Written by Vladimir Moss.
Of all the Christian dogmas, none has elicited more perplexity over the centuries than the doctrine of eternal punishment. Thinkers from Origen to the contemporary ecumenists have tried somehow to get round the unequivocal statements of the Gospel that those who will stand condemned at the Last Judgement will be cast into the eternal fire, from which there will be no deliverance unto the ages of ages. In attempting in this way to deny the eternity of the torments of hell, these thinkers have employed a number of arguments, of which the most commonly encountered are the following: –
1. The Argument from God’s Compassion. According to this, it is contrary to God’s nature to consign anyone to hell for ever. After all, what father would divide his children into sheep and goats? What bridegroom would wish eternal torments on his bride? And even if some such could be found, what has this to do with God? Is He not perfect love and infinite mercy?
The commonest answer to this very common perplexity is to say: God is not only perfect love, He is also perfect justice; and while in His love for mankind He wishes that all men should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (I Timothy 2.4), the fact remains that very many «resist the truth» (II Timothy 3.8), and so cannot be saved, becoming subject to the full severity of His justice. The satisfaction of justice is an absolute demand of the Divine Nature, not because God is a bloodthirsty tyrant seeking revenge in a human, fallen manner, – God is not subject to any human passion, – but because evil and injustice are utterly alien to His Nature. As St. John of Damascus puts it: «A judge justly punishes one who is guilty of wrongdoing; and if he does not punish him he is himself a wrongdoer. In punishing him the judge is not the cause either of the wrongdoing or of the vengeance taken against the wrongdoer, the cause being the wrongdoer’s freely chosen actions. Thus too God, Who saw what was going to happen as if it had already happened, judged it as if it had taken place; and if it was evil, that was the cause of its being punished. It was God Who created man, so of course he created him in goodness; but man did evil of his own free choice, and is himself the cause of the vengeance that overtakes him.»
Now such an answer was quite sufficient for generations of Christians brought up in the fear of God, and believing in the goodness of His judgements without presuming to understand them. For them the fact of impenitence, and its link with Divine judgement, was as self-evident as the link between penitence and Divine mercy. And if there were still many things they did not understand, this was only to be expected. After all, how can the pot be expected to understand the potter (Romans 9.20-21)? The judgements of God are a great abyss, and it is not for sinful mortals to plumb their depth.
If we question God’s judgements, then we are implicitly placing ourselves in judgement over Him, as if we could be more just than He. What folly could be greater than this? “Shall mortal man be more just than God? Shall a man be more pure than his Maker? Behold, He put no trust in His servants; and His angels He charged with folly. How much less in them that dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust? (Job 4.17-19). “For who shall say, What hast Thou done? Or who shall withstand His judgement? Or who shall accuse Thee for the nations that perish, whom Thou hast made? Or who shall come to stand against Thee, to be revenged for the unrighteous men?” (Wisdom of Solomon 12.12).
It was by meditating on such passages of Holy Scripture that our forefathers guarded themselves from highmindedness. We are not so humble today. In proportion as our pride in ourselves and our capacities has increased, so has our trust in, and reverence for, the judgements of God decreased. Our attitude is: if I cannot understand this, or if it offends my moral sense, then even if God has declared it to be so, it cannot be so; there must be a mistake.
Hell offends not only our sense of justice but also our self-esteem (the two are closely connected). Whereas the Holy Apostles, though innocent of betraying their Master, still had the humility and awareness of their profound weakness to ask: «Lord, is it I?» (Matthew 26.22), we both absolve ourselves of any really serious sin, and, like the Popes of old, give indulgences to the whole of the rest of humanity. Although the holy Apostle Peter says that even the righteous will scarcely be saved (I Peter 4.18), we consider that even unbelievers will be saved. Perhaps a few of the worst sinners, we concede, might be worthy of hell – the Hitlers and Stalins of this world. But is it possible to believe that the nice, caring, enlightened men of late-twentieth-century civilisation are worthy of hell? Away with the thought!
Speaking of hell and its eternity, St. John Chrysostom writes: – «Do not say to me, ‘How is the balance of justice preserved if the punishment has no end?’ When God does something, obey His demand and do not submit what has been said to human reasoning. In any case, is it not in fact just that one who has received countless good things from the beginning, has then done things worthy of punishment, and has not reformed in response either to threats or to kindness, should be punished? If it is justice you are after, we ought all on the score of justice to have perished at the very outset. Indeed even that would have fallen short of the measure of mere justice. For if a man insults someone who never did him any wrong, it is a matter of justice that he be punished. But what if he insults his Benefactor, Who without having received any favour from him in the first place, has done countless things for him – in this case the One Who was the sole source of his existence, Who is God, Who endowed him with a soul, Who gave him countless other gifts and purposed to bring him to heaven? If after so many favours, he not only insults Him but insults Him daily by his conduct, can there be any question of deserving pardon?
