The Geography of Heaven and Hell

heaven-and-hell-fresco-esfahanA timely reprint – for thinking about heaven and hell. I continue to be amazed at the literalism that infects the minds of many Christians. Just because Scripture uses the language of geography to describe something does not at all mean that we should assume that it is referring to a literal geography. Those whose imaginations are filled with various versions of heaven and hell in literal terms – it seems to me – lack imagination. The accounts of Christ after the Resurrection, though marked occasionally with very physical descriptions, are clearly marked as well with things that defy everything we know of physicality. His Resurrection is the only “image” of a tangible/non-tangible sort that we can point to for the character of life after death. Some Christians so lack imagination that they won’t let Christ off a literal throne in heaven and use such nonsense to deny the complete reality of the transformation of the Eucharist into His body and blood. In earlier centuries of the Church, such notions would (and were ) declared heresy by the Fathers. How can we worship God in awe and wonder when He is reduced to such understandable terms?Jesus Christ is Lord and His resurrected existence is the only measuring stick (if you will) of reality. 

The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) has a long history of teasing Christians into dangerous territory. I suspect that many if not most Christians have more than a little curiosity about life after death. We want to know what happens. We want to know “how things work.” And this parable – at least on its surface – seems to give more indication of “how things work” than almost any other passage in Scripture.

It gives us a geography of sorts: Lazarus is in “Abraham’s bosom” apparently enjoying good things; the rich man is in Hades and in torment; we are told that there is a “great gulf fixed between the two” so that no one can come from Hades to Abraham’s bosom and no one from Abraham’s bosom can go to Hades.

It interests me that many Christians use this parable as a “map” of the after-life, or at least as a story that supports their own “map” of life after death.

The most important feature of such maps is the very “fixed” character of their geography. What seems most important to them is that one character is in one place and the other character is in another place and there is no traffic between the two. (To read some useful Orthodox thought on life after death and Christ descent into Hades – the following article is of interest.)

It would seem that the reason some Christians like this is that it fits their own map of God and life after death. There are those who seem to like things to be stableand unchangeable – by this I mean they want a life after death (and a life before death) with clearly defined rules, boundaries, unbending laws and the like.

In such a map of things – those who obey the rules, observe the boundaries and master the laws do well. Those who do not – are punished. Such a world, it seems to them, is the way things ought to be, and to be the best way to either reward the good, correct the bad, or punish the incorrigible.

I might add that if you want a world like this – then it is even better if you can find a way to secure God as its underwriter. Many people do this under the heading of the “justice of God.” They will say that “God is just and He cannot deny His justice,” thus forcing God to have very clear rules and guaranteeing that He cannot break His own rules.

Several things to note:

1. There are no maps of the afterlife. Regardless of the descriptions in this parable – the purpose of the parable is not to teach us the topography of heaven and hell. Where, I will ask, is Abraham’s Bosom? How do we think of this as a place? Hades has the same problem – where do you place it? As for the Great Gulf – of what does the gulf consist? What sort of obstacle is insurmountable in these circumstances?

The point of the parable is found in its end: “If they have not listened to Moses and the Prophets, neither would they listen to someone even if he came back from the dead.” It is not a parable about the topography of the after-life, but a comment about our present life and our unwillingness to hear the gospel.

2. There are no rules which God must not break. Important, and please note carefully: no matter how much some may want the world – particularly God’s world –  to be describable in clearly defined rules, boundaries and unbending laws – it’s just not the case. If there is a “rule” of any sort – it is God Himself – it is Personal – and is defined only by mercy, love and kindness.

And so it is that the “Way” forward, backwards, up or down, however you want to describe our travel in the Kingdom of God – the Way only follows the map of the heart of God. If you want to know the way to go – if you want to know how things work – then you have to know the heart of God. You have to know God Himself.

And this is all that we need to know for life here – and life hereafter. God Himself is our heaven – and in the teachings of the Fathers – God Himself is our hell – for hell is nothing other than our self-imposed refusal to accept the love of God. It is that refusal that brings its own torment.

