Monday, February 8, 2016

What God Has Prepared for Those who Love Him

          If the Biblical teaching about hell suffers in the popular imagination, being thought of as a kind of subterranean torture chamber erected and run by all-powerful divine sociopath, the Biblical teaching about heaven and the Kingdom doesn’t fare much better.  The word “heaven” conjures up semi-comic images of people in long white nightgowns with wings and halos lounging about on clouds and playing harps.  It all looks—well, boring, which fits right in with most people’s idea of Church.   But what the Scripture actually teaches about the Kingdom and the final reward of the saints is very different.
            First of all, heaven is not thought of as the final reward, but as an intermediate state.  Christians go heaven when they die not as their reward for being good, but because Christ is there and because before He died He prayed to His Father that those whom He gave Him “may be with Me where I am, to behold My glory” (John 17:24).  So, since Christ is in heaven at the right hand of God, that is where His disciples go after death also.  Heaven is not their reward; being with Jesus is their reward, and He happens to be in heaven.  Put another way, heaven is only heaven because Christ is there.  Paul did not desire to “depart and go to heaven”, but to “depart and to be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23); to be absent from the body for the Christian is not to be in heaven, but to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). 
Heaven, therefore is wonderful, but it is not our final reward.  That reward (like the retribution of the unrighteous) comes only after Christ has returned and has raised all the dead, restoring us in our reconstituted bodies.  On that Day we will stand before the Lord and hear His judgment, and only after that receive our reward in the regenerated new heavens and the new earth which He will create (Matthew 19:28, 2 Peter 3:13).
            What is that reward?  If hell is the descent and collapse into unreality, a suffocation of the soul within the prison of its own petrified self-will, then our final reward will be its opposite.  It will be our escape from prison darkness of sin into the full and sweet light of day, the emergence of the butterfly from the cocoon of this age.  Here words can only fail to describe it, and the apostolic author of the Apocalypse has to strain the limits of language to give some faint hint of that glory, slinging symbols and multiplying metaphors.  Even St. Paul, usually never at a loss for words, can only say that they are “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).  He says it is a weight of glory far beyond all comparison, one so immense that mere flesh and blood cannot receive it (2 Corinthians 4:17, 1 Corinthians 15:50).  Unless God had raised us and made us powerful and imperishable, our frail mortal flesh could not bear such waves of glory and joy.
            The Lord Himself gives us the barest of hints.  He compares the reward to receiving authority over cities (Luke 19:17), which suggests that even in the age to come the time of service will not be over.  Paul speaks of us judging the world, and even angels (1 Corinthians 6:2-3).  Some might have drearily imagined that there will be nothing to do in the age to come but lie around in a kind of eternal hammock and doze, which sounds like it would become tremendously tedious very quickly.  But these divine hints suggest that it will not be so, but that the one with the heart of the servant will still find opportunities to serve.  For what could be better than kneeling and receiving commands from the Lord and having the opportunity to do His will and please Him?  St. Gregory of Nyssa suggested the same sort of thing when he suggested that the age to come would bring with it an infinite growth in God.
            Here I continually return to my beloved C.S. Lewis.  In the conclusion of his The Last Battle, the final volume of his Narnian series, he presents the Christ-figure Aslan the lion as saying to the newly-dead, “The term is over:  the holidays have begun.  The dream is ended:  this is the morning.”  “And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.  And for us this is the end of all the stories.  But for them it was only the beginning of the real story.  All their life in this world had only been the cover and the title page:  now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read:  which goes on forever:  in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
            This is what St. Gregory of Nyssa was talking about:  an eternity of growth in joy, a story so wonderful that no one on earth has read it yet, a story which goes on forever, a story in which every chapter is better than the one before.  This is why we persevere, and say our prayers, and go Church.  This is why we get up and repent every time we fall.  This is our reward.  This is the weight of glory.  This is Pascha.  This is the Kingdom of the living God to which all His children are now hastening.

Monday, February 1, 2016

What Does the Word "Aionion" Mean?

           In the debate about the theological validity of Christian universalism one sometimes finds discussion about the meaning of the word “eternal” in Matthew 25:46. Christ there says plainly that the unrighteous “will go away into eternal punishment”, and the word here rendered “eternal” is the Greek aionion [αιωνιον]. Some suggest that the word simply means “age-long”, indicating that the punishment of the unrighteous will endure for an age and then come to an end, and they point out that the root of the word is aeon [αιων], meaning “age”. What are we to make of this?
