The Rev. Stanley S. Harakas is a priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and is Archbishop lakovos Professor of Orthodox Theology Emeritus in the field of Orthodox Christian Ethics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA. Fr. Harakas is the author of five pamphlets and fifteen books, both scholarly and popular, and over one hundred thirty published scholarly articles and book contributions. For twenty-one years (1980-2000), he was a weekly columnist in the national Greek-American newspaper, The Hellenic Chronicle. He is a beloved teacher to generations of Greek Orthodox Christians in America, thanks to his many years as a professor and his prolific writings.
Q: Your book The Orthodox Church: 455 Questions and Answers mentions some quotes about Hell. Frankly, one of the things I find very incompatible with my image of God as a loving being is a hell where one suffers. Is the devil in charge of hell? Would a loving God allow anyone to suffer this way?
A: It is interesting to note that in the book there are questions and answers on heaven, but none on hell! Strangely, in the book hell is not even mentioned in the “Index of Topics.” So the question is a timely one and useful.
The New Testament Teaching About a Merciful God
The Church’s teaching is based on what has been revealed to us in the Scriptures and in the ongoing Holy Tradition, both forming a single source of teaching regarding truths about God, human existence, redemption, and salvation.
It is, of course, true that the Church knows God to be merciful and forgiving. The life of the Holy Trinity is love, and in Himself and in His relationship to us, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). God’s love for us is expressed in many ways. He created the world, gives life to us, provides for us. Especially we know the love of God in that He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, into the world for our salvation. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Though we constantly rebel against God’s will, He is consistently patient with us. He is “makrothymos” –long-suffering; “polyeleos” –full of mercy; “philephsplachnos” –lovingly compassionate; “eleimon” – forbearingly merciful. He awaits our repentance and our turning back to Him in whose image we have been created. God does not force us into relationship with Him. One of the inviolate things He has given to us is self-determination. We can choose to belong to His household, or we can choose to stay out of it. That is why Jesus “said to all, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’” (Luke 9:23).
But what of those who continue to live apart from God? What shall we say about the person who rejects God throughout this life on earth? This willful rejection of God is what we take with us into eternity. What we are in this life in regard to our relationship with God, we take into the next. God’s “judgment” is really nothing other than what we have prepared for ourselves. The unrepentant person, by his or her own decision, is both unwilling to know God and takes that unwillingness into eternity.
The New Testament Teaching About Hell
There are several words in the Bible and Patristic Tradition that are usually translated as “hell” in English. In the Old Testament, often the word is “sheol,” meaning sometimes the place of all the dead, though in some passages, it is expected that the dead will not remain there forever (Psalm 16). In the New Testament, a frequently used word for the state of the unrepentant who reject God and His ways is “Gehenna,” that is, the final place of the wicked after the Last Judgment. Another term used is “Hades,” meaning primarily the state of waiting for souls of the deceased before the Last Judgment. The word “hell” itself is an Anglo-Saxon word without direct connection with the Biblical words.
We can see that the New Testament presents Hell as a lost opportunity for those who deny God. Given human self-determination, it must exist. Note how the two following passages express this.
The passage from John 3:16 quoted above, teaching that God’s love for the world was so great that He sent His Son into it for our salvation, continues with these words that show that separation from God in eternity is our own doing.
For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed (John 3:17-20).
Similarly, the passage quoted above from the Gospel of Luke, quoting Jesus saying that whoever so chooses may follow Him, continues with these words:
For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of man be ashamed when He comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels (Luke 9:24-26).
Hell is a Clear Biblical Teaching
In many different ways, the New Testament teaches the existence of Hell. It uses many different images and characterizations, but all clearly indicate that after death, there is a situation in which people who simply had no place for God in their lives in this life, will continue that way in the next. Except that since the afterlife consists of either communion with God or no communion with God, the latter is not a pleasant experience, since there is nothing else.
So, for example, those who refuse communion with God are “cast into outer darkness” with “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30, 13:42). Another biblical image of hell is “everlasting fire prepared for the devil, and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). Elsewhere, it is said that these go “into hell (‘Gehenna’) into unquenchable fire.” St. Paul teaches that this becomes a time of God’s just wrath, that brings “tribulation and anguish” (Romans 2:5, 8 and following) or “destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). In the Book of Revelation, the “second death” (the first is the spiritual death in this life) leads to the symbolic description of being cast into a “lake which burns with fire and brimstone.” These characterizations should not be understood literally. We don’t know exactly what either heaven or hell will be like. But these images of hell graphically show us how separation from God is not to be desired.
The Source of Our Understanding
While everyone is entitled to make the choice about what they will believe, there is a certain inconsistency in picking and choosing what we want from God’s revelation of Himself and His ways to us. If we accept the message of God’s love for humankind, of our creation with the freedom to choose for or against Him, but reject the consequences of that choice, then we must acknowledge that we are not being consistent.
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