Orthodox or Unorthodox View of Hell

Those who believe that the fire of hell is literal and that punishment in hell is eternal claim that their belief is the orthodox position, but is it?  It has been the “orthodox” position since the year 553 when Origen, the first and greatest theologian of the Christian Church, was unjustly condemned for believing in Christian Universalism.  His condemnation was unjust because he had died in 254 in “full communion” (good standing) with the Christian Church which later became the state church of the Roman Empire.  At the time of his posthumous condemnation Origen had been dead for 299 years!  Origen’s orthodox theology of Christ being, in fact, the Savior of the whole world, became the “unorthodox” view and the unorthodox view of eternal punishment became the “orthodox” view. The word “orthodox” is a compound Greek word:  “Ortho” meaning straight and “dox” meaning teaching (can also mean praise as in “doxology”).  A. E. Knoch addressed this issue of the so called “orthodox” view of hell in his excellent book, All In All.

But if, instead of a slight trace of sin and its consequent suffering, we imagine the sinner suffering the torment of the orthodox ‘hell’ with its unbearable bodily anguish, the pangs of conscience, the taunts of fiends, one hour of which is more than all his earthly sorrows rolled in one—lengthen this out to endlessness and season it with hopeless despair—and its horrors will be absolutely inconceivable.  But this is far from all.  Multiply this single case by the vast majority of humanity, who, age after age, have been huddled into this horrid ‘hell’—and each one tortured and tormented while the ages roll, and roll, and roll…without respite and without remedy, and then imagine—but no, we will imagine no more, for the heart grows sick even at the very thought.

Now let us look at the orthodox view of hell in the early church before Origen’s after-death condemnation.  The true orthodox view is expressed by Bishop Timothy Ware of the Eastern Orthodox Church (in his book, The Orthodox Church).  Russia and Eastern European countries, home of most Orthodox Churches, were not part of the Roman Empire and thus not corrupted by it.  Greece was part of the Roman Empire, but The Greek Orthodox Church, probably due to its close association with other Orthodox Churches in the east, managed to maintain its belief in the true orthodox view of hell. 

There is no terrorism in the Orthodox doctrine of God.  Orthodox Christians do not cringe before Him in abject fear, but think of Him as philanthropos, the ‘lover of men’.  Yet they keep in mind that Christ at His Second Coming will come as judge.  Hell is not so much a place where God imprisons man, as a place where man, by misusing his free will, chooses to imprison himself. And even in hell the wicked are not deprived of the love of God, but by their own choice they experience as suffering what the saints experience as joy.  ‘The love of God will be an intolerable torment for those who have not acquired it within themselves.’ Hell exists as a final possibility, but several of the Fathers have none the less believed that in the end all will be reconciled to God.  It is heretical to say that all must be saved, for this is to deny free will; but it is legitimate to hope that all may be saved….What is a merciful heart?  asked Isaac the Syrian, ‘It is a heart that burns with love for the whole of creation, for men, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for all creatures.’  Gregory of Nyssa said that Christians may legitimately hope even for the redemption of the Devil.”

God, in Christ, certainly proved Himself to be the lover of mankind by deeds, not just words (Jn. 1:29; 3:16).  God will never stop loving humanity and will never use torture to deal with sinners.  Unlike the Church in the west, the Orthodox Church has not changed the doctrine of hell from that of the early church as proclaimed our loving Lord and preached by the Apostles!