          Sometimes the word αιων does indeed mean “age” in the sense of a limited duration of time which comes to an end. Thus St. Paul in Romans 16:25: “ able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages [Greek αιωνιοις] and has now been manifested”. We see here that the word αιων means a limited duration of time, since the ages of time when the mystery had been kept secret came to an end when Christ appeared and was proclaimed by the apostles. Accordingly, one of the meanings of αιων in the Arndt-Gingrich lexicon is “a segment of time, age”. It can also mean “a world” as a spatial concept. Thus Hebrews 11:3: “By faith we understand that the worlds [Greek αιωνας] were created by the Word of God”.
          But it can also mean everlasting, and as such it is applied to God and His dominion and power over all the cosmos, such as in 1 Timothy 6:16: “To Him [i.e. God] be honour and eternal [Greek αιωνιον] dominion”. Presumably God’s dominion is unending and everlasting. The debate about the precise meaning of aionion therefore cannot be solved simply by consulting a lexicon. The word varies in its meaning according to its usage.
          Christ, of course, did not speak in Greek to His disciples but rather Aramaic, and the thought forms He used were those of first century Judaism, and it is to this culture therefore that we must look if we are to understand His words in their original context. In that conceptual universe, we find reference to “the age to come”. The world and its epochs were divided into this age and, after a decisive intervention by God, the age to come. Thus in the Pirke Aboth, the Sayings of the Fathers, we read, “Great is Torah for it gives to those that practise it life in this age and in the age to come” (6.7), and the saying of Hillel, “He who has acquired words of Torah has acquired for himself the life of the age to come” (2.8). We see the same division into the two ages in the Book of Enoch: “And he [an angel] said to me: ‘This is the Son of Man who is born unto righteousness...He proclaims to you peace in the name of the age to come” (chapter 71). For Christians the decisive divine intervention separating the two ages is the Second Coming of Christ and the resurrection of the dead—Christ’s return will divide everything into two unequal parts: this present age which is under the sway of death and injustice, and the age to come which will be under the rule of God.
          Placed in this context, we can see that the word aionion in Matthew 25:46 means “age” in the sense of “the age to come”. Existence in that age to come will be qualitatively different than existence in this present age, for there will be a profound asymmetry between the two ages. For one thing, at the start of the age to come all the dead will be raised and restored to their bodies, so that life and death as we understand and experience them will be qualitatively different. Existence then will not simply be a prolonged version of existence as we experience it now. The aionion life of the righteous will not be simply unending. It will not be like our present mode of existence with the only difference that it will stretch on forever. As the life of the αιων to come, existence will indeed be unending, but for the righteous it will also partake of the immortal joy which will then fill that transfigured cosmos. And, says Christ, for the unrighteous existence will involve punishment—punishment that also partakes of the quality of the age to come. Like the life of the righteous, it will be unending. But it will be unending because it occurs in the age to come, and partakes of the coming age’s transfigured and eschatological quality. Note: both the life of the righteous and the punishment of the unrighteous are described with the same word aionion. The fates of both groups culminate in the age to come, and both groups partake of that age’s intensity and eternity. In the ongoing debate about the eternity of hell, this parallelism between the two groups must be given its due weight.
          We may see now why the Greek word aidos [αιδως], “unending”, was not used to describe either the life of the righteous or the punishment of the unrighteous. If the word αιδως were used, one might imagine that the issue was simply one of duration, and that our Lord was saying that that the righteous will live unendingly and the unrighteous will be punished unendingly. The stakes are higher than that. The righteous will not simply live without end, but will live with all the joy which will characterize the age to come. And the unrighteous will not simply be punished without end, but punished with all the immortal severity which will characterize the age to come. It is the quality of the age to come—with its intensity both of punishment and joy—that is stressed, not simply its endless duration.
          Another look into the conceptual and apocalyptic world of that time will confirm this. Scholars may debate the lexical roots of words and the ways in which the Fathers used certain terms, but the first and main question is how the disciples and the other original hearers would have understood our Lord’s words. They would have heard Him to some degree through the prism of their culture and informed by its literature. Thus, for example, when Christ spoke of the unrighteous being “bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30), these words would have been heard in same way as the words in the Book of Enoch 10:4: “The Lord said to Raphael, ‘Bind Azazel [a fallen angel] hand and foot and cast him into the darkness...And cover him with darkness and let him abide there forever and cover his face that he may not see light. And on the day of the great judgment he shall be cast into the fire.’”
