If you are new to Orthodox theology, buckle your seat belt and ready yourself for something quite different. This is a controversial topic in the Christian world, and I’m not wanting to start any fights, but rather offer my understanding of the truth regarding Heaven and Hell.
Every sect of Christianity has their scripture verses they quote to support their opinions. It is truly not a lack of scripture that keeps us from knowing truth, but rather a lack of understanding and right interpretation of the scripture. For that reason, I am going to dive more deeply into Orthodox interpretations rather than listing a bunch of scriptures to justify what I write.
THERE’S NO PLACE CALLED HELL…OR HEAVEN
Heaven and hell are not understood as physical places in which we are sentenced for all eternity, but an actual state of being when we encounter the Almighty God of Consuming Fire. God’s loving and fiery presence either causes us to withdraw within ourselves or to reach out and be consumed and healed.
The states of being called “heaven” and “hell” begin here in this life, and are fully consummated in the age to come.
If we have allowed our hearts to be purified, then God’s presence will be healing, joyful, and life-giving. If we refuse God’s healing embrace, then His love will burn like fire, “for our God is a consuming fire” (Deut 4:24, 9:3, Isa 33:14, Heb 12:23)
“[St Gregory of Nyssa] teaches that Paradise and Hell do not exist from God’s point of view, but from man’s point of view. It is a subject of man’s choice and condition.” ~Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
HOW CAN LOVE POSSIBLY HURT?
The Older Son
There is a familiar parable in Luke called The Prodigal Son. That infamous son, had an older brother who became jealous of his younger brother being accepted with grace by their Father. He essentially disowns his brother, and refuses to share in and rejoice in the love, joy, and celebrations of his amazing Father.
For the older brother, the Father’s perfect love was painful because it was incompatible with the impurity within his heart.
Miracles performed by Jesus in the four Gospels caused two reactions: people were either overjoyed by God’s love and mercy or they were driven into dark bitterness and hate for Christ. That darkness drove an entire mob of people to crucify Love Himself.
Christ is the dividing line because He is God incarnate, and He is love. He comes to unite and heal human nature to His own nature, but does not do it by force. In that sense He acts as a dividing line; one that is so strong, so pure, that it causes all to either move toward Him in love or to disdain His pure love that does not conform to their own desires.
SO WHY DOES THE BIBLE REFER TO ACTUAL PLACES?
Those who have refused the love of God will experience a feeling of separation from God, from love, and from all that is good and beautiful. They will dwell in an inner darkness and it will certainly feel to them as though they are in a completely different place than those enjoying the presence of God.
CS Lewis illustrates this relational concept of heaven and hell beautifully in the final book of the Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle. In it, several Dwarfs who are impure of heart are sitting together in Paradise. However, they are blind to the beauty. The heavenly flowers smell like dung, and the food tastes rotten.
Of them, Aslan states, “They will not let us help them…Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.
Jesus taught that the pure of heart will see God. Purity is not something one stumbles across or achieves by reciting the “sinner’s prayer.” Rather it is a relational synergy between God and mankind, and a complete release of the world within a person’s heart.
WILL EVERYONE BE SAVED?
A popular Christian evangelical author named Rob Bell stirred up controversy with his book Love Wins. In it, he essentially proposed the question: will everyone eventually be saved? He was certainly not the first to ask such questions. There were a couple of saints in the Orthodox Church who seemed to be leaning toward that direction in their writings.
Here are two schools of thought within Orthodoxy:
Certainly the most prominent belief is the idea that God is eternal delight or torment for every soul that encounters Him. The idea is not that God suddenly lacks mercy once somebody dies, it is that we do not suddenly change and become different people. You are who you are. And who you are now effects who you will be.
If someone is closed off to God’s love and grace — in whatever big or small ways God beckons to them throughout their entire lives in this age — they are unlikely to decide that they want God when they encounter Him fully. They may wish for the darkness and pain to cease, but if they do not want God then they are simply asking for “heaven” on their own terms, but there is no such thing.
Regarding this mindset, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware states, “If the doors of hell are locked, then they are locked from within.”
The second line of thinking begins much the same as the initial one laid out above. Except, there is an idea that God’s fiery love is so overwhelming, that eventually no one will be able to resist it. They will open their eyes to Him and the gates of hell within their hearts will fling open. And God, being the merciful lover of mankind, will accept their penitent hearts and receive them into His Kingdom. But it is unwise to put any stock in this idea considering a plain reading of scripture and a majority of the saints oppose it outright in their writings. Particularly in our culture of relativism, one may unconsciously be giving into wishful thinking rather than approaching the text reasonably.
PROBLEMS WITH “WESTERNIZED” HELL
Many Protestants teach the concept of hell as an eternal torture chamber, devoid of God’s presence, where “bad” souls are sent who did not “accept Jesus into their hearts.” This concept creates numerous misunderstandings of God, but I’ll only touch on two of them.
Firstly, everything that exists is held in existence by Christ Himself. Every place and every person. (Col 1:17) There is nowhere that we can go in which God is not there too. The psalmist writes that even if he were to make his bed in Hades, God would be there as well.
It is possible that one can be in the presence of God and be blind to it; but the fault is in the eyes of the person’s heart, and not in God. And that truly is hell.
Secondly, while we Orthodox firmly believe that God is judge, it is we ourselves that determine our eternal state of being by the life that we live now. We are either working toward our salvation with God through the grace of the Holy Spirit, or we are living for ourselves, looking out for number one, and relegating God to the backseat of our lives.
God is loving and wants all to be saved, and is working in every person’s life to bring them to at least turn toward Him in whatever way we are capable. But if we ignore Him, if we bury our treasure (heart) in the ground (that is in worldly pursuits and passions) then when we encounter Him we will not know Him, and in some sense, He will not know us because His image of love will not be reflecting within us.
I truly believe that God loves all of us and is reaching out in some way to everyone right now. He is more than willing to accept even the smallest acts of love and repentance. So, let us run into the embrace of our loving Father!