«Do you not see how He punished Adam for a single sin? ‘Yes’, you will say, ‘but He had given him paradise and made him the recipient of very great kindness.’ And I reply that it is not at all the same thing for a man in the tranquil possession of security to commit a sin and for a man in the midst of affliction to do so. The really terrible thing is that you sin when you are not in paradise but set amidst the countless evils of this present life, and that all this misery has not made you any more sensible. It is like a man who continues his criminal behaviour in prison. Moreover you have the promise of something even greater than paradise. He has not given it to you yet, so as not to make you soft at a time when there is a struggle to be fought, but neither has He been silent about it, lest you be cast down by all your labours.
«Adam committed one sin, and brought on total death. We commit a thousand sins every day. If by committing a single sin he brought such terrible evil on himself and introduced death into the world, what should we, who live continually in sin, expect to suffer – we who in place of paradise have the expectation of heaven? This is a burdensome message; it does upset the man who hears it. I know, because I feel it myself. I am disturbed by it; it makes me quake. The clearer the proofs I find of this message of hell, the more I tremble and melt with fear. But I have to proclaim it so that we may not fall into hell. What you received was not paradise or trees and plants, but heaven and the good things in the heavens. He who had received the lesser gift was punished and no consideration exempted him; we have been given a greater calling and we sin more. Are we not bound to suffer things beyond all remedy?
«Consider how long our race has been subject to death on account of a single sin. More than five thousand years have passed and the death due to a single sin has not yet been ended. In Adam’s case we cannot say that he had heard prophets or that he had seen others being punished for their sins so that he might reasonably have been afraid and learnt prudence if only from the example of others. He was the first and at that time the only one; yet he was still punished. But you cannot claim any of these things. You have had numerous examples, but you only grow worse; you have been granted the great gift of the Spirit, but you go on producing not one or two or three but countless sins. Do not think that because the sins are committed in one brief moment the punishment therefore will also be a matter of a moment. You can see how it is often the case that men who have committed a single theft or a single act of adultery which has been done in a brief moment of time have had to spend all their lives in prison or in the mines, continually battling with hunger and every kind of death. No one lets them off, or says that since the crime was committed in a brief moment the punishment should match the crime in the length of time it takes.
«‘People do act like that,’ you may say, ‘but they are men, whereas God is loving towards mankind.’ Yes, but even the men who act in this way do not do so out of cruelty but out of love for mankind. So since God is loving to mankind He too will deal with sin in this way. ‘As great as is His mercy, so great also is His reproof’ (Sirach 16.12). So when you speak of God as loving towards mankind, you are actually supplying me with a further reason for punishment, in the fact that the One against Whom we sin is such as this. That is the point of Paul’s words: ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ (Hebrews 10.31). I ask you to bear with these words of fire. Perhaps, yes, perhaps they may bring you some consolation. What man can punish as God has been known to punish? He caused a flood and the total destruction of the human race; a little later He rained down fire from on high and utterly destroyed them all. What human retribution can compare with that? Do you not recognise that even this case of punishment is virtually endless? Four thousand years have passed and the punishment of the Sodomites is still in full force. As His loving kindness is great, so also is His punishment…»
St. Barsanuphius of Optina said: “We think too abstractly about the torments of hell, as a result of which we forget about them. In the world they have totally forgotten about them. The devil convinces everyone there that neither he himself nor the torments of hell exist. But the Holy Fathers teach that one’s betrothal to Gehenna, just as to blessedness, begins while one is still on earth – that is, sinners while still on earth begin to experience the torments of hell, while the righteous experience blessedness, only with this difference – that in the future age both the one and the other will be incomparably more powerful…
“At the present time, not only among lay people, but even among the young clergy the following conviction is beginning to spread: eternal torment is incompatible with the boundless mercy of God; consequently, the torments are not eternal. Such a misconception proceeds from a lack of understanding of the matter. Eternal torments, and eternal blessedness, are not things which proceed from without, but exist first and foremost within a man himself. ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’ (Luke 17.21). With whatever feelings a man instils within himself during his life, he departs into eternal life. A diseased body torments one on earth, and the more severe the disease is, the greater the torment is. So also a soul infected with various diseases begins to be cruelly tormented at its passage into eternal life. An incurable physical ailment ends with death, but how can a sickness of the soul end, when there is no death for the soul? Malice, anger, irritability, lust, and other infirmities of the soul are vermin which will creep after a man even into eternal life. Hence, it follows that the aim of life consists in crushing these vermin here on earth, so as to purify one’s soul entirely, and before death to say with our Savior, ‘The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in Me’ (John 14.30). A sinful soul, not purified by repentance, cannot be in the company of the saints. Even if it were placed in Paradise, it would itself find it unbearable to remain there, and would try to get out.”