           Or consider the contrasting fates of the righteous and the unrighteous from chapter 103 of the same Book of Enoch: “And the spirits of you who have died in righteousness shall live and rejoice and their spirits shall not perish, nor their memorial from before the face of the Great One unto all the generations of the world...Woe to you, you sinners, when you have died if you die in the wealth of your sins...Into darkness and chains and a burning flame where there is grievous judgment shall your spirits enter and the great judgment shall be for all the generations of the world”. This kind of apocalyptic literature formed the conceptual prism through which our Lord’s words would have been understood. There is no hint of a final salvation for sinners present in such literature. Christ therefore would have been understood as offering no such final hope to sinners either.
          The Greek word aionion means “partaking of the age to come”, both that age’s intensity and eternity. The stakes are very high, for both immortal joy or immortal horror await us children of men in the age to come. Reducing those stakes by introducing a hope not offered by Christ does not simply violate the meaning of this passage. It may also prove dangerous. Christ spoke in such a way as to motivate our run to righteousness and our avoidance of impending danger. We have no right to blunt His urgent warning.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Fathers and the Fire

          In my last two blog articles, I examined the biblical, patristic, and conciliar evidence for the traditional view of the Church that the punishments of Gehenna were eternal, and also examined the question of how belief in the eternity of those punishments could be consistent with the love of God.  I advanced the view that Scripture, the Fathers, the pronouncements of councils, and the general consensus of the Church since those councils all agreed that the punishment of Gehenna was eternal.  I also suggested that those in Gehenna were destroyed by their choices so that the faculty of free will as we experience it in this age ceased to exist in them.  In this final blog article I will examine some of the Father’s teaching to see how they viewed the pain of hell being consistent with God’s love.  Like the previous two posts, it must be somewhat cursory and limited, since this is a blog, not a book.  We approach the issue through the question, “How does God relate to those condemned to hell?”
            Let us begin by reviewing the Scriptures, and especially the teaching of Christ.  The Lord paints a consistent picture of divine rejection of the unrighteous.  Those who are unrepentant evildoers at the last judgment will hear Christ say, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you evildoers” (Matthew 7:23).  Those unprepared by repentance, portrayed in one of His parables as foolish virgins, will on that day pound at the door, saying, “Lord, Lord, open to us!”, only to hear Him reply, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.” (Matthew 25:11-2).  The lost will be cast out into outer darkness (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30), cast into Gehenna (Mark 9:45).  At the last judgement they will hear Christ say, “Depart from Me” (Matthew 25:41).  Taken together, these are unmistakable and vivid pictures of rejection, and perhaps at the basis of St. Paul’s assertion that the disobedient will “pay the penalty of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 1:9).  This last phrase, rendered here “away from the presence of the Lord”, is the Greek apo prosopou tou kuriou.  The preposition apo must here be rendered “away from” and not simply “from” (as coming from a source)—thus the Arndt-Gingrich Lexicon, which takes the preposition in this verse “to indicate distance from a point:  away from”.  The New Testament picture of Gehenna is consistently one of divine rejection.
            In understanding these words, we must first understand the situation in which they were spoken.  Christ wanted to portray the penalty for disobedience and unrighteousness in all its horror, to warn His hearers not to disobey and reject Him and His word.  In a sense, the Lord was speaking with the vehemence of prophecy, not in the measured tones of later theologians and apologists.  Like His counsel to the one tempted to sin to gouge out his eye rather than use it to sin (Mark 9:47), He speaks with holy hyperbole, warning us in urgent tones to flee from the wrath to come.  His descriptions of the unquenchable fire, of the undying worm, and of the unexpectedly locked door make us tremble, as they were intended to do.  Questions about justice and divine love did not arise, and would only have served to blunt the power of the prophetic warning.  We must be clear however:  Christ was not issuing empty threats, or bluffing.  And He was not simply threatening, but also promising.  He did not say, “Be careful to be righteous lest you go into eternal punishment”, but rather, “the unrighteous will go into eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46).  The Gospel is clear that the one who disobeyed the Son would not see life, but the wrath of God would remain upon him (John 3:36), and it is sadly certain that some have disobeyed the Son.  These texts therefore cannot be read as merely admonitory and cautionary warnings of a terrible possibility.  The Lord said such terrible possibilities were going to occur—such as in the case of Judas, the perished son of perdition, for whom it would have been better not to have been born (John 17:12, Matthew 26:24).