If we have the eyes to see – we are already traveling the roads of heaven and hell – already dwelling in the bosom of Abraham or in the torments of Hades. The geography of that journey is the geography of love and mercy, kindness and forgiveness – or contrary – hatred and judgment, violence self-conceit, slander and calumny.

Judge for yourself – for we’ve all experienced both. Where do you want to dwell? The good news is that whatever gulf is fixed in our heart – whatever wall or chasm has been erected within us – Christ has gone there. He descended into Hades. If you will look within yourself – into the darkness of your own private hell – you will find Christ there – for He has gone there to look for you. And as sure as He trampled down death by death – He can trample down your own hell and translate you into the Kingdom of light.


  1. Judge for yourself – for we’ve all experienced both. Where do you want to dwell? The good news is that whatever gulf is fixed in our heart – whatever wall or chasm has been erected within us – Christ has gone there. He descended into Hades. If you will look within yourself – into the darkness of your own private hell – you will find Christ there – for He has gone there to look for you. And as sure as He trampled down death by death – He can trample down your own hell and translate you into the Kingdom of light.

    Wow. I really needed this today, every day.

  2. I’ve thought a lot about the relationship between Christ’s glorified and ascended body and his presence in the Eucharist. St. Thomas writes,”Christ’s body is not in this sacrament [the Eucharist] definitively, because then it would be only on the particular altar where this sacrament is performed: whereas it is in heaven under its own species, and on many other altars under the sacramental species.” There’s something to this distinction, but my own instinct is to look for a pneuomatological explanation.

  3. Two weeks ago when the story of Lazarus was the Gospel reading, we heard that the “Bosom of Abraham” is an image of a Middle Eastern banquet where the honored guest has the privilege of resting his head on the chest/bosom of the host. It was pointed out that all of the “characters” in the story were able to talk to one another. It was, in that sense, the same place. What, then, was the great chasm? As you say here, it is the attitude of the Rich Man. In this case, despite his sense of torment, he was still unwilling to change. Others, such as Lazarus, were still “servants”–people who should do his bidding. He was blind to their personhood. This ungodly attitude would not change, it is said, even if someone should rise from the dead.

  4. Thank you, Father. I don’t remember where I read it, but I know some scholar somewhere made the observation that there is a great irony in the Story of Lazarus and Dives. Come to think of it, it might have been Ratzinger’s “Jesus of Nazareth.” I don’t remember for certain.

    While Abraham says that Lazarus coming back from the dead will not cause repentance if the Prophets do not also, another Lazarus does indeed come back from the dead to preach. Not only that, but Jesus does, too, so that already God has “broken the rules” of the afterlife, so to speak.

  5. PJ,
    I must admit that I much prefer Fr. Romanides’ words of explanation -shedding light on the matter (that was quoted above from Thomas Aquinas):

    When the ancient Church referred to the body of Christ as the Church, and Christ as the Head of the Church, they of course did not mean that Christ was spread out bodily all over the world and that He – for example – had His Head in Rome, the one hand in the East and the other in the West, but that the whole of Christ exists in every individual church with all its members, that is, the Saints and the faithful of the universe. In this way, according to the teaching of the Fathers, when we perform the Divine Eucharist, not only is Christ present, but all His Saints and the Christians of the Universe are present, in Christ. When we receive a tiny morsel of the Holy Bread, we receive all of Christ inside us. When Christians gather together for the same reason, the whole Church is gathering together, and not just a fraction of it. This is the reason that it has become predominant in Patristic Tradition to refer to the church of a monastery as the “Katholikon”.