“Even the bodies of sinners will experience torment. The fire will be material; there will not only be pangs of conscience, and so forth. No, this will really be perceptible fire. Both the one and the other will be real. Only, just like the body, the fire will be far more subtle, and everything will bear only a certain resemblance to earthly things.”
2. The Argument from the Saints’ Compassion. According to this argument, heaven would not be heaven for the righteous as long as they knew that the sinners were being tortured in hell. Being filled with compassion, their bliss would be spoiled as long as there was even one sinner still suffering torment. So God in His compassion, and so as to give His chosen ones a perfect and unspoiled reward, will forgive all men eventually.
However, the Fathers teach that that feeling of compassion which is so necessary while there is still life and hope will be taken away by God when there is no more use for it. For if, as St. John of Damascus says, «in hades [i.e. after death but before the Last Judgement] there is no confession or repentance», then much less will there be confession and repentance after the Last Judgement in gehenna. And if there is no repentance how can there be forgiveness?
Thus St. Gregory the Great writes, in his commentary on the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man: «We must ponder these words: ‘They who would pass from hence to you cannot’ (Luke 16.26). For there is no doubt that those who are in hell long to enjoy the lot of the blessed. But since the latter have been received into eternal happiness, how can it be said that they desire to pass over to those in hell? It must be that, as the damned desire to go to the dwelling of the elect, to escape from that place of suffering, so the just wish to cross over in mercy to that place of torments, to bring them the freedom they desire. But those who wish to cross from heaven to hell can never do so; for although the souls of the just are aflame with mercy, nevertheless they are so united to the divine justice and guided always by rectitude, that they are not moved by any compassion towards the reprobate. They are in complete conformity with that judge to whom they are united, and so they cannot have compassion for those whom they cannot free from hell. They consider them as strangers, remote from themselves, since they have seen them repelled by their Maker who is the object of their love. So neither the wicked can cross over to the felicity of the blessed: because they are shackled by an irrevocable condemnation, nor the just go to the unjust: because they cannot feel compassion for those whom the divine justice has rejected…»
3. The Argument from Ignorance. This argument can be summarised as follows: «Neither are the works of faith necessary for salvation, nor even faith. For most men have never had the Gospel preached to them, and so belong to other faiths simply out of ignorance, because they were born into non-Christian societies or families. The All-loving and All-just God will certainly not judge them for that. Indeed (continues the argument in some of its forms), all that is necessary for salvation is good faith, by which we do not mean the one true faith (for there is no such thing), but sincerity, even if that sincerity is manifested in non-Christian beliefs and actions: blessed are the sincere, for they shall inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.»
However, God attaches little value to sincerity per se: «The way of a fool is right in his own eyes» (Proverbs 12.15), and: «There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof is the ways of death» (Proverbs 14.12). In any case, if true faith in Christ were not absolutely necessary for salvation, and one could be saved without knowing Him, then it would not have been necessary for the Martyrs to confess Him, for the Apostles to preach Him, or for Christ Himself to become incarnate for our sakes.
«Are you saying, then” retort the ecumenists, “that all the Hindus and Buddhists will be damned?!»
We neither assert this nor deny it, preferring to «judge nothing before the time» (I Corinthians 4.5). We know with complete certainly about the perdition of only a few men (Judas, Arius, etc.), just as we have complete certainty about the salvation of only a few men (those whom the Church has glorified as saints). As Archbishop Theophan of Poltava wrote, when asked about the salvation of the Jews: «When St. Anthony the Great was thinking about questions of this kind, nothing concerning the essence of these questions was revealed to him, but it was only told him from on high: ‘Anthony, pay attention to yourself!’, that is, worry about your own salvation, but leave the salvation of others to the Providence of God, for it is not useful for you to know this at the present time. We must restrict ourselves to this revelation in the limits of our earthly life.»
Nevertheless, when compassion for unbelievers is taken as a cloak from under which to overthrow the foundations of the Christian Faith, it is necessary to say something more, not as if we could say anything about the salvation or otherwise of specific people (for that, as Archbishop Theophan says, has been hidden from us), but in order to re-establish those basic principles of the Faith, ignorance of which will undoubtedly place us in danger of damnation.
Ignorance – real, involuntary ignorance – is certainly grounds for clemency according to God’s justice, as it is according to man’s. The Lord cried out on the Cross: «Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do» (Luke 23.24); and one of those who were forgiven declared: «I obtained mercy because I acted in ignorance” (I Timothy 1.13; cf. Acts 3.17, 17.30). For our Great High Priest is truly One «Who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way» (Hebrews 5.2).
