Is Hell Real?

Because sometimes the people of God need a basic lesson in the nature of existence…

On one of the roads leading into my small city a billboard has recently appeared. It is part of a larger campaign by a nationally known evangelist who is to have a revival in Knoxville. The sign is simple. In very large bright yellow letters (all caps), the sign says: HELL IS REAL. In small letters beneath it, in white, that can be read as your car nears the sign is the statement: so is heaven. Like the small bulletin boards outside of many Southern churches, this sign belongs to a part of our culture that has been with us a long time. But everytime I see this sign, my mind turns to the subject of ontology (the study of the nature of being). Thus I offer today some very basic thoughts on the subject of being – a classical part of Christian theology.

The first thing I will note is that you cannot say Hell is real and Heaven is real and the wordreal mean the same thing in both sentences. Whatever the reality of Heaven, Hell does not have such reality. Whatever the reality of Hell, Heaven is far beyond such reality.

St. Athanasius in his De Incarnatione, sees sin (and thus hell) as a movement towards “non-being.” The created universe was made out of nothing – thus as it moves away from God it is moving away from the gift of existence and towards its original state – non-existence. God is good, and does not begrudge existence to anything, thus the most creation can do is movetowards non-being.

I’m certain that the intent of the billboard was to suggest that hell is not imaginary or just afolk-tale. It is certainly neither of those things. But in Orthodox spiritual terms I would say that hell is a massive state of delusion, maybe the ultimate state of delusion. It is delusional in the sense that (in Orthodox understanding) the “fire” of hell is not a material fire, but itself nothing other than the fire of the Living God (Hebrews 12:29). For those who love God, His fire is light and life, purification and all good things. For those who hate God, His fire is torment, though it be love.

And these are not simply picky issues about the afterlife – they are very germane issues for the present life. Christ Himself gave this “definition” of hell: “And this is condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).

It is of critical importance for us to understand that being, reality, life, goodness, beauty, happiness, truth are all synonymous with reality as it is gifted to us by God. Many things that we experience in our currently damaged condition (I speak of our fallen state) which we describe with words such as “being, reality, life, goodness, beauty, happiness, truth, etc.”, are, in fact, only relatively so and are only so inasmuch as they have a participation or a relationship with the fullness of being, reality, life, etc.

Tragically in our world, many live in some state of delusion (even most of us live in some state of delusion). Christ said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” We are not pure in heart, and thus we do not see God, nor do we see anything in the fullness of its truth. Our delusion makes many mistakes about reality. The most serious delusion is that described by Christ, when we prefer darkness to light because our deeds are evil.

I have in my own life known what moments in such darkness are like – and I have seen such darkness in the hearts and lives of others many times. The whole of our ministry and life as Christians is to move from such darkness and into the light of Christ. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship (communion) one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1John 1:7)

Is hell real? Only for those who prefer to see the Light of God as darkness.

Is heaven real? Yes, indeed, and everything else is only real as it relates to that reality. God give us grace to walk in the Light.

End of the ontology lesson.

