Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Going To Hell

I suspect that going to hell, much like going to heaven, will be neither a new nor unfamiliar experience. From an Orthodox Christian perspective, really, there is no actual "going to" in going to hell. Hell is a reality that is spoken of only metaphorically as a place: a lake of fire, a deep abyss, the toasty side of a great gulf, a "where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth," etc. After all, what can "place" mean to a soul without a body?

Furthermore, the very real experiences of weeping, gnashing of teeth, and burning torment are common enough in our fallen world without going anywhere. In fact, I have observed (in myself) that much of my pursuit for entertainment, comfort and importance is motivated by a need to distract myself from the painful worms of conscience, fear, envy, uncontrolled desire, and the like that I often experience gnawing away at my mind. Hell is here. Hell is now. At least the beginning of it.

But if hell is here and now, then heaven is here and now too.

St. Silouan, a contemporary saint of the Orthodox Church, advises those who would know God to keep their mind in hell, but not despair. For those who live in a two storey universe, such advice makes no sense at all (c.f. Fr. Stephen Freeman's Every Where Present). If the spiritual realm is "upstairs," then both heaven and hell can only be realities that will surprise us after we die and "go to" one or the other. However, if heaven and hell are spiritual experiences (realities, ways of being, "places") that we are already beginning to experience in this life, then the saint's words begin to make sense.

Saint Silouan's words make particular sense in an Orthodox Christian theological context. One dogma of the Orthodox Church is that Christ, after His death on the Cross, descended into hell and "loosed the bonds of those who were there." This decent of Christ is part of His kenosis (His humbling of Himself) that began with His Incarnation and continued through His life as the Suffering Servant, to His horribly unjust death on the Cross and even to the depths of hell, the deepest hell, the hell that perhaps some of us have known a little of in our life.

St. Silouan tells us not to distract ourselves from the hellish realities we find in our minds because Christ descends even here. Heaven comes to hell, and we encounter Christ--not hiding from our darkness, but looking for Christ even in the midst of our very dark night.

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