            The Fathers, while not contradicting this, took care to provide nuance.  Their concerns were different than those of their Lord, for their intended audience were not Jews of first century Palestine.  The Fathers had to deal with pastoral and apologetic issues, those arising from the challenges of  dualism and paganism.  Dualism (such as in Manichaeism for example), posited evil somehow parallel with and contending with the good, so that the existence of good and evil in the world witnessed to two rival powers.  The Fathers had to show how the existence of evil did not mean that there was another evil deity in the world somehow equal to God, but that God Himself was not the creator of evil, and that nothing He did was evil.  Paganism, on the other hand, pictured the gods as all too human in their capacity for rage, revenge, and vindictiveness.  The challenge for the Fathers here therefore was to show how God’s punishment of the wicked did not mean that He was vengeful and vindictive like the pagan gods denounced by the Church, but that He was loving, fair, and good.
            The Fathers did not deny the Lord’s teaching that the unrighteous were punished.  But they zeroed in and began to analyze the precise causes of the punishment, and in what it consisted.  And their basic answer was that God’s sentence upon the unrighteous was not based in any sense of personal peeve and arbitrary anger (as with the pagan gods), but was simply the outworking of the choices made by the unrighteous themselves.  God Himself loved all that He made, and desired the destruction of none.  We look at a few examples.
            St. Irenaeus writes, “To as many as continue in their love towards God, He grants communion with Him.  But communion with God is life and light, and the enjoyment of all the benefits which He has in store.  But on as many as, according to their own choice depart from God, He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord.  But separation from God is death, and separation from light is darkness...  Those therefore who cast away by apostasy these things being in fact destitute of all good, experience every kind of punishment.  God however does not punish them immediately of Himself, but that punishment falls on them because they are destitute of all that is good” (Against Heresies, 5,27,2).  For Irenaeus, the separation from God is not a matter of arbitrary divine decree, but the fatal choice of the unrighteous themselves.  They abide in darkness and death with all its misery as the inevitable result of refusing communion with light and life.
            The words ascribed to St. Anthony in the Philokalia make the same point:  “God is good, dispassionate, and unchanging…God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions…It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us…Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind” (Text 150).  The author’s point is that God does will the sinner’s destruction because He has been offended.  Rather, as Irenaeus said about God granting communion with all to love Him, the author insists that God’s love shines on all His creation.  The lost cannot see that light because of their sins which have made them blind.
            The point is made forcefully by St. Isaac the Syrian as well.  In his Homily 84, he says, “Those who are suffering in hell are suffering in being scourged by love…It is totally false to think that the sinners in Gehenna are deprived of God’s love…Love’s power acts in two ways:  it torments sinners, while at the same time it delights those who have lived in accord with it.  This is torment of Gehenna:  bitter regret.”  Isaac’s concern is to exonerate God from all accusations of vengefulness and unfairness.  God wills the salvation of all, and pours out His love upon all.  God’s love, and goodness, and righteousness are rejected by the sinner, whose sins make him experience it as torment.
            And finally, we look at the modern witness of St. John Maximovitch.  In a sermon published by Orthodox Word in 1966, St. John spoke of the final punishment of the unrighteous:  “The end of the world signifies not the annihilation of the world, but it transformation…Fire is a purifying element; it burns sins.  Woe to a man if sin has become a part of his nature:  then the fire will burn the man himself…the very state of a man’s soul casts him to one side or the other…When the body has died, some may think that sin is dead too.  No!  There was an inclination to sin in the soul, and if the soul has not repented of the sin and has not freed itself from it, it will come to the Last Judgment also with same desire for sin.  It will never satisfy that desire and in that soul there will be the suffering of hatred.  It will accuse everyone and everything in its tortured condition, it will hate everyone and everything.  A fiery Gehenna—such is the inner fire.” Bishop John here reproduces the teaching of the earlier Fathers, saying that God’s wrath is not directed against sinners but their sins, and it is only as the sinner clings to his sin and judgment falls upon him.  The torment of Gehenna is an inner fire, kindled from the sinner’s hatred of everyone and everything.
            I believe that this view is consistent with that stated in our previous blog.  The fire which is within the sinner and which arises from unsatisfied desire and hatred—this is the fire of Gehenna.  It is unquenchable because of the impaired state of the lost.  His capacity for joy has been eroded and burned to nothing.  Only impotent lust and rage remains, the flickering of a phantom, which accuses everyone and everything.
            In the patristic citations cited above we have seen the Father’s concern to demonstrate that God’s judgment upon the condemned does not arise from any arbitrary passion of peevishness.  Obviously no Father was a carbon copy of another, for each had his own special nuances and refinements.  But enough common ground existed among them so that one can speak of a patristic consensus.  God is good and only good, and never does evil.  If a man is separated from God at the end, it is only because he has himself chosen that separation.  The sunshine of God’s love and goodness and righteousness will beam upon all in the age to come and fill the cosmos.  Those who will dwell in the outer darkness only remain there because they have preferred darkness to light and made themselves blind to that which will fill the world in the age to come.  

