Is Hell Real?

hellrealBecause sometimes the people of God need a basic lesson in the nature of existence…

On one of the roads leading into my small city a billboard has recently appeared. It is part of a larger campaign by a nationally known evangelist who is to have a revival in Knoxville. The sign is simple. In very large bright yellow letters (all caps), the sign says: HELL IS REAL. In small letters beneath it, in white, that can be read as your car nears the sign is the statement: so is heaven. Like the small bulletin boards outside of many Southern churches, this sign belongs to a part of our culture that has been with us a long time. But everytime I see this sign, my mind turns to the subject of ontology (the study of the nature of being). Thus I offer today some very basic thoughts on the subject of being – a classical part of Christian theology.

The first thing I will note is that you cannot say Hell is real and Heaven is real and the word real mean the same thing in both sentences. Whatever the reality of Heaven, Hell does not have such reality. Whatever the reality of Hell, Heaven is far beyond such reality.

St. Athanasius in his De Incarnatione, sees sin (and thus hell) as a movement towards “non-being.” The created universe was made out of nothing – thus as it moves away from God it is moving away from the gift of existence and towards its original state – non-existence. God is good, and does not begrudge existence to anything, thus the most creation can do is move towards non-being.

I’m certain that the intent of the billboard was to suggest that hell is not imaginary or just a folk-tale. It is certainly neither of those things. But in Orthodox spiritual terms I would say that hell is a massive state of delusion, maybe the ultimate state of delusion. It is delusional in the sense that (in Orthodox understanding) the “fire” of hell is not a material fire, but itself nothing other than the fire of the Living God (Hebrews 12:29). For those who love God, His fire is light and life, purification and all good things. For those who hate God, His fire is torment, though it be love.

And these are not simply picky issues about the afterlife – they are very germane issues for the present life. Christ Himself gave this “definition” of hell: “And this is condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).

It is of critical importance for us to understand that being, reality, life, goodness, beauty, happiness, truth are all synonymous with reality as it is gifted to us by God. Many things that we experience in our currently damaged condition (I speak of our fallen state) which we describe with words such as “being, reality, life, goodness, beauty, happiness, truth, etc.”, are, in fact, only relatively so and are only so inasmuch as they have a participation or a relationship with the fullness of being, reality, life, etc.

Tragically in our world, many live in some state of delusion (even most of us live in some state of delusion). Christ said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” We are not pure in heart, and thus we do not see God, nor do we see anything in the fullness of its truth. Our delusion makes many mistakes about reality. The most serious delusion is that described by Christ, when we prefer darkness to light because our deeds are evil.

I have in my own life known what moments in such darkness are like – and I have seen such darkness in the hearts and lives of others many times. The whole of our ministry and life as Christians is to move from such darkness and into the light of Christ. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship (communion) one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1John 1:7)

Is hell real? Only for those who prefer to see the Light of God as darkness.

Is heaven real? Yes, indeed, and everything else is only real as it relates to that reality. God give us grace to walk in the Light.

End of the ontology lesson.

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.



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68 responses to “Is Hell Real?”

  1. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen. Your posts are very helpful corrections to my thinking.

  2. Panayiota Avatar

    Father, does the soul of he who lives his life in this dark state move even closer toward non existence when he dies?
    I’ve always had a difficult time interrupting St. Athanasios when he spoke of non-being.
    Forgive me if you have already explained this.

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Not necessarily. It’s also true that we don’t really know the state of another soul. Some people may appear quite dark to us, but within be achieving a great victory unseen to all – even to themselves.

  4. Panayiota Avatar

    Thank you Father.
    I say he, but I include myself in this place of loving darkness.

  5. T.H. Merritt Avatar
    T.H. Merritt

    Father Stephen,

    I cannot express how very helpful and enlightening your blog is in helping so many in pondering the deeper meaning of things.

    Thank you for your continued profound and provocative commentaries.

    In XC,

    San Diego, Calif.

  6. Byron Avatar

    Many thanks, Father!

  7. J Clivas Avatar

    Psychoanalysts would describe sinful delusion as faulty reality testing.

