More Thoughts on Hell

hell_joyceIn my recent article on hell, I offered what I called a “lesson in ontology” (the study of being). It was a way of understanding what it means to say something is real and true, and the nature of existence as a gift.

But in describing hell as not “real,” many readers immediately concluded that I was saying that there is no such thing as hell. This occasioned legitimate questions about those verses in Scripture that speak of hell and judgment. Is there truly a judgment? Does it matter what we do with our lives?

The one figure in Scripture who says the most about hell and judgment is Christ Himself. Though many like to think of St. Paul as the “bad guy” of the New Testament (because of things he says about women, sexual activity, etc.), it is actually Jesus who speaks of “hell fire,” the “worm that does not die,” “outer darkness,” and such things. I have been asked to write specifically to these references.

But again, some basics.

Sin is not a legal problem. If we understand sin as the breaking of a rule, even a Divine commandment, then we will fail to understand the whole of our life with God, including salvation, heaven – everything.

Legal problems, however real we might perceive them, are not real. If I break a rule (say in civil society) then there is no problem unless and until someone enforces the rule and extracts a penalty. If I break the speed limit and no one sees me, there is no legal problem. If I break the speed limit and the police officer gives me a warning, there is no legal problem. If I break the speed limit and the police officer accepts a bribe, there is no legal problem.

And even if the legal problem is enforced, my problem, at its worst, is not legal. I might have a money problem (a fine), or a jail problem (incarceration), etc., but “legal” is simply a word that describes the nature of my relationship with those in charge of extracting money from me at the point of a gun (or other forms of violence). We permit such forms of violence through a social contract (the state).

But none of this has anything to do with God. To use legal understandings to speak of the Kingdom of God produces a caricature and only promotes deep misunderstanding (even heresies).

The Law of God is not a legal fiction. Instead, it describes the actual nature of things. The commandments of God describe how things are, such that consequences are quite “natural.”

The Law of Gravity is not a legal problem:

“I didn’t mean to walk off the cliff.”

“Then legally you shouldn’t have died.”

The same is true of sin. Sin is not a legal problem. In the Garden, when God warns Adam and Eve concerning the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, He says, “In the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” This is not a legal statement. Were that the case, God would have said, “In the day you eat of it, I will kill you.” But the consequence is not legal but natural – it is inherent – intrinsic to the very nature of things.

Adam and Eve die, not as punishment, but because they have broken communion with God who alone is the Lord and Giver of Life, the source of our very being. Death is not punishment, but the natural state of a human being who moves in a direction away from God.

Much of the imagery (and thought) that surround judgment and hell are rife with legal imagery. Some of this is completely natural (doing no damage to the text) but much of it is from a centuries’ long habit of reading legal imagery into almost everything (such is our cultural heritage).

But sin, and its punishment, are not legal in nature. Were our punishment of a legal nature, then there would be no disagreement about hell as a temporary matter. For if our sins are finite in nature, then surely our punishment would be finite as well.

I have listened to hours and hours of explanations of how humanity’s sin is infinite and how the offense against God’s honor (or justice or righteousness) is infinite – but this is all “after the fact,” a poor human effort to justify an image of an eternal, infinite, punishing hell-fire.

Again, our problem is not legal in nature.

Sin is ontological – it goes to the very heart of our being and existence. St. Paul uses the word “corruption” (phthora) in a number of places to describe the work of sin:

For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life. (Gal 6:8 NKJ)

Corruption is the word for what the body does when it dies – it rots. It is also a description of what happens in our lives when we live out of communion with God – things rot – they fall apart – they dissolve ever more completely – morally, spiritually, physically. It is like a disease process. It can only be arrested (and healed) by grace.

Every attempt to describe sin and hell with legal/penal imagery fails to do justice to the inward, ontological nature of our fall. It reduces the consequences of sin to externally imposed penalties and runs the risk of ignoring the entire body of Scripture (and human experience) that bear witness to a deeply organic character of sin and consequence.

Justice models tend to major in external imagery. Thus the fires of hell (as external punishing flames) and hell as a place become very important. The teaching of the Orthodox Church, as expressed famously by St. Mark of Ephesus, holds that the fires of hell are immaterial. The fathers of the Church often pierce the flames of hell with discernment and wisdom revealing their inner meaning rather than dwelling on crude images of torture and punishment. Thus St. Ambrose:

That gnashing is not of bodily teeth, nor is that perpetual fire made up of physical flames, nor is the worm a bodily one. These things are spoken of, however, because, just as worms are born of massive overeating and fevers, so too, if anyone does not boil away his sins…he will be burned up in his own worms. Whence also Isaias says: “Walk in the light of your fire, and the flame which you have ignited” (Isaiah 50:11). It is a fire which gloominess of sins generates. It is a worm insofar as irrational sins of the soul stab at mind and heart and eat the guts out of your conscience.(Commentary on Luke, 7, 205)

St. Isaac of Syria says that the fires of hell are nothing other than the love of God:

As for me I say that those who are tormented in hell are tormented by the invasion of love. What is there more bitter and violent than the pains of love? Those who feel they have sinned against love bear in themselves a damnation much heavier than the most dreaded punishments. The suffering with which sinning against love afflicts the heart is more keenly felt than any other torment. It is absurd to assume that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is offered impartially. But by its very power it acts in two ways. It torments sinners, as happens here on earth when we are tormented by the presence of a friend to whom we have been unfaithful. And it gives joy to those who have been faithful.

St. Isaac’s words are very helpful. The “punishment” is nothing other than love. But the tormenting character of God’s love is produced by the state of the soul, not by the external character of the love itself. It is a consequence of our own making.

When understood in such an intrinsic manner, hell does not cease to be a “threat” (as some fear), but the threat becomes more immediate and does not rest on the external action of a punishing God. It is a reflection of something already begun within us:

For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1Pe 4:17 NKJ)

However, the nature of our inner corruption often makes us blind to the very judgment at work within us. I often think of the character in Lewis’ gray town (The Great Divorce), who though in hell, has a small theological discussion group and needs to leave his excursion in heaven in order to return to present a paper. Its irony is too true to be humorous.

The caricatured wrathful, punishing God is the product of poor theological reflection (or none at all). His hell, no matter how justified, does not serve the intended purpose of its defenders (provoking sinners to repentance). It instead provokes skeptics to unbelief.

The subtleties of the inner torment and corruption of the soul may fail to satisfy those who prefer the punishing God. But they would do well to tend to the subtleties of their own souls and the corruption worked by envy and the joy at the punishment of others.

Judgment has indeed begun in the house of God.



  1. …and the practice of the Church: worship, prayer, almsgiving, fasting, repentance/forgiveness through which we put ourselves, each other and all our lives in the path of God’s grace and mercy can also lead to the healing of corruption?

    Do I have that correct?

    Do you have a sense Father that the overall teaching of the Church is that — despite our resistance to God’s love that it is irresistible ultimately? Or will some simply refuse to submit?

    The parable of the Prodigal and the 11th hour workers seem to suggest the pervasive, all-encompassing, irresistsble love.

    The ultimate question of eternal evil if anyone is left in hell.

    But is evil really evil if it can no longer produce evil fruit.

  2. Great post, Father. It is among my favorites. I still struggle, though, to believe that anyone would remain forever in a state of rebellion against God. Will not the fires of his love eventually remedy all evils?

  3. Michael and Seraphim, that is the $100,000 question! 🙂

    As you may know if you have been reading this blog long (and like to read comments as I do), this is the issue that brought me from Evangelicalism into Orthodoxy. In this regard, Abraham’s entreaty of the Angel of the Lord regarding His impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (see Genesis 18:16ff) resonates strongly with me. Why did Abraham stop at ten righteous residents remaining? Perhaps it was because he saw the trajectory of God’s patience and mercy and it was enough for him. Perhaps there were ten members in Lot’s household. Who knows? Whether rightly or wrongly, I always think of Sodom and Gomorrah as being symbolic here of each fallen human soul. So long as there is even a shred of the divine image intact, there is hope.

  4. Thank you for sharing these thoughts, Father.
    Though this isn’t the main topic at hand, you seem to speak of the state and the social contract as a legal fiction, built on violence, and in opposition to the ontological Kingdom of God which is built on divine love. As a libertarian, I would very much agree with such an assessment of the state. If you share this assessment (and it seems that you do, but perhaps I am mistaken), wouldn’t this imply that statism is incompatible with Christianity?

