The Fathers and the Fire

In my last two blog articles, I examined the biblical, patristic, and conciliar evidence for the traditional view of the Church that the punishments of Gehenna were eternal, and also examined the question of how belief in the eternity of those punishments could be consistent with the love of God. I advanced the view that Scripture, the Fathers, the pronouncements of councils, and the general consensus of the Church since those councils all agreed that the punishment of Gehenna was eternal. I also suggested that those in Gehenna were destroyed by their choices so that the faculty of free will as we experience it in this age ceased to exist in them. In this final blog article I will examine some of the Father’s teaching to see how they viewed the pain of hell being consistent with God’s love. Like the previous two posts, it must be somewhat cursory and limited, since this is a blog, not a book. We approach the issue through the question, “How does God relate to those condemned to hell?”

Let us begin by reviewing the Scriptures, and especially the teaching of Christ with which the Fathers interacted. The Lord paints a consistent picture of divine rejection of the unrighteous. Those who are unrepentant evildoers at the last judgment will hear Christ say, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you evildoers” (Matthew 7:23). Those unprepared by repentance, portrayed in one of His parables as foolish virgins, will on that day pound at the door, saying, “Lord, Lord, open to us!”, only to hear Him reply, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.” (Matthew 25:11-2). The lost will be cast out into outer darkness (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30), cast into Gehenna (Mark 9:45). At the last judgement they will hear Christ say, “Depart from Me” (Matthew 25:41). Taken together, these are unmistakable and vivid pictures of rejection, and perhaps at the basis of St. Paul’s assertion that the disobedient will “pay the penalty of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). This last phrase, rendered here “away from the presence of the Lord”, is the Greek apo prosopou tou kuriou. The preposition apo must here be rendered “away from” and not simply “from” (as coming from a source)—thus the Arndt-Gingrich Lexicon, which takes the preposition in this verse “to indicate distance from a point: away from”. The New Testament picture of Gehenna is consistently one of divine rejection.

In understanding these words, we must first understand the situation in which they were spoken. Christ wanted to portray the penalty for disobedience and unrighteousness in all its horror, to warn His hearers not to disobey and reject Him and His word. In a sense, the Lord was speaking with the vehemence of prophecy, not in the measured tones of later theologians and apologists. Like His counsel to the one tempted to sin to gouge out his eye rather than use it to sin (Mark 9:47), He speaks with holy hyperbole, warning us in urgent tones to flee from the wrath to come. His descriptions of the unquenchable fire, of the undying worm, and of the unexpectedly locked door make us tremble, as they were intended to do. Questions about justice and divine love did not arise, and would only have served to blunt the power of the prophetic warning. We must be clear however: Christ was not issuing empty threats, or bluffing. And He was not simply threatening, but also promising. He did not say, “Be careful to be righteous lest you go into eternal punishment”, but rather, “the unrighteous will go into eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46). The Gospel is clear that the one who disobeyed the Son would not see life, but the wrath of God would remain upon him (John 3:36), and it is sadly certain that some have disobeyed the Son. These texts therefore cannot be read as merely admonitory and cautionary warnings of a terrible possibility. The Lord said such terrible possibilities were going to occur—such as in the case of Judas, the perished son of perdition, for whom it would have been better not to have been born (John 17:12, Matthew 26:24).

The Fathers, while not contradicting this, took care to provide nuance. Their concerns were different than those of their Lord, for their intended audience were not Jews of first century Palestine. The Fathers had to deal with pastoral and apologetic issues, those arising from the challenges of dualism and paganism. Dualism (such as in Manichaeism for example), posited evil somehow parallel with and contending with the good, so that the existence of good and evil in the world witnessed to two rival powers. The Fathers had to show how the existence of evil did not mean that there was another evil deity in the world somehow equal to God, but that God Himself was not the creator of evil, and that nothing He did was evil. Paganism, on the other hand, pictured the gods as all too human in their capacity for rage, revenge, and vindictiveness. The challenge for the Fathers here therefore was to show how God’s punishment of the wicked did not mean that He was vengeful and vindictive like the pagan gods denounced by the Church, but that He was loving, fair, and good.