  8. Ann K Avatar
    Ann K

    Thank you, Father!

  9. k_Lutz Avatar

    Neil Gaiman remarks: “I think hell is something you carry around with you. Not somewhere you go to.” There can be no escape from the necessity of repentance, for only the pure in heart shall see God. The hopeful universalist, therefore, differs from the traditional infernalist not on the existence of hell but on its duration and purpose. – Fr Aidan (Alvin) Kimel

  10. Al Avatar

    Father Freeman, thank you for your posts and for taking the time to write them. I am having a difficult time understanding the notion of salvation being hidden from us… Could someone feel very remote from God and know himself to be a sinner in thought and deed — that is, realize how much of his daily thoughts and actions is actually motivated by self-interest and how often he lives in oblivion of Christ – and yet be “achieving a great victory within?” How might salvation be worked in him? It is an intriguing and yet such an elusive notion to grasp…

    Also, since the topic of this post is Hell, I am wondering about what happens with the “debris” of our existence: days ill-spent in idleness and egocentric pursuits, days of anger, irritation, harmful choices, hurtful words and deeds… How do we carry these with us into the beyond?

    I am not even sure if these questions are on the right track, but I am hoping you will correct me if they are not.

    Thank you again for your posts. They are illuminating and thought-provoking.

  11. paula romano Avatar
    paula romano

    Thank you. So helpful!

  12. davidp Avatar

    I read last year “that hell is a life without God”! As Fr Patrick Reardon said on his interview with Kevin Allen…we are now living in the 9th plague of Egypt… one Hebrew commentary writes…a thick darkness that you can feel.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The hiddenness of salvation. I think of the verse in Colossians that tells us our “life is hid with Christ in God.” To a large extent, we do not know ourselves. We do not see who/what we truly are. The detritus, a good term, hides so much. I’ll give an easy example:

    Let’s say there is someone with a brain disorder. It makes them utterly more aware of the noise of life than of anything else. So they daily struggle just to be present. Some days they don’t do so well. Some days they manage. The words of Christ sometimes confuse them – the noise and other things create so much distraction that the meanings get lost.

    But they abide. They remain faithful. Their lifetime was a long, slow martyrdom of the brain. They are a martyr – a witness to being faithful even through a form of pain. What joy they might know in this life is always a noisy joy.

    But their faithfulness is like a wonderful diamond. Shaped and forged in the depths of so much difficulty. The difficulty itself made it impossible to really appreciate or even be aware of the diamond.

    But at death, the dysfunctioning brain becomes quiet. The mystery of soul and body transcend the weakness of the body. The greatness of the soul in the grace of God is made manifest.

    …like gold in the furnace He tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering He accepted them. In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble…(Widsom 3:6-7)

    It is an image that makes sense to me and gives me great comfort. Change the brain dysfunction to something else. The image still holds.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Are we living in hell?

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    No, we are not. Sometimes, we give things a “hellish” cast. But hell is yet more profound.

  16. drewster2000 Avatar

    Al says: “I am wondering about what happens with the “debris” of our existence: days ill-spent in idleness and egocentric pursuits, days of anger, irritation, harmful choices, hurtful words and deeds… How do we carry these with us into the beyond?”

    This statement reminded me of the idea from my early Protestant days of a man standing before God on Judgement Day and explaining or apologizing for every sin he ever did wrong. Really a misguided notion in the end analysis. I believe the truth is closer to this:

    When an apprentice takes up a trade, works his way through the journeyman stage and finally becomes an expert craftsman, he isn’t cross-examined about all the mistakes he made on the way there, or the seasons in which he slacked off and made no efforts to better his trade. The mistakes will have been transformed into stories and lessons to pass on to others. The seasons of slackness of harm to his craft will have had their effect by slowing his progress, but otherwise they are done and in the past. He is now a master craftsman.

    Put in a simplistic way, God is after the person whom He created and whom He loves. Times of harmful choices are initially just a delay in our progress toward the destination – which is God. But eventually even those harmful choices are themselves resurrected.

