A couple of friends have asked me to comment on a post by Fr. Aiden Kimel on his eclectic orthodoxy blog entitled "What is Orthodox Hell?" It is, in my opinion, an excellent article naming one of the proverbial elephants in the Orthodox living room. Namely, it has become common in the last half century or so in many Orthodox Christian circles to refer to a particular way of talking about hell as the Orthodox teaching on the matter. However, this is clearly not the case.
That's an important point: any depiction of hell must be understood within a wider cultural and theological context. More specifically, I mean that if one holds the retributive justice philosophy that undergirds the substitutionary atonement soteriology of many contemporary Christians, St. John's words will indeed be interpreted as describing the retribution of God through the eternal, inescapable punishing torture of human beings. However, such a soteriology in Orthodoxy is a (very small) minority opinion. The majority of Orthodox writers speak about salvation in very different terms.
Since it is Pascal season, we should call to mind the Pascal troparion, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life." In other places, the hymns of the Church speak of Christ "bursting the bonds of hell." Such a depiction of Christ's saving action through His death and resurrection causes us to read St. John's words in a light very different from that shed by a retributive justice metaphor. And this "Cristus Victor" way of speaking is not the only way the Fathers of the Church speak of Christ's saving work: Christ as teacher, Christ as example, Christ as exchange (bride and groom imagery is often used), Christ as sacrifice, Christ as ransom and ransoming. All of these ways of speaking about Christ's saving work are true, yet none is exactly it: for the exact nature of Christ's saving work is an ineffable mystery.
[I am purposely avoiding the word "model," as if the Father's envisioned distinct models of salvation--rather I view these different ways of speaking as just that: different and equally acceptable metaphors to speak of a known yet ineffable spiritual reality.]
And if the means of our salvation is an ineffable reality, certainly the nature of the afterlife, whether we speak of heaven or hell, is also ineffable. Nevertheless, within the Orthodox Tradition certain language, certain metaphors are common when the Fathers speak of hell, even though some are apparently contradictory. Why might that be? I have a theory--and it is just that, a guess.
I can hear some of my readers screaming: "But which one is true?"
They are, in my opinion, both true and both false. They both point to an ineffable reality, a real, true reality that cannot be reduced to concepts and words. It is a reality that can be known and experienced even in this life, but it is a reality that cannot be squeezed into any particular concept, metaphor or vocabulary of this age. It is just like St. Paul's experience of the "third heaven" where he heard words that are "unlawful" for a human being to utter. Heaven and hell are mysteries: they are known realities that in this age can only be hinted at, pointed towards or suggested in parables and metaphors, some of which may even appear contradictory.
In an on-line conversation about Fr. Thomas Hopko's Ancient Faith Radio podcasts about the wrath of God, Fr. Aiden makes the following comment which seems to me to put excellent perspective into this whole matter. He writes:
I very much appreciate Fr Thomas’s effort to salvage the wrath of God. One of my concerns about Kalomiros’s “River of Fire” is its virtual nullification of the divine wrath, thus making it impossible for pastors to preach huge portions of the Holy Scriptures, both Old Testament and New Testaments. Clearly the divine wrath poses a difficulty for us, but it is a difficulty that is posed to us by the Word of God. Fr Thomas reminds us that we should not too quickly retreat to abstraction, but rather we need to dwell in the biblical story and allow the Scriptures to teach us the meaning of the divine love and wrath. We may end with St Isaac of Syria but perhaps we should not begin with him.
It's the last line the really speaks to this matter. St. Isaac of Syria may indeed offer the quintessential Orthodox Christian expression of the mystery of heaven and hell, but we should not rush in our minds too quickly there. It may do us good to struggle through the violent metaphors and frightening language of the Bible and many of the Church Fathers. St. Isaac spent decades in ascetic prayer to see things the way he does and to discover the metaphors that he offers. As is often the case in our spiritual life, process here may be more important than product.
But if the process is too frightening for we weak ones, at least let us hold both images for a while, one in each hand, and feel the discomfort of trying to imagine what is unimaginable. Let us learn to love and trust in God, even when we don't understand--which, in my experience, is often the beginning of understanding.