The Geography of Hell

RelativityThe parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) has a long history of teasing Christians into dangerous territory. I suspect that many if not most Christians have more than a little curiosity about life after death. We want to know what happens. We want to know “how things work.” And this parable – at least on its surface – seems to give more indication of “how things work” than almost any other passage in Scripture.

It gives us a geography of sorts: Lazarus is in “Abraham’s bosom” apparently enjoying good things; the rich man is in Hades and in torment; we are told that there is a “great gulf fixed between the two” so that no one can come from Hades to Abraham’s bosom and no one from Abraham’s bosom can go to Hades.

It interests me that many Christians use this parable as a “map” of the after-life, or at least as a story that supports their own “map” of life after death.

The most important feature of such maps is the very “fixed” character of their geography. What seems most important to them is that one character is in one place and the other character is in another place and there is no traffic between the two. (To read some useful Orthodox thought on life after death and Christ descent into Hades – the following article is of interest.)

It would seem that the reason some Christians like this is that it fits their own map of God and life after death. There are those who seem to like things to be stable and unchangeable – by this I mean they want a life after death (and a life before death) with clearly defined rules, boundaries, unbending laws and the like.

In such a map of things – those who obey the rules, observe the boundaries and master the laws do well. Those who do not – are punished. Such a world, it seems to them, is the way things ought to be, and to be the best way to either reward the good, correct the bad, or punish the incorrigible.

I might add that if you want a world like this – then it is even better if you can find a way to secure God as its underwriter. Many people do this under the heading of the “justice of God.” They will say that “God is just and He cannot deny His justice,” thus forcing God to have very clear rules and guaranteeing that He cannot break His own rules.

Several things to note:

1. There are no maps of the afterlife. Regardless of the descriptions in this parable – the purpose of the parable is not to teach us the topography of heaven and hell. Where, I will ask, is Abraham’s Bosom? How do we think of this as a place? Hades has the same problem – where do you place it? As for the Great Gulf – of what does the gulf consist? What sort of obstacle is insurmountable in these circumstances?

The point of the parable is found in its end: “If they have not listened to Moses and the Prophets, neither would they listen to someone even if he came back from the dead.” It is not a parable about the topography of the after-life, but a comment about our present life and our unwillingness to hear the gospel.

2. Important, and please note carefully: no matter how much some may want the world – particularly God’s world –  to be describable in clearly defined rules, boundaries and unbending laws – it’s just not the case. If there is a “rule” of any sort – it is God Himself – it is Personal – and is defined only by mercy, love and kindness.

And so it is that the “Way” forward, backwards, up or down, however you want to describe our travel in the Kingdom of God – the Way only follows the map of the heart of God. If you want to know the way to go – if you want to know how things work – then you have to know the heart of God. You have to know God Himself.

And this is all that we need to know for life here – and life hereafter. God Himself is our heaven – and in the teachings of the Fathers – God Himself is our hell – for hell is nothing other than our self-imposed refusal to accept the love of God. It is that refusal that brings its own torment.

If we have the eyes to see – we are already traveling the roads of heaven and hell – already dwelling in the bosom of Abraham or in the torments of Hades. The geography of that journey is the geography of love and mercy, kindness and forgiveness – or contrary – hatred and judgment, violence self-conceit, slander and calumny.

Judge for yourself – for we’ve all experienced both. Where do you want to dwell? The good news is that whatever gulf is fixed in our heart – whatever wall or chasm has been erected within us – Christ has gone there. He descended into Hades. If you will look within yourself – into the darkness of your own private hell – you will find Christ there – for He has gone there to look for you. And as sure as He trampled down death by death – He can trample down your own hell and translate you into the Kingdom of light.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





58 responses to “The Geography of Hell”

  1. November In My Soul Avatar

    Father bless,

    Thank you for clarification and excellent teaching. I recently watched a program on television about the supposed nature of Hell. Many of those interviewed insisted it had to exist as a place of punishment, a place where God had to send those who ere not saved to satisfy His justice. There was great insistence on flames and everlasting damnation. God does not reject us, we reject Him.

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    Probably something on the history channel. It is among the most useless and misinforming channels on television. It’s a shame because they could be really informative – but their editors and writers seem poorly informed (or worse). I find it sad.

  3. jo533281 Avatar

    Thank you Father for another wonderful post. The subjects of heaven and hell as the Orthodox understand them has been my favorite topic to read about since becoming a catechumen. I was totally blown away (yet in no way averse to it) by this (correct) view of God’s love.

    This idea of a clearly defined topography of heaven and hell is clearly seen in books with titles like “ten minutes in heaven” or “thirty minutes in hell”. I don’t know the exact names of such books, but I have seen them in many Protestant Christian bookstores. Not one of them has “come back” proclaiming Orthodox theology. It seems that such books are delusions at best.

    I have sometimes caught myself thinking about the nature of heaven and have thought to correct myself. I cannot fathom the nature of heaven except what I have been given by God in this life (and indeed that is extremely small).

    Thanks for letting my clear my head of some thoughts on this subject.