However, there is also such a thing as wilful, voluntary ignorance. Thus St. Paul says of those who do not believe in the one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, that «they are without excuse» (Romans 1.20), for they deny the evidence from creation which is accessible to everyone. Again, St. Peter says: «This they are willingly ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgement and perdition of ungodly men» (II Peter 3.5-7). Again, claiming knowledge when one has none counts as wilful ignorance. For, as Christ said to the Pharisees: «If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth» (John 9.41).
Wilful ignorance is very close to conscious resistance to the truth, which receives the greatest condemnation according to the Word of God. Thus those who accept the Antichrist will do so «because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness» (II Thessalonians 2.10-12). And if it seems improbable that God should send anyone a strong delusion, let us remember the lying spirits who, with God’s permission, deceived the prophets of King Ahab because they only prophesied what he wanted to hear (I Kings 22.19-24).
Conscious, willing resistance to the truth is the same as that «blasphemy against the Holy Spirit» which, in the words of the Lord, «shall not be forgiven unto men» (Matthew 12.31). As Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) explains: «Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, or ‘sin unto death’, according to the explanation of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (VIII, 75), is a conscious, hardened opposition to the truth, ‘because the Spirit is truth’ (I John 5.6).” It is not that God does not want to forgive all sins, even the most heinous: it is simply that he who bars the way to the Spirit of truth is thereby blocking the way to the truth about himself and God, and therefore to the forgiveness of his sins. As St. Augustine says: «The first gift is that which is concerned with the remission of sins… Against this gratuitous gift, against this grace of God, does the impenitent heart speak. This impenitence, then, is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.»
Wilful ignorance can be of various degrees. There is the wilful ignorance that refuses to believe even when the truth is staring you in the face – this is the most serious kind, the kind practised by the Pharisees and the heresiarchs. But a man can also be said to be wilfully ignorant if he does not take the steps that are necessary in order to discover the truth – this is less serious, but still blameworthy, and is characteristic of many of those who followed the Pharisees and the heresiarchs.
Thus we read: «That servant who knew his master’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required; and he to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more» (Luke 12.47-48). To which the words of St. Theophylact of Bulgaria are a fitting commentary: «Here some will object, saying: ‘He who knows the will of his Lord, but does not do it, is deservedly punished. But why is the ignorant punished?’ Because when he might have known he did not wish to do so, but was the cause of his own ignorance through sloth.»
Or, as St. Cyril of Alexandria puts it: «How can he who did not know it be guilty? The reason is, because he did not want to know it, although it was in his power to learn.» To whom does this distinction apply? St. Cyril applies it to false teachers and parents, on the one hand, and those who follow them, on the other. In other words, the blind leaders will receive a greater condemnation than the blind followers – which is not to say, however, that they will not both fall into the pit (Matthew 15.14).
For, as Bishop Nicholas Velimirovich writes: «Are the people at fault if godless elders and false prophets lead them onto foreign paths? The people are not at fault to as great an extent as their elders and the false prophets, but they are at fault to some extent. For God gave to the people also to know the right path, both through their conscience and through the preaching of the word of God, so that people should not blindly have followed their blind guides, who led them by false paths that alienated them from God and His Laws.»
Are Hindus and Buddhists who have lived their whole lives in non-Christian communities wilfully ignorant of the truth? Of course, only God knows the degree of ignorance in any particular case. However, even if the heathen have more excuse than the Christians who deny Christ, they cannot be said to be completely innocent; for no one is completely deprived of the knowledge of the One God. Thus St. Jerome writes: «Ours and every other race of men knows God naturally. There are no peoples who do not recognise their Creator naturally.» And St. John Chrysostom writes: «From the beginning God placed the knowledge of Himself in men, but the pagans awarded this knowledge to sticks and stones, doing wrong to the truth to the extent that they were able.» And the same Father writes: «One way of coming to the knowledge of God is that which is provided by the whole of creation; and another, no less significant, is that which is offered by conscience, the whole of which we have expounded upon at greater length, showing how you have a self-taught knowledge of what is good and what is not so good, and how conscience urges all this upon you from within. Two teachers, then, are given you from the beginning: creation and conscience. Neither of them has a voice to speak out; yet they teach men in silence.»
Many have abandoned the darkness of idolatry by following the voices of creation and conscience alone. Such, for example, was St. Barbara, who even before she had heard of Christ rejected her father’s idols and believed in the One Creator of heaven and earth. For she heeded the voice of creation: «The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaimeth the work of His hands» (Psalm 18.1). And she heeded the voice of her conscience, which recoiled from those «most odious works of witchcrafts, and wicked sacrifices; and also those merciless murderers of children and devourers of man’s flesh, and the feasts of blood, with their priests out of the midst of their idolatrous crew, and the parents, that killed with their own hands souls destitute of help» (Wisdom of Solomon 12.4-6). But her father, who had the same witnesses to the truth as she, rejected it – to the extent of killing his own daughter.