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Christian Universalism: The Morality of Gehenna

          In a previous article I attempted to examine the Scriptural, patristic, and canonical evidence for a belief in Universalism, the belief that eventually all will be saved (including, according to many universalists, Satan and the demons).  I concluded that the evidence all went the other way, and I reaffirmed the traditional teaching that the punishments of Gehenna will be eternal.  I acknowledged in passing the legitimacy and even the necessity of trying to explain how a belief in the eternity of Gehenna can be combined with a belief in the love of God.  I will attempt to do that now.  But I stress that my aim is limited to trying to understand how a belief in Gehenna can be moral—making it palatable is beyond my power or intention.  My goal in discussing hell is the same as C.S. Lewis’ goal when he discussed it, for, as he said (in his chapter on Hell in his The Problem of Pain), “I am not going to try to prove the doctrine [of hell] tolerable.  Let us make no mistake; it is not tolerable.  But I think the doctrine can be shown to be moral”.
            Orthodox writers can collect a number of voices who agree with Lewis that hell is not tolerable, and Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) has gathered a few of them in his essay “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?” in the anthology The Inner Kingdom.  There we learn of St. Silouan of Mount Athos gently rebuking a hermit who delighted in the damnation of atheists.  Silouan responded that one in paradise looking down on the suffering of another in hell-fire should pray for the salvation of that one, for “love could not bear this”.  Whether St. Silouan meant that one should pray for those in Hades awaiting the final judgment or that one should pray for those damned after the final judgment is not entirely certain, but his main point stands:  a tender heart would grieve over the salvation of the damned and should not delight in it.  (Tertullian apparently and famously thought otherwise, but a tender heart should also consider his historical context.  It’s easier to feel compassion for one’s persecutors if one hasn’t suffered under them.)
            We begin by examining the arguments of those impugning the traditional doctrine of Gehenna as eternal. 
            One objection to this doctrine revolves around the incommensurability between the sin and its punishment.  One feels it would be monstrously unfair of God to punish a few years of sin and rebellion with an eternity of suffering.  If “an eye for an eye” is the classic expression of justice, how could an eternal hell be just?
            This objection assumes that time and eternity are both linear, and that seventy years in this life and age equal an approximate number of years in the next life and the age to come.  But there is no reason to think that eternity is as linear as time, or that it is like time as we experience it, continued after the Last Judgment.  Rather, time and eternity are related to one another as the foundation is to the house built upon it.  If the foundation is laid wrongly and askew, the house will be even more askew, and the higher the house is built, the more askew it will become.  We see this even in the drawing of lines.  Say I draw a line as a base and then draw another line, intending to draw the second line at a 90 degree angle from the first, but instead drawing it at an 80 degree angle.  Obviously the further the second line extends, the further it will go from its intended 90 degree place.  At few feet from the base, it will be a certain distance “off”, but at a few miles from the base it will be even further off.  Increasing the amount of distance from the base will do nothing to correct it.  
This forms a kind of analogy between the relation between time and eternity.  During this life, within time, a person makes decisions which effect his heart and his life and even his ability to make future decisions.  (We see this last in the case of drug addiction:  an addict is not free to choose not to use the drug, because his previous choice to use the drug has resulted in impaired ability to freely choose.)  If in this life one chooses darkness over light and continues along that path so that darkness becomes second-nature, then this darkness and rebellion becomes the foundation upon which eternity must be built.  One thereby sets oneself up for darkness and misery in the age to come.
Thus hell is not a matter of God choosing to torture a sinner for an eternity because the sinner sinned for seventy years.  Eternity will last forever no matter what (that is what “eternity” means)—the only question is:  on what foundation will one’s experience of eternity be built?  If for seventy years the sinner has laid a foundation of rebellion and destroyed his ability to repent and be nourished by joy, then the eternity built upon it will be one of misery—not because God chooses the amount of punishment deserved, but because of the nature of time as foundational to eternity.
Another objection to the traditional doctrine of hell is the assertion that it somehow makes God into implacable tyrant.  Surely, says the objector, faced with the pain and suffering of hell, anyone would repent!  This being so, how could a loving God not forgive the now-penitent sinner and rescue him from his punishment?  The objector paints a picture of God petulantly saying, “No, sorry, you had your chance, now it is too late!”  (We do find this portrayal of hell in some primitive versions of it.  See, for example, the Qur’an:  “The dwellers of hell will say to its keepers: ‘Implore your Lord to relieve our torment for one day!’…But vain shall be the cries of the unbelievers”, Surah 40:49-50.)
