Is There a Hell?

This is another one of those issues where definitions need to be clarified before the question can be properly answered.  If Hell is assumed to be some dark cavern where souls are tormented in flames by pitch-fork wielding demons; then faced with the question of “Would a loving  God send people to Hell for eternal punishment?” my answer would probably be a strong ‘No’.  But then, like C.S. Lewis in his book The Great Divorce, I think the meaning of Hell needs some exploration before a good answer can be given.

I think the understanding of Hell requires unpacking three concepts:

  • Choice and Responsibility
  • Punishment and Death
  • Geography

Hell is a statement that we have free will (though to what degree is open to debate) and our choices make a difference. If we have no choice, then Hell is not a consequences but a sadistic playground for divine vivisection.  As Francis Schaeffer once said: In a materialistic, deterministic culture Hell (by any definition) is an optimistic statement that we have meaning and significance, we are not ‘Beyond Freedom and Dignity’.  We may question whether the punishment fits the crime, but we have choice and significance.

The second point brings up the crux of the issue:  not whether the punishment of Hell fits the crime, but whether Hell is a punishment.  Up until Augustine (4th century), Genesis 2:17 was interpreted as ‘on the day that you eat of the fruit, you shall die’.  Death was a direct consequence of eating the fruit, as illness is a consequence of a bacterial infection.  As St. Basil writes: “God did not create death, but we brought it upon ourselves.”  Augustine changed this interpretation to mean “on the day that you eat of the fruit, I will kill you”.  Death, rather than being a consequence of disobedience becomes a punishment for disobedience.  God is now cast in a very different role, and becomes the author of Death.  It is this understanding of Genesis, combined with Plato’s idea of eudomia, that gets worked out as Dante’s Inferno and later as Anselm’s penal substitutionary atonement.

This thinking is the foundation for most Western confessions of faith:

 If any man does not confess that the first man, Adam…through his transgression suffered the wrath and indignation of God and, because of this, death, let him be anathema.

Council of Trent (1546, First Canon, Fifth Session)

The punishments of sin in this world are either inward, … or outward, as the curse of God upon the creatures for our sakes, … together with death itself.

Westminster Confession Answer to question 29

Augustine went further and used Plato’s idea of eudomia (pleasure) to work out the geography of Hell.  Eudomia is the concept that people seek their highest good, or highest pleasure.  For Augustine, the highest pleasure is the presence of God; therefore, the worst suffering would be the absence or separation from God.  Hell, as a place of suffering and punishment implies a geographical distance from Heaven and the presence of God; a critical assumption with significant consequences.

Most Orthodox today follow the beliefs of the Early Church, rather than the later views that developed out of Augustine (although you may hear an occasional hell fire sermon in an Orthodox Church).  If  Hell is viewed as a place separate from God, this ‘location’ tends to run similar to C.S. Lewis (or a good understanding of Dante), that the punishment and suffering are the natural consequence of one’s chosen behavior; they did not, and would not choose to be anywhere else.

There is another model of geography, quite different from Augustine, and much older, that I find even more useful – Hell is the presence of God.  Hell is the love of God as experienced by those who reject God’s love..

It is totally false to think that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is a child of the knowledge of truth, and is unquestionably given commonly to all. But love’s power acts in two ways: it torments sinners, while at the same time it delights those who have lived in accord with it. (Homily 84) St. Isaac the Syrian.

Parallel to this is the image of love as a fire.  God is a consuming fire: the burning bush, the pillar of fire that led the Israelites out of Egypt, the flames of Pentecost, or the river of fire that comes from the throne of God.  But this image is also too sided, the fiery furnace (Daniel 3) can kill, or it can comfort like a cool breeze.  To those who have the flame of the Holy Spirit within them, to be confronted by the fire of God is to encounter one’s inner most identity.  To those who have rejected the Holy Spirit, the fire of God is alien and oppressive.

God is fire and when He came into the world, and became man, He sent fire on the earth, as He Himself says; this fire turns about searching to find material — that is a disposition and an intention that is good — to fall into and to kindle; and for those in whom this fire will ignite, it becomes a great flame, which reaches Heaven. … [T]his flame at first purifies us from the pollution of passions and then it becomes in us food and drink and light and joy, and renders us light ourselves because we participate in His light. (Discourse 78) St Symeon the New Theologian

For a more in depth perspective, I would recommend reading a longer article (and well footnoted) The River of Fire.

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5 thoughts on “Is There a Hell?

  1. Roman Catholic theologians have moved back toward this understanding in recent decades, and perhaps earlier, with the Ressourcement. Great post, I look forward to reading more.

    • I never claimed this as an ‘Orthodox’ view in the sense of an exclusive possession! It is a part of the Christian tradition we all share. It is good to hear that others are finding this line of thinking more useful, as I think it is a good line of thought with our modern culture that is sensitive to ‘anger’ issues yet needs to hear that they are significant beings who’s choices have significance. It is a good antidote to the meaningless determinism of our times.

  2. I love your ability to grasp the heart of the issue, which in this case is the love of God.

    I would like to hear your thoughts on the following verses:

    “42 ‘Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ 49 For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.'” (Mark 9:42-50 ESV)

    Are you familiar with any patristic commentary on this, in particular on the “worm”?

    What I find interesting that I hadn’t noticed before is verse 49, “For everyone will be salted with fire.” This suggests that this fire would be experience by all men, not only those in perdition.

    • I cannot put my finger on any particular patristic commentaries for this passage, but it is a fascinating passage. I think you are spot-on about the fire being experienced by all, this passage is the basis for some of my thinking about ‘hell’ (gehenna) as an experience more than a place. The worm and fire reference are clearly parallels to the actual Gehenna, the trash dump outside of Jerusalem where there could always be found burning trash and worms eating the garbage. The paradox in in the eternal nature of a fire that continually consumes (or never consumes?) and a worm that never finishes its consumption. It is a bit like Prometheus having his liver perpetually pecked out. This is a good statement, but not a good explanation.
      I understand the ‘it is better’ to be literal, but at the same time I suspect there was a sly twinkle of humor in Jesus’s eye while saying this. The root of sin, while possibly sparked by the body is never rooted in the body, but in the heart (the passions). To chop off a body part without a change of heart is pointless (especially an eye, hand or foot). And why will chopping off just one, rather than both, do the trick? The real struggle is with the vices of passion in our heart. I think this was well understood by his audience, but they did not take it as seriously as they should. If they were healthy individuals, and proud of their bodies, the illustration drove home the point of how seriously they should consider the cutting off of passions.

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