  4. […] You should all assume that this will be a common practice. Father Stephen has delivered an excellent post on a topic that I have a special interest in since becoming an Orthodox catechumen. This time it is on the subject of heaven and hell. The link is here. […]

  5. paytonsaunders Avatar

    I know we’re not supposed to let our emotions run is, but this post got mine going – especially the last paragraph. This post was truly a blessing to read.

    “Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

  6. Juliana Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, this is very refreshing!

    I am inspired. Tell me if I go too far.

    You say that Christ has descended into our little private hells. But I say that he descends and he will descend more. He doesn’t say “I have been there, done that”. He is the God of the living, which includes this present hell, the one that can occur at the moment.

    His mercy is new every morning for the reason that every night (i.e. dark period) we walk back into the prison and bind the chains on again.

    Hell is the place where there is justice.
    Mercy is heaven.

    For our sake, he is willing to be blind so that he can look with our own eyes in the darkness, with the hope that we will accept his eyes in exchange.

    Does he crawl through the filth? He does it cheerfully.

    Those children living in garbage dumps outside third world cities – that is the Christmas scene. There is the Christ child, the off-scouring of the world. He is digging through the refuse (what we refuse) to find something of value.

    Rejoice, o mountains of garbage!
    He has worked salvation in the midst of the trash.
    Recycle, my soul, in the bosom of Abraham.

    In this generation, we will take Christ where he has not gone before. He is depending on us to do it, to fill up his afflictions (Col 1:24). It is not simply that he sympathizes with our suffering, but as we are his body, he participates with us and experiences all things – if we do not withhold them from him. We desire to keep to ourselves our pain that only we can understand – it is our right, it is our precious, we protect it and nourish it in the darkness.

    Child, I do not want you walking barefoot over my garbage.
    Get off of my mountain!

    Justice is clutched tight, measured carefully, never forgotten.
    Mercy is given freely and therefore has no value, no limit, no timeframe.

    Thank you for putting up with my foolishness.


  7. Orev Avatar

    “90 minutes in Heaven” comes to mind as one of the books to which you refer. I work in a bookstore, and once had a customer glowingly inform me about this or a similar “life-changing” book. It is deeply saddening, perhaps even more so than the secularized take on heaven from feel-good fictions such as “the Five People You Meet in Heaven.”

    The Orthodox teaching on heaven and hell has been immensely refreshing to me, as the typical western view was something I struggled with for years.
    Wonderful article–I too was stirred by the last paragraph–there are so many personal hells. How encouraging to reflect that Christ has descended into those dark places for us!

  8. […] The Geography of Hell « Glory to God for All Things – view page – cached The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) has a long history of teasing Christians into dangerous territory. I suspect that many if not most Christians have more than a little curiosity… (Read more)The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) has a long history of teasing Christians into dangerous territory. I suspect that many if not most Christians have more than a little curiosity about life after death. We want to know what happens. We want to know “how things work.” And this parable – at least on its surface – seems to give more indication of “how things work” than almost any other passage in Scripture. (Read less) — From the page […]

  9. Ben Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    This is my first time posting here, but I have been reading and finding spiritual nourishment on your site since first discovering it earlier this year. As a cradle Catholic turned protestant finally turned Catholic again, I am slowly learning to give up many of my private interpretations of things. Because of this, please forgive me if my question about this parable betrays any gross ignorance.

    My question is this: How is it that the rich man in the parable is able to display the virtue of compassion for his living brothers, all the while in Hades? I have so far understood Hell to be devoid of virtue.

    I am very interested in your answer for at least two reasons. First, things like this usually mean I missed something really amazing or really basic. Second, I fear I have been misusing this parable in defense of the existence of Purgatory when in fact it has nothing to do with it.

    Thanks in advance for any insight you might have.

    Deus tecum.


  10. katia Avatar

    Fr Stephen bless,

    Thank you! As it happens i got this e-mail yesterday that express same understanding of heaven and hell, so i thought i would share it with you,or though i think it might of been posted before but i am not sure so here you are:

    THINK OF HELL as a long banquet table filled with delectable foods. Sitting along a wall behind the table are the inhabitants of Hell, a significant distance away from the table, fixed in place, and unable to reach the delicacies that they see, crave, and smell. However, each has a long spoon with which he can reach out to any of the food on the table before him, making it accessible. Yet, because the spoon is inflexible, each inhabitant is unable to turn the spoon around and feed himself. The frustration is obvious and unending.

    THINK OF HEAVEN as precisely the same thing, except that the inhabitants are seated around the banquet table, in a circle. They, too, have long spoons which cannot be used to feed themselves. However, each is eternally reaching out for food and, with the long spoon, feeding those across from him at the common table. In this way, they all eat together, feeding one another.

    The imagery here is superb. The delights of God in Hell are denied to those who cannot feed themselves from them. The delights of God in Heaven are available to those who abide in communion, care for one another, and thus are cared for themselves.

    If one reflects on this, adolescent bombast against a loving God Who punishes His own Creation in Hell and rewards those in Heaven whom He favors falls away like the silliness of our anthropomorphic visions of God. We see clearly that in communion and love a situation that brings man pain and despair, when he fails to be with and care for others, becomes one that occasions fellowship and delight for those who will share in love.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    Quickly. The problem with parables is that they are written for one thing and then too often used for another. This parable is not truly about heaven and hell (but about accepting the resurrection of Christ.” Your “flaw” is an ideal example. There is a mercy of a sort. Were I speaking of this man as an actual case, I would see someone who is redeemable, not utterly lost. Orthodoxy does not teach purgatory (its not in the early Eastern Fathers). But it does teach that Hades need not be permanent). Read the article that is linked to the post. You’ll see the Orthodox teaching on the matter well expounded.