            Smuggled unnoticed into this picture of the penitent person in hell crying for mercy is the unexamined assumption that the people in hell remain more or less as we knew them in this life.  (This was also assumed in the example brought to St. Silouan by his hermit friend.)  We think of people we have known who were not really religious, but who were not openly evil either.  We remember their good points, their virtues, perhaps their sense of humour.  We remember their smiles as well as their frowns, and above all the times that they were good, and the times they admitted that they were wrong.  It is this person, intact, as remembered, that we imagine enduring the pains of hell, and it is this which tears at our heart.  Certainly love could not bear that.  But I would suggest alternative picture of the lost.
            We see this alternative described by C.S. Lewis in his chapter on Hell already mentioned, and portrayed dramatically in his book The Great Divorce.  There those in hell were literally shadows of their former selves.  All that identified them as the persons that others knew or even as human had been burned away by the sin lurking and growing inside them.  Or, to vary the metaphor, the cancer of sin and self-will had eaten away all their humanity, including their free will.  All that was left was sin—the hideous lust, the unrelenting rage, the suicidal self-pity.  If we could look down from paradise into the place of punishment (as in St. Silouan’s scenario) we would not see a human being, much less the human being we knew (such as the atheist imagined by St. Silouan’s hermit friend).  All the created humanity of the person with its potential for love, knowledge, self-transcendence, joy, and especially repentance, had long since eroded away to nothing. 
            In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis offers us as an example of this horrible transmutation in an old lady, soaked in self-pity, perpetually grumbling and whining.  Her damnation consisted of the fact that she was no longer simply a grumbler, but only a grumble.  As Lewis’ guide and theologian puts it:

“The whole difficult of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing.  But ye’ll have had experiences…It begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it.  And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it.  Ye can repent and come out of it again.  But there may come a day when you can do that no longer.  Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.”

The besetting sin or the interior spiritual cancer may not be grumbling or self-pity.  It may be lust or anger or pride or a thousand other sins which smother the soul and erode its capacity for joy and repentance.  But the final result is the same.  Sin ultimately destroys the human soul, as fire destroys wood and reduces it to ashes.  Looking at the pile of ash after a conflagration, one would never guess that it had once been a beautiful wooden statue.  It is the same with the damned:  to quote Lewis again (from his The Problem of Pain), “What is cast into hell is not a man:  it is ‘remains’.”
This view of the damned may help us in dealing with several objections.  It may help us to see how “love could bear this”, because what would be borne and witnessed from paradise would not the torment of a human being, but the inevitable end of a process of self-destruction.  The sting to the tender heart comes from the thought that “the torments of hell are going on now, and people are suffering”.  But in one sense the people we knew or anything recognizable as a human being no longer exist. 
Hell and heaven therefore are in no sense parallel to each other, as the objection presupposes.  They are not two different compartments of reality, with heaven on the top-floor penthouse and hell in the basement.   The saved in the final Kingdom of God will not stop and reflect on the disturbing thought, “Somewhere people are suffering in hell”, as we may now stop in our peaceful and affluent neighbourhoods and think, “Somewhere in the world wars are going on and people are dying”.  To quote Lewis again, “The thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing”.   The “remains” of human beings that constitute hell, the pile of ash—the lust, and rage, and self-pity, the psychic flickerings of rebellion and determined withdrawal into self that are all that remain out of what was once a person—these scarcely constitute reality.  The Biblical picture of the end is one in which “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).  In that new heavens and new earth, righteousness will dwell (2 Peter 3:13).  This is the vision which St. Paul described as God being “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28), and this vision is true.  Hell forms no part of this world, or of this reality.  The entire cosmos will be lit up with the light of God.  The lost will not dwell in this world; they will inhabit no corner of the cosmos.  They are to be banished from it altogether, cast into “the outer darkness” (Matthew 22:13) beyond the rim of reality “where being fades away into nonentity” (Lewis, in The Problem of Pain).
            Another objection centers upon the supposed immorality of mere retribution.  The objector asks, “What is the point of punishment?” Some punishment can be therapeutic, leading to the reform of the person punished.  Some punishment can be a deterrent, warning others not to sin as the person being punished has sinned.  But hell, the objector points out, fulfills neither of these two functions.  According to the traditional understanding of an eternal Gehenna, hell’s pains will not produce repentance in the damned, so they cannot be therapeutic.  And there will be no one left not already saved to profit by the example of their suffering, so hell cannot function as a deterrent either.  Surely then the only point of their suffering is simple revenge—which everyone admits is unworthy of a loving God.
