Reading the Real Bible and Notes on the Real Hell

SOURCE: Glory to God for All Things

This post began as a comment – a response to serious questions about the nature of hell (Is Hell Real?) and recent treatments of Scriptural literalism. I offer this edited version as a new post for the sake of those who don’t follow comments closely…


Dear Reader, I want to state immediately that you should be at peace about the state of Orthodoxy. My earlier post (Is Hell Real?) is not meant to question the “reality” of hell in the sense that you are using the word – though it is meant to make us think a great deal more about what we mean when we say “real” – about which I’ll say more in a moment.

And, on matters of Biblical interpretation, I utterly reject the nonsense of liberal Christianity and its handling of Scriptures (much as I reject their handling by Protestant fundamentalists – they are two sides of the same coin). But, again, I want to press the point of our understanding of the Scriptures beyond the flat literalism of modern Protestantism (whether fundamentalist or liberal). Some may find my pressing of this point to be less than helpful. If so, they should ignore these posts.

On What I Mean by “Real”

Modern thought, including modern Protestant thought, tends to think of “reality” as consisting of only one kind of thing. So, if we say “real,” we mean “true,” “actual,” not “make-believe,” not an “imagination.” And this is the way the word is used whether it is referring to green dragons, God, heaven, hell, what I ate last week, etc. It is this singular, univocal meaning and singular understanding of “real” that I am challenging. I think of this “singular” meaning for “real” as false and misleading. I often refer to it as “flat,” or “literalistic.” My goal is to help readers, on a popular level, understand better the Orthodox teaching on the nature of things – on the world as sacrament – on the character of truth and reality – and thus the nature of our salvation.

The fathers, when addressing this topic, understand that truth and being (and thus “reality” and what is “real”) are qualities that belong to God alone. As St. Gregory the Theologian said, “Inasmuch as we say ‘God exists,’ we don’t exist. Inasmuch as we say, ‘We exist,’ God does not exist.” What he meant by this is that the character of God’s existence is such that no other “existing” thing can be compared to the existence of the true God. The Baptismal prayer calls God, hyperousia, “supersubstantial,” or “beyond being.” St. Basil the Great calls God, “the only truly existing…” St. Athanasius notes that everything created was created out of nothing, and is thus “nothing” by its nature. If we were left utterly to ourselves, we would simply cease to exist because we were and are created “out of nothing.” According to St. Athanasius, the kind of existence we have is utterly a gift. It is sustained by the good will of the good God. But such an existence cannot be compared with the existence and being of God. It is not self-existence, but gift.

However, the good God who brought us into existence out of nothing, also intends for us the gift of union with Himself, which is the gift of eternal life, a participation in the Divine life. Thus the fathers use the language of the created participating in the uncreated (God). St. Maximus the Confessor even says that we become “uncreated” by grace. This is the doctrine that is called “theosis,” divinization.

If divinization is thought of in terms of “being,” then it can be described as a movement from created existence (by nature) towards uncreated existence (by grace).

I have used the word “real” in the sense and meaning of the statement,”God alone is real,” i.e. “God is the only truly existing one.” Those things are real that have participation in God and only insomuch as they have participation in God. Those things that resist such participation, that rebel are not “not existing” (or else we couldn’t even speak of them), but they are moving in a direction that is opposite from true existence, and are moving towards what they came from (nothing). In the fathers there is thus a distinction between things that do not exist (ouk ousia) and things that are tending toward non existence (me ousia). Because existence is the gift of God, and God does not take back the gift He has given, the most we can do in our rebellion is move towards me ousia (relative non-existence, a “not real” reality).

When I suggest that hell is “not real,” I do not mean that there is no such thing, but that the nature of what we call “hell,” is at heart a movement away from reality (God), a choice towards non-existence, something that is essentially inauthentic. C.S. Lewis’ imagery of hell as the “gray town” in The Great Divorce, is a very rich play on this thought.

On the Biblical Stories

There are many kinds of stories in the Bible. Protestant fundamentalism has, more or less, decided that there is only one kind of story in the Scriptures and only one kind of truth that has any usefulness and that is a literal, historical kind of story or truth. Thus the story of Adam and Eve is seen as only having value andonly being of use if it is a description of a “factual” event. It would understand a “factual” event to mean that if I were present as an observer on the day of Adam’s creation, I would see the event of the clay being formed into the first homo sapiens, etc. This same kind of literalism is applied across the board to all OT stories. Either they are true in that way (it is reasoned), or they are lies, fictions and worse.

