By Fr. Peter Farrington – St. George Ministry – Coptic Mission Communities in the UK.
If God is Love, why Hell, “Purgatory”, Judgement, Eternal Punishment, Darkness and the Lake of Fire?
I want to speak very much more briefly on a second topic, which is how we reconcile the idea of a God of love with the punishment of those judged unworthy, however this is understood, which is described in the Scriptures and in the teachings of the Fathers. I think it is necessary to speak more briefly, not only because I have already spoken at some length, but because we must be careful not to exceed the bounds of revealed knowledge. The Church seems to me to preserve a proper caution in speaking about all aspects of the life after death because we have not been given all of the information that curiosity might prefer.
We don’t like speaking about Hell any more. It seems to suggest that not only are we so intolerant that we believe Christianity is true, but we even believe that those who do not agree with us might be punished for their opinions. In such circumstances it is no wonder that many Christians have preferred to avoid the issue of judgement and Hell. But it seems to me that it is entirely necessary and reasonable to discuss it openly and as a central aspect of our faith.
In the first place, each one of us will stand judgment before God for our life in this world. Each person will be judged according to his words and his works. Christians will not be excluded, as if we had already passed the test. On the contrary many of those who cried out, Lord, Lord, will find that God refuses to recognise them. And others who took first place in the Church will find that they are placed last when the secrets of the heart are made known. And some of those who seemed most at home in the Church will find that they are not wearing the proper wedding garments and will be cast into darkness.
It is surely reasonable and proper, just and fair, that everyone should face the great judgement seat where it is no longer possible to deceive ourselves and others. But we should also note that the judgement which will take place is not based on how long we have been members of the Church, nor how many services we have attended each week, nor even how many hymns we have memorised. On the contrary, our Lord Jesus Christ says…
I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every idle word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (Matthew 12:36)
For the Son of Man is to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will repay every man according to his works. (Matthew 16: 27, cf. Revelation 2:23)
The judge will be our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, since He is the one who, by His suffering and death, has received the power to judge. It is the Crucified One who will call men to account at the end of the ages. He has earned this right as man through the perfection of His human life.
For the Father… has given Him the authority to execute judgment because He is the Son of Man. (John 5:27)
The Lord Jesus Christ will judge all men exclusively on the basis of how they have served Him by serving all men -the least of the brethren. Here is what he says…
When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate them one from an-other as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and He will place the sheep at His right hand, but the goats at the left.
Then the King will say to those at His right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’
Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see Thee hungry and feed Thee, or thirsty and give Thee drink? And when did we see Thee a stranger and welcome Thee, or naked and clothe Thee? And when did we see Thee sick or in prison and visit Thee?
And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’
Then He will say to those at His left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire pre-pared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see Thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to Thee?’
Then He will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’
And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matthew 25: 31-46)
What a challenging teaching. I do not think it means that becoming and being a Christian is of no consequence in the Last Judgement, but rather that we who claim to be Christians are challenged to consider the way in which we actually live the Christian life. I think that this also suggests that God will have mercy as he wills on those others who have not been able to become Christians for all manner of reasons known to God, but who have responded to him with repentance and desire and have expressed that choice for God in service to others.
Who are the righteous? They are not those who merely speak about love and care for others, they are those who put the love of God into practice. If there is a judgement then it is just because we also will be judged, and having received so much from God in Christ how much more strictly will we be judged.
And if we accept that it is just that there be a judgement, then we must also accept that it is just that there be a Hell. Certainly not the cartoon Hell we see on the TV. But an experience of God which is sorrow to those who have rejected him and blessedness to those who have sought him.
Those who love God and prepare themselves to be united to his light will begin to be transformed even in this life; we may become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). But those who resist and ignore God “harden their hearts” (Hebrews 3:15). If they “love darkness rather than light” (John 3:19), they will find the inescapable brilliance to be a burning misery and paradoxical blindness.
How is it possible that the same presence of God can affect people in different ways? The Scripture teaches us that, “Our God is a consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24, Hebrews 12:29). And even while fire can provide heat and warmth and protection, it can also be dangerous.
Origen says, “The same sun that melts wax hardens mud“. While St. Basil the Great speaking of the story of the three young men in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:1-30) describes how the fire spared the three holy children, while the guards who threw them in were destroyed.
God’s presence is not just Light, and Life, but Love. And Love invites, but does not compel. The Prodigal Son’s older brother lived in his father’s loving abundance, but was bitter and resentful. To the pure, God’s purity shines clearly; but to the twisted, even His love appears untrustworthy and twisted (2 Samuel 22:27). St. Isaac of Syria (7th century) wrote that those who suffer in the next life “are scourged by the scourge of love.”