  5. Michael and Seraphim,
    when Elder Sophrony of Essex was asked that exact same question by one of his disciples in the monastery, he answered (and it is recorded) that it is

    “this is a question that will remain unanswered until the end of time. We do not know. However, this notion of the final salvation of all including Satan, which originally stems from Origen, is most harmful, and that is why Scripture speaks the way it does, which is most useful for us”

  6. Michael,
    Evil is not fruitful. It does not produce. I only tears down what is. It never creates, only distorts. St. Isaac teaches me to hope.

  7. Always appreciate your approach father Stephen that’s ontological, ‘ destruction’, ‘perdition ‘, all ontological states of being as we move away from God , but Florovsky did say in Creation and Redemption ‘ there is no irresistible grace , creatures can and may lose themselves , are capable as it were , of metaphysical suicide…..”,

  8. Great article, and as one raised in a fundamental christian church,it is indeed a refreshing difference from the standard ‘turn or burn’ teachings.
    I do not quite see how this relates to how humans respond to christianity or the bible, however.
    I am an atheist, I do not believe a god exists. I value love, forgiveness, peace and good-will, yet it seems that the teachings I have seen here in regards to hell make the assumption that I am in rebellion against God, am moving away from God, etc. and as such will suffer from the ‘fires’ of a God’s love unless I convert to back to christianity.
    If I die, and I find to my great surprise that I am still ‘alive’ in some fashion, I’m puzzled why I would then be ‘tormented’ by the great love of a being I now can see exists, even though I was unconvinced on earth.

  9. Great article. Thought provoking, engaging. Sheds a lot of light on an ancient Orthodox view point of hell.Gives good explanation on “worm that doesn’t die” … thank you

  10. Matthew,

    I’m curious why you’d ask because this an article about an ontological reality facing people who refuse their gift of life and the Giver. If it’s already settled in your mind that there is no such Giver, you’ll be dead when you are dead and it shouldn’t be a concern. Right?

    Orthodox Christians know Christ destroyed death by His death and we’ll all find life after death. If that’s true you too will reconcile yourself to that God who gave you all the life you took without thanks or acknowledgment. We’ve been warned to avoid that, to realize everything is given and respond appropriately now with thanks.

    We are made temples for the Holy God. If we refuse that light, what darkness must be in there and what will it feel like to be penetrated when His light appears unveiled in power? Why refuse that light knocking now to come in?

    Again, if you mean to stay unconvinced,this will all be just nonsense you can ignore. I think it will be worth your while to seriously consider what god you’ve refused. The God who gives all can mercifully fill you with saving grace and the light of life – if only you will.

    Kindest regards,

  11. Jeff,
    But Florovsky does not mean by “as it were metaphysical suicide” that they can make themselves not exist. It is not in their power. They do not give themselves existence, nor can they make themselves not exist. “As it were,” is operative…

  12. Matthew,
    First. God is not a being. Not even the best being, the biggest, etc. He is not a being. That would be “a god,” like Thor or Zeus. He is the Ground of All Being, that without which nothing exists. Our existence is itself the proof of God’s existence (among other things).

    There are many atheists who would indeed love God and enjoy His love if they knew Him. There’s all kinds of reasons not to believe in God – I probably don’t believe in the same God you don’t believe in.

    But I also know myself well enough to recognize that there are many things within me that make me an enemy of God (rather make God my enemy). Sometimes I don’t like love. Sometimes I don’t want forgiveness. Sometimes my heart is dark, etc. Sometimes I’m utterly self-centered. Those things would very likely experience God as “torment.”

    There would always be a short torment if upon discovering the truth of Him, it became apparent that you could have known and enjoyed Him sooner.

    God’s not our enemy. We’re our enemy sometimes.

  13. Michael, I ask because I am genuinely curious. I am atheist because at this point simply because in my continuing search for truth I haven’t been convinced by the evidence that a god exists. It’s not a non-negotiable in the least.
    I’m perfectly willing to change my mind if I’m convinced otherwise. And I’m not concerned about death, I’m not jumping for the chance to go of course 🙂
    I ask because when I am talking to fundies, the response is that since I’m not christian I will be tortured for all eternity by God, so get right now while you can.
    Orthodoxy is wise enough to see the madness with that theology, but try as I might I cannot see why conversion to christianity is necessary under it’s more humane understanding.
    I’m not trying to stir the pot at all. I have several good friends who are Orthodox, and it seems that no matter what questions I ask, I’m ultimately confused by the answers.
    I may be just slow, I don’t know.
    You are making the claim that I am refusing my Lifegiver, which I most assuredly am not intentionally doing. I definitely reject any God as depicted by Evangelical literalism, since if he is real is a monster.
    But if that is a caricature of the real Christianity, and the real one is pure love, than I am not rejecting the real one at all, only one made in man’s image.
    When I die, if I find out then that I was mistaken, then this Being would know that I was honest in my search for truth.
    And since I AM a big fan of love, forgiveness, and all things good, why would seeing the ultimate expression of that bring me anything but joy?
    At this point, I cannot refuse what I don’t believe to be true, yet it seems that although the Fundy expression of hell is rejected by Orthodoxy , the one that you have follows similar thoughts, namely vague threats of the afterlife if certain (very unproven) ideas are not embraced.

  14. Matthew, have you tried thanking the Lifegiver, whoever or whatever that is?

  15. On the key of separation can we say that we cannot therefore even in the name of the love of God create a permanent natural and necessary bond between the created and the uncreated that would ‘annul the threat of annihilation’, which is death, being a nonbeing life-and-death are definition absolute distinctions

  16. Matthew –

    I didn’t see anything in Fr. Stephen’s article (which I thought excellent, by the way) that suggested that you would be tormented for not converting to Christianity. Note that I didn’t say “back to Christianity” since I’m not sure your initial experience WAS Christianity.

    One might consider, as did C.S. Lewis, the relative merits in believing and perhaps being wrong vs. not believing and perhaps being wrong.

    I’m not suggesting that the latter error necessarily leads to torment (or the hell fires of your previous religion). Rather I am considering if God indeed is – and is love and goodness and truth – what I would be missing by not living my life in love with Him. So much joy not experienced!

    In my belief, God’s love does not depend at all on my believing in Him. His love for me is exactly the same as if I did not. But my ability to know, experience and find joy in that love is greatly impacted by my beliefs and actions. (Beauty is still beauty even if my eyes are closed – but how much finer the experience if they are open!)

    I don’t doubt that you are striving to live a good life and I’m certainly not trying judge or criticize where you are in your life. Just offering another perspective.

  17. Matthew
    Glad you are here on this site. You ask very good questions. It is good for Christians to have to think about why they are Christians. At one point Jesus said to the Jews, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” I am an Orthodox Christian because I want to be united to the source of life, Christ. He is Being and I have my life and being in Him. I was wondering the other day why the Orthodox Church does not stress the second coming of Christ (we certainly believe in it). I think that it has something to do with the Eucharist. Through partaking of it we have Christ indeed coming to us in His blood and body. It’s a profound mystery for us Orthodox but we do really believe that we are mystically united to Christ upon receiving Him in the chalice. We receive Him “for the forgiveness of sins and unto life everlasting. “What joy one has knowing that he is united to the source of life Himself. I could never argue someone into belief. It just does not work. But experientially I know Christ and I know that He yearns that we come to Him. He is the father in the parable of the prodigal son, scanning the horizon waiting for his son’s return. But He will never force Himself upon us. I think you said that you went to church at one time in your life. Then you are no doubt familiar with Christ’s words in Revelation 3…”Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door (of his heart), I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” Matthew, He is inviting you to the banquet even now. As we often sing after receiving His most holy body and precious blood, “taste and see that the Lord is good.” I sense an open heart and mind in you Matthew. Continue the quest.

  18. Matthew, there is the point which I don’t think is fully taken into account even by believers: love is not a general abstract notion or even actions. Love is personal, even the Person, Jesus Christ. To encounter such a love is vastly different than simply loving.

    It is a foundational experience, even if only a little on, that has the capacity to put all doubt aside, even if not all sin.

    If you really seek truth beyond the merely syllogistic, you will be led to a point where your unique encounter can occur. But it, like love, is a person too–the same person.

    If you miss that moment or have already missed it, I am sure God’s mercy will allow others.

    Don’t expect my words will mean much to you right now. The important thing is that, as you say, one opens one’s heart with joy when you recognize the encounter.

    The god you reject is not the God of Scripture or He who became incarnate for us out of love.