  6. Geri, Lazarus wasn’t his only servant but even Abraham. If you notice the rich man was telling Abraham what to do.

  7. PJ….and Dino,

    The distinction between the divine persons remains ever sharp; Christ “recapitulates” human nature “in His hypostasis” while the Holy Spirit “imparts the fullness of deity after a manner which is unique, ‘personal’ [and] appropriate”:

    “The Holy Spirit is the ‘source of sanctification which never fails by reason of the multitude of those who share in it’, who is wholly present to every being, and wholly everywhere; impassibly divided, and shared without division, like a sunbeam, whose gracious influence is as much his who enjoys it as though he were alone in the world, but which also blends with the air, and shines over land and sea”.
    St. Basil


    “One does not think of the Father without the Son […] nor does one conceive of the Son without the Holy Spirit.”
    St Gregory of Nyssa

    And, importantly:

    “The divine persons do not assert themselves but one bears witness to another.”

    (Quoted from the Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 166, 159-160)

  8. (Amen)…

    “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
    (Ephesians 4:16)

  9. Dino, PJ,
    Met. J. Zizioulas has also written well (and pneumatologically!) on the topic. As Romanides says, Christ, the whole Christ is always present wherever He is present. It is not unrelated to what I have tried to write about the “One.”

    As Andrew has quoted St. Gregory of Nyssa, “One does not think of the Father without the Son.” The very names “Father,” “Son,” etc. carry each other within them when they are rightly carried.

    I can see what Aquinas was after, but it is a place that the scholastic method runs into problems that are better confronted by irony and paradox (i.e. the apophatic approach). Or so it seems to me.

  10. Jennifer,
    I am not a fan of the toll-house imagery. Far too many make errors similar to the non-Orthodox and treat the toll-house imagery in a literal manner. There’s certainly truth to be drawn from the toll-house stories – revealed to the heart.

  11. Thank you Father for your kind comment.

    In the words of Stanley Hauerwas (who in his own words, as a Methodist comes “out of the belly of the beast that bears the name pietism”), has this to say of the Holy Spirit:

    “To point to Jesus, however, means you cannot forget that Jesus can be known only through the connections the Spirit makes possible – thus my claim: “No Israel, no Jesus. No Church, no Jesus.” This formula is meant to remind us that the God we worship as Christians is a God who wills to be present to his creation in a startlingly particular fashion.”

    The full piece here, worth a read.

  12. PJ, Dino and All:

    Fr. Romanides on the salvific action of the Holy Spirit:

    The noetic faculty is liberated by the power of the Holy Spirit from the influences of both the body and the discursive intellect and engages uninterruptedly and ceaselessly in prayer alone. The fascinating thing about this actual state of prayer … is that, although the physical and intellectual faculties no longer exercise any influence whatsoever on the noetic faculty, they are themselves, however, dominated by the noetic faculty’s unceasing prayer in such a fashion that they are spiritually cleansed and inspired and at the same time may engage in their normal activities.

    (Romanides, Palamite Controversy, p. 229).

    Thus do we escape the fate of fallen human nature, so that as St. Paul says, we do not:

    [Pay] back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.

    (1 Thess 5:15)

    Simply put, to perish is to refuse to love the truth and to delight in wickedness.
    (2 Thess 2:10-11)

  13. Note: By fallen human nature I mean that part which is not “recapitulated” into the hypostasis of Christ, whether we speak of the trichotomy (spirit, soul and body) or the dichotomy (soul and body).

  14. How fabulous to see the dots being properly connected. i.e: illumination and glorification (as described by Fr John Romanides above) being ultimately connected to kenotic love, which “seeketh not its own”, (in Andrew’s quote, “always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else”)[1 Thess 5:15]
    Truth be told: the day-to-day crucifixion of one’s self-obsessed ‘loves’ [Luke 9:23] has the greatest power to fan the flames of the Spirit that make of us glorified vessels of His Love.

