|Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries||Eschatological Topics|
Is "Hell" an eternal place ?
Or is it an eternal predicament ?
by Saint Theophan the Recluse
Taken from “Anthology of Epistles”, pages 100-109.
With the help of God I will try to strengthen your wavering faith regarding the eternity of torments and inform your troubled soul.
Your concern is the following: “How is it possible for the sufferings of Hell to be eternal? It is impossible. This is contrary to the benevolence of God.”
Before anything else, ask yourself if you are aware that God Himself had revealed this truth. If you do not know it, you must read the utterly clear words of the Holy Bible: “And these will go into everlasting suffering” (Matthew 25:46). These words leave no margins for any other interpretation. They mention very clearly that “hell” is eternal.
These are the words of the Lord, Who for us people assumed human flesh, endured terrible passions, died, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven and sat at the right hand of the Father, and from there is interested in the salvation of everyone and each one separately.
Therefore, since those words were said by the One Who had suffered so much for our salvation and desired nothing more than that, they must be true. It seems to me that there can be no doubt in this conclusion. But what have we done, with our poor mind? We became carried away by doubt. We begat suspicions about the authenticity of the Holy Scriptures and the fidelity of their interpretation, saying: “Either it is not written thus in the codices, or it is not correctly interpreted.” So pleased were we by this viewpoint, that for its sake we are ready to overturn everything.
But we have the old codices of the New Testament, which read: 'And they shall go away, to an eternal hell”. We also have translations of the New Testament. All of them say: “Sinners will go to an eternal hell.” Therefore there is no doubt that the Lord had said exactly that.
The incorrigible faithless have tried, after their first failure, to ascribe an erroneous interpretation to the word “eternal”. They said that this word is mentioned in a relative sense. In other words, it merely implies a lengthy duration, but not one without an end; perhaps so lengthy that it may seem eternal, but it will definitely have some end. The error in this interpretation is immediately evidenced by the following scriptural phrase: “to an eternal life”. Even totally ignorant interpreters understand this as meaning a life without end. This is exactly how we should also understand “eternal hell”. Both expressions are mentioned in parallel. Thus, they are acknowledging the same interpretation. Whatever is implied in the one expression, applies to the other. If life is eternal, then “hell” will be eternal. So, can you see that God Himself has revealed that “Hell” is eternal? How can you not see it? If you can see it, then believe it - with all your heart. Do not be captivated by a wavering faith; instead, you should immediately cast out every doubt on matters of the faith.
But let us come back to your doubts and listen to their arguments: “How is it possible to reconcile the eternity of “hell” with the benevolence of God and with His unlimited mercy? Are the torments mentioned in the Gospel actually horrific? The eternal fire, the unsleeping worm, the outer darkness and the gnashing of teeth... How does the benevolent Lord look upon these torments? The Lord has told us to forgive; so, doesn’t He forgive? While still on the Cross, He had prayed for His crucifiers – the most terrible of criminals. Couldn’t He forgive the less sinful in the future life? '
What can we say about all these queries? I think the following: They would have some rational basis, if we were to disregard the benevolence and mercy of God, or, if cruel and relentless people had decided the eternal status of “hell”. But when we are certain that this eternity was decided on by the benevolent God, could we, the creations, dare to claim that He was wrong in doing so? That He did something contrary to His benevolence? Or that He has perhaps ceased to be benevolent? Of course not! So, since He has never ceased to be benevolent, then the decision of “Hell” as something eternal should not conflict with His benevolence. Because God never does anything, nor says anything that would conflict with any of His characteristics. For a simplistic and innocent childish faith this explanation is entirely sufficient. And it is by THIS explanation that I am most comforted, more than by any other. I would recommend it to you as well.
The Lord on the Cross prayed for His crucifiers and His prayer immediately brought forth fruits: the robber repented, believed in God and was the first to enter Paradise. The centurion confessed the Lord as the Son of God and was counted among the witnesses. Thus it is, with all who have sinned before God and repented with tears: they were given absolution and did not find the “gate” of Paradise closed to them. If all sinners were to repent, they would all enter Paradise. Only the wicked, the hardened and unrepentant spirits would be in “hell”.
You hinge on and hope for the forgiveness of God’s mercy; however, forgiveness is not bestowed without presuppositions: repent, and you will receive forgiveness. Without repenting, how can you be forgiven?
The merciful Lord is ready to forgive everyone – as long as they repent and take refuge in Him. Even if demons repented, they too would have enjoyed God’s mercifulness. But they have hardened and stubbornly oppose God, and as such, there will be no mercy for them. The same applies for unrepentant people. How can it be possible for those who turn against God to be forgiven? I think you suspect that they are many, and I suppose you cannot deny the fact that many of them leave for the other life as God-opponents, as enemies of God. What will be waiting for them “there”? It is obvious! Just as they did not want to know God, likewise, God will not acknowledge them as His children. He will send them “far away” from Him: “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!” (Matth.7:23) And when such a decision leaves the lips of God, who can change it? Behold the eternal condemnation - the seal of “Hades”.
Now another question arises: Can we hope for a postmortem repentance? Oh, if that were ever possible! How convenient that would be for us sinners! “Surely the Lord is so merciful, that even after death He would forgive us if we repented?” But here lies our tragedy.