    The encounter is possible anywhere at any time. In that instant, nothing else will ever be the same. It took me about 20 years to adapt to it (and it was a very, very small encounter) before I could take the next step and another 27 so far to absorb the changes that step wrought (it was a big step) and continues to make in my life. And believe me I am the least in the Church.

    Time with God is a blessing not to be eschewed in this earth. He uses as much time as we give Him to re-mold us ontologically. We need the time so that the necessary changes are not so great as to be unbearsble , or nearly so. The live He shows me even through a glass darkly is sometimes difficult to take now. That’s part of what I glean from I Cor 3: 12-17.

    There is so much more than you know. It is not an accident that you have many Orthodox friends or that you landed here.

    Embrace the opportunity.

  19. Mary, many thanks for your reply. As far as belief vs. non-belief (Pascal’s Wager), I have been confronted by that more times than I remember. The biggest problem is that belief cannot be conjured up by the will. Either you accept a claim is true, or you don’t . One might pretend to believe, but I suspect any competent God could see right through that.
    And if God is indeed the only way to experience life and love in it’s fullness, then I might be missing something. But it seems to be a moot point, since there isn’t any way that I’m aware of to test whether my joy in life is different than yours, or if mine would be more fulfilled with a belief in God.
    And since I cannot through willpower conjure up this necessary belief, I’m stuck with what I have.
    You mentioned that nothing in the OP suggested that I as an atheist WOULD be tormented by God’s love in an afterlife.
    That was part of my question, since it seemed to at least hint at non-belief being something that would make God’s love seem like torment.
    Which leads to the rest of my question. Orthodoxy seems to insist that all the world needs to convert, yet I cannot quite get a good answer as to why?
    I often confront the fundamental stripe of christianity that I’m surrounded by, because it is demonstrably harmful, and obviously false.
    They do, however, have a bonafide reason to want me to convert. Fear of my fate in God’s eternal torture chamber.
    Take that away, and I don’t see what leverage is left. Heaven maybe, but according to your doctrine (unless I’m reading it wrong) all persons will be in the presence of God anyways.
    Even if I don’t accept the evidence for God as being convincing now , I would be delighted if I woke up in the presence of an ultimate perfection.
    I just cannot see what Orthodoxy has that cannot be found without it.

  20. Dear Fr. Stephen,
    Glory to Jesus Christ! I really appreciate your thoughts on Hell. However, one verse comes to mind regarding the idea that the fires of Hell are none other than God’s love. Matt. 25:41 says, “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” If the the eternal fire is “prepared” for the devil and his angels, does this not mean that the eternal fire is specially made ready for them? How can the fire be one and the same God’s love, albeit perceived in different ways, if it (not them) has been “prepared” and is thus not the same? I hope you help me understand the truth in harmony with the Scriptures since otherwise I am in sympathy with your ontological point.

  21. Actually, Matthew, I’m not Orthodox – I’m Catholic. Just want to clarify so that you don’t think that I speak for Orthodoxy. I’ve been reading here for 1.5 years and learning many good things that have enriched my life.

    I totally agree that you cannot conjure up a belief in God. The best one can do is to be open to discovering Truth – which, of course, is much harder than it sounds. But it is far better than inventing a god out of one’s fears or desires.

    Even as a believer, I cannot be certain that I haven’t done that to some degree. This is part of the value of community for me – I think it would be much harder to seek the Truth by myself, with no one to help or guide me. (I’m not particularly good at accepting guidance but its challenge keeps me growing.)

    I wish you well as you live your journey. There are many fine people here and Fr. Stephen is an excellent teacher.

  22. Todd Moore,
    the interpretation of God’s energies is -in a sense – our subjective experience of Heaven or Hell. if you are Orthodox you might be aware of Maximus the Confessor who appears to say the same in his questions and answers (99)

    “And the fire ‘which proceeds before the face of the Lord’ burning ‘his enemies’ is the energies of God. For they characterize the face of God, that is, his goodness, love of humankind, meekness, and things similar to these. These energies enlighten those who are like them and burn up those who oppose and have been alienated from the likeness. …”

    Also Symeon the New Theologian in his Tenth Ethical Discourse:

    “It is not called Day of the Lord as being the last of these present days….Neither is it called Day of Judgment because it is on this day that judgment is going to take place, since the day when this occurs is not other than the Lord who will come on it, but it is called this because He Himself, the God and Master of all, will at that time shine with the glory of His own divinity. … And He alone will be at once “Day” and God. He Who is now invisible to all and dwells in light will then be revealed to all as He is, and will fill all things with His light, and will be without evening, without end, a day of everlasting joy, but absolutely unapproachable and unseen for those who, like me, are lazy and sinners. Because this did not happen while they yet lived, because they lacked zeal to see the light of His glory and, through purification, to have Him completely indwelling in themselves, He will also naturally be unapproachable for them in the future. …

    “The revelation of His divinity becomes in fact a judgment for those to whom it is revealed. No flesh could have endured the glory of His divinity as manifested naked of its joining and inexpressible union with the God-man. All creation would instead have been utterly destroyed both in body and soul, since at that time all were possessed by unbelief. For the divinity, which is to say the grace of the all-Holy Spirit, has never appeared to anyone who is without faith; and, if it were to appear by some paradox among men, it would show itself as fearful and dreadful, as not illumining but burning, not as giving life but as punishing dreadfully. And this is clear from the things which the blessed Paul, the vessel of election suffered. In the encounter with the radiance of the unapproachable light which flashed around him like lightning, his vision was wounded, and rather than being illumined he was darkened. He could not see, and lost even his natural faculty of sight. These things happened to him who would later become the great teacher of Christ’s Church! That man who was so great, the same man who later said: ‘The God Who said “Let light shine out of darkness” has shone in our hearts,’ and a little later: ‘We have this treasure’ — i.e., of illumination — ‘in our hearts’ could not at that time see even the least glimmer of the light…… The Day of the Lord, in effect, is not going to be revealed suddenly to those who are ever illumined by the divine light, but for those who are in the darkness of the passions and spend their lives in the world hungering for the things of the world, for them it will be fearful and they will experience it as unbearable fire…”

    It is not dissimilar to how a child who has been naughty, avoids his parents’ love and embrace and sees it as undesirable because of its hardened heart. They do not judge or punish, they might even be unaware of the naughtiness, it is the child’s heart that punishes the child. The moment it says forgive me of course, the embrace is interpreted as what it really is again…

  23. The biggest problem is that belief cannot be conjured up by the will.

    Yes it can. It is simply giving to the one who gave you everything expressions of thanks from your heart. When you pray you join yourself to God who will respond because He loves you.

  24. I found this extremely helpful, Father, especially on Clean Monday – always a good day for contemplating the ontological reality!

    It seems to me that there are some very helpful nuggets of wisdom here for our discussions with those outside the Orthodox church. I love especially your para. on the nature of God in your response to Matthew.

    Your approach to the nature of Sin and Death in these recent posts works well for me, but I have a tendency to the apocatastatic heresy (believing all will be saved eventually) so there is a need to be careful.

    All human descriptions of God fail, all descriptions of the nature of reality fail: the best we can hope for is a useful icon, or lens if you like, through which to perceive Him better. I’m putting this one on my icon wall, however.


  25. Brilliant! Thank you Father. I am reminded of Lewis’s Voyage to Venus when Ransom mistakes the pure, intellectual love in the angel’s expression for ferocity.

  26. MichaelPatrick –

    I am curious about your comment (to Matthew) that the will can conjure up belief.

    Although I see the will as playing an important role in arriving at belief, I have difficulty seeing it as the sole force. I can use my will to search, to ponder, to study, even to pray into the perceived void in hopes that there may be a God who will respond.

    Yet if I believe something purely as an act of will, I fear it would not be genuine and its object might be my own invention, not the Truth. I might “believe” because I want to believe (or fear not to) but that is not the same as arriving at a relationship (however small and faltering) with the Object of belief. And it is the relationship that makes it all really matter.

    My thoughts. I’d be interested if you or others have more to share on the topic.

  27. Mary & Michael,
    that is a curious area indeed, one I believe varies quite a bit with different characters. I do not know the answer, but I would speculate that if I pray for, say, my departed great uncle, -for example- and study his life and concern myself with it every day, a personal relationship with this yet unknown person would result. (?)
    If this relationship is with the yet un-encountered Ground and Cause of all that exists, as a person who has been revealed in Christ, but I have no true experience of His touch, His Grace (as far as I can tell), then I think that it would be far easier for this moment of genuine revelation (from His behalf) to come to me (not as “my own invention” anymore). I am only saying this however, because, for all those who have come to encounter something of God first-hand, a long period of (on and off) subjective dryness can follow which has the same -perhaps far greater sometimes- intensity of His apparent non-existence. And they need to exploit their ‘will’ and sort of “conjure up a belief”, which is the proof of their commitment to Him who had initially attracted them unwarrantedly.