  15. In fact, speaking of Fr. John Romanides, concerning the “Geography of Heaven and Hell”, he has brought much needed attention to a dire misunderstanding that has resulted from bad translation. This was recently discussed by Father Alexis Trader, in his words:

    Although the term for kingdom (βασιλείο) appears in the Greek Old Testament that relates the vicissitudes of the Jewish nation, it does not appear even once in the original Greek of the New Testament. Instead, another related Greek word meaning reign or sovereign rule (βασιλεία) is employed 162 times in such passages as the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Reign come,” or the familiar “Repent, for the Reign of God is at hand.” Since it is also the word used at this point in the Creed, we need to properly understand it if we are to grasp what this article of faith seeks to convey.


    at translating basileia as kingdom, instead of rule, makes the text of Scriptures opaque and along side the Scriptures, this article of the Creed as well. He writes, “Another example is the phrase ‘kingdom of God’ which makes it a creation of God instead of the uncreated ruling power of God. What is amazing is that the term ‘kingdom of God’ appears not once in the original Greek of the New Testament. Not knowing that the ‘rule’ or ‘reign of God’ is the correct translation of the Greek ‘Basileia tou Theou,’… even many Orthodox today do not see that the promise of Christ to his apostles in Matthew 16:28, Luke 9:27 and Mark 9:1, i.e. that they will see God’s ruling power, was fulfilled during the Transfiguration which immediately follows in the above three gospels. Here Peter, James, and John see Christ as the Lord of Glory, i.e. as the source of God’s uncreated ‘glory’ and ‘basileia’ (i.e. uncreated ruling power), denoted by the uncreated cloud or glory which appeared and covered the three of them during the Lord of Glory’s Transfiguration. It was by means of His power or Glory that Christ as the pre-incarnate Lord (Yahweh) of Glory had delivered Israel from its Egyptian slavery and lead it to freedom and the land of promise. The Greek text does not speak about the ‘basileion (kingdom) of God,’ but about the ‘Basileia (rule or reign) of God,’ by means of His uncreated glory and power.

  16. Another possible translation for Vasileia is “regime.” Repent, because God’s regime is coming.

  17. Dino and Meg Photini,

    Again I say Amen.

    The divine uncreated energies are an invitation to synergia (i.e human nature cooperates with the divine will to its perfecting on the transfiguration mount).

    On the other hand, the only appropriate response to an encounter with the divine uncreated essence (Yhwh) is humility; which is really another way of saying that we enter into a permanent state of repentance. Either that, or like Pharaoh, endure the tragedy of a permanent hardening of the heart.


  18. Let simplicity accompany you everywhere. Be especially simple in your faith, hope, and love, for God is not a complex Being, and our soul is also simple. The flesh hinders the simplicity of our soul when we gratify it; let meekness be its crown.
    Saint John of Kronstadt

    I wonder at times if the quest to “know” is not the biggest detriment of the flesh. Especially since, by definition, God is unknowable. We can experience Him or at least the hem of His garment so to speak. We can encounter Him. We can surrender to His love but we can never figure it out as love, also by definition, is ineffable.

    My blessed wife met Jesus when she was 5 as she hid in the closet amongst the dirty clothes to escape her abusive father. Jesus came to her there and comforted her, stroking her head. When she first came to our parish some 55 years later, she saw the icon of our Lord enthroned above the altar and said: “That’s Him, I’m home.” All the rest didn’t/doesn’t matter.

    The recognition of “That’s Him” is the foundation on which the fullness rests–the integration into His life rather than remaining in the isolation of our own. The sacrifice of praise.

    Of course it must really be Him and not some false Him. Ay, there’s the rub and the purpose of apophatic theology if I’m not mistaken.

  19. In my rather arrogant opinion, the Orthodox Church is the only place in which one can safely encounter our Lord and grow into the fullness of His life. It is the only place where the Cross can be fully embraced as the entry into His dominion.

    Of course, the question is, do we love God or mammon?

  20. Dallas, He is the Life so, in a sense, yes but as Fr Stephen has written we become more of who we actually are that way.

    The union that occurs has a certain conjugal aspect to it…although it is easy to take that too far.

    It is both I think.

  21. When you say “many Christians” are you referring to mainly Protestants or is this also a phenomena within Orthodox circles? I would be very surprised to discover that Orthodox Christians would make this mistake.

    In my experience, it is typically Protestant Evangelicals who fall into this blunder (along with a slew of others) which leads to all manner of nonsensical results (Randy Alcorn, Frank Peretti and Keith Green spring to mind).

