“Whither shall I flee from thy presence?” (Psalms 139:7)
The question of the eternal suffering of sinners in the afterlife became one of the liveliest points of discussion in the Protestant world, and the rejection of the concept found fervent defenders in some preachers, as reported in the previous issue of Pravoslavnaya Rus [Orthodox Russia].
Human nature would rather answer this question in the negative; in the history of Christianity, there have long been attempts to see in the words about eternal Gehenna in the word of God only an allegory or with conditional meaning. This viewpoint sometimes even creeps into our midst.
Meanwhile, Meatfare Week is upon us. The Gospel message about the Day of Judgment: “and these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal” (Matthew 25:46), is a terrible reminder in Orthodox churches not only on that Sunday, but for the entire week that follows.
The Savior and the Apostles spoke unambiguously many times of the eternal condemnation of sinners, which is a fate which could befall each and every one of us. The Fifth Ecumenical Council rejected the teaching of the so-called Origenists about the ultimate salvation of all people and even of evil spirits. One must subject our thoughts to the voice of the Word of God with humility and with the knowledge that Divine determination is higher than our reasoning. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,” says the Lord through Prophet Isaiah: “ For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
But man is generous towards himself. He is not inclined to doubt the promised eternal bliss of the righteous, but he doubts the eternal condemnation of sinners, carelessly ignoring the notion that in denying the latter, one must then deny the former: if one sees the words about eternal suffering as conditional, then we must view the promise of eternal blessedness as conditional, too.
Are we to boldly delude ourselves that the Savior is only frightening us with “everlasting fire” (Matthew 25:41), that it is only a pedagogical tool coming from His lips? Shall we not lead ourselves under His wrath for such a thought, for such self-consolation? The Psalms say: “ Wherefore doth the wicked contemn God? he hath said in his heart, Thou wilt not require it” (Psalms 10:13).
Let us then not doubt the truth of God’s word. If we are not able to discover God’s thoughts for ourselves, let us be satisfied that we can ease our approach by wisely accepting God’s determinations.
Human thought makes two main errors on the teaching of eternal sufferings.
The first: how can temporary, even singular, actions lead to eternal damnation?
The other: if condemnation is even just, is not the law of fairness defeated by Divine love?
The first, as we see, touches upon the relationship between the temporal and the eternal. Yes, our actions can be singular, and one might say fleeting: time rushes by, our actions, our words and thoughts are forgotten. But in some deeper sense, nothing in the world disappears forever: all moves into eternity. The impetus created by one thought, one word, one action, leads to further impetuses and movements; it is simply that we do not notice them or take them into account. The planted seed gives root and prepares for a future harvest. Time is like a vessel in the ocean, which is eternity.
Death will come, and we will be immersed in eternity, where the life of the soul continues, though there is no longer the cycle of day and night, there is no onset of fatigue followed by time of rest, there are no clocks, no time; and this life of the soul continues with open and widened eyes directed at ourselves and at all that surrounds us, and also at all the fruits that we cultivated in earthly life, and at the consequences of our actions. “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit” (Matthew 7:18). Our future life is a direct consequence of what we do. Planted within time, it is harvested in eternity. Good deeds will not be lost. “ For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward” (Mark 9:41), said the Savior as He sent His disciples to preach. For this cup of water is the participation in the Good News of faith in Christ, even if the giver doesn’t recognize it as such. Evil that is done will likewise not be lost in eternity. “Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:36). An idle word can serve as a temptation and could spur another person to sin and even to a crime.
Here we clearly see the logic of reward and punishment in future life: a person gathers for himself wealth for the Kingdom of God, and prepares for himself reward or punishment. “For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Matthew 12:37). “Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee, thou wicked servant” (Luke 19:22), said the Lord in His parable on the talents.
Such is the conclusion of pure fairness, this is the logic of justice. This is how the eternal fate of man is determined after temporary life on earth.
This fate, determined by justice, would be sorrowful for all of us without exception, since we are all impure and sinful, for “shall in no wise enter into [the Kingdom of God] any thing that defileth” (Revelation 21:27); in the Kingdom there is only holiness, there is not a spot of sin; meanwhile, the common state of man is a mix of good and evil. But meeting us halfway is Divine mercy, the love of God.
