God who has shown us the Light!
“pray for the world as though we were responsible for the sins of all.”
Really, can I be sure that I am not? Coming to Orthodoxy, particulary Fr. Thos. Hopko’s recorded lectures on sin, helped me realize my selfishness and ignorance is complicit in the whole catastrophic gestalt; no individualistic retreat is possible to leave “them” to it.
Thanks for the blog. It’s very welcome and lifts the heart.
I first encountered this thought in Dostoevsky – but, of course, that is a novel. I met it for real in the writings and legacy of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, who truly seems to have entered into the depths of human suffering to pray for all. Fr. Tom’s tapes are indeed on the mark on this one – as usual.
I have a friend who has earned millions. He is relatively young (early 40s), intelligent, good-looking, in great shape, and seems to be as close to hell as anyone I know.
I mean this: he believes he has made his own way, that through his own wits and work ethic has created his success. His modus operandi is to immediately size someone up and tell them why they are wrong and why he is right. He tells them about this for fun or doesn’t tell them about it so he can manipulate the circumstances for his own gain.
At the end of the day, he does not interact with other people. Instead, he sits atop the hill of his own empire, ruling and pontificating. (As an aside, he doesn’t know nearly as much as he thinks. I like to refer to him as a “Sports Bar Philosopher-King.”)
He is already in hell. If heaven is personal relationship, if the Godhead means three persons constantly in wonderful, equal, mutually enlightening/stimulating/enjoyable interaction, than he is not sharing in what heaven is like. He has willingly distanced himself from this, all in the name of finding “success.”
I’m sure there are many in such circumstances – but, as you say, he’s a friend. So we pray for them – we go into hell and pray there (so that we never stand outside and judge because we can’t judge and pray at the same time). That you can call him “friend” actually is hopeful for him – even if he’s busy creating his own hell. It’s hopeful because a single relationship can be the doorway out. May God have mercy on us. Glad to see you checked in to the blog. Thanks!
I’d like to post my request for a post sometime in the future on Tollbooths. 🙂
I’m reading Paradiso now and am really struck by the figurative force of the Divine Comedy. I’m not so much reading it literally, as it seems to drive home the idea that we don’t have to wait for the afterlife to visit hell. I can (and do) create hell for myself in this life.
Forgive me, Steve, I suspect that you won’t see me do a whole posting on the Toll House stuff, generally because I think it can breed confusion about Orthodox teaching. The imagery of the toll houses is imagery of the “particular” judgment that all undergo, according to Scripture, at the time of death. But all the writings I have seen are careful to note that this is imagery, and not literalism. If it’s imagery someone finds helpful and nurtures a heart of repentance, good. If not, let it be. I find little or no mention of it in many sources, and think that for a variety of reasons, it has gotten too much mention in our American setting, including controversy that does no good to the faith or the Church.
It is enough for a Christian to know that there is an accounting for what we do in this life. “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” Having said that, enough may have been said – other than our continuing need to remember to pray for those who are departed. Our only hope is in a merciful God – not in our own works – but in his wonderful and great mercy.
I’ve decided to go back and start reading your posts from the beginning. Glad I did, I think this might rank as one of my favorites of yours. 🙂
Thank you. There are now nearly 1000 posts. Happy reading!
Hi, I have been a reader of this blog for about a month now and I really like it. I’m trying go back and read them from the start. You really have a way of breaking down things in a concrete way but at the same time being very deep. I was glad that you chose not to talk about the Toll House’s. I think too many Christians(not just Orthodox) focus too much on whats going to happen in the end and not whats happining to our souls right now. Jesus is coming back to judge the world. period.
I agree with you completely. Glad to have you reading!