  22. Michael Bauman says: In my rather arrogant opinion, the Orthodox Church is the only place in which one can safely encounter our Lord and grow into the fullness of His life.

    From an outsider’s perspective, I can agree that the Orthodox seem to be the only sane Christians around. Your arrogance is well founded.

  23. Jennifer – Reading that article made me think of this Father Guido Sarducci video on the afterlife:


  24. Michael,

    I wonder at times if the quest to “know” is not the biggest detriment of the flesh. Especially since, by definition, God is unknowable. We can experience Him or at least the hem of His garment so to speak. We can encounter Him. We can surrender to His love but we can never figure it out as love, also by definition, is ineffable.

    very well said indeed!
    It also draws attention to the inherent difference between faith and the knowledge that it imparts (which leads to personal encounter), as contrasted to reasoning and the entirely different knowledge that brings (which can rarely lead to personal encounter and usually leads to prideful demands). Both of course contain an element of ‘doubt’ and an element of ‘proof’, but their subjects (or objects) are inherently apples and pairs. The ‘doubt’ concerning the absence or presence of God however, regardless of the form it takes and whether unbeliever or believer expresses it, usually calls for a ‘proof’ of the existence of God from either party.
    But whichever faction we are part of, we miss the logical inconsistency involved , in wanting to combine faith with proof. The main error of both parties when looking for such a ‘proof’ (which is entirely different from the experientially verifiable ‘evidence’ of a Saint’s encounter with the Uncreated) is the tragic disregard of the risk involved in a possible incontestable proof of God (at that stage). If God were to be bluntly proven, such a certainty of His presence would mean the decisive lifting of Man’s liberty. The fact that no man could ever regulate their fate differently from the will of God and His Law, would depersonalize humans, since a key condition for the formation of the ‘Person’ is this freedom that is only ensured by the improvability of God. The end result would be a human fate worse than animals.
    God, contrary to the requirement of the unbeliever and the desire of the believer, desires to not be “provable”. This “refusal” of His, the refusal to become a provable ‘object’, is one of the highest form of His salvific power. It is fully compatible with the “logic” of God’s love .
    God does not need fans, admirers and followers, let alone slaves, but friends, sons and daughters – beyond any coercion, through an often precarious or scandalously ‘uncontrolled’ freedom.

    Getting back to the subject of our personal ‘interpretation’ of God and all reality as ‘a Heaven’ or as ‘a Hell’ (largely irrespective of our outward situation), we would do well to keep in mind that it is largely dependant on our trustful surrender to His ineffable Love – even when we are going through a seemingly Grace-less period…

  25. In my case it is not any doubt about God’s existence or even His inexplicable love for me. My struggle is in actually loving Him back.

  26. Same here Michael, the deep and painful realization that we have no love in us is certainly the step that is needed first, in order to yearn fervently for His Grace to come and abide in us, and cleanse us from all iniquity and delusion, and permanently bestow on us the ineffable love that only He has – or is rather.

  27. Additionally, based on St Maximus the Confessor’s description of our unfortunate ‘joy of receiving and sadness at giving’, one could argue that the opening of the ‘Me’ to the ‘not-Me’, (whether that is God or whether that is His beloved ones – ie: our neighbour) must start by working on ‘joy’. (The reverse joy). This must be the joy of giving, the zeal of not wanting anything in return, hating entitlement, just wanting to offer, and this takes us straight to Orthodox ascesis in all its various manifestations. The fire and joy in fasting, standing, ministering, genuflecting, praying, washing-up even etc etc without demanding returns from God or neighbour…

  28. Dino: sorry to be late with this, but I’m just approaching my chrismation – and so I’v been keeping my eyes open for a practical beginning to theosis. (very clumsily put, I’m sorry.)
    Anyway, I think you’ve given me the kick-start I’ve been looking for. Many thanks.
    Of course, theosis is truly a gift (grace) from God, isn’t it?

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