  28. What I think the article touches on is good in that sin has a transformative power. It changes the person into something conformed around the sin even to sin itself this is where begin to use the word corruption. Scripture certianly acknowledges this in terms of the serpent always being the serpent and the sheep separated from the goats. The intention and action have created something (in the case of sin and corruption) that was never intended to be in the positive sense of created. Hence we use metaphysical terms such as real and unreal. The person (or angel) becomes something it was never intended to be and that unreal thing is what it is in the construct of existence what we call reality.

    One great truth about what is real is that it goes beyond the individual person and his perception of it. this is the other problem as it were with sin. It effects reality most often beyond the person. It tries to corrupt love or it tries to make love something it is not that is unreal.

    This is why there is something of a fallacy that heaven and hell are merely states of being. Because the construct of existence reality does have the external and internal component and it is both those things that makes up the fullness of reality. Case in point that the resurrection of all things on the last day the soul receives its body which of course takes up space and it will need that space (be it heaven or hell) to exist as it is.

    I have to disagree with the notion of the Love of God acting on the person condemned. Love acting on something is, in fact, loving it. True Love cannot act on (that is loving) something that is not real to it. Hell must be a reflection back of the (person)in their unreality just as heaven is the reflection of the reality of the person back to the person, i.e. it is Love reflecting the person in Love back to itself. The realness of hell is that it mirrors or mimics the unreality of the person hence worms, darkness, fire etc. There can be nothing we know to be real, especially Love in hell.

  29. Todd Moore,
    my earlier comment got lost. I am guessing it was because of the long quotes…
    I don’t know if you are Orthodox and to what extent you value the words of Saints such as Macarius the Great, Maximus the Confessor, Symeon the New theologian or Gregory Palamas. They all spoke the same words as Father Stephen on the matter, being very explicit on the fact that Heaven and Hell are a subjective interpretation of the same thing – God – by the human person.

    I will not give the quotes here again hoping the comment appears this time.

    A simple way of understanding this of course would be what we see when a child interprets its parents’ embrace and love and forgiveness differently depending on whether it has been covertly or overtly naughty and unrepentant (when it interprets these as exceedingly annoying) or not.

  30. Todd,
    This answer may not satisfy. But a phrase like “prepared for the devil and his angels” should not be pressed so far as to create a structure and geography of hell.

    One way of thinking about these things: God is not the author of evil. Nor does He desire the suffering of any. God is love (not “has” love, not “loves sometimes,”). Whatever He does, even to the demons, He does in love. Think of Christ and the demons and the swine. The demons asked for mercy (of a sort). And Christ actually did what they asked. It did them no good – but it reveals much to us about the love of God.

    The fire prepared for the demons, is the love of God (“Our God is a consuming fire”). But God would not create something to be merely an instrument of torture. This is where people get in trouble. They take a statement such as Matt. 25:41, and then read it back to make conclusions about who God is (people do this all the time with the story of the Cleansing of the Temple). But God has not so hidden His identity from us that we need to reason in this false manner. God is love.

    Love can be fearsome, even tormenting to some. But God is love. “He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35).

  31. Dino (Mary and Michael),
    Yes, I think this is indeed the case (sometimes we have to use whatever we have). Belief itself is a mystery. I’ve had days, more than a few, in which I “didn’t believe” in some shape or fashion. Those are days of dryness or days in which the confusion of the world overwhelms my thoughts, etc. But there can be a steadfastness that carries you through. I’m not certain that I experience this as the “will.” That, it would seem to me, would be a more appropriate description if I was having to actively fight back. Thus, if I was being drawn to apostasize or something similar, it would require the will.

    I think of this more under the desert fathers heading of, “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” It’s stability. It requires the will on some level, but mostly it is the will to remain watchful.

    Thus, I might counsel an unbeliever (but who was curious or longing) to remain watchful – to attend to their curiosity or longing and not abandon it.

    If the question of God interests you – then attend to the question. Don’t treat it like a problem to be solved, but like something to pay attention to.

    I recall a woman, a former Pentecostal, who became Orthodox. She was troubled by the Church’s devotion to the Theotokos (Mary) and went to her priest. The priest, wisely, told her to just go in the Church and sit before the icon of the Mother of God for an hour. At the end of the hour she understood. It was a very Orthodox approach and an Orthodox answer.

    I once had a woman (a non-believer) who attending my church for about 6 weeks. Finally, in one of the services, she spoke in her heart to the icon of Christ, “Why do I not know you?” And then she did. She was received into the Church.

    Frankly, such approaches are far and away better than rationally banging our heads, or endless conversations. If you want to find God, go to Church, be silent and sit there (or stand there) or lay on the floor.

    The icons are quite helpful – an icon “makes present” what it portrays. Christ is personally present in His icon. So, go sit there.

    There are days when I cannot “pray.” But I look at the icons and they look at me and we do our work.

  32. Wonderful discussion, and I thank you for it. I try to be very careful about what I regard as true, mainly because we are so capable of fooling ourselves. A mystical ‘experience’ to me is quite unconvincing, and strikes me as a particularly bad way at arriving at truth. Many, many thousands of people have these as reasons for their religion, and yet often the ‘truths’ revealed by this are contradictory in nature, and cannot all be true. Other than simply claiming that yours is actually the correct one, and leaving it at that, I know of no way to test whether your mystical claim has any more merit than another.
    This is where I seem to end up. The God question to me is fascinating, and religious beliefs of all stripes are a hobby of mine, I guess.

  33. “If you want to find God, go to Church, be silent and sit there (or stand there) or lay on the floor.”

    This presupposes that if god is real, that answer will be found in your particular religion.
    I could just as easily attempt to find God in a mosque, a Hindu temple, or in the study of the Amazon deities.

    “Christ is personally present in His icon. So, go sit there.”

    Once again , I cannot see by what basis you can make this claim. It’s a part of your faith, and I understand you believe it to be so. But for an outsider like me, this is no more evidence of truth than a million other mystical claims that must be taken by faith.

    I will leave now. Thanks again for your time.

  34. For others reading Matthew’s comments,
    “Mystical” experiences are not necessarily less reliable than other things – “reason” itself can be just as fickle. I recommend Whose Justice, Which Rationality by the American philosopher, Alisdair MacIntyre for one look at the nature of reason applied. Thus, those who are “unconvinced” about the existence of God are always revealing something about themselves, and not about God.

    God is not an inert rock, an object, that can be observed, judged, compared, tested, probed, dissected, etc. – that is, all of the things we do to objects when we seek some sort of rational examination of them. He can be “reasonably” known – but not “rationally” known. In many ways, the absence of God, or His less than obvious characterization, is just symptomatic of the modern world view. Modern people see many things as obvious that are not obvious at all (or even always true).

    The existence of the universe itself, which is entirely contingent (not self-existing) begs the question, “How does the universe exist?” “Whence its being?” If I answer that God is the Ground of Being – or even that the word “God” is a word we use to refer to the ground of being – then that Ground of Being obviously exists (or we would not exist).

    We could agree that there is a Ground of Being.

    Secondary to that would be religious claims about the Ground of Being.

    There is even a great ground of commonality between Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim claims viz. the Ground of Being. None of us would disagree about certain aspects of all of this (see Hart’s The Experience of God).

    But there are many particulars that separate us – that are essential especially in Christianity. I would not deny are argue that there is no “experience” of the Ground of Being outside of Christianity. It is not the fullness of the revelation made known to us in Christ alone. But if you read, for example, the writings of the Neo-Platonists, they clearly knew something. And the fathers do not discount this. Rather, we believe that in Christ, we can now “name” the Ground of Being, and know the character of God and, indeed, encounter Him personally (in the Person of Christ), being transformed.

    But in our modern period, we falsely perceive ourselves (and everything around us) as self-existing, self-authenticating, etc. It’s silliness and lazy. There are and will be no “great” modern persons. No self-authenticating consumer will ever be great. They will become smaller and smaller, little people – unable to suffer for others – unable to move outside the cage of their own false self.

  35. Matthew et alia on the question of whether or not we can will to believe:

    I would not say that we can will God to give us a satisfying experience or convince us He exists. That’s not Christian belief anyway.