    Here is a related quote from “The Great Divorce” put into the mouth of George MacDonald:

    “”Son,” he said, “ye cannot in your present state understand eternity: when Anodos looked through the door of the Timeless, he brought no message back. But ye can get some likeness of it if ye say that both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective.

    Not only this valley but all this earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved. Not only the twilight in that town, but all their life on earth too, will then be seen by the damned to have been Hell. That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say ‘Let me but have this and I’ll take the consequences’: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the
    pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death.

    The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say,
    ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,’ and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly.”

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    So we live with a foretaste of hell and a foretaste of heaven?

    I do know that the most hellish experiences of my life have always been followed by or encapsulated in a profound experience of grace despite my best efforts to get lost in the darkness.

  18. Dino Avatar

    Fr Sophrony (Sakharov) employed the following notable image on the topic:
    As it is with a glass of water, so it will be with a person. One examination of it, one sip from it, one look at it even, and its past is made clear to you. It can be crystal clear, sweet and rich with minerals, or contaminated and filthy.

  19. drewster2000 Avatar

    I’m reminded of that famous quote from St. Macarius:

    “The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there.”

    For me this speaks to the mystery that the beginnings of both Heaven & Hell lie within.

  20. Joshua Avatar

    I’ve always struggled with the concept of hell. It almost seems a cruel punishment to suffer for eternity for a very short lifetime of sins.

    That being said, what is hell? Is it a place where we know our sins for eternity? Is it a place of no light (no God)? Will God forsake those in Hell? Or is Hell simply eternal death?

    It is hard for me to understand that an all loving God would place any of us in such a place or existence. Hell is definitely a concept that frightens me. I pray that, not only me, but that no one has to be in such a place.

  21. Alex Combas Avatar
    Alex Combas

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article Fr Stephen,

    But I’m curious, regarding what is said at Revelation 20:12-15 is the Lake of Fire a reference to the presence of God, or is it something else entirely?

  22. Al Avatar

    Father Freeman, thank you for your detailed response. It has clarified many things for me. As always, I am thankful for your posts. They give me light and hope.

    Wishing you a blessed, restful night.

  23. Dino Avatar

    my speculation, and it is just that, is that the perversion of oneself -the sort that might endure as an eternal ‘new self’ – has the power to undermine and overthrow our natural desire for Good (and natural repulsion for delusion) into a very real ‘desire for delusion’ and repulsion of Good. It is self-worshipping pride at its worst, a case of perceiving the unbearable darkness of Hell as, somehow, ‘better’ than having to be humbled, repenting and allowing another to save me.
    Other “explanations” of hell can have their problems.
    ‘Lord Jesus Christ, may all come to know Thee so that none might perish.’

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m not at all clear on it. I don’t know.

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    May God hear your prayers. I take it as a matter of settled faith that God is good and that however we understand hell, it is not God’s abandonment of any of His creatures. Psalm 139 says, “Lo if I descend into hell, Thou art there.” At Pascha we commemorate Christ’s descent into hell and freeing those held captive. It is said by some that so long as one soul is in hell, Christ remains there. That’s a mystical statement – very outside-of-time and all that.

    It’s very difficult to get lost in speculative details in this topic and our anxieties and fears easily overwhelm us. It is God’s goodness that needs to be our focus, our joy and our anchor. It is right and good to pray always for everyone and for the salvation of all.

  26. Margaret Avatar

    I appreciate your taking time to thoughtfully post this, Fr. Stephen, but I especially appreciate and find comfort in your comments here responding to Joshua:

    “It’s very difficult to get lost in speculative details in this topic and our anxieties and fears easily overwhelm us. It is God’s goodness that needs to be our focus, our joy and our anchor. It is right and good to pray always for everyone and for the salvation of all.”

    Thank you especially for taking time to thoughtfully reply in this manner. Glory to God for All Things!

  27. Joshua Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen for your reply. We humans really do have simple minds and it is impossible for us to comprehend much of God’s plan and ways. Isn’t that why we have mysteries too?

    Instead of focusing on Hell and punishment, I remember that what Jesus Christ did for us all. That is not a God who wants any of us in a place of torment. Jesus would prefer to bring each and everyone of us with Him back to His kingdom.