Protestant liberalism (in its most extreme forms) agrees with this kind of singular reading. Liberalism, however, uses this singular approach to discredit anything that seems to be questionable as a “factual,” newspaper kind of event. And it uses these attacks to undermine the authority of the Church, the faith, etc. This allows liberalism to proceed to create its own “truths” and build the fantasy world of its own private dreams and continue to create misery in the name of God.

When this topic of “factuality” (in the sense propagated by Protestant fundamentalism and liberalism) is addressed in the Fathers (which is rarely the case when any particular OT story is being invoked), it is clearly understood that the stories in Scripture have a number of “levels” of meaning, a number of possibilities, a variety of uses. The story of Adam and Eve and the Creation is handled more literally by some of the fathers, and quite figuratively by others (I’ve referenced Peter Bouteneff’s work on the patristic use of the Creation chapters and recommend it again). The issue of Adam and Eve and history is not a debate within the historic Orthodox Church. It was and is a debate between Protestant fundamentalists and Protestant liberals that arose with special vehemence in response to Darwin’s theories. It is their battle, notours. Many Orthodox, living here in the West, have decided that the Orthodox should take sides in that debate – but I suggest that they are mistaken. The debate is a non-issue because both liberals and fundamentalists have a wrong understanding of Scripture and history.

For some, Orthodoxy can seem simply like a more defensible version of conservative Christianity, with sacraments). Orthodoxy is neither conservative nor liberal – it is Orthodoxy. It need have no reference to the conversations that are happening outside. Orthodoxy was Orthodox when there were no denominations. The only measure of Orthodoxy is its participation in the Truth. Too many people bring the baggage of their former Christianity(ies) with them and try to graft it onto the trunk of the Orthodox tree.

I have written numerous articles on the interpretation of Scripture. Many of them make the comparison between Scripture and icons (a comparison made by the 7th council). Icons are clearly not photographs and they are not photographs for a reason. They depict what is true – in the sense of God, heaven, true existence, etc. – and not simply meaning “whatever we might see.” Christ makes it quite clear that many people “see,” but “don’t see.” There is obviously more than one way of seeing. In that sense, there is more than one way of portraying “what happened.” Icons seek to portray the “truth,” of things. Obviously, many people saw Christ hanging on the Cross but failed to see the truth of Christ hanging on the Cross. An icon does not make that mistake. It shows the truth of Christ on the Cross. In that sense, an icon is more “real,” than a photograph, because the ultimate truth of the event is clearly depicted whereas a photograph might miss it.

What is the “truth” of the story of Adam and Eve? Fundamentalists think it is their photograph-style interpretation. But Christ says that He himself is the meaning of the OT Scriptures (Jn. 5:39). Surely <em>Christ </em>is the <em>truth </em>of the account of Adam and Eve in a manner that transcends the newspaper-like interpretation. The Pharisees could have seen the newspaper account as clear as anyone, but they did not see Christ and so crucified Him – and – ironically – fulfilled the truth of the creation of Adam.

For the fathers are clear, the Woman taken out of Adam’s side, is the Church, His bride. Adam rests (sleeps) on the 6th day (Friday), and from His side God takes a rib and forms the Woman. And on Friday, Christ slept (died), and “one of the soldiers pierced His side, and from His side flowed forth blood and water…” The fathers see this as the Eucharist and Baptism, that which births and creates the Church.

You may take this simply as a “commentary,” an allegorical way of reading the “historical account.” But the mistake is the same as that of the Pharisees. When we make the newspaper-style reading the primary and and so-called real reading, we invariably fail to see that the other is the primary and true. Christ’s Pascha is the true reading of all things. Nothing has any truth except as it relates to Christ’s Pascha. That is the beginning of creation as well as its end and fulfillment.

My writing means to “pound” on the problematic handling of Scripture by the Protestants and help others come to a more proper Orthodox understanding and way of reading. It occasionally jars and upsets, because most people are still stuck in the world-view of modern Protestantism.