The Fathers did not deny the Lord’s teaching that the unrighteous were punished. But they zeroed in and began to analyze the precise causes of the punishment, and in what it consisted. And their basic answer was that God’s sentence upon the unrighteous was not based in any sense of personal peeve and arbitrary anger (as with the pagan gods), but was simply the outworking of the choices made by the unrighteous themselves. God Himself loved all that He made, and desired the destruction of none. We look at a few examples.

St. Irenaeus writes, “To as many as continue in their love towards God, He grants communion with Him. But communion with God is life and light, and the enjoyment of all the benefits which He has in store. But on as many as, according to their own choice depart from God, He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord. But separation from God is death, and separation from light is darkness… Those therefore who cast away by apostasy these things being in fact destitute of all good, experience every kind of punishment. God however does not punish them immediately of Himself, but that punishment falls on them because they are destitute of all that is good” (Against Heresies, 5,27,2). For Irenaeus, the separation from God is not a matter of arbitrary divine decree, but the fatal choice of the unrighteous themselves. They abide in darkness and death with all its misery as the inevitable result of refusing communion with light and life.

The words ascribed to St. Anthony in the Philokalia make the same point: “God is good, dispassionate, and unchanging…God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions…It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us…Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind” (Text 150). The author’s point is that God does will the sinner’s destruction because He has been offended. Rather, as Irenaeus said about God granting communion with all to love Him, the author insists that God’s love shines on all His creation. The lost cannot see that light because of their sins which have made them blind.

The point is made forcefully by St. Isaac the Syrian as well. In his Homily 84, he says, “Those who are suffering in hell are suffering in being scourged by love…It is totally false to think that the sinners in Gehenna are deprived of God’s love…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. This is torment of Gehenna: bitter regret.” Isaac’s concern is to exonerate God from all accusations of vengefulness and unfairness. God wills the salvation of all, and pours out His love upon all. God’s love, and goodness, and righteousness are rejected by the sinner, whose sins make him experience it as torment.

St. John Maximovitch St. John Maximovitch
And finally, we look at the modern witness of St. John Maximovitch. In a sermon published byOrthodox Word in 1966, St. John spoke of the final punishment of the unrighteous: “The end of the world signifies not the annihilation of the world, but it transformation…Fire is a purifying element; it burns sins. Woe to a man if sin has become a part of his nature: then the fire will burn the man himself…the very state of a man’s soul casts him to one side or the other…When the body has died, some may think that sin is dead too. No! There was an inclination to sin in the soul, and if the soul has not repented of the sin and has not freed itself from it, it will come to the Last Judgment also with same desire for sin. It will never satisfy that desire and in that soul there will be the suffering of hatred. It will accuse everyone and everything in its tortured condition, it will hate everyone and everything. A fiery Gehenna—such is the inner fire.” Bishop John here reproduces the teaching of the earlier Fathers, saying that God’s wrath is not directed against sinners but their sins, and it is only as the sinner clings to his sin and judgment falls upon him. The torment of Gehenna is an inner fire, kindled from the sinner’s hatred of everyone and everything.

I believe that this view is consistent with that stated in our previous blog. The fire which is within the sinner and which arises from unsatisfied desire and hatred—this is the fire of Gehenna. It is unquenchable because of the impaired state of the lost. His capacity for joy has been eroded and burned to nothing. Only impotent lust and rage remains, the flickering of a phantom, which accuses everyone and everything.

In the patristic citations cited above we have seen the Father’s concern to demonstrate that God’s judgment upon the condemned does not arise from any arbitrary passion of peevishness. Obviously no Father was a carbon copy of another, for each had his own special nuances and refinements. But enough common ground existed among them so that one can speak of a patristic consensus. God is good and only good, and never does evil. If a man is separated from God at the end, it is only because he has himself chosen that separation. The sunshine of God’s love and goodness and righteousness will beam upon all in the age to come and fill the cosmos. Those who will dwell in the outer darkness only remain there because they have preferred darkness to light and made themselves blind to that which will fill the world in the age to come.

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