  28. Dino Avatar

    at the risk of sounding ‘universalist’, it’s worth considering the ineffability of God’s goodness with this example:
    although we cannot and should not say it, if gehenna’s “punishment” potentially has a concealed ‘apokatastatic’ effect even on luciferean pride (Isaiah 2:11), this would have had a precursor in the way death and suffering that followed the Fall had an effect that was entirely concealed at the time. After the Fall, death seemed like a punishment; however, Christ’s salvific work has made that into an infinitely greater blessing than what man, angel or demon could have ever conceived at the time.

  29. Christopher Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Would you say that the Orthodox Church rejects any/all *metaphysical* statements/theology about hell? If so, how does the Church handle *ontologicaly* the images (and teaching of Christ Himself) in the Gospel/OT/NT that have a certain metaphysical flavor: “judgement” (i.e. “Last Judgement”), “separation”, the before and after (to say nothing of finality) quality of these images, etc.? Even when you grant the obvious on the limits of human rationality, the viewing of the eternal from within chronos, etc., they still seem to be saying something. We even have the Sunday of the Last Judgement and an traditional icon of this that seems to be saying something more than “process” and “becoming”, and “Heaven and Hell are a perspective/disposition/orientation to the same thing, namely Love of God”.

    I wonder if a purely *ontological* take on this current life, death, resurrection, judgement, hell, etc. has the “becoming” covered but not the one-being(state?)-different-from-the-next, the “before” and “after” and “final” part (e.g. “second judgement” in Rev., etc.). Does the Church simply assert “mystery” in the face of these scriptural images, and if so why do some of the Fathers then assert a theology based on prelapsarian and post-resurrectional states and such? Does a theology that focuses on “becoming” not lead directly questions such as Michael’s above, because the lines are so blurred that this present life is actually knocked out of focus: is it heaven, hell, or something else? The answer is I think it is fallen life, “something else”, yet we so obviously dip our feet into both heaven and hell in this life – but again, the focus on being/becoming seems limiting (because God wills it so?), to the point that these images Scriptural images become impenetrable (intentionally?).

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    An ontological approach has to do with “being” of which “becoming” is a subset. The main difference is with a forensic or legal model in which things are essentially only about abstract ideas – justice, etc. Ontology, to a degree, means it’s actually about something real – so it’s always inherently metaphysical. It always asks, “So, what is it, really?”

    There has never been a true dogmatic development or definitive statement about hell. There are many statements, for sure, but no one, dominant, final sort of thing. In fact, we have several ways of speaking about it.

    The “hell” we experience now, Fr. Zacharias describes it as the onslaught of terrible thoughts, etc., is a kind of shadow or rhyme with hell beyond. When I think metaphysically about these things, I think about stuff getting increasingly more real, and increasingly less real. Heaven, salvation, divinization is inherently increasingly more real. God alone is the truly real. The greater and deeper our communion with Him, the more real we become.

    Hell is a movement away from real. The noise of all those thoughts, for example, isn’t real (pretty much). If I could just be present in the moment without the noise, I would be far more real, with a lot less hell right now. I let my existence become attenuated through distraction and dissipation. Hell after death is even less real, more noisy (or something). It is a movement towards less existence and reality.

    That is how I think of these things. I’ve not read any of the Fathers who put it exactly like that. It’s just an image that helps me think. But the take on movement towards greater being or less being is pure Maximus the Confessor.

  31. Paula Hughes Avatar
    Paula Hughes

    Father, the question of Hell is a stumbling block for me. It has never made any sense that we have only until death to make good if we in some way survive death. If, as you say above, a person can be afflicted by a bodily infirmity that makes him have to struggle to be spiritual ( paraphrasing you) then isn’t it true that as embodied creatures we all suffer bodily and perceptual afflictions? Great ascetics strive to overcome this and some do. But most of us are not even aware of our passions and darkness even with the best of intentions while alive.