Thus there is a light that «enlightens every man who comes into the world» (John 1.9). And if there are some who reject that light, abusing that freewill which God will never deprive them of, this is not His fault, but theirs. As St. John Chrysostom says, «If there are some who choose to close the eyes of their mind and do not want to receive the rays of that light, their darkness comes not from the nature of the light, but from their own darkness in voluntarily depriving themselves of that gift.»
This mystery of the voluntary rejection of the light was revealed in a vision to a nun, the sister of the famous novelist Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, who rejected the teaching of the Orthodox Church and died under anathema: «When I returned from the burial of my brother Sergius to my home in the monastery, I had some kind of dream or vision which shook me to the depths of my soul. After I had completed my usual cell rule, I began to doze off, or fell into some kind of special condition between sleep and waking, which we monastics call a light sleep. I dropped off, and beheld… It was night. There was the study of Lev Nikolayevich. On the writing desk stood a lamp with a dark lampshade. Behind the desk, and leaning with his elbows on it, sat Lev Nikolayevich, and on his face there was the mark of such serious thought, and such despair, as I had never seen in him before… The room was filled with a thick, impenetrable darkness; the only illumination was of that place on the table and on the face of Lev Nikolayevich on which the light of the lamp was falling. The darkness in the room was so thick, so impenetrable, that it even seemed as if it were filled, saturated with some materialisation… And suddenly I saw the ceiling of the study open, and from somewhere in the heights there began to pour such a blindingly wonderful light, the like of which cannot be seen on earth; and in this light there appeared the Lord Jesus Christ, in that form in which He is portrayed in Rome, in the picture of the holy Martyr and Archdeacon Laurence: the all-pure hands of the Saviour were spread out in the air above Lev Nikolayevich, as if removing from invisible executioners the instruments of torture. It looks just like that in the picture. And this ineffable light poured and poured onto Lev Nikolayevich. But it was as if he didn’t see it… And I wanted to shout to my brother: Levushka, look, look up!… And suddenly, behind Lev Nikolayevich, – I saw it with terror, – from the very thickness of the darkness I began to make out another figure, a terrifying, cruel figure that made me tremble: and this figure, placing both its hands from behind over the eyes of Lev Nikolayevich, shut out that wonderful light from him. And I saw that my Levushka was making despairing efforts to push away those cruel, merciless hands… At this point I came to, and, as I came to, I heard a voice speaking as it were inside me: ‘The Light of Christ enlightens everyone!»
If the Light of Christ enlightens everyone, then there is no one who cannot come to the True Faith, whatever his situation. If a man follows the teachers given to everyone, creation and conscience, then the Providence of God, with Whom «all things are possible» (Matthew 19.26), will lead him to the teacher that is given at the beginning only to a few – «the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the Truth» (I Timothy 3.15). For «it is not possible,» writes St. John Chrysostom, «that one who is living rightly and freed from the passions should ever be overlooked. But even if he happens to be in error, God will quickly draw him over to the truth.» Again, as Chrysostom’s disciple, St. John Cassian, says: «When God sees in us some beginnings of good will, He at once enlightens it, urging it on towards salvation.»
This point was developed in an illuminating manner by Cassian’s French contemporary (and disciple of St. Augustine), Prosper of Aquitaine: «The very armies that exhaust the world help on the work of Christian grace. How many indeed who in the quiet of peacetime delayed to receive the sacrament of baptism, were compelled by fear of close danger to hasten to the water of regeneration, and were suddenly forced by threatening terror to fulfil a duty which a peaceful exhortation failed to bring home to their slow and tepid souls? Some sons of the Church, made prisoners by the enemy, changed their masters into servants of the Gospel, and by teaching them the faith they became the superiors of their own wartime lords. Again, some foreign pagans, whilst serving in the Roman armies, were able to learn the faith in our country, when in their own lands they could not have known it; they returned to their homes instructed in the Christian religion. Thus nothing can prevent God’s grace from accomplishing His will… For all who at any time will be called and will enter into the Kingdom of God, have been marked out in the adoption which preceded all times. And just as none of the infidels is counted among the elect, so none of the God-fearing is excluded from the blessed. For in fact God’s prescience, which is infallible, cannot lose any of the members that make up the fullness of the Body of Christ.»