Herein lies the answer to the second question: on the meeting and concord of the justice of God with the mercy of God.
God’s love came to us with the sacrifice of the Cross of the Son of God, prepared to remove impurity from our soul and to compensate for our lack of personal holiness. The Resurrection of Christ opened for us the Kingdom of the Son of God.
But in order for the forgiving and all-embracing love of Christ to lead us into this Kingdom, we must respond to it, we must come to love our Savior, come to love His brethren, to enter in the spirit and body into His Church, which is His Body, to joyfully commune with Him, to weave ourselves into that prayerful bond, which spread like threads in all directions and bonds the body of the Church, concentrated in the middle in God. Here we find cleansing, purification, justification, sanctification. Here “mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalms 85:10). Truth, Christ, appearing on earth, and the truth of justice bows down before it: “Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven” (Psalms 85:11).
This is the foundation for our hope for future life in the Kingdom of God: only upon the mercy of God. We dare not declare our “rights.” We must not claim the “justice” of reward.
The love of Christ… but what if this love is rejected by mankind? What if the hand offered to us from above is not taken? What if the offer of forgiveness is unheeded? What if the response to this offer is antagonism and proud refusal?
Is the refusal of the Divine call possible? Yes, it is possible, reality demonstrates this. Voltaire expressed this attitude, declaring his hatred for Christianity. Nietzsche likewise—at least until his emotional illness overcame him—sharply despised the teaching of Christianity on humility, patience, mercy, and he created the prideful cult of the superman who rose above the concepts of good and evil. Similar is today’s militant atheism which declared war against all religion, especially the Christian faith. How are we to consider the afterlife of Nero alongside that of the Apostles Peter and Paul? Stalin together with the martyrs of our time? Those killed for the faith, the truth of God and Church and their executioners?
On a smaller scale we see how sin distances us from God. The first sin of Adam led to humanity seeking to hide from God. “Adam… Where art thou?” “I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (Genesis 3:9-10).The desire to hide from God and the impossibility of doing so is the beginning of suffering for the sinner. “Whither shall I flee from thy presence?” (Psalms 139:7)
What are the sufferings of Gehenna: fire, worms, sheer darkness in the future age? The Fathers of the Church point out that this is not a place, but a condition of existence. “Sinners,” writes St John the Damascene, “will be given to eternal flame, not the physical fire of earth, but of a kind known only to God.”
Mankind, to the extent that sin grows in him, departs from God and the Divine Kingdom, it becomes alien to him. In the words of Dostoevsky, the sinner “returns the ticket” offered to him. Therefore the sinner scrapes together upon his own head the burning coals, committing himself to life without the rays of Divine light, to sheer darkness, where there is the weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Is this the torment of the conscience? Not likely. A conscience that gnaws is the conscience has not yet been extinguished; it is the light of truth that has not yet gone out in the soul. The sufferings of the conscience have a cleansing effect.
Those other sufferings are probably not the same. There, the loss of life in God is combined with an impossibility—as horrifying as it is imagine—an unwillingness to repent. The fall of the devil shows that the love of God does not disarm evil. How are pride, envy, jealousy, wrath, hatred to be replaced with gratitude, meekness, humility and love? What power is able to extinguish spitefulness against one’s condemnation, when the state of enmity might even comprise an excruciating passion of sorts?
“Many foolish people,” writes St John Chrysostom, “wish only to elude Gehenna: but I deem far more torturous than Gehenna to be outside of the glory of the Kingdom of God; and whosoever is deprived of it, I think, should weep not so much from the sufferings of Gehenna, as much as the deprivation of heavenly blessings; for that one thing is the most cruel of all sufferings.” On the eve of Great Lent, the Holy Church reminds us of the Dread Judgment and of the punishment of sinners. But much more often, on a daily basis, she reminds us of the joy of the Kingdom of God, imparting within us the hope for it with the words of the Creed which we read every day: “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, amen.” Let us take this reminder of Judgment Day with all our hearts, to bring earnest repentance during Lent and to strengthen in the hope that the Lord does not deprive us, too, of His Heavenly Kingdom.