  12. […] Stephen Freeman on The Geography of Hell Leave a […]

  13. Nick Avatar


    Regarding the Catholic doctrine of Christ’s descent into Hell, there is no better explanation than the Catechism of the Catholic Church:


    632 The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection.477 This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Saviour, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.478

    633 Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God.479 Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”:480 “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Saviour in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.”481 Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.482

    634 “The gospel was preached even to the dead.”483 The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfilment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.

    635 Christ went down into the depths of death so that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”484 Jesus, “the Author of life”, by dying destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.”485 Henceforth the risen Christ holds “the keys of Death and Hades”, so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”486

    Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. the earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . “I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.”487

  14. Dusty Henry Avatar
    Dusty Henry

    As an ex-(Evangelical, Pentecostal, Charismatic, Roman Catholic), I really appreciate this one. I think that this is as important as your articles on the One Story Universe. I hope that you will expand it farther. It is an approach to salvation in a whole different spirit. And it glorifies Christ so much more then in Western Christianity. I am often amazed at how limited our view of the Gospel can be.

  15. Nick Avatar

    So you see, Father, God dose not discriminate against those outside of Israel but loves all of His children, which is why Christ came in the first place. He led all the just who had gone before Him into Paradise – the Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, men and women. For what righteousness can come except from God? Is God against Himself? Of course not! So He saved the just alike who had died before the Redemption, the soul of Christ leading those precious souls into Paradise. He did not save the reprobates, the souls who, like Satan, rejected God, for it is impossible for them to accept God’s Goodness; indeed, their hatred for Him is great, yet the fire of Hell is greater. They damned themselves just as the devils damned themselves; they threw themselves into Hell just as the devils created Hell. For God is Life Itself, the Life wishes to give Himself to souls so that they might commune with Him for eternity; yet not all souls want Him, and so they commit suicide, they kill themselves, so to speak, and thus end up in Hell, that spiritual state-place which they had already begun to live in by the conduct of their lives, namely, their sins. Rejecting God now, they reject Him later. Can love push itself onto a soul? No! God forces no one to Heaven, just as He forces no one to Hell; He is as infinitely just as He is infinitely merciful.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thanks for the excerpt from the Catholic catechism. The Orthodox understanding is referenced in the article. A good summary can be found here.

  17. Clark Avatar

    I hate to get on my old hobby horse again, but Hades and Gehenna are two completely different realities. In the parable (and I once heard Jerry Falwell state that it was NOT a parable because Lazarus is given a name–though this fact is an integral part of the story since the rich man does not have a name–but I digress) Abraham’s Bosom is still IN SHEOL, albeit a better part of Sheol than where the rich man is hanging out. This subdivision of Sheol seems to have been a rather late development in Judaism and was no doubt due in part to moral revulsion at the thought that the righteous and the unrighteous all end up in the same place. Of course, even in the time of Christ there was no one, single Jewish theory on life after death. Witness the debates between the Pharaisees and the Sadducees on the resurrection.

    Father is right that the point of the the story comes at the end: Even if someone (Christ) were to rise from the dead, no one would believe it. Christ came to destroy death and Hades (Sheol), not improve them.

    Gehenna, which is the final state of the damned, comes only AFTER the resurrection, when death and Hades have been destroyed, and AFTER the LAST judgment. Gehenna, as the Fathers repeatedly tell us is not God’s absence, but his loving presence, which glorifies the saints and burns the damned.

    Perhaps my favorite thing about Orthodoxy, and this follows on Father’s post on Soul Saturdays, is that we pray for everyone–including those awaiting the judgment in Hades–that all will find mercy “on that Day” (to quote St Paul).


    PS. “Hell” is the correct translation of “Sheol,” “Hades,” and “Infernos.” So if you say that the rich man was in Hell–meaning the intermediary state of death awaiting the last Judgment, then that is technically correct. However, most people understand Hell to mean the state of final damnation, and that is NOT correct. I wish we would stop using “Hell” altogether and get back to the biblical language of “Hades” and “Gehenna.”

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    My dearest friend, Clark,

    I think that there may be more geography than I would grant as firmly grounded in the Tradition. The Tradition tends to grow (and grow in a decidedly Western direction) at certain periods, filling in far more information than St. Mark of Ephesus would have known or accepted (though I stand to be corrected). We are in complete agreement viz. the torments being God’s presence and not His absence. However, I’m not as certain of the distinction offered between Gehenna etc., within the Fathers (especially early on). The only conciliar-like content I can think of would be the writings of St. Mark of Ephesus in the Church’s rejection of the Roman Catholic doctrines of hell and purgatory, etc. Could you point me in the direction of your information?

    I’ll confess that I do not think everything that has some usage within Orthodoxy carries the weight of other things. For example, a number of “catechisims” are late and occasionally dubious, having borrowed much from the West.