However, there are few today who have a living faith in God’s ability to bring anyone to the faith, whatever his situation. It may therefore be useful to cite the famous example of God’s favour to the Aleuts of Alaska, to whom He sent angels to teach them the Orthodox Faith in the absence of any human instructor. Fr. John Veniaminov (later St. Innocent, metropolitan of Moscow (+1879)) relates how, on his first missionary journey to Akun island, he found all the islanders lined up on the shore waiting for him. It turned out that they had been warned by their former shaman, John Smirennikov, who in turn had been warned by two «white men», who looked like the angels on icons. Smirennikov told his story to Fr. John, who wrote: «Soon after he was baptised by Hieromonk Macarius, first one and later two spirits appeared to him but were visible to no one else… They told him that they were sent by God to edify, teach and guard him. For the next thirty years they appeared to him almost every day, either during daylight hours or early in the evening – but never at night. On these occasions: (1) They taught him in its totality Christian theology and the mysteries of the faith… (2) In time of sickness and famine they brought help to him and – though more rarely – to others at his request. (When agreeing to his requests that they help others, they always responded by saying that they would first have to ask God, and if it was His will, then they would do it.) (3) Occasionally they told him of thing occurring in another place or (very rarely) at some time in the future – but then only if God willed such a revelation; in such cases they would persuade him that they did so not by their own power, but by the power of Almighty God.
«Their doctrine is that of the Orthodox Church. I, however, knowing that even demons believe – and tremble with fear [James 3.19], wondered whether or not this might be the crafty and subtle snare of him who from time immemorial has been Evil. ‘How do they teach you to pray, to themselves or to God? And how do they teach you to live with others?’ He answered that they taught him to pray not to them but to the Creator of all, and to pray in spirit, with the heart; occasionally they would even pray along with him for long periods of time.
«They taught him to exercise all pure Christian virtues (which he related to me in detail), and recommended, furthermore, that he remain faithful and pure, both within and outside of marriage (this perhaps because the locals are quite given to such impurity). Furthermore, they taught him all the outward virtues…»
Very apt was the comment of one of the first who read this story: «It is comforting to read about such miraculous Divine Providence towards savages, sons of Adam who, though forgotten by the world, were not forgotten by Providence.«
These cases lead us to draw the following conclusions: (1) Divine Providence is able to save anyone in any situation, providing he loves the truth. Therefore (2), although we cannot declare with categorical certainty that those who die in unbelief or heresy will be damned, neither can we declare that they will be saved because of their ignorance; for they may be alienated from God «through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart» (Ephesians 4.18), and not simply through the ignorance that is caused by external circumstances. And (3) if we, who know the truth, say that such people do not need to become Christians in order to be saved, then we shall be guilty of indifference to the truth; for which we shall certainly merit damnation. For while we cannot presume to know the eternal destinies of individual men, we do know this, that the Word of God is true that declares: «He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned» (Mark 16.16). And again: «Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God» (John 3.5). And again: «Whosoever shall deny Me before men, him will I also deny before My Father Who is in heaven» (Matthew 10.33).
Moreover, to the unlying Word of God we may add the witness of Holy Tradition, in the form of the experience of Theodora, the spiritual daughter of St. Basil the New, who, after passing through the toll-houses and being returned to her body, was told by the angels: «Those who believe in the Holy Trinity and take as frequently as possible the Holy Communion of the Holy Mysteries of Christ, our Saviour’s body and Blood – such people can rise to heaven directly, with no hindrances, and the holy angels defend them, and the holy saints of God pray for their salvation, since they have lived righteously. No one, however, takes care of wicked and depraved heretics, who do nothing useful during their lives, and live in disbelief and heresy. The angels can say nothing in their defence… [Only those] enlightened by the faith and holy baptism can rise and be tested in the stations of torment [that is, the toll-houses]. The unbelievers do not come here. Their souls belong to hell even before they part from their bodies. When they die, the devils take their souls with no need to test them. Such souls are their proper prey, and they take them down to the abyss.»