    Christian belief is the knowing we can have in a faithful relationship filled with gifts and thankfulness that opens our heart for more. It has pains and delights. The mind obeys and may even guide sometimes, but does not lead us to believe because thanking is first a heart matter. Willing to thank starts and nurtures a Eucharistic life.

    When I was struggling years ago a wise person told me that happiness grows only in the ground of contentment which is my responsibility. Thankfulness is just the next step after acceptance. We can practically realize that everything we have is given and be thankful. Making it more complex is not necessary and quite unhelpful.

    Believing in God is fostered precisely in the ways Fr. Stephen says in his reply. There is always something we can do. Our spirit is invited by God’s exorbitant giving to simply give thanks, to taste and see and eventually to give our life, too, in obedience to the gospel example and words of Christ. No one who does this lacks any reasons to believe.

  36. These words are very illuminating and could perhaps be referred to frequently, in order to more clearly make sense of many a discussion here! Thank you so much Father!

    In many ways, the absence of God, or His less than obvious characterization, is just symptomatic of the modern world view…..
    The existence of the universe itself, which is entirely contingent (not self-existing) begs the question, “How does the universe exist?” “Whence its being?”
    …the Ground of Being. None of us would disagree about certain aspects of all of this…[but,] we believe that in Christ, we can now “name” the Ground of Being, and know the character of God and, indeed, encounter Him personally (in the Person of Christ)…

    But in our modern period, we falsely perceive ourselves (and everything around us) as self-existing, self-authenticating, etc. It’s silliness and lazy. There are and will be no “great” modern persons. No self-authenticating consumer will ever be great. They will become smaller and smaller, little people – unable to suffer for others – unable to move outside the cage of their own false self.

  37. Matthew, there is no a priori belief required to do what Fr. Stephen instructs. The risk is that you will actually encounter Him you do not believe in and change will be required.

    All that is required is an open heart and a desire for the truth–not just rational truth that can be controlled and mastered, but the truth that reveals more than you ever imagined.

    You see, that is the big problem with waiting, even if you get to see Jesus then, it is a wholly different order of knowledge, experience and being. Adapting to that, taking it in and accepting it without preparation is more difficult than you might think.

    It is possible of course, but not really something to count on.

    Even Jesus was in agony in the Garden as He prayed for the world, His disciples and all of us to come, including you.

    Our own moment will not be filled with that much, but it is likely that we will be faced with all of our unrepented sins, all of our unforgiven slights in addition to the presence of the living God.

    Even my massive ego tends to quail at the thought. Alone, I’m not sure any but the greatest of saints can go through it. So we pray for those who have departed. We prepare with what time we are given to go before the ‘dread judgment seat of Christ’ that our “ending may be painless, blameless with a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ.”

    And thank you for your questions, they are quite good. In considering them, something that was heavy on my heart for several years has been made much less heavy. Our interaction as been moment of an epiphany of joy and thanksgiving. God is good!

    May God forgive me, a sinner.

  38. This is what two recent Saints (of the 20th century) who knew and appreciated each other hugely had to say on the matter of knowing God.

    If a person wants to get an idea about the pyramids of Egypt, he must either trust those who have been in immediate proximity to the pyramids, or he must get next to them himself. There is no third option. In the same way a person can get an impression of God: He must either trust those who have stood and stand in immediate proximity to God, or he must take pains to come into such proximity himself.

    (St. Nicholas Velimirovich)

    No matter how much we may study, it is not possible to come to know God unless we live according to His commandments, for God is not know by science, but by the Holy Spirit. Many philosophers and learned men came to a belief that God exists, but they did not know God. It is one thing to believe that God exists and another to know Him. If someone has come to know God by the Holy Spirit, his soul will burn with love for God day and night, and his soul cannot be bound to any earthly thing.

    (St. Silouan the Athonite)

  39. I used to be Protestant, but now am Orthodox (for almost a year now), and I can sympathize with those who abhor the Protestant idea of God getting back at sinners by sending them to a place of eternal torment. In fact, i felt relieved when I first heard that “hell” was really just how a person who isn’t “ontologically” united to Life through Christ would experience God’s love. But then i started thinking; am I perfectly united to Christ? Im still full of sinful passions, and i have not achieved perfect repentance, so does that mean I am not perfectly united to Christ? In fact, if i ever thought i achieved sinlessness or perfect repentance it would probably mean I was delusional. So, if Im not not perfectly united, then maybe I am imperfectly united to Christ? Would that mean I am ontologically somewhere between Life and death; and if so, I wonder if I wouldl experience God’s love somewhere between “hell” and paradise? Or maybe I am perfectly united to Christ through the abundance of His grace in Baptism, the Eucharist, and simply by His mercy, despite that I am far from being passionless and perfectly repentant?

  40. “The same is true of sin. Sin is not a legal problem. In the Garden, when God warns Adam and Eve concerning the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, He says, “In the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” This is not a legal statement. Were that the case, God would have said, “In the day you eat of it, I will kill you.” But the consequence is not legal but natural – it is inherent – intrinsic to the very nature of things.

    Adam and Eve die, not as punishment, but because they have broken communion with God who alone is the Lord and Giver of Life, the source of our very being. Death is not punishment, but the natural state of a human being who moves in a direction away from God.”

    Hmmmm … most Orthodox people I know (including priests and especially seminarians or recent graduates of seminary — well mostly from SVOTS if we want to be truthful ) spend a great deal of time and effort (they are really obsessed with it !) trying to convince me that Adam and Eve were NOT real people and that whatever climbed up out of the “primordial soup” aeons ago and eventually became human is the product of standard garden variety Darwinism. Does any of this make any sense if Adam and Eve are not “real” either ?

  41. Yes. It makes complete sense.

    You are declaring that “sense” only applies to a kind of literal/historical reading of the text. There are plenty of things that are read in a different manner and make good sense.

    We read Adam and Eve and the whole of the OT through Christ’s Pascha. We read them that way because Christ alone is the meaning of Scripture. However our creation and fall might have appeared historically – something that can never be ascertained by any “historical” method – the sense I have offered is the meaning of the text.

    I suggest reading Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery. It is an outstanding work on how we are to read and understand.

  42. No. But then “garden variety Darwinism” is a lie. It is not science.

    But then Science has nothing valid to say about unobservered and unobservable phenomenon. It has even less to say about ontology.

    They are different orders of knowledge.

  43. Kalo Stadio to everyone!

    Dear Fr. Stephen – and everyone else,

    I am writing just to say that there must be “something in the air” because it is clear that all of you priests must be in sync. Here, in Cyprus, I was just listening to a homily by Met. Athanasios of Limassol on Fasting wherein he addresses those who don’t believe, and in fact, wonder why we fast. He stated unequivocally that those who don’t believe are in fact suffering from the passion of cowardliness – that they question such things as the fast, the faith, etc because they fear what they will discover – by sitting before an icon as you had suggested – and then they further fear that if they in fact discover something/ Someone, then they will have to submit to the fasting, the faith etc – if they are true to their hearts – and then, that means they will have to change their way of life, which, of course, is something they don’t want to do or fear doing.
    I just find it very interesting that you and he are basically discussing the same things. And even though I now live in a mostly Orthodox country, there are many, very many here who raise the same questions.

    To meshell,

    We’re all still full of sinful passions and none of us has achieved perfect repentance. But don’t be afraid about being perfectly united to Christ… The thief on the cross beside Him was still full of sinful passions, but only God judges the repentance of each one of us. We, on our own, should never judge our own repentance. If the Lord accepted the thief – and he was the first one into Paradise! – then, surely,, there is hope for each of us!

    Blessings to all,

  44. Just to say that this is one of the most useful and beautiful conversations I’ve seen online; I love Fr Stephen’s article, especially for the way in which he uses St Isaac. Someone quoted Fr Sophrony saying that we simply don’t know what will happen at the Last Judgement – I cannot agree more.

    Not only that we don’t know, but we cannot know, it is beyond what or created brains could possibly understand. We very often forget that both Genesis and Judgement are Divine Acts, they are part of the process that makes us (eventually) be who we truly are. As the ‘results’ of this process, we cannot understand the process itself – it belongs to God, it takes place on a level of being to which we simply do not belong.