See also
Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of Hell Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of Hell
Robert Arakaki
Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of Hell Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of Hell
Robert Arakaki
Today Hades cried out groaning: “Would that I had not received the One born of Mary; for He came upon me and loosed my power. He shattered the gates of brass; the souls, which I held captive of old, as God He raised up.” Glory O Lord to Your Cross and Your Resurrection.
We must have our gaze fixed on heaven We must have our gaze fixed on heaven
Elder Amphilochios Makris
We must have our gaze fixed on heaven We must have our gaze fixed on heaven.
Elder Amphilochios Makris
Love your Bridegroom Christ with all your heart and then everyone will love you and take care of you.
Our windows into heaven Our windows into heaven Our windows into heaven Our windows into heaven
Drawing on the rich tradition of Orthodox Christian spirituality and imagery, a collection of over 80 icons - by Greek and Russian masters - will be exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ballarat
Communists roast in hell in Montenegro fresco Communists roast in hell in Montenegro fresco Communists roast in hell in Montenegro fresco Communists roast in hell in Montenegro fresco
Look up at the wall and you can see Yugoslavia's late autocratic leader Josip Broz Tito drowning in red fiery waves of hell - along with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, authors of the 1848 Communist Manifesto.
Heaven in a Choir Loft: Reflections of Georgian-Russian Orthodox brotherhood one year after the South Ossetian war Heaven in a Choir Loft: Reflections of Georgian-Russian Orthodox brotherhood one year after the South Ossetian war Heaven in a Choir Loft: Reflections of Georgian-Russian Orthodox brotherhood one year after the South Ossetian war Heaven in a Choir Loft: Reflections of Georgian-Russian Orthodox brotherhood one year after the South Ossetian war
In the ongoing saga of foreign affairs involving the Republic of Georgia and the Russian Federation, one story has escaped the attention of the news media. It is the story of an Orthodox Christian parish in Toronto, Canada, where Orthodox of all ethnicities, but especially Russian and Georgian, have come together as brothers, as children in the Kingdom of God. It is a joyful unity unnoticed by the outside world, but for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, it is a foretaste of the age to come, made possible only in Christ.
Even If I Descend into Hell… Even If I Descend into Hell…
Fr. Stephen Freeman
Even If I Descend into Hell… Even If I Descend into Hell…
Fr. Stephen Freeman
The verse in John implies just the opposite – hell (condemnation) is what it is – only because we want it so. As a priest this portrayal of condemnation has been by far the most helpful approach in dealing pastorally with people. It is not the threat of what someone (God) may do to them, but the existential reality of what you are doing to yourself – even now.
Comments
J.M. Burnham9/30/2016 3:34 pm
I find this to be one of the most salutary and meaningful articles on what can still argued to be a rather controversial subject. I also find it very sad that so many people still think of Gehenna (not necessarily Hades) in terms of the medieval imagination; dare it be said, in terms of a Halloween-like horror movie. It's amazing how many sincere [heterodox] Christians will become irate at persons not entertaining the medieval, Roman Catholic scholastic concept of Gehenna. Not only do I find comfort and solace in Orthodoxy's understanding of what ontologically is "Heaven" or "Hell," but it also makes sense, destroys any false imaginations and/or misconceptions about God in general, and is even motivational towards God and one's neighbor out of love, and not out of fear. It's as if certain Christians are comfortable conceiving God as the Divine Old Man sitting upon his rocking chair-like throne in the sky with a whipping belt in one hand and the Bible in the other just waiting for someone to "sin," so He can give them an eternal, fiery whipping in Hell. It's these types of preconceived, medieval, Roman Catholic/Protestant scholastic notions of "Hell" that give rise to militant secularist atheism.
J.M. Burnham9/30/2016 3:28 pm
I find this to be one of the most salutary and meaningful articles on what can still argued to be a rather controversial subject. I also find it very sad that so many people still think of Gehenna (not necessarily Hades) in terms of the medieval imagination; dare it be said, in terms of a Halloween-like horror movie. It's amazing how many sincere [heterodox] Christians will become irate at persons not entertaining the medieval, Roman Catholic scholastic concept of Gehenna. Not only do I find comfort and solace in Orthodoxy's understanding of what ontologically is "Heaven" or "Hell," but it also makes sense, destroys any false imaginations and/or misconceptions about God in general, and is even motivational towards God and one's neighbor out of love, and not out of fear. It's as if certain Christians are comfortable conceiving God as the Divine Old Man sitting upon his rocking chair-like throne in the sky with a whipping belt in one hand and the Bible in the other just waiting for someone to "sin," so He can give someone an eternal, fiery whipping in Hell. It's these types of preconceived, medieval, Roman Catholic/Protestant scholastic notions of "Hell" that give rise to militant secularist atheism.
Misha Pennington5/28/2015 1:48 am
I tend to resist interpretations of divine punishment that would have flowers raining down on Sodom and Gomorrah if only they hadn't been blue meanies. God is not a mirror. God has wrath and will reward us according to our faith and what we have done here on earth. It is not our subjective state of mind which creates hell, though it can create a hell on earth.
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