Hell and Orthodoxy

This weekend, I talked to an old friend — a Unitarian — about Hell. Actually, we were talking about religious extremists, Christian fundamentalists in particular, and he just pointed me to an episode of “This American Life” about a modern heretic who decided Hell wasn’t real. I listened to the the tape and wrote my friend this email:

  • The prosperity gospel preachers are generally considered wrong or, to use the show’s language, heretical. Teaching that God is going to make sure you prosper if you give money to the Church (a main component of this guy’s teaching) is just wrong.
  • T.D. Jakes was one of the people condemning this guy? Christianity Today did an article on T.D. Jakes since Jakes refuses to say without equivocation that he believes in the Trinity. The Trinity is far more basic to Christian dogma than Hell is.
  • When he was describing his “conversion” experience — watching starving people in Africa — I was struck that it felt like the only way he could rationalize his inaction. “Well go if you have to save the from Hell. … But, wait! They’re not going to hell! They’re escaping it! … Now I don’t have to do anything!”
  • The canonization of scripture is described cynically, but, yes, church leaders did decide which books ended up in the Bible. This is something many Protestants, especially the KJV crowd (which Pentecostals tend to be) don’t realize. The man probably rejects the historical church (i.e. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, etc.) so, yeah, as a result he gets to interpret scripture pretty much context-free.
  • Finally, “Hell”. Many people spend way too much time worrying about esoterica. Hell is esoterica. And this “heretic” is absolutely right that they spend way too much time creating an image of God as someone who likes to punish people. Yes, claiming “God is Love, but he’s sending you to hell” isn’t very endearing. (I never liked Pascal’s Wager, either.)

I found (and attached) this quote from Saint Anthony in “River of Fire”:

God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honor Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. 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. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.

This made me curious. Serendipitously, I had a tab open in my web browser to Christ the Conqueror of Hell. When I finally got around to reading it, I found some Universalist, but aparently completly Orthodox, thoughts:

Christian consciousness in the East admits the opportunity to be saved not only for those who believe during their lifetime, but also those who were not given to believe yet pleased God with their good works.

The interesting contrast is that Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev doesn’t say that Hell doesn’t exist, but that Hell isn’t eternal, that Christ completely destroyed Satan’s power and, with it, the power of Hell, that any Hell is one of our own making and that righteousness isn’t an exclusive trait of Christians.

11 thoughts on “Hell and Orthodoxy”

  1. Mark,

    I’ve been meaning to listen to that episode of “This American Life” for sometime now.

    I’d agree that the trinity is a more basic historic Christian doctrine than the reality of “hell” but I’m not so sure that you could make the same claim for what lies at the heart of evangelicalism.

    Hell seems to be a basic, in fact maybe even the most basic doctrine for evangelicals. Without Hell there is no reason for Christ to die for our sins and the sacrifice on the cross is without meaning. If Hell doesn’t exist there is isn’t much of a ‘gospel’ for evangelicals to preach.

    I’m intrigued by this argument offered by the “river of fire” especially that God is only good, dispassionate, immutable…once again though it takes away one of the basic arguments of evangelicalism…the substitutionary atonement that satisfies God’s wrath.

    I find in my own preaching/theology that I shy away from substitutionary atonement and lean much more strongly toward “Christus Victor” and the Resurrection as the key to new life, more so that do on Christ’s death. I’m probably not a good presbyterian when it comes down to it….

    Also, I’ve always been enamored by this thought that hell is not something God imposes but that we impose on ourselves. That one can experience the love of God as love or as wrath depending on one’s own disposition toward God.

    And I’d also say that I’d have to say that I lean toward the possibility that God will show favor on those who haven’t heard the “gospel,” Is Jesus just the Truth (which is where evangelicals place their emphasis) or is he also the Way and the Life? Can one not possibly live in the Way and Life of Jesus without actually knowing Jesus? I don’t know for sure but I hope that its a possibility.

    1. Jim,

      I wouldn’t say hell is not real, but that it isn’t meant to be a never-ending punishment for sin. Instead, I’m drawn to the ideas that, like C.S. Lewis wrote, it is something we create because of our antipathy toward God and, as Bp. Hilarion indicated, it is a way that God, like a good parent disciplines us and draws us to himself.

      As far as I can tell, Eastern Christianity does accept the theme of substitutionary atonement but it plays a minor part. After all, the destruction of the power of Sin and Hell was “once for all”. Our concern now is taking that power and putting it into practice in our own lives. From what I can tell, this is the core of Orthodoxy.