    On a lighter note. When riding through Jerusalem on a pilgrim’s bus, our tour guide pointed out the window and said, “There’s Gehenna.” It was the valley of Gehennom, that the original image (the burning garbage dump) used by Christ in his teaching once lay. Today, it looks like a golf course – all grassy and manicured. It made me think that those “women’s auxiliaries” one hears about in the joke finally finished their fund-raising.

    Regardless of how Abraham’s bosom might have been used at the time of Christ (of which I’m not sure and don’t trust much scholarship that surrounds this stuff), in Orthodox usage, it is synonymous with paradise. Thus at the Panikhida we pray: “Grant them rest in Abraham’s bosom.” We believe the “souls of the righteous are in the hands of God,” and understand the good thief to “this day be with me in paradise.”

    Again, the changing of these things with regard to time, puts a kind of “time geography” into place that may have as many pitfalls as the topological forms. We are speaking of realities that are defined by their relationship to God (or refusal thereof), not time or place (exactly).

    St. Isaac, in an extreme minority opinion – but not an opinion that is ruled out by geography or any other metaphysical problem, holds that everyone and everything will in fact be reconciled to God. The opposition to this, grounded in Scripture, is that this is not what is promised or foretold in Scripture, but not that such would be metaphysically impossible. Thus I tend to be cautious about taking any account of these matters into a kind of “literalism” (whether geographical, metaphysical, or chronological, etc.) that gives them a reality separate from their reality as relations to God.

    Am I taking this too far, do you think?

  19. Clark Avatar

    Dear Father,

    I don’t think we are in disagreement here, but I would insist that the “time geography”–let’s find a better phrase for that–is essential.

    As to your first question, just look at the Scriptures and early Fathers (in Greek). You will see that Gehenna is NEVER used to refer to the intermediate state and Hades is NEVER use for final damnation (as far as I can tell). I would be shocked if you could show me even one instance from a Saint from the first four or five centuries that confuses the terms.

    Confusion sets in, again as far as I can tell, in the Latin-speaking world. First there is a conceptual shift, whereby the concept of firey punishment gets imported in to Hades (the intermediate state). (Not so difficult to understand considering the Vulcan myth, etc.). This leads to the wide-spread belief that those in Hades are suffering the torments of eternal damnation even before the resurrection and last judgment. By the time you get to Bede the words Infernus and Gehenna (the Vulgate just transliterates Gehenna) become interchangeable. This continues right on through early English translations.

    (As an aside, St Augustine, who is often credited with more mischief than is warranted, seemed to be pretty punctilious in his use of these terms. He followed the Latin New Testament in using Infernus for Hades and Gehenna for Gehenna.)

    This importation of final judgments into the intermediate state played a DIRECT (and, I think, determinative) in the development of the idea of Purgatory. As one Cardinal said in a medieval debate with a Greek bishop, if the blessed are with Christ and the damned are already damned, then there is no point in praying for the dead. But the church has always prayed for the dead, so we must be praying for Christians who are not damned, but who are not yet good enough to get into heaven (ie. in Purgatory).

    Enough history, and back to time. When Paul prayed for Onesimus, he prayed that he might find mercy from the Lord “on THAT DAY.” All of our prayers are ultimately directed toward the Day of the Lord. Certainly when an Orthodox Christian falls asleep we pray for blessed repose in Abraham’s bosom, but we certainly do not mean to imply that a disembodied spirit has or can have achieved perfect blessedness. St Ephrem is insistent on this point. According to him, disembodied spirits cannot enter Paradise proper, they have to camp out on the outskirts until the resurrection (see the Hymns on Paradise). I just don’t think we can add anything more to “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”

    My point is not to insist on a dispensationalist-like “timeline” of eternity, but to note that much of our confusion about the afterlife comes from an inattention to the way the Church *traditionally* speaks about these matters. At the risk of being overly “Wittgensteinian,” I really do think a lot of our confusions are due to linguistic confusion. One of our biggest problems is that we, as English speakers, have inherited a way of speaking and framing the question that is itself inherently confused and confusing. (This predates the Reformation.)

    To return to my earlier point, to me one of–if not THE–greatest privileges as an Orthodox Christian is to pray for the dead (all the dead, as we do on Pentecost), and one of the greatest comforts is to know that someone will pray for me as I await the great and terrible day of judgment.

  20. Henry Avatar

    Once upon a time a famous warrior sought out a wise monk so that he might understand the doctrine of heaven and hell. The solider was brought into the presence of the wise man and there he asked his question. The monk replied, “How can I discuss such an elevated doctrine with a fool like you. I don’t know how your liege lord can tolerate such buffoons in his army.”

    Furious and red faced with rage, the warrior began to draw his sword. The monk shouted, “Now you have found hell!” In a flash the warrior understood, returned his sword to its sheath, and bowed deeply.

    The monk smiled and said, “And now you understand heaven.”

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thank you. As an aside – it’s hard to get too Wittgensteinian with me. I find a fair amount of his stuff to be quite helpful (echoes of my days at Duke).

    One of my own efforts – in translating the faith of the Church for contemporary ears – is to pay attention to how we use words (and particularly the images they invoke within us) and to listen carefully to the Tradition and the images those words are meant to evoke (its where I appreciate my classical background as well). Thus our words regarding our ultimate state with God seem to be quite important. Worth the time, prayer and thought. Thanks. Hope to see you soon.

