A friend of mine who is an Orthodox inquirer recently asked me some questions about hell. My friend has been a paramedic for many years and has tried to save (sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing) the lives of many suicides. Knowing that the mental state and the life circumstances of these suicides vary greatly, my friend was concerned that the Church seems to condemn all suicides to hell. I explained to my friend that only God can judge a soul. The Church does not normally do funerals for suicides because this is how the Church teaches that suicide is never the answer—although exceptions can be made by the bishop if the person was clearly insane at the time of the suicide. [Personally I think, almost by definition, that just about everyone who commits suicide is insane.] In the context of this conversation, however, it became clear that my friend’s understanding of heaven and hell was based merely on popular cultural images and folklore. Therefore, I attempted to explain a more Orthodox (a more Christian) understanding of heaven and hell to her. I think some of you might want to read what I said, so for what it’s worth, here it is:
Medieval European understandings of hell—most famously, Dante’s Divine Comedy—present an idea of the age to come as static. At least that’s how popular culture has come to understand the nature of heaven and hell (I’m not a Medievalist, nor have I read much of Dante. I’m just pointing out that this is how Dante and the European Christian tradition has largely come to be understood nowadays regarding heaven and hell.) That is, heaven and hell are conceived of as places were people go (or are sent) to receive a certain level of torment or bliss (as the case may be) forever. While not denying that this is one possible way to speak of the age to come, the Orthodox do not understand such language as descriptive of what is, but rather as metaphorical, pointing metaphorically to realities of the age to come that cannot be expressed clearly or fully in human language. So, for example, the “fire” of hell is not a material fire burning bodies as we understand how fire works in this world. Rather, the fire of hell is the torment of a conscience, or the torment of mind as one is confronted with the truth about his or her life (the truth that most of us hide from through a false ego and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves justifying ourselves and blaming and condemning others). This truth will be inescapable and the love of God that we have shunned, ignored and denied will also be inescapable.
You might ask, how could love be experienced as torment? Think of a two or three year-old child who does not get his or her way. The love of the parent only increases the rage of the child in the temper tantrum. But eventually, the child wears out and collapses in the arms of his mother. St. Isaac the Syrian says that the torments of hell are the scourging of love. Furthermore, in the Orthodox Christian tradition, heaven and hell are not merely experiences of the age to come, but they are experiences that we begin to enter into even while still in this life. There are many people who are stuck in hell already—in your line of work, I’m sure you have met many. In fact, you don’t have to be very screwed up on the outside to be trapped in a hellish reality on the inside. And there are some people who live the heavenly life even before they leave this world. Those of us who strive to know and follow God generally waver in between. We know hell from experience, but we have also tasted heaven—or maybe only just caught a whiff of the fragrance of heaven—enough to know it’s real, enough to keep longing for it.
When Jesus promised his disciples eternal life, he wasn’t speaking of life-as-we-know-it extended forever. He was speaking of a different kind of life, a different quality of life: The life of the age to come, the life of heaven, or the life called heaven, life in relationship with the heavenly Father who loves us. Similarly, to speak of eternal fire or torment is not to speak of fire or torment-as-we-know-it extended forever. Rather, it is to speak of a different kind, or quality of torment. It is the torment of the age to come—a torment that we begin to experience even while in this life, a torment that leads many to repentance; and some, who will not repent or who for some reason cannot repent, this torment drives them to various forms of insanity, various kinds of false reality. But reality cannot be avoided because it is reality.
Human beings have the ability to create their own mental realities, torment takes place when the reality outside me does not match my inner story, my inner reality, AND I do not want to accept it, I don’t want to (or can’t) change the story I created in my head. And so I am tormented by the disjunct, by the distance between the story I tell myself is real in my head, and the reality I confront all around me. So as long as we live in this world, we have the opportunity to repent, to change in a relatively easy way: this is the blessing of time and space as we know it. Human beings are internally malleable, we can change our mind if we want to—or there are seasons and moments in our life when we can change our mind if we want to. However, change requires humility, a willingness to be taught, a willingness to accept that I am sometimes (often) wrong, that the story I have told myself about myself is not reality. But changing our mind is not as easy as it sounds. We get addicted to the story we tell ourselves, and like heroin addicts, we just don’t want to change—even if we know our addiction is killing us.
Human beings were created to become like God (their heavenly Father). But they were also created already like God in many ways (how else could we grow to become more like God if we were not already in some ways created in His image?) So, one of the ways we are already like God is that we have a will that God honours. God does not coerce, God woos. You might ask, if God does not coerce, why is there so much suffering? Suffering is the consequence of human choice—not just one choice, but thousands of years of human choice. When God told Eve and Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, He said: “on the day you eat of it you will die.” Notice, God did not say, on the day you eat of it I will kill you. Death is the natural consequence of turing away from the Source of Life. It is like a parent saying to a child, if you take your coat off, you will get cold. The child might then become angry with the mother because she doesn’t want to wear the coat and she doesn’t want to be cold, she might even blame her mother because she is cold yet still refuse to put on the coat. We do the same thing to God. This is why the Old Testament (and a few spots in the New Testament) is full of wrathful language about God. This is the human experience. When the Babylonians invade the country and kill and plunder, we call it the wrath of God, but it’s the same God who warned his people through the prophets to turn to Him to avoid such a consequence. We destroy forests, pollute the air and water, and then we blame God when a category five hurricane wipes out a city.
Forgive me, I got a little off topic there.
So when we speak of heaven and hell as “places” that people “go,” we are speaking metaphorically. Heaven and hell refer to experiences of the love and presence of God. Furthermore, these experiences are not necessarily static. The Church teaches that the prayers of the faithful somehow relieve the torment of those who are suffering “in” hell, and that those who are “in” heaven are ever growing in their knowledge and love of God. The age to come is not static. What cannot change is the life that one has lived. That doesn’t change. What we have lived is what we have to offer God. I cannot go back and change anything I did this morning. It is fixed. However, what I can do is accept it and accept my brokenness (fault, if you like) in this morning being so much less than what it could have been, what God perhaps had called it to be. I can accept that I failed, and at the same time that God loves me even though—no, especially because—I am a failure. It is, after all, the sinners that Jesus came to save.
In medieval Europe these ideas of heaven and hell, torment and fire crystallized into doctrines such as purgatory. The metaphor morphed into mechanism. But the Orthodox Church does not have such dogmatized and fixed explanations of the experience of the age to come. The Orthodox Church teaches that there is heaven and hell, judgement, torment and bliss, and that these are eternal; but the Church does not try to define these, not even exactly what “eternal” means. They are realities of a different age, we might even say of a different dimension. What exactly they are cannot be expressed in the language of this age, except metaphorically. However, although these realities of the age to come cannot be expressed clearly, they are nonetheless already experienced in this age. Eternal life in Christ begins now. The torments of hell are already known by many of us. And the love of God is at work saving and leading to repentance all who are willing, all whom He is able to lead to Himself. How God’s love continues to work with His creatures in the age to come, we don’t know—except for some apocalyptic and prophetic images that are at best metaphorical. However, along with these images there are promises of forgiveness, promises of “many” from the east and the west sitting at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven. How that’s all going to play out in the age to come, we don’t know. We will find out when we get “there.”