Some believe that even those condemned to hell after their death, may yet get a “second chance” at the Last Judgement, through the prayers of the saints and the Mother of God. The present writer knows no patristic witness that would clearly confirm or refute such an idea. However, we know from St. Simeon the Theologian that if a man is making progress towards the truth in this life he will not be deprived of further progress in the life to come: «It is a great good thing to believe in Christ, because without faith in Christ it is impossible to be saved; but one must also be instructed in the word of truth and understand it. It is a good thing to be instructed in the word of truth, and to understand it is essential; but one must also receive Baptism in the name of the Holy and Life-giving Trinity, for the bringing to life of the soul. It is a good thing to receive Baptism and through it a new spiritual life; but it is necessary that this mystical life, or this mental enlightenment in the spirit, also should be consciously felt. It is a good thing to receive with feeling the mental enlightenment in the spirit; but one must manifest also the works of light. It is a good thing to do the works of light; but one must also be clothed in the humility and meekness of Christ for a perfect likeness to Christ. He who attains this and becomes meek and humble of heart, as if these were his natural dispositions, will unfailingly enter into the Kingdom of Heaven and into the joy of the Lord. Moreover, regarding all those who are running on the path of God according to the order I have indicated, if it happens that natural death should cut off their course in the midst of this, they will not be banished from the doors of the Kingdom of God, and these doors will not be closed before them, according to the limitless mercy of God. But regarding those who do not run in such a way, their faith also in Christ the Lord is vain, if they have such…»
4. The Argument from the Supremacy of Love over Justice. «Let us suppose that most men are not worthy to enter the Kingdom of heaven, if only because they will find nothing akin to their own corrupted nature there. Nevertheless, God is love, and he would never cast the creatures He has created and still continues to love into the unimaginably terrible torments of hell, whose purpose, since they are unending, cannot be the rehabilitation of the sinner, nor deterrence of future evil. We do not deny that the Scriptures speak in many places of the existence of just such a hell, and of a great multitude entering into it. But we cannot but hope and believe (for ‘love believeth all things, hopeth all things’ (I Corinthians 13.7) that these images are placed before us simply as a deterrent, and that in the end hell will be an empty place, not only spiritually but also physically. God has shown, by His Death on the Cross, that His love for us is greater than His love for the abstract principle of justice. Is it possible that he would finally deny that, admit that His Sacrifice had been in vain (for the great majority of people, at any rate), and allow cold justice to triumph over love?»
In attempting to answer this objection, we must first arm ourselves with the most basic weapon of the Christian life: the fear of God. The fear of God is not an abject trembling before a despotic tyrant. It is a rational, heartfelt awareness that we all, and every part of our lives, are in the hands of a Being Who infinitely transcends everything that we can say about Him, and even the very categories of our discourse. This applies not only to clearly inexplicable and unimaginable acts of His such as the creation of the world out of nothing. It also applies to those definitions of His nature which seem to correspond to something in our experience, such as: «God is love».
If human love sometimes seems incompatible with justice, this is not so with Divine love. For what is the whole economy of God’s incarnation, life on earth and death on the Cross if not perfect love in pursuit of perfect justice – an extraordinary, paradoxical, but for that very reason characteristically Divine justice? For He, the Just One, Who committed no sin and had done everything to deter us from it, out of love for man died to blot out all the sins and injustices of the whole world. When we could not pay the price, He paid it for us; when we were dead in sin, He died to give us life; «for Christ hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust» (I Peter 3.18).
The Church has expressed the paradoxicality of God’s justice with great eloquence: «Come, all ye peoples, and let us venerate the blessed Wood, through which the eternal justice has been brought to pass. For he who by a tree deceived our forefather Adam, is by the Cross himself deceived; and he who by tyranny gained possession of the creature endowed by God with royal dignity, is overthrown in headlong fall. By the Blood of God the poison of the serpent is washed away; and the curse of a just condemnation is loosed by the just punishment inflicted on the Just. For it was fitting that wood should be healed by wood, and that through the Passion of One Who knew not passion should be remitted all the sufferings of him who was condemned because of wood. But glory to Thee, O Christ our King, for Thy dread dispensation towards us, whereby Thou hast saved us all, for Thou art good and lovest mankind.»
Here there is no contradiction between love and justice. And if there is no contradiction between them in the Redeeming Passion of Christ on the Cross, then there is likewise no contradiction between them in His Coming again to judge men in accordance with their response to His Passion. But in order to understand this it is necessary, first, to rid ourselves of the idea that God’s just wrath against impenitent sinners is comparable to the sinful human passion of vengefulness. Such vengefulness is condemned by the Word of God (Romans 12.17-21), and cannot possibly be attributed to the Divine Nature, which is alien to all fallen human passion. We must at all times hate the sin and not the sinner; we must wish for the destruction of sin and not of sinners. If we wish to identify our will with the Will of God, then our first desire must be for the salvation of all sinners, including our enemies, paying special attention (lest we become hypocrites) to those sinners we know best and for whom we are primarily responsible – ourselves.
«The wrath of God,” writes Archbishop Theophan of Poltava, “is one of the manifestations of the love of God, but of the love of God in its relationship to the moral evil in the heart of rational creatures in general, and of man in particular.» That is why the martyrs under the heavenly altar, filled as they are with the love of God to the highest degree, are at the same time filled with a holy wrath: “How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6.10). And yet, as the Venerable Bede writes, «the souls of the righteous cry out these words, not out of hatred for enemies, but out of love for justice».