    It seems to me that once we are freed of the source of our darkness, ie the body, at death, it should be easier for us to see the truth of God. Yet this is the very time that God apparently says “you had your chance ‘ now go to Hell, whatever Hell is, and the Bible does call it fire more than a few times. If we do survive death as the person we are ,in some form then this would seem to me to be the appropriate time for a merciful God to take us into His Love, not to send us to endless fire or exile .

    And then again, if we are to be reunited with our bodies on the Last Day, would we not be imperfect again? Or if we can be perfect then, why not now on earth, and I mean all of who desire to be holy, not only saints.

    I am a mystic at my core , and as Heschel said, what we can not comprehend, we apprehend. My certainty of God’s mercy is not really challenged by the words of theologians and of the Bible, because these are human efforts to explicate a reality beyond human communication.. Eckhart said that we ought to love God truly, not out of fear of punishment or hope for reward, but for Himself.

  32. Dante Aligheri Avatar
    Dante Aligheri


    I agree with most of what you said, but, and please correct me if I’m misinterpreting or projecting, in the Christian tradition, the body and embodiment are not the chief sources of our sinfulness and passions. Now I agree that, per Augustine and the Fathers, the body is out of line with the soul, and our bodies are subject to various natural infirmities this side of the resurrection. But it seems to me the cause of all this is chiefly a problem within the soul, a lack of resting in God through the Word and Spirit.

    Embodiment does not mean imperfection. Rather, embodiment is the person; the person is his or her own body, a union of body and soul and not the soul alone. Our being here in creation is, putting the Fall aside, where we are meant to be – and where God “likes” to be, too, like in Gen. 2-3 and how Wisdom (either the Word or the Spirit) “desired” to be here.

    Imperfection rather is disunion of the soul with God, a failure of the image of God in us, which secondarily harms the body with corruption and disordered attachments, a handing over the body to its own finite descent into non-being. But, then again, even a soul or spirit can fall into non-being like the fallen angels. I know in the medieval tradition pride is the chief sin, and pride was believed to be the most heinous precisely because it originated not in the body but in the soul.

    The resurrection is greater than heaven because it is heaven and earth brought together in the Word and Spirit before the Father. That said, what we experience now is this disunity which does involve bringing the body in line with the divinized soul but done through bringing the soul in line with its divine image for divinization.

    Ilaria Ramelli in her history of apocastasis does a fairly good job describing how this worked.

    At the same time, I too wonder with you why repentance is not possible after death, and I don’t think, at least in Orthodoxy, that issue has been settled.

  33. Dino Avatar

    I would condense the whole issue concerning a rational being’s preparation (whether that has lasted a mere moment, a lifetime or it continues after bodily death) for the eschaton in these questions: “do I desire to be in my beloved God’s presence” (John 21:16), or has my prideful regard of self set up a god of “me” to which God is a rival?
    His love experienced as ‘fire’ (many icons of the Judgement depict it looking not so much as a river of fire, but a river of blood – His Blood shed for all) or as Light chiefly depends on just that…

  34. drewster2000 Avatar


    The way I have come to answer the “too late” question is by looking at verses like Ephesians 4:9 and 1 Peter 3:19 where it is referenced that during His 3 days in the tomb Christ went down and preached to the captives in Hell. Because Hell is outside of time and space, I reason that everyone who dies – past, present & future – meets Christ down there. From our perspective He is still down there freeing all who would be freed. We say all the time that the gates of Hell have been broken down and death has been overthrown. So how can we reason that there are still people within who are being kept against their will?

    C.S. Lewis’ book the Great Divorce seems to me a wonderful representation of what we should expect, as good as any portrayal I’ve seen. He also states that the only people in Hell are those who choose to be there.

    I believe a stricter interpretation is normally stated lest people think they can live a carefree life and then simply make a quick, painless conversion once they arrive “at the Pearly Gates”. The problem is that their carefree life can never be neutral. We live in a world at war, thus simply going where the wind blows you will take you places and into experiences that will beat you, rob you, rape you, and overall desecrate you as much as they can – whether you are totally aware of everything going on at the time or not. At the time you may be a willing participant, just looking for the good life wherever it may be found.