I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love. For what is so bitter and vehement as the punishment of love? I mean that those who have become conscious that they have sinned against love suffer greater torment from this than from any fear of punishment. For the sorrow caused in the heart by sin against love is sharper than any torment that can be. It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of God. Love is the offspring of knowledge of the truth which, as is commonly confessed, is given to all. The power of love works in two ways: it torments those who have played the fool, even as happens here when a friend suffers from a friend; but it becomes a source of joy for those who have observed its duties. Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret. But love inebriates the souls of the sons of Heaven by its delectability. (I.28, p. 266)
And the philosopher, Peter Kreeftm says…
In reality, the damned are in the same place as the saved—in reality! But they hate it; it is their Hell. The saved love it, and it is their Heaven. It is like two people sitting side by side at an opera or a rock concert: the very thing that is Heaven to one is Hell to the other. Dostoyevski says, “We are all in paradise, but we won’t see it.” … Hell is not literally the “wrath of God.” The love of God is an objective fact; the “wrath of God” is a human projection of our own wrath upon God, as the Lady Julian saw—a disastrous misinterpretation of God’s love as wrath. God really says to all His creatures, “I know you and I love you,” but they hear Him saying, “I never knew you; depart from me.” It is like angry children misinterpreting their loving parents’ affectionate advances as threats. They project their own hate onto their parents’ love and experience love as an enemy—which it is: an enemy to their egotistic defenses against joy. …
Since God is love, since love is the essence of the divine life, the consequence of loss of this life is loss of love. … Though the damned do not love God, God loves them, and this is their torture. The very fires of Hell are made of the love of God! Love received by one who only wants to hate and fight thwarts his deepest want and is therefore torture. If God could stop loving the damned, Hell would cease to be pure torture. If the sun could stop shining, lovers of the dark would no longer be tortured by it. But the sun could sooner cease to shine than God cease to be God. … The lovelessness of the damned blinds them to the light of glory in which they stand, the glory of God’s fire. God is in the fire that to them is Hell. God is in Hell (“If I make my bed in Hell, Thou art there” [Ps 139:8]) but the damned do not know Him. (Every Thing You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven, pp. 230, 233-235)
This is not a description of Hell according to the stereotypes around us. God is not punishing those he has created and loves for eternity, but his love, his unfailing love, becomes a scourge in those who have rejected love and life and have chosen death and darkness.
Who will be in Hell? We do not know. This is the answer the Church provides us. Indeed, it goes further and insists that we should be more concerned that we are not found there. And one of the chief means of avoiding Hell in the judgement is to find ourselves living in the blessed presence of God now, in this life, while we have time to order our lives and bear the fruits of repentance.
Do we think we can judge who will be in Hell? Then we should remember the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. The Pharisee was the well-respected man of the Temple, but his prayers were not heard. It was the sinful Publican, the outcast, whose repentance moved God’s mercy.
The problem is within us, and not with God. “It is not that God grows angry with us,” said the 3rd century Desert Father, St. Antony the Great, “but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us.”
What should we do? We are taught to assume that each of us, personally, are the worst sinner in the world. St. Paul set an example, referring to himself as “the foremost” of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). And, while God has not told us who he will or will not save, he has given us an Ark of salvation. Christians have relied on certain spiritual practices from the first centuries: the Eucharist, personal spiritual direction and confession, public worship, private prayer, and the intercessions of the “great cloud” of saints. In this way we can become light-bearers, even in this life. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (4th century) said that the Spirit penetrates our whole being like fire transforms a piece of iron, “so that what was cold becomes burning and what was black is made bright.”
We should not avoid the confession of a judgement and a Hell. We need to hear the message ourselves. But the Gospel is a message of how to experience a blessed future even in the present, it is not a message of condemnation. We know that God does not will that any should perish, and it was because of his love for the world, not just a few people, that he became incarnate for our salvation.
The scope of the mercy of God is beyond our comprehension. I know that I do not deserve his mercy, how can I object to God offering it to anyone else. But God will do what is both merciful and just. It is not what we tell others about ourselves that will count for us in the judgement, but how we actually have lived our lives. And in such a judgement there will be many surprises.
But Hell is not an eternal punishment perpetrated by God, least of all with pleasure. It is an eternal and sorrowful regret, the continuing and burning objection to God’s love and to life which is its own punishment. We send ourselves to Hell. But the good news of the Christian Gospel is that it is possible to discover Heaven already, and this possibility is open to all.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whosoever believes on him might not perish, but have everlasting life.