    Yes, we can play with our thoughts and imagine all sorts of intellectual representations of Heaven and Hell, Creation and Judgement – but the fact remains that our intellect is created (made of earth), while these acts are part of God’s (that is are Divine) Acts of creating the world. The don’t happen ‘in’ the world, they happen ‘to’ the world. Even the Last Judgement: despite its ‘destructive’ character, it simply adds to / contributes to us becoming who we are (think about the prayers for the dead, in which the Church confesses that God allowed for us to die so that our fall does not become eternal; in other words, even death is part of the process meant to ‘create us’).

    The humbling truth is that these two Acts of God – Genesis and Judgement – will never be understood by our minds, and can only be accepted in faith. We can only wait for the time when these things will be revealed to us, but this ‘time’ belongs belongs to God’s eternity, not to chronological history.

  45. meshell2001 and Eleftheria, your discussion of our “already-and-not-yet” before God is helpful for people like me who’ve come out of modern Protestantism. We tend to think, for example, as Father has said, that there’s some kind of a standard to which God refers when judging us. This is a hangover from the forensic legal way of looking at our relationship with God. Ontologically –in our very being which is given us– we are given grace (God’s own active divine energies) to enjoy Him because of His great mercy and love. He is beholden to no other standard and uses no other standard to measure us, so neither should we. We are embraced in love and His demand of us is not to satisfy some law or justice, but to be divine by that grace. For me this is much more fearful, albeit in an entirely different way that gives me rest and peace because everything He does and thinks toward me is loving and for my own good. After many years I’m still working to rid myself of that phantom Protestant judging god.

  46. To MichaelPatrick:

    So like Edmund and Eustace in Narnia, we can turn back and be received back if we just choose and accept the grace.

  47. early Egyptian monastic life had a lot of spiritual drama, in Evagrius Apophth Patr ” Macarius the great finding a skull in the desert which speaks to him of torments of pagans in Hell . They not only stand immersed in fire but they’re unable to see the faces of any of the other damned around them : the prayers of the monks however alleviate their sufferings at least to the extent of letting them get a glimpse of each others faces ( Macarius 38), and in early Boharic and Greek lives of Pachomius describes the sufferings of the damned in a world of fire and darkness : here punishments or made to fit each crime and are administered by angels who have been created pitiless by God and are actually filled with joy and gladness by their grim work

    It’s Gotta hurt, even if temporary

  48. Jeff,
    these same Saints (Macarius) have spoken of God’s light being benevolent to the one vessel and unbearable to the other, come on! these images are certainly not literal! In fact the truth is a great deal more intense (for the better and for the worse) than what anthropomorphic images like these can convey.

  49. I know, but it’s all been nicely nicely put that the ascetics never thought in such extreme categories in ‘ tormenting terms or ‘ legal’ terms , well, that’s just ideology , tons of it

  50. Thanks Fr. Stephen: “(God) He can be reasonably known but not rationally known.” Likewise Hart notes in his book “God”–“…a knowledge of God that comes not from categories of analytic reason, but from–as Maximus says–the intimate embrace of union, in which God shares himself immediately as a gift to the created soul.”

  51. One thing I would like to reiterate: prayer for those who are about to pass and for those who have is efficacious. I’ve been at the bedsides of enough people as they died to know it.

    The more we allow our own hearts to enlarge to really pray for others, the more connected we are. The more connected we are the less the terrible isolation of hell has a hold on any of us.

    God forgive me.

  52. MichaelPatrick,

    “We tend to think, for example, as Father has said, that there’s some kind of a standard to which God refers when judging us. This is a hangover from the forensic legal way of looking at our relationship with God.”

    Im glad to know Im not the only one. This is exactly the kind of thinking I am prone to. It is a challenge for me not to think of God in these Protestant terms alone, because it is how I was introduced to Christianity in the first place.

  53. Yes many Protestants have PTSD from their old beliefs but I wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

  54. My mother-in-law is in a palliative care program, close to death. She has been a faithful Roman Catholic all her life, but doesn’t like to discuss it. I am noticing, however, signs of anxiety, perhaps even fear (which I myself have felt off and on ever since childhood in religious schools) . This whole discussion has been so helpful for me. I sit with her, and let the conversation take its own path, but try to introduce my own faith experiences (related to my recent chrismation) when it seems natural. I am so peaceful about her, partly as a result of reading your writings, all of you. Pray for her that she moves into this peace as well. Thank you all.

  55. Jeff,

    That’s another challenge for me, trying to distinguish the “bath water” from the “baby” when thinking about what I should abandon, and what I should retain from my old Protestant ways. Especially when I read the writings of the Church Fathers; it’s as though I can switch back and forth from my old Protestant lenses to my new Orthodox lenses when trying to discern their meaning. Both perceptions seem viable, but the new Orthodox way that I am learning appears, to me, to reveal a much greater, fuller depth of Truth. So now when I read the “legalistic”, or “tormenting” terms in the Church Fathers and Saints I can see past the literal, mere surface interpretations. But, with that said, I do believe it is important not to minimalize or trivialize these terms, and think its important to ask why the Fathers and Saints chose to use such terms. But I am by no means an adequate interpreter of the Fathers, or Saints, or Scripture, which continually makes discernment a difficult challenge for me on my journey from my past preconceptions towards the fullness of Truth.

  56. meshell2001,

    Isn’t it a wonderful mystery that the good shepherd knows and cares for us us even when we don’t hear or recognize His voice very well? My heart turned to God even as a caricature of bad theology. He knows His own long before we know Him. Nothing, not even death, deters His pursuit to put us in His loving embrace and make us like Himself in glory by nothing except the gifting of His own grace.

    The light of God is not to be feared. It comes from the gaze of our maker. It can only hurt those who hate it and only because they hate it. He harms no one. He loves us and approaches us so graciously with sustenance. He is gentleness incarnate in Christ.

  57. Let me add, people hate the light of God’s gaze because their deeds are evil and they don’t want to be reproved. (John 3)

    Obeying the gospel example and words of Christ is vital because He achingly wants His children to come to Him. Pleasing ourselves is so lonely and hollow and hopeless. Hiding sin is awkward and painful for us and our redeemer because all things will and must be revealed in the end. In Him is no darkness (1 John) and there is no hiding place because He is all in all. (1 Cor 15 and Eph 1)

  58. meshell, fortunately, we don’t have to discern the baby from the bathwater. The more often we go to confession, receive the Body and the Blood, forgive others, and the rest, the less and less bathwater remains.

    I am looking forward to the time when I turn 79 years old (God willing) for at that time I will have spent more of my earthly life in the Church than outside her.

  59. Meshell,
    I don’t think we should have a wholesale program of throwing things out in our life – but there is nothing within Protestantism that adds or brings something that is lacking in Orthodoxy. But you are yourself, and you should be gentle and kind to yourself in these matters – knowing that we’re shaped by experiences. We should simply continue to give ourselves to the Orthodox life and let God do the fixing. He is a wise mater builder.

  60. Meshell, your in a much better place now, in Orthodoxy , Jesus is Jesus, and one doesn’t have to nullify anyone’s belief in Him ( even ascetic descriptions), otherwise I will invalidate someone of whom I am kin

  61. (God) “He can be reasonably known but not rationally known.” Thanks for the words fr. Stephen. Likewise Hart in his book “God” notes:”…a knowledge of God that comes not from categories of analytic reason, but from– as Maximus says–the intimate embrace of union, in which God shares himself immediately as a gift to the created soul.”

  62. Thank you, everyone, for your kind words and guidance. This conversation has been very beneficial for me.

    MichaelPatrick, these could have been my own words to express my experience, “Isn’t it a wonderful mystery that the good shepherd knows and cares for us us even when we don’t hear or recognize His voice very well? My heart turned to God even as a caricature of bad theology. He knows His own long before we know Him.” Thank you.

    Father Stephen, I will take this advice to heart, “We should simply continue to give ourselves to the Orthodox life and let God do the fixing.” I know that this is true.

  63. While your point about sin and its effects being ontological, rather than legal, is important and well said, I don’t see how it connects to your conclusion. Or even, for that matter, just what your conclusion is. That hell is essentially immaterial and non-physical? That it’s possibly (or definitely?) not eternal? That it is eternal, but just not material? That hell is self-inflicted, rather than imposed by God? Some combination of these?

    In any case, St. Isaac of Syria sounds a note that is so notable precisely because it is very different from the character of what other Fathers say on the topic. And given the non-infallibility of any particular father, I’m inclined to go with the vast bulk of the tradition on the matter, rather than the distinct minority report. And the rest of the fathers aren’t committed to crudely material hellfire, or a wrathful God, but they are committed to hell, its reality, its eternality, and God’s agency in the matter (Christ does, after all, separate the sheep from the goats, rather than allows them to self-separate).