  22. fatherstephen Avatar

    I love the story!

  23. Ryan Avatar

    Question for Father and Clark on the matter of “time geography” (others welcome to chime in too):
    Did Christ’s descent into Hades occur outside time – that is, were/are souls present in Hades who lived AFTER ca 32AD? Is Christ preaching to you and me in Hades along with the righteous dead who perished before 32AD? Naturally, we humans think in a very time linear fashion, but since time is not linear for God, it brings up other possibililities than the way we are traditionally taught. This of course would bring up another paradox which perhaps you could help me understand: Is Satan in chains now (in linear time), present and meddling til the End of Time, or *simultaneously* present and incarcerated in an event that occurred outside of time?

  24. fatherstephen Avatar

    I do not think that time (as we conceive and experience it) has any particular relevance to Christ’s descent into Hades. The mandorla in which He is depicted in the icon of the the Descent into Hades, is something of a “theological parentheses” (seen also in the icon of the Transfiguration and the icon of the Ascension) and presents something to us which transcends our ability to see or fully comprehend according to human terms. Thus the disciples on the Mt. of Transfiguration are said (in the Troparion of the Feast) to have seen the light of the transfiguration “as far as they could bear it.”

    The same, it would seem to me, is true for our speech concerning Hades and Christ’s descent. We would like to think in chronological terms, but, in the end, such terms turn out to be unhelpful, and force us into various forms of theological reductionism. It is a case in which there should be an expansion of our understanding, rather than a reduction.

  25. Lucy Avatar

    I like the story posted by Henry, too. Where does it come from?

    As to the post, Father, this is timely (as usual!) for me. Even standing in church this morning, as I was totally distracted by my kids, not engaging with the Liturgy at all, it was an extra-long service, etc., I had the fleeting thought: Is this all real? I’ve been finding that I’ve been having a lot of doubts lately (doubts and thoughts that I haven’t really had since becoming Orthodox nearly nine years ago). I knew why, but reading this confirms what I already knew. Your last paragraph brings it home. Thank you.

  26. Henry Avatar


    It was adapted from a classic Zen story by yours truly.
    Thanks for the thumbs up.


  27. Orev Avatar

    It seems to me that Orthodoxy views the entire spiritual realm as outside of space and time (someone please correct me if I’m wrong–I realize I’m a bit out of my depth here, but to loosely paraphrase C.S. Lewis, sometimes the perspective of a fellow student can be helpful). Father Stephen’s article talks about Christ descending into our personal hells, which of course, is an ongoing thing. We have different “hells” at different points in our lives. Yet Christ’s descent into Hell, his trampling down death by death, was once for all. This event being outside time and space, it seems to me that the effect of this event lasts for all time.
    I have no opinion on your question about Satan, as it is way beyond me. 🙂 It is a very interesting thought, though.

    What is the source for your story about the warrior and the monk? I’d like to quote it if I may.

    Father Stephen,
    You mentioned some “late and dubious” catechisms influenced by the West. I am curious, is there such a thing as a “standard” Orthodox catechism? Please pardon my ignorance–my only sources for Orthodox teaching are books from Conciliar Press, your blog, Ancient Faith Radio, and some Orthodox friends. I don’t really know what else is available.

  28. jo533281 Avatar

    Thank you Henry. If you don’t mind, I’ve posted your story on my blog with credit given to you. Wonderful story, indeed.

  29. jo533281 Avatar


    As an Orthodox catechumen myself, I can tell you that I’ve receive no “official” catechism. My catechism basically consists of attending the Divine Liturgy and sitting around the basement table with Father Joshua, eating popcorn and drinking coffee. We talk about various topics in Orthodoxy and we also talk about Orthodox praxis. Very informal, very organic, very Orthodox. Hope this helps you.

    BTW, you can find various catechisms with various angles in which they try elaborate on Orthodox theology. Systematic catechisms are out there, but are merely referential and not, to my knowledge, used in a “classroom” like setting. I have one catechism that revolves around the feasts of the Church. Although somewhat systematic, it is much different than, say a Roman Catholic catechism book. I still use it, though, only for reference.


  30. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is no “official” catechism, though there are a number of books organized in such a manner, some better than others. I should qualify my “dubious” comment. I think the “scholastic” form of classical catechisms forces Orthodoxy into saying things in a way that pushes it in the direction of some of the weaker expressions of Western theology. For that matter, I think classical Western catechisms were a mistake and harmful for the full expression of Western theology. They do not generally admit of a sufficient subtlety. “Dubious” was perhaps the wrong adjective – “problematic” might be express what i was thinking.

  31. Orev Avatar

    Thank you–I do appreciate the informality of discussion with those who are Orthodox, and I have had a few opportunities to talk with an Orthodox preist. My biggest problem at the moment is geographical isolation. Lately I have little contact even with my Orthodox friends, as circumstances are keeping me close to home. I am trying to develop a Rule of Prayer as suggested by the priest I visited with–I guess a lot of it is just a process…
    I’m curious what the usual road is for new Orthodox?

  32. Orev Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    That makes a lot of sense–thank you for the clarification.

  33. jo533281 Avatar

    Usual road?

