Sunday, January 20, 2008

Heaven and Hell in the Orthodox Tradition

For behold, the Kingdom of God is within you (Lk 17:21).

“I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.”

1. Heaven and hell are realities, but should not be viewed as physical places. Heaven, in the words of St. Mark of Ephesus, “is not a physical place where the angels dwell like as we, but it is a noetic place surpassing sense perception, if indeed this should be called a place at all; but more properly, it must be called the ‘place of God.’” Hell, too, is not a place that exists outside of the presence of God, Who is “everywhere present and fillest all things.” All will come into the presence of God at the last judgment: this will cause eternal joy for the righteous and eternal torment for those who have turned away from God. St. Isaac the Syrian writes: “Paradise is the love of God… those who are punished in Gehennah, are scourged by the scourge of love.” The love of God is like a river of fire: those who love God will be as gold in the furnace; those who do not love God will be like dry wood in the furnace. This is the real meaning of heaven and hell.

2. After death the soul awaits the final judgment with a foretaste of heaven or hell; this is what is called the “partial judgment.” Saints enjoy a foretaste of God’s glory and, as friends of Christ, have the boldness to pray for us; those believers who lived a virtuous life await the final judgment enjoying a foretaste of heaven; those who died as unrepentant sinners await the final judgment with a foretaste of the torments of hell. St. Justin the Philosopher writes: “The souls of the pious remain in a better place, while those of the unjust and wicked are in a worse, waiting for the time of judgment.” St. Ambrose of Milan writes: “Therefore, while the fullness of time is awaited, souls await the reward due them. Punishment awaits some, glory others and yet the former are not meanwhile free from suffering, nor the latter without reward.” St. Mark of Ephesus writes: “We affirm that neither the righteous have as yet received the fullness of their lot and that blessed condition for which they have prepared themselves here through works, nor have sinners, after death, been led away into the eternal punishment in which they shall be tormented eternally. Rather both the one and the other must necessarily take place after the judgment of that last day and the resurrection of all (…) As for now… the righteous abide in all gladness and rejoicing, already awaiting and not only holding in their grasp the Kingdom promised to them and those ineffable good things. But sinners, on the contrary, are in all straitness and inconsolable sorrow, like criminals awaiting the decision of the judge, and they foresee those torments.” As is clear from all of these passages, the departed await the final judgment; the righteous await the glory of heaven and sinners await the pains of hell.

3. Only at the end times, after Christ has returned and the dead have been raised, will there be a final judgment and will men enter into the fullness of heaven or hell. Man is made of body and soul together. The final judgment will be of the whole man: body and soul together. This is the “day of judgment” of which Christ speaks in the Gospels. “When the Son of Man is to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will repay every man for what he has done” (Mt. 16: 27; cf., Mt. 25: 31-46; Mk. 13: 26-27; Lk. 21: 27). It is then that Christ will tell the righteous: “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your Lord” (Mt. 25:21, 23).


Into the Light said...

Since the resurrection unites our souls and bodies back together again, will this imply any physical aspect of the final kingdom? Before coming to Orthodoxy, I read a lot of N.T. Wright, and his view of the "new heAvens and the new earth" made a lot of sense as opposed to a "purely spiritualized" place. Do you know what Orthodoxy says about this? Enjoying your blog!

Felix Culpa said...

While our human language can not express the mysteries of the eschaton, it is a very clear teaching of the Orthodox tradition, as you write, that the bodies of the dead will be raised and united with the souls of the departed. It follows that, since we'll all have bodies, our existence will in some way be corporeal and material. (Let's not forget that the angelic hosts, for instance,are called bodiless but not immaterial; God alone is purely spirit.) I've heard it said that our own post-ressurectional bodies will be something like Christ's post-resurrectional body: a real live human body that can eat and drink and be touched, yet is different from the normal human body. However we will not, as our Lord tells us, be given in marriage -- so perhaps one could say that our existence will be material but not carnal.

St Mark of Ephesus writes that heaven “is not a physical place where the angels dwell like as we, but it is a noetic place surpassing sense perception, if indeed this should be called a place at all; but more properly, it must be called the ‘place of God.’” This is a classical cataphatic - apophatic movement ("saying and unsaying to a positive effect"). Heaven and hell are places, but they're not places in the way we think of the word in a material or physical sense. None of this means, however, that they are "purely spiritualized" places or that the resurrected body will not be real -- just not "real" in the sense that we think of it now.

I haven't read any N. T. Wright on this point, so I can't speak to him.