    Understanding the continuity of the reality of hell with our current spiritual condition, as you emphasize, is quite important. Understanding sin and its consequences as ontological is important. But neither of those have the logical consequences you seem to sugggest.

  64. Nathan,
    “Hell’s eternality, God’s agency in the matter, hell’s reality,” are all important and represent the “majority” report. These, of course, represent the language and grammar of the Tradition. As such, they are often spoken without direct reflection. All of us, myself included, speak this way.

    What we see in St. Isaac, is a more specific treatment. There he turns attention away from other considerations (in the course of which we speak “unconsciously”) and directs his attention to what the language or grammar might infer. And it is in pressing that grammar that he inserts the caveats of his understanding.

    Thus, particularly, the language of God’s agency. Is God the cause of suffering and torment? St. Isaac would say no, except in a secondary manner – i.e. if God would quit loving His creation and sustaining it in existence, then it would not have torment.

    St. Isaac is not the “minority” in this matter – he is simply “lonely” in the matter – giving consideration to something that is often not considered. But it is this very thing in him that is treasured. He is not a minor father. He is among the greatest of teachers in the consideration of the nature of God’s love.

    He is “bold” in his faith concerning the ultimate victory of God’s love – and I’ll grant that this spoken conclusion is a minority report – but it is not a minority of one.

    Hell’s eternality – in an ontological understanding – would be wholly dependent on the “eternality” of resistance to God’s love. That’s an interesting thing to ponder. And, whether St. Isaac’s conclusion is “logical” or not – is rather beside the point.

    Of course the “fires” of hell are eternal – if they are of the nature of God’s love. If they are not God’s love, then how are they eternal? Did God create something “eternal” that is not Himself? Is Hell now to be thought of as “co-eternal”?

    It’s when we start asking serious, pointed questions of these things that certain answers have to be entertained. None of that changes the basic grammar or language of the Tradition. That language says essentially this: sin has consequences.

    I find it interesting that you press the imagery of a parable (sheep and goats) into ontological service (“sheep and goats don’t self-separate”). Do you really think the point of the parable is to describe the precise mechanism of judgment? That God’s judgment is exactly the dividing of sheep and goats? This is similar to the error Protestants make when they insist that there is a “great gulf” between heaven and hell that can never be breeched on account of the image and phrase in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

    This takes very secondary matters of a parable (clearly metaphorical in nature) and makes them ontological and geographical (or something) in nature. It’s not how we do doctrine.

    Nor do we take general statements with regard to hell and the judgment, statements that are not self-reflective, and use them to “prove” something that they do not. That is the work of lawyers who take our words and use them against us. That misuse of language winds up saying that God hates us, that He torments us, that He will torment us for eternity for failing to do something or other, etc.

    I completely understand the desire to rightly regard the Tradition. I’m a priest, I understand this. But I’m not riding a minority report hobby horse for my own self-satisfaction.

    If you would judge me in this matter, then first judge St. Silouan of Mt. Athos. He’s bolder than I have been. People love to cite such saints but then become very “delicate” and full of “reservations” when they get to the heart of their life and teaching.

    Elder Sophrony has said of the words of St. Silouan that they are a “word for our times.” I agree. I have said nothing that is unfaithful to that word. I take it very seriously and have wrestled with it for better than 30 years. I encourage others to do the same.

  65. Father, is it fair to say that there is a continuum (since we are all sinners) from degraded to full of His life?

    I take that, in part, from St. Paul’s imagery in 1 Cor 3:12-17. What he says there indicate to me that all of us will feel the ‘fires’, the torment and the pain but only the most resistant (resistance to the flow of energy causes heat after all in the physical world) will not have something there of God.

    I don’t know if I am overstating the case, but I keep coming back to that passage the more the discussion of hell goes on.

  66. Elder Sophrony in his book on St Silouan the Athonite – clearly combines ultimate love with the classical view of hell -;

    Quotes from the book on St Silouan the Athonite from the chapter “On Freedom”

    The Staretz [St Silouan] both said and wrote that Christ-like love cannot suffer any man to perish, and in its care for the salvation of all men walks the way of Calvary.
    …‘by virtue of this love the monk’s heart sorrows over the people because not all men are working out their salvation. The Lord Himself so grieved over the people that He gave Himself to death on the cross. And the Mother of God bore in her heart a like sorrow for men. And she, like her beloved Son, desired with her whole being the salvation of all…’
    In the really Christian sense the work of salvation can only be done through love – by attracting people. There is no place for any kind of compulsion. In seeking the salvation of all men love feels impelled to embrace not only the world of the living but also the world of the dead, the underworld and the world of the as yet unborn – that is, the whole race of Adam. And if love rejoices and is glad at the salvation of a brother, she also weeps and prays over a brother who perishes…’
    …The power of love is vast and pregnant with success but it does not override. There is a domain in human life where a limit is set even to love – where love is not supreme. This domain is freedom (“προαίρεση”). [the word “προαίρεση” used in the Greek and Russian text is actually slightly more nuanced with a sense of ‘intent’ and ‘disposition’]
    Man’s freedom is positive, real. It concedes no determinism in his destiny, so that neither the sacrifice of Christ Himself nor the sacrifices of all those who have trodden in His footsteps lead necessarily to victory. There may be some – whether many or few, we do not know – who will meet even this perfect love, this perfect sacrifice, with a rejection, even on the eternal level, and declare, ‘I want no part in it’. It was this recognition of this abyss of freedom which prompted the Fathers of the Church to repudiate the determinist theories of the Origenists. Belief in Apocatastasis, understood as universal salvation predestined in the divine purpose, would certainly rule out the sort of prayer that we see in the Staretz.
    What was made known to the Staretz in his vision of Christ outweighed all doubt and hesitation. He knew that it was the Almighty God that had appeared to him. He was sure that the humility of Christ which he had come to know, and the love which filled him to the limits of his strength, were the action of God the Holy Spirit. He knew in the Holy Spirit that God is boundless love and mercy, yet knowledge of this truth did not lead him to conclude that ‘anyway, we shall all be saved’.
    The Staretz was unlettered but no one surpassed him in craving for true knowledge. The path he took was, however, quite unlike that of speculative philosophers. Knowing this, I followed with the deepest interest the way in which the most heterogeneous problems were distilled in the alembic of his mind, to emerge in his consciousness as solutions. He could not develop a question dialectically and express it in a system of rational concepts – he was afraid of ‘erring in intellectual argument’; but the propositions he pronounced bore the imprint of exceptional profundity…
    …Christianity is not a philosophy, not a doctrine, but life; and all the Staretz’ conversations and writings are witness to this life…

  67. St Symeon the new Theologian in his ‘Tenth Ethical Discourse’ mentions this ‘double’ interpretation of God’s energies similarly to St Isaac the Syrian

    grace, on the one hand, is unapproachable and invisible to those who are still possessed by unbelief and the passions, and is seen, on the other hand, and revealed to those who with faith and in fear and trembling do the commandments and give evidence of a worthy repentance. This same grace of itself incontestably brings the future judgment to pass in them. Rather, indeed, it becomes itself the day of divine judgment by which he who is purified is continually illumined, sees himself as he is in truth and in every detail, and all his works for what they are, whether done by the body or acted on by the soul. Nor this alone, but he is as well judged and examined by the divine fire, and, thus enriched by the water of his tears, his whole body is moistened and he is baptized entire, little by little, by the divine fire and Spirit, and becomes wholly purified, altogether immaculate, a son of the light and of the day, and from that point on no longer a child of mortal man. It is quite for this reason, too, that such a man is not judged at the judgment and justice to come, for he has already been judged. Neither is he reproved by that light, for he has been illumined beforehand. Nor is he put to the test and burned on entering this fore, for he has been tried already. Neither does he understand the Day of the Lord as appearing sometime “then,” because, by virtue of his converse and union with God, he has become wholly a bright and shining day. …
    “As many therefore as are children of the light also become sons of the Day which is to come, and are enabled to walk decently as in the day, The Day of the Lord will never come upend them, because they are already in it forever and continually. The Day of the Lord, in effect, is not going to be revealed suddenly to those who are ever illumined by the divine light, but for those who are in the darkness of the passions and spend their lives in the world hungering for the things of the world, for them it will be fearful and they will experience it as unbearable fire.