    Sorry, I don’t understand. Could you please clarify? I think you might be talking about the Rule of Prayer but I don’t want to start talking about something you didn’t mean.


  34. fatherstephen Avatar

    The usual road will vary according to circumstance. Study, attendance at services, a prayer life, conversations, etc., are probably the most common thing for people.

  35. Orev Avatar

    I meant the usual process of learning more about the Orthodox faith–Fr. Stephen’s answer pretty much sums it up though.

    Thank you both

  36. Orev Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Your last post isn’t showing up on the blog, so I am responding to it as it appears in my email. It is good to know my experience is not uncommon. I must say, it seems preferable to, as John put it, a “classroom” experience. If the instruction varies according to the catechumen, it seems that would be more profitable and helpful.
    To be quite honest, the scholasticism present in the Roman Catholic Catechism led me away from that faith, not toward it. I have been pleased to find that the Orthodox faith is quite refreshingly different. The approach that you and John describe makes much more sense. I agree that attending services would be beneficial, but the nearest Orthodox church is at least three hours from where I live. I am hoping this will change soon.
    Again, thanks!

  37. zoe Avatar

    Father Stephen Bless,

    A non-Orthodox family member asked this question: What did Christ meant when he said “It is finished”? As an Orthodox Christian, what should be the answer to this question? I’m sorry if it does not seem relevant to this post, but I feel the need to clarify this also. And if you have posted similar topics in your past blogs, please direct me to it.

    Thank you, and as always, I appreciate this and all your posts.


  38. davidp Avatar

    CNN´s famous doctor had a special (today) on people who died (according to some doctors) and came to tell about their out-0f-body-experiences. I think alot of christians and unbelievers fall for this as a real heaven experience. What do you think Fr Stephen?

  39. fatherstephen Avatar

    It is subject to several meanings: 1. His work on the Cross, our salvation, is complete 2. The suffering is completed 3. Even a meaning that “creation” is complete in that Pascha is the completion of His work.

    He dies just as the Sabbath is about to begin, thus “he rested from all His works.”

  40. fatherstephen Avatar

    I really don’t know. There are a few such stories in the lives of the saints that are rather interesting (one of St. Drithelm in the writings of the Ven. Bede comes to mind). Some of the stories raise questions of various sorts. I tend not to pay it much attention.

  41. fatherstephen Avatar

    Your take on the Orthodox approach is accurate. It’s not a very formalized approach, because the faith ultimately has to be assimilated in some other ways. Information is good, but it must be absorbed by the heart. I pray your situation viz. distance from Church will change soon. May God bless.

  42. Russell Mangiapane Avatar
    Russell Mangiapane

    The “map” is as mysterious as love itself. Which is both comforting and terrifying at the same time.

  43. Yannis Avatar

    There is a Zen story relative to your fine point that goes like this:

    One day a noble prince, visibly upset, stoped a monk on the street and boldly asked:
    “Hey you monk, where will i go when i die, in Heaven or in Hell?” -“How should i know?”, the monk said. “What do you mean?” the prince fired back; “You’re a monk!” – “Yes” replied the monk, “but not a dead one”.

    Best Regards


  44. zoe Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, Thank you. This is much more clear to me, now, especially the connection between Christ’s death on the Cross and Pascha. This is certainly a more complete teaching than the one that only says that these words of Christ “it is finished”, means that the plan of salvation is complete
    (period) and do not relate back to Pascha. Without relating Christ’s death back to Pascha, it is really understandable why some thinks that Christ’s death on the Cross is all about Punishment of sin instead of our Lord, “conquering death (our death of being alienated from God) by death (His death on the Cross).

  45. Kim G Avatar
    Kim G

    Father Bless,

    Thank you for your lovely article. I have just lost my (non-Orthodox) mother-in-law and find myself drawn to these discussions at this time.

    As I was reading, I found that your article illuminated the saying, “The kingdom of God is within you.” And so is Christ, trampling down the death within. The battle is therefore already won.

    Now, if only I can keep this in the forefront of my brain in my weaker moments!!

    Kind regards,


  46. Seraphima Avatar

    Father Bless,

    Is there any special significance to the picture with the article? I have seen the picture before and am wondering which part of the article it represents?

  47. fatherstephen Avatar


    It’s an Escher print. He’s famous for his drawings that defy normal logic. It seemed an appropriate picture for the title of the article. Nothing more.

  48. […] The Geography of Hell The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) has a long history of teasing Christians into dangerous […] […]

  49. Orev Avatar

    Thank you, Father.
    I really appreciate it. Yes, that information must be absorbed through the heart is a new concept for me, but I am seeing the truth of it more and more.
    I am more optimistic about the distance issue, and have been in touch more with a priest who is, if not nearby, at least in the same state–talking with him has been helpful in this regard.

