Probably the most controversial teaching of St. Isaac the Syrian is his teaching on Gehenna, or hell. Homily 27 begins with the following statement and explanation of St. Isaac’s thoughts on sin, Gehenna and death:
Sin, Gehenna and death do not exist at all with God, for they are effects [or acts], not substances. Sin is the fruit of the will; there was a time when sin did not exist, and there will be a time when it will not exist. Gehenna is the fruit of sin; at some point in time it received a beginning, but its end is not known. Death, however, is a dispensation of the wisdom of the Creator; it will have power over nature only for a time; then it will be totally abolished.
For St. Isaac, all suffering and torment is therapeutic, not vengeful or requisite from the perspective of God. God allows or causes suffering for sin so that the sinner may be healed. Even the curse at the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden was therapeutic. The sufferings associated with the curse were instituted not as retributive punishment, although the language of the biblical text does read that way. Rather, read through the revelation of the Cross, all apparent retributive action on the part of God in the Old Testament is now understood as redemptive. That is, God was not looking back at past sins to punish Adam and Eve and their descendants, but rather God was looking forward to prepare all human beings for redemption. God uses the painful results or consequences of sinful human actions as a means to heal the very root of sin in human beings. The sufferings associated with the adamic curse were to turn us to God by revealing to us our finitude. And even death itself is to be understood as the doorway into the resurrection. For St. Isaac, the biblical injunction, “mercy triumphs over justice,” is the interpretive principle when it comes to understanding eternal judgement. In the End, all will somehow be reconciled with God.
Now, I understand that the fifth Ecumenical Council condemned Origin and his protology (his theory of preexisting souls) and condemned the form of universalism based on his protology. However, a few other Church fathers also held something like a universalist understanding of salvation, but not based on the preexistence of souls. Most notably among these is St. Gregory of Nyssa–whom (I believe it was) the second Ecumenical Council proclaimed as the Father of the Fathers. But to be sure, those who hold such universalist-like opinions are in the minority. And if we are going to be honest in reading St. Isaac, we have to admit that he is part of that minority. St. Isaac is a universalist of sorts.
Of course, a lot depends on what you mean by universalist. For St. Isaac, at least, that every creature will eventually be reconciled with God does not mean that there is no hell, nor that hell is not relatively eternal. I say “relatively” because what we mean by “eternal” depends on what we are talking about. Can any created thing be eternal in the same sense that God Himself is eternal? Certainly not. For example, in the Old Testament, God speaks of an “eternal covenant” with the biological descendants of Abraham, but St. Paul tells us (Heb. 8: 7-13) that the old covenant was faulty and was replaced by a new covenant. Eternity is a relative thing when God is involved.
Some have said that St. Isaac’s understanding of Gehenna is somewhat like the Roman Catholic understanding of Purgatory, but with some significant differences. Unlike the Roman Catholic understanding of Purgatory, Gehenna, according to St. Isaac, has nothing to do with retribution or payment for past sins. Gehenna is a place of torment in which suffering as a consequence of our sins (which does not mean the same thing as a recompense for our sins) somehow changes us, somehow turns our will so that every human being, and indeed for St. Isaac every creature, can be reconciled with God.
St. Isaac is very specific about the nature of the suffering in Gehenna. It is not punishment in the sense that God is balancing a scale or paying people back for what they did, as though God were somehow under compulsion to a sense of justice greater than Himself, greater than Love. Rather, St. Isaac says that “those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourges of love.” That is, they suffer because they now know and cannot escape or distract themselves from the love of God, and the torment they experience has to do with their realization that they have sinned against this great love of God.
Gods love works in two ways in the age to come, according to St. Isaac:
It torments those who have played the fool, even as happens here when a friend suffers from a friend; but it becomes a source of joy for those who have observed its duties. Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret. But love inebriates the souls of the sons of Heaven by its delectability.
So for St. Isaac, Heaven and Hell are not different places, but rather different experiences of the same love of God. Those who “have played the fool,” those who have spent a lifetime turning away from God will experience torment when they are plunged into the fiery lake of the Love of God, love that they can no longer ignore or distract themselves from, love that forces them to confront themselves as they really are, not as they have spent their lifetime on earth pretending to be. This will be torment to some. Others, those who have turned to God, those who have seen their own wickedness, hated it, but nonetheless confessed it as their own, those who have longed to know the love of God, these will experience the same overwhelming love of God as bliss, as heaven, as the fulfillment of their longing.
But those who experience torment will do so because of sin. And because sin is not eternal, neither can its consequences be–or so posits St. Isaac. St. Isaac tells us that Gehenna is the “fruit of sin” and that “at some point in time it received a beginning, but its end is not known.” Gehenna will have an end, for when the tree dies, the fruit will eventually pass away. But the end of Gehenna is unknown St. Isaac tells us. The end of Gehenna is really only posited, or assumed, based on its contingent reality–or rather based on the fact that Gehenna is not actually a reality at all, but an effect, a response, or an experience derived from sin, which itself (sin) is merely an effect and has no reality in itself, no substance, no being. Sin is merely the perversion or twisting of being. And so if the cause (sin) is not an eternal thing, then the result (Gehenna) can neither be eternal—at least not eternal in the same sense as a being that was actually created: sin has no being, so neither has its result.
St. Isaac’s understanding of Gehenna as the “scourges of love” and his understanding of the eventual reconciliation of all creation with the Creator is a minority opinion among the Fathers of the Church. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to say that St. Isaac’s understanding of Gehenna represents the Orthodox understanding. It is, however, an Orthodox understanding. I think the Orthodox teaching on Gehenna is that it is a mystery, that we do not really know much at all about it except this: there really is such a thing, or place or experience as Gehenna. How it exists, what it does, and the exact experience of those who enter it is unknown to us–except that it is very unpleasant and that it is eternal.
But we must be careful with words like “eternal.” When we speak of eternal life, for example, we are not speaking of life as we know it without end. Rather, we are talking about a different quality or kind of life, the life of the Age to Come. “Eternal” is often a quality word in the bible and in the writing of the Fathers, not a quantity word. And even when it is referring to duration, we must remember that time itself is a category of a certain created order. What has no limits from the perspective of the creature within a particular age or epoch (the biological descendants of Abraham before the Incarnation of Christ, for example), may indeed be finite from God’s perspective or even from the perspective of creatures in another age–such as the saints and angels in heaven. We just don’t know what phrases like “eternal condemnation” or “eternal fire” or “the worm never ceases” actually mean in terms of duration especially from the perspective of the Creator who works according to kairos time even though chronos time as we know it will pass away.
Metropolitan Kalistos Ware says that at best the hope that all will be reconciled with God is nothing more than just that, a hope, not a dogma of the Orthodox Church. St. Isaac could be completely missing it on this one–or we could be completely misunderstanding him. Or, as I hope is the case, the majority of the Church Fathers could be missing it and the minority report is the correct one. It wouldn’t be the first time in the history of the Church when the majority missed the mark and only a later generation recognized the the truth in the minority report. It has happened before, just not very often.
Still, in the mean time, I think I would rather err on the side of hope, on the side that hopes that no suffering whatsoever, not even the suffering of Gehenna is vendictive punishment on God’s part, but rather that the God who came and suffered both with and for us has himself entered all suffering and redeemed it so that nothing is lost, nothing is wasted, no one is thrown away. This is my hope, because, like Moses, I don’t think I could bear to enter the promised land without all the people. But who am I to know anything about such mysteries. I only hope in the Love of God.