Thursday, May 23, 2013

What is hell?

From the blog Eclectic Orthodoxy, "What is Orthodox hell?"

What is the Orthodox doctrine of hell? I honestly do not know. I do know what many Orthodox have taught about hell during the past seventy-five years or so, and I know something about what the Church Fathers taught about it during the first millenium of the Church’s history; but I cannot tell you what the Orthodox Church authoritatively and irreformably teaches about hell. My ignorance on this question is partly determined by the fact that a huge portion of the Eastern theological patrimony has never been translated into English. I read neither Greek (modern or patristic), Russian, Romanian, Serbian, or Syriac. I suspect that my position is not that different from most other English-speaking Orthodox believers, including the clergy. The fact that so much theological reflection is inaccessible to us puts us at significant disadvantage.

This doesn’t mean that the ordinary American parish priest does not believe that he knows what the authoritative Orthodox understanding of hell is. Quite the contrary. At least within English-speaking Orthodoxy a particular understanding of hell and perdition has established itself as the Orthodox position; and this understanding, we are told, is dramatically different from what is taught in Catholicism and Protestantism. Patristic scholar Archimandrite Irenei (Matthew) Steenberg has described this view as “hell is heaven experienced differently”: God does not retributively punish the damned; the damned experience God as torment because they have rejected, and eternally reject, the divine mercy and love. They cannot tolerate his inescapable presence. God does not actively inflict pain at the Last Judgment; he simply allows the damned to experience the suffering they have freely chosen, and he allows this for all eternity. This view can be found in the writings of John Romanides, George Metallinos, and Hierotheos Vlachos. For popular presentations see A Study of Hell by Nick Aiello, “Heaven and Hell in the Afterlife” by Peter Chopelas, “Hell and God’s Love” by Eric Simpson, and “Why We Need Hell” by Frederica Mathewes-Green. Yet as Steenberg notes, serious questions can be raised whether this understanding of hell as “heaven experienced differently” in fact represents the consensual teaching of the Church Fathers: “this view has little to no grounding in either the Scriptural or patristic heritage of the Church,” Steenberg argues, “and in fact that heritage very regularly makes assertions that wholly deny the possibility of this view.”

Unfortunately, it is not an easy matter for an English-speaking non-scholar to assess patristically the “hell is heaven experienced differently” thesis. Look high and low, but you will not find a comprehensive, detailed, and in-depth scholarly discussion of the eschatology of the Church Fathers, much less of the two thousand year old Eastern tradition. Perhaps such surveys are available in French, German, Russian or Greek, but alas not in English. I find this surprising—especially given how popular eschatology has been in theological circles over the past fifty years. One can find extensive discussion of what the New Testament teaches about hell, especially by Protestant scholars. And one can find extensive discussion about what the Catholic Church dogmatically teaches (or “should” dogmatically teach) about hell by Catholic theologians. But when one turns to the Church Fathers, one immediately hits a wall. In fact, it’s hard to find in-depth scholarly treatment of individual Church Fathers on this subject, with the exceptions of Origen, Gregory Nyssen, and Augustine. J. N. D. Kelly devotes a couple of pages to hell and judgment in his book Early Christian Doctrines. Jaroslav Pelikan’s first volume of The Christian Tradition is even less helpful...

Complete article here.

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