    My thanks, and God Bless

  50. […] Father Stephen Freeman writes: […]

  51. […] own work.  But it is in this same act of seeing our darkness that we may glimpse His Light.  For, as Father Stephen wrote, “The good news is that whatever gulf is fixed in our heart – whatever wall or chasm has […]

  52. Isaac Avatar

    I’m a little concerned. Orthodoxy has produced several catechisms which are quite useful in understanding the sacred dogmas of the faith:
    1) An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith by St. John of Damacus
    2) The Confession of Dositheus, ratified by the local, but ecumenically received and pan-Orthodox Council of Jerusalem, 1672.
    3) The Orthodox Confession of St. Peter Moghila (who, btw, was canonized by the UOC/MP in 1996) as corrected and ratified by the local, but ecumenically received pan-Orthodox Council of Jassy, 1642.
    4) The longer and shorter catechisms of St. Philaret of Moscow.
    5) Orthodox Dogmatic Theology by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, not in catechism q&a format but nevertheless formally catachetical.
    6) The Truth of Our Faith by the Blessed Elder Cleopa of Sihastria.
    7) Online Orthodox Catechism adopted from ‘The Mystery of Faith’ by Bishop Hilarion Alfayev.
    8) The Orthodox Confession of St. Nikodemos of Mt. Athos
    9) The Law of God (recent Russian Catechism)
    – to the best of my knowledge, these are simply the ones which have made it to English translation!

    All of these are of varying authority, but all of them are formal catechisms that the Church in her wisdom has used. I think it is inaccurate to say that the “Orthodox way” to do catechesis is different from learning the sacred dogmas of the Church. Sitting around at coffee hour and chatting is great, but loving God with all of our being entails also, insofar as we are able, to study the teachings and dogmata of the Church, too. Forgive me, I don’t wish to dispute, but I think it important to just put it out there: the Orthodox have definite, defined, non-negotiable dogmas that we are bound to believe.

    Let’s have plenty of time for nuances and subtleties, yes, but let’s also learn about the Trinity; the unconfused, indivisible union of the two natures and wills in one Hypostasis; the Sacraments; the Scriptures; the Councils; the Heretics (you mean the Church is so close-minded it said some people were actually wrong??? yes, Virginia).

    I also wish quickly to say that the Saints and Fathers did not hesitate to use time-geography language when discussing these issues, neither does it seem that they considered spirits of men and angels to be entirely outside of time or geography– although such “geography” is obviously spiritual and not physical. Just as one example consider the words of that Great Pillar of Orthodoxy himself, St. Mark of Ephesus:
    “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. Now, however, both the one and the other are in places proper to them: the first, in absolute repose and free, are in heaven with the angels and before God Himself, and already as if in the paradise from which Adam fell (into which the good thief entered before others) and often visit us in those temples where they are venerated, and hear those who call on them and pray for them to God … while the second, in their turn, being confined in hell, remain ‘in the lowest pit, in darkness and in the shadow of death’ (Ps. 87:7), as David says, and then Job: ‘to the land where light is as darkness’ (Job 10:21-22).” — St. Mark of Ephesus, From the Second Homily Against Purgatorial Fire

    I will also leave you with yet another sort of geography-language quotation which I think is quite important. First, I will preface this by mentioning that St. Ignatii Brianchianinov judges as an error taught by Descartes the idea that spirits are independent of space and time as God is. To this he says, “Everything that is limited is necessarily dependent on space.” Lest such an assertion be taken as a “western” (and therefore necessarily wrong) idea, I will end my response with a quotation from a greater authority about the geography of spirits:
    “when the angels are in heaven they are not on earth, and when they are sent to earth by God they do not remain in heaven.” – Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith by St. John of Damascus, II. 3, p. 206.
    Such a “place” property of created, limited spirits is also found in writers like
    St. Basil the Great (On the Holy Spirit, ch.23) and St. Gregory the Dialogist (Morals on the Book of Job, Book II, 3)… and this is just a cursory search.

    Maybe we need catechisms more than we think we do?

  53. fatherstephen Avatar

    First. I would not describe St. John of Damascus work as a “catechism” per se. I was referencing those primarily modeled on the Scholastic period. There are certainly Orthodox catechisms – but they have their limitations – if only because they often say a little when more needs to be said. Not that the little they say is wrong.

    As a priest of the Church, I certainly do not disparage the teaching of the Church’s dogmas, or the importance of understanding the various heresies, etc.

    I maintain what I have said about geography though not disagreeing with the fathers. That “a geography” exists may indeed be so. But not in a manner that is simply geography as we know it – nor should a “metaphysical geography” such as I was describing be used as the basis for doctrine – which indeed was my point.

    I am not sure that I would agree with St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov’s) point about space or at least the way he stated it. Everything created is certainly limited – but space may not be the definitive (interesting word here) point of that limitation. Space is not eternal (for all we know) and yet we will live forever. What the nature of the “limited” character of our existence is should dogmatically be stated as “created”. God is uncreated and we are created, though by grace we will have a share in uncreated life. Once we move into such considerations there are very few words which suffice. “Beloved, now we are the sons of God. And it does not yet appear what we shall be. But we know that when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 Jn 3:2). My point is that it does not yet appear what we shall be – and the “limit” is particularly to be found in our own minds’ ability to presently speak about some things. Our metaphors and images occasionally get us into theological trouble – even if we’re reading them in the fathers.

    The opinion of even a saint is not the same thing as a dogma of the Church. But I think St. Ignatius’ point at heart is important – just because something is “spirit” does not mean it should be compared to God. There is nothing that can be compared to God. In that (and in much else) Descartes was utterly wrong.