    Maximus the Confessor says much the same in ‘Questions and Doubts’

    99: “And the fire ‘which proceeds before the face of the Lord’ burning ‘his enemies’ is the energies of God. For they characterize the face of God, that is, His goodness, love of humankind, meekness, and things similar to these. These energies enlighten those who are like them and burn up those who oppose and have been alienated from the likeness. …”

  68. I will write carefully so that I can be clear of what I’m saying (and not saying).

    I do not advocate nor teach (nor mean to teach) universal salvation in any sense as something we know, have been given to know, or to proclaim. Certain forms of universal salvation have, in fact, been condemned.

    Most especially any form that would teach that universal salvation is a necessity, driven by any philosophical or theoretical established point, would be an error.

    We can speak about the unrelenting love of God and the double aspect of the Divine energies (goodness, love, meekness, etc.) and the experience of them as unbearable fire. St. Isaac expressed his confidence in the love of God triumphing over every resistance, not by force, but by love.

    But this can only be a matter of private opinion – it is not the teaching of the Church.

    However, what is clearly part of the teaching of the Church is God’s unrelenting love, and the commandment that the same love should characterize us as well. Thus, God “is not willing that any should perish.” It would seem, therefore, to be dangerous to the heart’s conformity to God’s love, for the hope of universal repentance to be dismissed out of hand. The steadfastness of God’s love does not teach us to despair (despair literally means to “give up hope”). Rather we are taught not to mourn “as those who have no hope.”

    Necessity is an important word in all of this – and is something that rightly belongs in our thoughts. Only God is “necessary.” Everything else is contingent and depends on Him. So, we should be careful about imputing necessity where it doesn’t belong. It is this “necessity” that I hear when some speak of the “eternality of hell.” If hell is everlasting, then it is in response to freedom, but not to necessity. It is confusion about this that leads to Calvinist errors of necessity and God’s justice, wrath, etc.

    Dino’s quote from Elder Sophrony is quite apt. Whatever the love of God accomplishes within us, it does so in cooperation with our freedom.

    One aspect not considered in the present discussion – it’s the problem of “eternity.” We tend to think of eternity as time stretching in one direction or another. I think it is rather more like a Now. All things, everywhere, present now. Some of the fathers speak about an end of choice with death – that there is nothing we can do for ourselves after death. This, indeed, is closer to a “majority” view on the matter (I certainly encounter it more often than otherwise). The same writers usually note that it is the prayers of others that then make a difference (or can make a difference). It is a very fruitful line of thought, I think, and rich with promise. My first encounter with this teaching almost made me despair, but I’ve come to have almost an opposite view of it now – seeing it full of hope.

    It makes of our salvation, ultimately, the salvation of the Whole Adam. I think on this a lot, particularly in my prayers and in the Liturgy. Perhaps I’ll write more on this at a later time.

  69. Thank you Father Stephen for yet another enlightening post.

    To turn to matters of practical mercy, what words of Grace, Love and Hope might one give to those who find themselves in The torment of the fire in the manner described in the words of St Isaac ‘as happens here on earth when we are tormented by the presence of a friend to whom we have been unfaithful. And it gives joy to those who have been faithful.’ One assumes he is speaking to believers?

  70. Thank you for the link, Jeff. This has sent me on a spurt of reading of things I’ve put off too long.

    One thing always bothers me about non-universalist, non-annihilationist models of hell: I imagine the recreated world, the resurrected saved going about their business in perfect bliss and harmony. They walk about in the gardens, and the soil groans with the rotting bodies of the damned. They go inside for tea, and the screaming twisted faces of the damned are all over the wallpaper. They go to bed, and the gentle rain outside pitter-patters with the tiny broken bodies of the damned splattering painfully against the roofs.

    Why would God have such permanent, incurable, unmitigated Evil remain as a part of the perfected, eternal creation? This is a separate question from any idea of moral sensibilities or justice, but simple logical consistency, like someone building this beautiful church and then for no reason at all the mouldings on the walls are covered in Satanic pentagrams or something – it just isn’t making sense to me.

    Have mercy on me, a sinner.

  71. St. Athanasius taught that being results from freedom , not necessarily out of being itself , a totally other being can exist side by side with Gods being , something can come out of nothing ( ex nihilo), it can be both real and other in the absolute sense. This would be scandalous to Greeks, but not to patristic thought., creation , having come out of nothing can return to nothing, …, The world is a reality in the ultimate ontological sense , created by a free act of a free person —-, that’s why universalism binds and suffocated freedom to make God contingent on creation ( Platonism )

  72. Jeff: That’s in reference to created will being capable of being other than God, right? The first time I read that I almost thought it was in reference to some additional “anti-God” that exist wholly independently of God in some Manichean or even polytheistic sense.

    In the meantime I’ve had more thoughts on the whole “Heaven is wallpapered with the damned” thing: is it permissible to posit that for each and every one of us the light of God’s love will burn away our evil and replace it with good, and it will hurt and can take a very long time after the Resurrection, but our fundamental identities will not be burned away in such manner, such that if and so long as we fundamentally identify with our evil we will be constantly burned, and while there is nothing “necessitating” that not everyone will be saved after the next 500 quintillion epochs or so, there’s no “necessity” of the opposite, and as a numbers game a non-universal salvation just seems more likely?

    Or, perhaps, that while universalism might actually be true, but we should all act as though it were not as to avoid complacence, “the gun is always loaded”-like?

  73. Too funny !, no , just giving creation ontological content, it’s just too easy to slip into a Platonism or middle platonic idea of a closed ontology , negating otherness and freedom in God, binding him to creation by necessity instead of freedom —-,

  74. “Keep your mind in hell, and do not despair.” Silouan the Athonite

    Lord forgive my sins and give me wisdom.

  75. I just finished reading this thread. Excellent post and conversation as usual. One thing that struck me was a comment from visiting atheist Matthew, that he was “a big fan of love, forgiveness, and all things good”.

    I submit that to this extent, he indeed believes in God. If he were to rejoice in sadism, cruelty and death, I could not say this. But since all good things come from God – and he loves these things – he then also loves God to this point.

    By the same token it is these things that will be of hope for him when the Judgement comes. As much as he has practiced loving these good things, to that extent will there be hope that he will be able to experience the love of God. I take it for granted that there will also be a certain amount of burning and pain as the bad experiences of his false introduction to God (and the subsequent years of disbelief) are removed – just as removing bullets are cancerous growths are painful for the human body. But the pain is worth it.

    In any case this revelation gives me hope for many of those who claim atheism with any sense of integrity. In fact, even the virtue of integrity is a gift from God that wants to return to its Creator.

  76. Drewster,
    Indeed the word “good” has to have a referent for its meaning. It is, in the end, a drive towards transcendence. We reach and stretch towards the “good.” Just as we reach and stretch towards “bliss.” Or even, I suspect, this persons declaration that he is an atheist is itself a stretch towards “truth.” All of these are moves towards a transcendent point, the point from which (and the only point from which) such words have any meaning. Even the reach for “meaning” rather than nothing is itself a stretch towards the transcendent. Meaning is a transcendent matrix into which things fit such that we can describe their relatedness.

    All of these transcendents, Christians (even other in many of the “great” religions), would agree apply to God and God only. It is the confusion of the “lesser” gods, the little god of popular Christianity or other little deities, I think, that most atheists reject. Many of them don’t know this because they are not properly reflective or willing to rightly think through proper theistic claims.

    The unique belief of Christianity is that this transcendent meaning, good, etc. (which even the atheists instinctively believe in) actually became a human being in the man Christ Jesus. And that his God/Man revealed to us the fullness of the character of the good, the true, the beautiful, the kind, meaning, etc.

  77. Fr. Stephen,

    “The unique belief of Christianity is that this transcendent meaning, good…actually became a human being in the man Christ Jesus.”

    That seems to be what is so scandalous. Tell them we worship yet another deity in the clouds and they seem able to accept – some even to join us in the worship of it. But dare to impart the actual story of Jesus Christ, and we are an abomination, of all fools the most to be pitied.

    I know I couldn’t have planned or crafted a story any more brilliant or incredible (even in the sense of being unbelievable) if I tried. And it would be unbelievable…..if it weren’t actually true.

    Glory to God for all things!

  78. Ammm,
    Great observation! It demonstrates how juridical our concepts of the universe are. We call it a “law” when it’s something else entirely – in fact – we called it a law because we had no idea what it was (and still don’t for the larger part). But, at least we’re asking questions now with the understanding that it’s some-thing and not a law.

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