This love of justice is natural to man, for it is made in the image of God’s own love of justice. The love of justice proceeds naturally from the Nature of God, like heat from the sun. Thus to say that God should be loving but not just is like saying that the sun should give light but not heat. It is simply not in the nature of things. What is in accordance with the nature of God is that He should divide the light of His grace from its fiery heat at the Last Judgement, giving the light only to the blessed and the heat only to the damned.
As St. Basil the Great writes, commenting on the verse: “The voice of the Lord divideth the flame of fire” (Psalm 28.6), writes: “The fire prepared in punishment for the devil and his angels is divided by the voice of the Lord. Thus, since there are two capacities in fire, one of burning and the other of illuminating, the fierce and punitive property of the fire may await those who deserve to burn, while its illuminating and radiant part may be reserved for the enjoyment of those who are rejoicing.”
The Lord placed justice on a par with mercy and faith (Matthew 23.23), and it was the Ephesian Church’s hatred of injustice that redeemed it in His eyes; for “this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (Revelation 2.6). This lesson is particularly important for our century, when the Orthodox Church has been persecuted by the ecumenists with their indifference to the truth, on the one hand, and the sergianists with their indifference to justice, on the other. We have to kindle in ourselves a holy and dispassionate zeal for the truth and hatred of injustice.
Thus, as Archbishop Theophan writes in reply to the question “Can one have a negative feeling in relation to the enemies of the Russian people and the Orthodox Church or must one suppress in oneself this feeling, repeating the words: ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay’?”: “To have a negative feeling towards the enemies of God and of the Russian people is natural. And on the contrary not to have a negative feeling is unnatural. Only this feeling must be correct. And it will be correct when it has a principled, not personal character, that is, when we ‘hate’ the enemies of God and of the Russian people not for their personal offences against us, but for their hostile attitude towards God and the Church and for their inhuman attitude towards Russian people. Therefore it is also necessary to fight with these enemies. Whereas if we do not fight, we will be punished by God for our lukewarmness. He will then take His vengeance not only on them, but also on us…»
The whole burden of the Old Testament Prophets was an impassioned, yet holy lament against the injustice of man against God and against his fellow man. And if anything to the Prophets was proof of the corruption of Israel, it was that, instead of repenting of their own injustice, they accused the Just One of injustice. Thus the holy Prophet Ezekiel laments: “The house of Israel saith, The way of the Lord is not equal. O house of Israel, are not My ways equal? Are not your ways unequal? Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord God.” (Ezekiel 18.29-30). And the holy Prophet Malachi laments: “Ye have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet ye say, Wherein have we wearied Him? When ye say, Every one that doeth evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and He delighteth in them; or, Where is the God of judgement?” (Malachi 2.17).
The God of judgement is within us, manifest in that extraordinarily powerful love of justice that is created in the image of God’s love of justice. Faith teaches, and human nature cries out for, a last and most glorious Judgement in which all tears will wiped away from every innocent face (Revelation 21.4), and every apparently meaningless suffering will find its meaning and reward. Again, faith teaches, and human nature cries out for, a last and most terrible Judgement in which those who laughed over the sufferings of others will weep (Luke 6.25), and those who feasted on human flesh will gnash their teeth in eternal frustration. «Be not deceived; God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.» (Galatians 6.7,8)
Thus the Last, Most Terrible Judgement is a mystery proclaimed by the Word of God and grounded in the deepest reality of things. It both proceeds from the nature of God Himself, and is an innate demand of our human nature created in the image of God. It is the essential foundation for the practice of virtue and the abhorrence of vice, and the ultimate goal to which the whole of created nature strives, willingly or unwillingly, as to its natural fulfilment. Without it all particular judgements would have a partial and unsatisfactory character, and the reproaches of Job against God, and of all unbelievers against faith, would be justified. And if the Last Judgement is different from all preceding ones in that in it love seems to be separated from justice, love being distributed exclusively to the righteous and justice to the sinners, then this is because human nature itself will have divided itself in two, one part having responded to love with love, to justice with justice, while the other, having rejected both the love and the justice of God, will merit to experience His justice alone…
And if, like Ivan in Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, we still cannot come to terms with the tears of an innocent child, this is not because our love is too great, but because our faith in God’s justice is too small. God’s ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts, and His justice, we must humbly accept, is not our justice. At some times we cannot understand why the innocent suffer; at others – why the guilty get away with it. At some times we cannot understand why great sinners are forgiven in a moment; at others – why those who seem to us to be less guilty appear destined for the eternal fire. The only right way to respond to this is to recognise humbly that the creature cannot and must not argue with his Creator, and to say with the Psalmist: “Righteous art Thou, O Lord, and upright are Thy judgements” (Psalm 118.137)…