    To quote Met. Kallistos Ware, “It is difficult, if not impossible, to speak about the life after death except through the use of metaphors and symbols…not surprisingly these passages [three gospel passages on the last judgment] emply a metaphorical ‘picture language’: they speak in terms of “fire,” the “worm,” and a “great chasm.” The meraphors doubtless are not to be taken literally, but they have implications that are hard to avoid…”

    If I have pressed the issue of the metaphorical nature of much “literal” language, it has only been to push forward towards the truth as held in the Orthodox faith, particularly in a cultural context in which literalism has de-nuded the faith in many quarters (outside of Orthodoxy). If I press for “nuance” and “subtlety” it is only to push my readers a little deeper. I have no love of liberalism or revisionism nor any diminution of the Orthodox faith. If I have given that impression, I have written poorly.

    By all means use catechisms – but don’t stop with them. The dogmas of the faith must be known inwardly and become embodied within us. If they simply remain as outlines for argumentation they will not have yet become salvific in an individual life.

    Please forgive me if how I stated things in the post gave you offense. I am an ignorant man.

  54. fatherstephen Avatar

    A short additional note on your quote from St. Mark of Ephesus. St. Mark particularly wrote to refute the notion of a “material fire” of purgatory. If the fire is not “material” then why impute a materiality (per se) to his comments on paradise and the lowest parts? We use such language because we must, but the reality transcends the imagery itself. It was the material literalism of some in the West that St. Mark argued against – noting that it had taken them to wrong conclusions. I will readily grant that as creatures our existence may have things that delimit it – but this is not the always the most useful way to think about these things.

    For instance, in Baptism, I was buried with Christ. But that does not mean I was put into a grave, etc. The language is true but I cannot think of how to use place and time to describe this reality. Such examples could be multiplied.

  55. Isaac Avatar


    I agree that this example touches upon this mystical reality of union with Christ. Similarly we say in pre-communion prayers that Christ is “ever slain, sanctifying them that partake” or something to that effect. Of course, with God we are not talking about created spirits, but about He Who is everywhere present and fillest all things, so those examples don’t contradict the delimitation of spirits, nor spiritual geography… but I take your point– just because there is such a thing doesn’t mean it works the same way. St. Mark’s main thrust in the homilies I have seen is that those forgiven of their sins no longer have need of punishment– this was his main objection to purgatorial fire. Those who depart forgiven yet without having produced the fruits of repentance ARE cleansed after death– make no mistake, St. Mark is quite clear about this, and may even be excluded from Paradise temporarily– but not by suffering (they suffer from tears and fearful expectation) but through the prayers of the Church on their behalf and through the commemoration of their names at the Unbloody Sacrifice. That is the Orthodox teaching according to St. Mark, and I believe it.

    I think we get into serious error, however, if we do what St. Ignatii warns against: following Descartes into believing that all spirits are independent of ANY time (not just earthly time) and are independent of ANY place (not just earthly places– as in, they can be everywhere at once and simultaneously nowhere). The souls of the dead are not yet resurrected and judged, which is why we can pray for them. Furthermore, created spirits, being limited, may with God’s permission leave Heaven or Hades to visit us.

    One last quotation, from the great Father and Ecumenical Teacher John the Golden-Mouthed who also happens to use geography language (making me think that it’s not really so bad to do):

    “You ask where hell is; but why should you know it? You must know that Hell exists, not where it is hidden … In my opinion, it is somewhere outside this whole world … Let us attempt to find out not where it is, but how to escape it” (Homilies on Romans, 31:3)

    And another from the great Pillar of Orthodoxy Mark Evgenikos who uses time language:

    “That which certain of the saints have seen in vision and revelation regarding the future torment of the impious and sinners who are in it are certain images of future things and as it were depictions, and not what is already in fact happening now.” (From the Second Homily Against the Purgatorial Fire)

  56. Isaac Avatar

    Father, I just saw your first response. I know I’m not speaking with an ignorant man, but a good one and one gracious enough to respond to a reader he’s never even met. We substantially agree, although perhaps we are emphasizing different things. I have heard it said before that, “Orthodoxy has no clearly defined dogmas,” or that we simply “don’t use catechisms”; such statements are soft-minded vacuity and really dangerous because it leaves the hearer in danger of believing that Orthodoxy is some sort of ‘eastern rite Methodism,’ if you take my meaning. Such things one would only hear from us Americans– here in the utter “backwoods” and “hollers” of Orthodoxy.

    Thank you for addressing my points, Father, and I know you’re not a renovationist!

  57. Steve Avatar

    Archbishop Hilarion speaks of the iconostasis as “a window into another world (heaven)” where “the hosts of saints gaze down at the faithful from the icons” and “the aim of the iconostasis is not to create an obstacle, but rather to bring the faithful into the mystical life of the ‘Triumphant Church,’ whose saints and angels serve God in incessant rejoicing.”

    There are deep and obvious parallels between the Unbloody Sacrifice, the iconostasis and living in a one storey room.

    Thanking you for these very interesting articles and for the commentary!


  58. Sacred Hearts Avatar
    Sacred Hearts

    If you want to know the way to go – if you want to know how things work – then you have to know the heart of God. You have to know God Himself.

    Sound advice!

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