I don’t like the idea of anyone languishing in hell forever. For that reason, the topic of heaven and hell intrigued me for years, especially when someone made a good case for doctrine that is more palatable. When Rob Bell published his book Love Wins, he rightly argued that he was not asking any questions or presenting any arguments that Christians have not made before him. In my pre-Orthodox days, this idea excited me. After all, many in Protestantism are looking for creative new ways to understand the Bible.
On the one hand, we have innumerable Christians throughout the ages who have written about the perpetuity of hell (I would guess more than 99% of the church fathers). On the other hand, there are a few who either wrote against it (i.e. Origin) or who seemed to at least hint that hell would be a place of spiritual refinement and cleansing (i.e. St. Gregory of Nyssa). Some apply one or more of the following labels to such teaching: Ultimate Reconciliation (UR), Christian Universalism, or Universal Salvation.
Many in the latter camp utilize 1st Corinthians 3:15, which states, If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as through fire. It is the verse that gave me a sense of hope that, even if I was not a very good Christian, perhaps I would be saved anyway.
How can a just God punish a finite number of sins for eternity? How can a loving God torment people forever? These are all common questions that plague numerous people.
WHERE I LANDED
After much reading of the fathers, I found I had to agree with the more traditional camp. It was a process that took some time. I had to ask myself though: Am I an Orthodox Christian, or something else? If I am an Orthodox Christian, then I must adhere to the teachings of the Church. One cannot be Orthodox and reject the teachings of the fathers. Such an idea is nothing more than egotism masquerading as theology. True, the fathers on occasion have contradicted each other, but that is why we look at the common consensus of their teachings, and especially the Ecumenical Councils. The fifth council addressed this issue and anathamatized those who teach that hell is not eternal.
So, after reading all of this, I came to the conclusion that there was no way that nearly every holy father of the Church could have been dead wrong for 2,000 years on such an important belief. The idea contradicts the words of scripture that the Holy Spirit will teach us and guide us in all things.
In the end, what happens to every human at the Final Judgment is something known only to God alone. Worrying about it distracts me from what is more important: saving the one soul for which I am completely accountable. When I spend a great deal of time researching this topic, looking for something in the fathers that seems more “nice,” then I am truly missing out on reflecting on the inner state of my own heart and bringing myself into correction.
For further reading on this topic, I would highly recommend Fr. John Whiteford’s blog: Is Universalism a Heresy? I found it to be quite helpful.
ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM AND BEING SAVED THROUGH FIRE
More important than what I think, I am posting this blog mainly to share St. John Chrysostom’s commentary on the passage in 1st Corinthians 3 mentioned above. I also have a blog on the Orthodox perspective of heaven and hell here.
In summary, St. John teaches that a man’s sinful works will be annihilated in the Fire, but that he himself will be saved from annihilation. Man’s resurrected body and soul are immortal and cannot vanish in fire. However, though a man may be saved from disappearing into oblivion, he is not saved from the eternal torments of hell. St. John admits that this is a difficult and unpleasant teaching, and addresses questions raised about the supposed injustice of an eternal hell.
The recent St. Paisios the Athonite once said, “Don’t listen to those who say that everyone will be saved. This is a trap of Satan so that we won’t struggle.”
A commentary of our Holy Father St. John Chrysostom on the eternity of hell:
If any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, stubble; each man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it is revealed in fire; and the fire shall prove each man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he built thereon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as through fire.
This is no small subject of inquiry which we propose, but rather about things which are of the first necessity and which all men inquire about; namely, whether hell fire has any end. For that it has no end Christ indeed declared when he said, Their fire shall not be quenched, and their worm shall not die. [Mark 8:44, 46, 48.]
Well: I know that a chill comes over you on hearing these things; but what am I to do?
As I said then; that [hell] has no end, Christ has declared. Paul also said, in pointing out the eternity of the punishment, that the sinners shall pay the penalty of destruction, and that for ever (2 Thess. 1. 9.) And again, (1 Cor. 6. 9.) Be not deceived; neither fornicators. nor adulterers, nor effeminate, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And also unto the Hebrews he saith, (Heb. 12. 14.) Follow peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no man shall see the Lord. And Christ also, to those who said, In thy Name we have done many wonderful works, says, Depart from Me, I know you not, ye workers of iniquity (Matt. 7. 22.) And the virgins too who were shut out, entered in no more. And also about those who gave Him no food, He saith, (Matt. 25. 46.) They shall go away into everlasting punishment.
Read the rest of the homily here.