The Sacraments Are Real

The newspaper-style understanding of truth is one of the reasons that Protestantism generally does not understand the sacraments (and is mostly non-sacramental). “Things are things,” they reason. Bread canremind us of Christ’s Body and His sacrifice, but it can only BE bread. And this is true for newspapers. But it is not the Truth. “I believe that this is truly Thy most pure Body,” the Orthodox say before receiving communion. When we say, “This is truly,” do we mean that there is a lump of human flesh lying on the diskos on the altar? Does it mean that a photograph would show a lump of meat?

Of course not. But Orthodoxy clearly thinks that we “see” a reality that is more real than that of a photograph. The bread is truly His most pure Body. The “Kingdom which is to come” is truly present now. “Thou <em>hadst </em>raised us up to heaven…” All of these outrageously non-newspaper ways of speaking are true and only those who are truly in Christ can say them, mean them, see them, and thus, through them, be saved.

Adam and Eve raise interesting historical questions…but the history parts of that particular story are not what matters about it.

The history of Christ’s crucifixion is important, too, and in a way that is not the case of the Creation account. First, that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered death and was buried… are also true in the newspaper-sense of the word, and are attested to in that manner, independent of the Scriptures.

But, like an icon, the gospels reveal His death, burial and resurrection (which certainly has every kind of truth – newspaper and otherwise) in their ultimate and truest way. They show us Christ’s Pascha as the New Creation, the Passover, Jonah from the Whale, the Bridegroom coming forth from the Bridal Chamber, the 3 young men in the fiery furnace, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, etc. And our Baptism plunges us into Christ’s Pascha and His Pascha becomes our new creation and life in Him.

This is the Orthodox faith. It is not a private opinion or a decision about what I would like to believe. It is larger than me or you and we may be plunged into it. But it will not be managed like the newspapers of the fundamentalists or the fables of the liberals. It is the faith of the fathers – the Mystery hidden from before all ages…

Norman Coppola11/13/2013 4:51 pm
Mr. Pennington, Fr. Stephen wrote: "I am not trying to say there is only one Orthodox way to read this or to tell someone that it cannot be literal. Generally, it has been literalism that has refused any other interpretation – while the Tradition has always allowed for it. I am suggesting that the Genesis account is rightly read through Christ’s Pascha rather than through the lens of history or science." I believe your comment is off-mark that he cannot accept "the God of the Old Testament"; what he does not accept is holding to an anthropomorphic and literal approach that contradicts a deeper truth about God, Who is experienced in seemingly contradictory ways. The Old Testament itself requires reconciliation between starkly differing perspectives of God, so which "God" are you referring to? I think you are also wrong in saying that the foundation of truth is historicity, that "concrete reality", the presentation of which Fr. Stephen calls "newspaper" reporting, is of greater value than spiritual meaning (as if any such reporting is not selective and interpretive). Do you think that if Aesop's Fables were historically accurate that would enhance their meaning?
Scott Pennington8/10/2013 6:11 am
Yes, as Patristictruth points out, this is not the Gospel. I have read Fr. Stephen's musings on hell and God's wrath before and he simply can't accept the God of the Old Testament. The historicity of events portrayed as historical in the Scriptures does matter. No doubt there are allegorical interpretations possible and fruitful, but the concrete reality underneath them is the foundation. Otherwise, they are just Aesop's fables which we can take or leave as we prefer, finding this one or that one wise, the next foolish. That is not the Orthodox faith. I would just ignore his musings, as he suggests, since I do not find them helpful, but I think they are dangerous to the faithful.

Patristictruth7/30/2013 8:22 pm
"I know the laws of allegory, though less by myself than from the works of others. There are those truly, who do not admit the common sense of the Scriptures, for whom water is not water, but some other nature, who see in a plant, in a fish, what their fancy wishes, who change the nature of reptiles and of wild beasts to suit their allegories, like the interpreters of dreams who explain visions in sleep to make them serve their own ends. For me grass is grass; plant, fish, wild beast, domestic animal, I take all in the literal sense. 'For I am not ashamed of the Gospel.'"
St. Basil the Great, Homily IX "The Hexaemeron"
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