      From listening to this radio show, I was impressed that when the man decided Hell wasn’t real, he no longer felt the need for repentance — that Hell was the only reason for people to repent. He created yet another “I’m OK, you’re OK” religion.

      In contrast, the Orthodox focus isn’t on escaping Hell, but understanding that we are sinners who don’t meet our own standards let alone God’s. We see this and it is for us that Jesus said “A physician doesn’t visit those who are well, but those who are sick.”

      So, while others may think that Hell is a necessary prerequisite for understanding the Gospel, I see my own need for sanctification before I die because I see my need for healing now.

      It is because I trust that God is Love, that God is completely Good — it is because of this that I turn to Him. I am not drawn to a menacing ogre of a god that many Christians seem to believe in. I think that image leads to pride. It seems to me that many people feel they have the right to be proud because they feel they’ve done what it takes to satisfy the ogre and others have not.

      By contrast, we cannot help but be humble because we see how we continually fall short of perfection.

  2. why?

    Why do we assume that God is Love means that we will never feel pain or have a disagreeable moment or uncomfortable consequences?

    Parents love their children, but they will discipline them and can not keep them from reaping the consequences of their chosen actions in many cases.

    God loved His created creatures Adam and Eve. He enjoyed spending time with them, but He also could not continue to allow them to live in Eden once they chose to do things their own way rather than His. And they never got to go back to Eden – no matter how much God loved them and really, really wanted them to have the best. They had chosen the without God option.

    1. Re: why?

      And they never got to go back to Eden – no matter how much God loved them and really, really wanted them to have the best. They had chosen the without God option.

      I don’t know. Heaven is a return to our naturally created state. While the Garden may not be literally the same as Heaven, I think there are a lot of similarities in that the Garden and Heaven are the homes we were created for. In this sense, because Adam is in Heaven, he returned to the Garden.

      To use your parental analogy, good parents aim to reform their children, not continually punish them for something they did wrong. Good parents use discipline to help their children gain a better understanding of proper action.

      Other than that, I’d agree: God doesn’t force something on us that we have chosen against.

      1. Re: why?

        To clarify … my point about discipline was this … no child in the middle of it really thinks that their parents love them. It doesn’t feel very loving at the time – no matter how it is done.

  3. sort of agree

    Over the years I have been impressed with
    – how childhood continually gets pushed further back, as in the lawyers for John Hinckly Jr. who shot Pres. Reagan initially considered using the ‘Youthful offender” laws which excuse behavior or at least minimize it for people under 26 years-old.
    – it used to be assumed that teenagers could work, and now even the laws work against that.
    – how much even the books used in school have been written at more childish levels … because teenagers are incapable of understanding.
    – Yeah, a lot of education is a lockdown effect, but some of that depends on how much initiative a person takes on their own … and there is also the tedious reality that a lot of jobs are lockdown, routine and boring even with computerization.
    I have more thoughts, but I am on a time crunch right now with my lock-down job.

  4. thanks for the work

    I appreciate not having tons of spam. I have been shocked a couple times at my work address. No thanks.

  5. Re: akismet

    Unless they just start bombing the server (think 100s of attempts per second), then it isn’t going to be that high. The load for Akismet is on the akismet servers themselves.

    I did see your sermon. Some things I just bit my tongue on. Still, since you’re asking…

    First, I find it interesting that you’re using the Apostle’s Creed rather than the Nicene. I mean, I get it, but I didn’t know the historical background of the differences. I’m still not sure I quite get them. The Apostle’s Creed is unknown in the liturgy of the East. That, in and of itself, is an interesting data point for me. Considering the importance given to the filioque, I’m not surprised that the Orthodox stick with the less variable Nicene Creed.

    I like your conclusion. But, at the same time, I remain mindful of the the numerous instances where scripture and the saints gives us clear warning that our actions affect how we will be judged. This is a very touchy area, in my mind. We know how we are told to act and we have to act accordingly or we risk seperation from God.

    Still, there are several places where scripture and the saints warn us against judging others. Because of this, I’m drawn to focus on my own actions rather than spending too much time thinking about how God is going to judge others.

  6. Do it

    I love my heart rate monitor. To me, if you want to target cardio fitness, after your bike, it’s probably the single most important piece of equipment to buy.

    Now, having said that, I am under no illusions that one NEEDS an HRM to be fit. However, for geeks like us, it’s hard to argue with hard data. My HRM knows full well if I did what I was supposed to do. You can’t cheat science. 🙂

  7. Re: Shock

    ah, that would do it.

    I’ll have to try another shygmometer tomorrow.

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