            The objection requires us to look carefully at what is involved in damnation and what are the causes of hell’s sufferings.  Once again the objection presupposes a psychologically intact person in hell, a human being as we experience human beings, persons capable of repentance.  It presupposes a picture of God standing outside the prisoner’s cell, ordering external punishments, and that those punishments are the cause of the suffering.  But what if the suffering is not solely (or even principally) the result of external divine orders, but the result of the self-chosen constitution of the damned themselves?  If joy and life come only through self-denial, self-transcendence, and communion with God, what would be the result for someone who has destroyed all capacity for these things?  God cannot give joy to someone lacking the capacity to receive it, any more than the sun and rain could nourish a flower which has plucked itself up by its own roots.  The damned have chosen not to be open to the light, and so must ever be in darkness.  If the damned refuse to eat the only food the cosmos provides (which is self-transcendent communion with God) they must go forever hungry.  As is often said, the doors of hell are thus locked from the inside.  The damned are locked within themselves, smothered by their own adamant choice, their capacity for self-transcendence eroded to nothing, and therefore are doomed to eternal hunger and misery.  Like men who have torn off their ears in a fury of self-mutilation, they have become deaf to the sound of joy and incapable of receiving it.  Their suffering does not find its ultimate root in divine retribution, but in their own eternally-fixed rebellion.
            Yet another objection comes with an assertion that human will ultimately will choose light and joy by virtue of it having been created by God.  Defenders of the Church’s traditional understanding of hell as eternal have always had recourse to the dignity and freedom of the human will.  Briefly put, people are free to choose or reject God, and God will not violate their freedom by forcing them to choose Him.  They have the freedom to reject Him, thereby destroying their own capacity for love, joy, and self-transcendence if they insist upon doing so.
            For some objectors, like Dr. David Bentley Hart, recourse to the sovereignty of the human will is futile.  In his essay God, Creation, and Evil, he asserts that “there could scarcely be a poorer argument”.  He explains thus:

“Free will is a power inherently purposive, teleological, primordially oriented toward the good, and shaped by that transcendental appetite to the degree that a soul can recognize the good for what it is. No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably”.

In a later note, he elaborates by saying that one cannot choose or not choose God the way you
would a cup of coffee.  One desires and chooses anything, he says, because one has an original intellectual appetite for God.  He reminds his readers of what St. Maximus the Confessor teaches—that the natural will can will only God.
            Here the philosopher smacks up against the exegete.  Philosophical arguments about what the human will is or is not capable of are interesting, but must take an epistemological backseat to the teaching of Scripture—and the Fathers would agree.  And, as we have seen, the Scriptures are fairly clear that Gehenna’s suffering is eternal.  But we must still interact with Hart’s assertions about the human will.  I would respond that Dr. Hart simply underestimates the power of evil. 
It is true that the natural will can will only God, but no one apart from Christ has such a free and untainted natural will.  To quote Dr. John Meyendorff:  “For Maximus, when man follows his natural will, which presupposes life in God…he is truly free.  But man also possess another potential, determined not by his nature, but by each human person, the freedom of choice, of revolt, of movement against nature, and therefore of self-destruction…this is the gnomic will, a function of the personal life, not of nature” (from his Byzantine Theology). 
The sad truth is that the human person is quite capable of misusing the inherently purposive, teleological, primordially oriented toward the good power of the will and perverting it into something entirely different.  Dr. Hart might reply that such a thing could not be described as “free will”.  I would not quibble about the term.  But the fact is that a human being can reach such a depth that he does indeed will evil as evil, deliberately choosing to cut his own nose to spite his own face.  Hart may reply that such a “deliberate” choice is not a “free” choice, but this doesn’t change the fact human beings are nonetheless capable of such self-destruction.  Though lamentable, it is clearly observable that to see the good is not necessarily to desire it insatiably.  Some people become capable of perverse rejection of the light, simply because they want to.  Why did you do that terrible thing?  Because.” No appeal to reason or to joy can penetrate such self-chosen perversity.  All such appeals founder on the terrible fact of the swollen and insane will. 
