The question regarding the nature of hell was perhaps best answered in the Tradition of the Orthodox Church by the great elder St. Makarios of Egypt (300-391 A.D.).
Abba Makarios taught:
“Walking in the desert one day, I found the skull of a dead man, lying on the ground. As I was moving it with my stick, the skull spoke to me. I said to it, ‘Who are you?’ The skull replied, ‘I was high priest of the idols and of the pagans who dwelt in this place; but you are Makarios, the Spirit-bearer. Whenever you take pity on those who are in torments, and pray for them, they feel a little respite.’ The old man said to him, ‘What is this alleviation, and what is this torment?’ He said to him, ‘As far as the sky is removed from the earth, so great is the fire beneath us; we are ourselves standing in the midst of the fire, from the feet up to the head. It is not possible to see anyone face to face, but the face of one is fixed to the back of another. Yet when you pray for us, each of us can see the other’s face a little. Such is our respite.’ The old man in tears said, ‘Alas the day when that man was born!’ He said to the skull, ‘Are there any punishments which are more painful than this?’ The skull said to him, ‘There is a more grievous punishment down below us.’ The old man said, ‘Who are the people down there?’ The skull said to him: ‘We have received a little mercy since we did not know God, but those who know God and denied Him are down below us.’ Then, picking up the skull, the old man buried it.”
What is most impressive in this story is that the damned are in torment precisely because they have lost their ability to relate to each other as persons. They are tied in such a way that all they can see is the back of the other but never the facial features. In Greek, the word πρόσωπον means “face”, but it alternately means “person”, because personhood is conveyed to and understood by another through facial interaction. In the face of a person, I can see him or her as a relational being created in the divine image; our faces provide us with our identity and they enable communication. That is why the name given to a human being is often dependent upon their countenance and not necessarily upon the rest of the body. To not have a name means one’s identity is absent, and no identity renders us incapable of properly relating with another. For Abba Makarios, this is hell.
But hell begins in this life, it has been wisely stated, and is eternalized in the afterlife. Very often we close ourselves off from other people, refusing to speak with them or interact with them, because of previous gripes or disagreements or misunderstandings. In our hearts we carry a heavy burden and refuse to look into the eyes of the other. Even interaction with God becomes difficult due to feelings of guilt or incompletion, that we’ve lost the other person because of something they did. The truth is, we were not created not to relate; it is indubitably against our nature to be “person-less.”
It is true that, as C.S. Lewis writes in his work The Great Divorce, the gates of hell are locked from the inside. It is our choice to relate or not to relate, but every effort to the contrary challenges our true nature as human beings. The Church fights to make us cognizant that who we truly are and were meant to be is precisely relational creatures capable of love and compassion toward the created world around us. In prayer, we give Christ to one another and allow ourselves to gaze upon the countenance of those for whom we pray, as well as allow them to look upon us and God, to once again enter into the blessed relational state that makes them true human beings.
In God, we become complete human beings, with a face, an identity, and true personhood. In God, may we become ourselves by becoming less and less like ourselves . . . and more and more like the Lord. Amen.
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