We have nowhere to support such a hope for repentance in the afterlife. The law of spiritual life stipulates that they who “plant the seeds” of repentance in this lifetime and even during their dying breath will be saved. These seeds will germinate and will yield the fruits of eternal salvation. Whoever does not hasten from this lifetime to plant the seeds of repentance and arrives at the afterlife with an unrepentant spirit and perseverance in sin, will remain forever with that spirit and will reap the respective fruits - God's eternal condemnation. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Abraham at one point replies to the rich man: 'Between us and you, a vast chasm is fixed, so that those who wish to go across from here to you cannot, nor can those from there come across to us” (Luke 16: 26 ).
So, we have an outright segregation! In the other life, each one who has been placed “at the right” cannot possibly move across to “the left”, and each one who has been placed “at the left” cannot possibly move across to “the right”. In this same parable, another truth is revealed: No matter how much a person may repent after death, he will not be benefited in any way. The law of justice applies, which decrees: 'You enjoyed the pleasant things in your lifetime, now you must endure the unpleasant ones'. Woe to us sinners... Let's hasten as soon as possible to repent while we are here and thus receive forgiveness. This will be of value, not only on earth, but also in heaven.
Do you perhaps harbor the hope that the all-merciful God
will forgive sinners and lead them into Paradise? Please
think for a moment if that would be fair, and if such people
could remain in Paradise. Sin is not an external-superficial thing; it
is an internal matter. When someone sins, he pollutes and
disfigures his inner hypostasis. Thus, when forgiving a
sinner who has not repented and is not overwhelmed, he may
be regarded as forgiven on the outside, but internally, he will still
be polluted and disfigured. This is exactly how this kind of
person would be, if God were to forgive him with His
almighty authority, but without the precedent inner
cleansing and repentance.
In various organizations, its members are people who have the same beliefs. People with different beliefs will not be gladly included in that organization. Even if they want to, they will not be accepted. The same applies to Paradise: only the cleansed and the repented will enter, while all others will be excluded, as their presence there will be totally unfitting.
Imagine a sinner entering Paradise! What a cacography! What is he supposed to do there? For him, Paradise will be Hell; he won’t have the appropriate sensor for savoring the sweetness of Paradise. Everything “there” will oppress him and make him feel uneasy. He won’t find rest anywhere because everything will be contrary to his "default" inner disposition.
Try inviting an illiterate person to a circle of spiritually cultured people. He would feel terribly uneasy among them. That is also how a sinner will feel when entering Paradise with all his inner uncleanliness. That will be his “Hell”…
You might say here: Let someone cleanse him. Would that be
unachievable for God’s omnipotent mercy?
I will reply to you: If it were achievable, then even
here on earth there wouldn’t be a single sinner; God would
command: “Let everyone become a saint!” and His command would
automatically be realized.
I suppose when hearing the expression “left outside the gate of Paradise” your merciful self might think: “Being left outside the gate of Paradise does not necessarily have to identify with terrible torments, the undying fire, the unsleeping worm, the gnashing of teeth, the outermost darkness.” And yet – “Hades” is right outside the “gate of Paradise”! And, no matter how much we may want to soften the meaning of the word, “Hades” is a “state of torment”. Yes, the thoughtless maidens in the parable who were waiting unprepared for the arrival of the Bridegroom may have been left outside the door of the bridal hall, but they did not appear to have suffered any punishment; however, we should not hasten here to judge them externally, but rather ponder how much it pained and embittered them when they heard the voice of the bridegroom on arrival sending them away.
Most certainly there will be gradations in punishment, just as there will be gradations in blessedness. In the state of “Hades”, sinners will have to endure torments that reach the limits of their endurance, beyond which their existence would normally disintegrate. But it will not disintegrate; it will remain endlessly in the state of torment. Expressions such as “unsleeping worm”, “undying fire” and “outermost darkness” merely denote the ultimate limit of torments. As for the blessedness awaiting the righteous, the apostle Paul had said there are things that await them, “which eyes have never seen, ears have never heard of, and the heart has never yearned for”. As such, we can likewise not know exactly what specific torments will beset the postmortem body and soul of each sinner.
We of course feel fear and terror when thinking about the punishments of “Hell”. But that is precisely why they have been revealed to us: so that sinners may be in fear and strive to correct themselves. It is precisely because God desires the repentance and salvation of all His creatures that He has revealed what awaits the sinner for all eternity.
I met someone who used to say, “What a wise thing the Lord thought of: Death and Hades. If they didn’t exist, I would be wallowing in sin. No matter how hard I tried to not think of Death and Hades, I was unsuccessful, and their constant remembrance influences my life incessantly.”
You have compassion – but God doesn’t have it? Do you think it is by chance that He will have the last say to sinners - i.e.: “go hence from Me”? No! He will say that, after having tried all other measures and means for them to overcome their impenitence. How concernedly does He strive to save every soul! And when He has tried everything and in no way is able to convert that soul, that is when He will say to it: “Do as you wish”.
Just look at the Israelites. How He strived for them! He eventually abandoned them, after having made every effort to save them. The same applies, for every impenitent sinner.
God decides on disapproval and abandonment, when nothing more can be done with the sinner who is utterly absorbed in his sinfulness. Where, then, is the place best suited for the person who ranks himself along with the devil, than eternity with the devil?
Everyone focuses on the goodness of God and forgets his righteousness. But the Lord is both good and just. So, when His goodness has exhausted every means, then it most certainly will be time for His righteousness to take action.
Translation by A. N.
Article published in English on: 12-2-2018.
Last update: 12-2-2018.