Here we come to impenetrable mystery of evil.  If Hell is “so nearly Nothing”, then evil also partakes of perverse unreason.  And to see evil in its essence, we must turn from debating about men and look for a moment at the devil.  It is true that universalists assert the eventual salvation of the devil, or at least (like Origen) allow for its possibility.  But as the devil now is, we see in him the very form of evil.  At the risk of overdosing the reader on C.S. Lewis, I would refer to his portrayal of the devil-possessed figure of Weston, the “Un-man” in his Perelandra.  In this figure, we see unmasked the inner nature of evil as “a union of malice with something nearly childish...Deep within when every veil had been pierced [there was] nothing but a black puerility, an aimless empty spitefulness”.  In the devil we find an abyss of unreason, a perverse fixity and commitment to rebellion, even when it is known to be futile and self-defeating and leads to damnation.  It is this evil, this disease, which swallows up and consumes the human will.  If Christ possessed an unfallen natural will, and all men now possess a gnomic will, another term must be found for this damned will, which chooses puerile spitefulness in the face of joy.  Such a will currently exists in the devil.  How could one deny that it could not also come to exist in men in the next life?
This is especially so since after human beings leave this world through death, they will share with the devil one thing:  a direct vision of God.  At one time, our tradition asserts, the devil was an unfallen angel, and like all angels enjoyed the direct vision of God.  Hart might insist that to see the good truly is to desire it insatiably, but the devil once saw the good truly and he did not desire it insatiably.  Instead, he rejected it absolutely, with the result that his will was transformed into what it now is—not a gnomic will like ours, capable of deliberation and choice, but one fixed in hopeless rebellion and futile spite.  It seems that there is something in the combination of the direct vision of God and definitive choice that fixes the human will into its final choice.  Those oriented towards the light see God after this life, and the choice for God fixes them into a place of joy, bringing healing and true eternal freedom, restoring their natural wills.  Those oriented towards the darkness see God and their rejection of Him fixes them into a place of eternal ruin, as their humanity and capacity for joy and repentance utterly break apart.  Their gnomic wills become transformed to a will like the devil, their souls decaying and collapsing into ash and phantom nonentity.  That is why Christ condemns them into a place prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41), because they have now become petrified ruins, devoid of hope, like the devil and his angels.  It is not true that the will ultimately will choose the good because the will was created by God.  The devil’s will was once also created by God, but the Scripture is clear that he will be “tormented day and night forever and ever”, as one who has forever rejected the good (Revelation 20:10).
Finally, we examine the objection that the eternity of hell involves the defeat of God’s will.  God wills that all men be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), and God sent His Son to save the whole world (John 3:17).  How could it be that God’s will suffer defeat, and that love could not finally win?  Our reply brings us to the final mystery, as well as to the necessity of asking ourselves about the nature of God’s final victory.
Much of the pang and disquiet one feels about asserting that God’s will shall not be finally done comes from the fact that this flies in the face of our desire for a happy ending.  By using the term “a happy ending” I do not mean to denigrate.  For me scarcely anything is more important than a happy ending; the desire for one is built into our spiritual DNA, and is almost indistinguishable from the virtue of hope.  Animals take things as they come; human beings hope for happy endings.  A desire for a happy ending is part of what it means to be made in the image of God.
That is why the Scripture asserts emphatically that history will indeed culminate in one, in what Tolkien famously called “a eucatastrophe”.  Julian of Norwich declared that at the end, “all manner of thing will be well”, echoing St. Paul’s declaration that at the end God would be all in all.  We have suggested above that this will be so, in that all the cosmos will be filled with the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.  All that is, all that exists, will then be filled with light and joy.  The lost have no place there, for they will have declined into mere phantoms, fading into nonentity, as creatures who no longer are.  This fact may be mourned, but it cannot stand in the way of joy.  Otherwise the lost would possess a kind of veto over the saved, and their misery possess a veto power over joy. 
Here is the final and all but impenetrable mystery—that joy will triumph in spite of those who would wish otherwise, and the world will not eternally be held captive to wills that refuse it.  God’s victory and our triumph and joy do not forever hang upon the devilish dog in the manger and the black puerility that would destroy it.  Mere and sterile philosophizing might declare that the loss of the single soul means the overthrow of God’s will and the defeat of love’s sovereignty.  It is not so.  A glance at the final verses of the Apocalypse (Revelation 22:14-15) reveals that it is not so.  In that apostolic and apocalyptic picture, outside the city are the dogs and murderers and idolaters and everyone who loves lying.  They have chosen their own cramped and airless souls instead of joy, and have been pushed outside the city, into the outer darkness, beyond the rim of the world.  Inside the city, God is all in all, and every manner of thing is well.  Everyone in the world is blessed, for they have washed their robes and have the right to the tree of life.  Love’s victory does not depend upon us, and cannot be thwarted by anyone, including the churlish impenitence of the lost.

The doctrine of hell is not tolerable.  But it is consistent with morality and with a belief in the love and final victory of God.  Its presence in the Scriptures does not indicate an inconsistency there, but simply that reality and the depths of the human response to God are more varied and complex than philosophers might first imagine.