    But like the Great Divorce ghosts, you get formed in such ways that you become deaf and blind to basic things like what real beauty, truth and goodness are. On top of that your desire to imitate and draw toward such things gets sapped from you. You gradually lose the God-sense you were born with.

    So….God never gives up on people, but we make sure to set our hearts and minds earnestly on Him here and now because we were made to be one with Him and that is where we find all good things. If it’s a blistering cold winter night and He’s opened the door of His nice warm house with all good things, what secret pleasures are there to be had in standing outside with nothing but our skin on? Of course there will be frostbite and other things to deal with as we draw closer to the door, but all will be made right along the way.

    hope this helps somewhat, drewster

  35. Steve Avatar

    Michael Bauman says
    May 26, 2015 at 8:30 am

    Are we living in hell?

    If I may. The eternal fire (hypostasis) of God is experienced as unbelievable joy by some; sheer terror by others. (cf. Kalomiros A., 1980)

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The body is not our problem. It is good to be a mystic, I think, but it’s good to keep it in the bounds of the Church. Those bounds tell me that I won’t know some things. But the things I need to know are abundant. God is good, and I can trust that His goodness is and will be better than I can imagine. No hint of injustice or suffering will be on account of Him (quite the opposite). We are directed towards Christ, and there are indeed images used to encourage us to direct our attention properly. For example, the story of the sheep and the goats is not told for us to ponder who is in and who is not – instead – it tells us that Christ is in our midst, as the least of these, and that we can serve and know Him now in the least of these. The judgment will take care of itself.

    For me, the greatest mystical path is walked in the simple practice of giving thanks to God, always and for all things. That has depths and layers that lead to salvation. Fr. A Schmemann said, “Anyone capable of giving thanks is capable of salvation.”

  37. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Steve, my question was somewhat rhetorical. The fact of the matter is that most of us experience a taste of both, often at the same time. Existentially in a world seemingly ruled by entropy, destruction and death one does not have to go far or look hard for the foretastes of hell however etiolated they may be.

    However, at the same time we know and many have experienced that Christ is in our midst!

    IMO there is an attempt going on — a world wide nihilist revolution that touches all aspects of our life and yet the mercy and goodness of Jesus Christ still shines through all of it. Given the sheer horror that so many face right now in the Middle
    East and elsewhere, the testimonies to goodness and indomitable mercy are given short shrift especially by our media.

    I am reminded by Aragorn’s speech before the Black Gate in the Lord of the Rings movie:

    Hold your ground! Hold your ground!
    Sons of Gondor, of Rohan, my brothers,
    I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me.
    A day may come when the courage of men fails,
    when we forsake our friends
    and break all bonds of fellowship,
    but it is not this day.
    An hour of wolves and shattered shields,
    when the age of men comes crashing down,
    but it is not this day!
    This day we fight!!
    By all that you hold dear on this good Earth,
    I bid you stand, Men of the West!!!

    Normal weapons of war will fail, but mercy, virtue and prayer holding each other in our hearts will by the grace of Christ prevail over all.

  38. drewster2000 Avatar


    It does my heart good to hear the words of Aragorn heralded here. Thank you.

  39. Christopher Avatar

    Thanks for the reply Fr. Stephen. As many of the posters here have said in so many words, it is our tendency to take these scriptural images “judgement”, “eternity”, etc (and of course taking our judgement seriously), and place them in a “future” (not quite the right word) age (as for example in the creedal confession “and the life of the age to come”). So there is this somewhat linear image of birth-life of struggle-death-judgement-“age to come”, etc.

    The approach you are taking (and of course many ancient Fathers, modern spiritual confessors, etc.) seems to focus on pulling a “future” heaven/hell into our current “ontology”, our current existential life/situation, as in “Repent, the Kingdom of God (Heaven) is *at hand* (as in NOW – we are already there if we could see it)”. Thus, the emphasis on what is “real”, what is delusion – the timelessness of Heaven and Hell and there presence in this age (and every age) as a sort of background to them all

    Not only is this not easy for our linear/worldly minds, but it also runs up against (in a way) the “natural” way to read/think of these Scriptural (and creedal, etc.) images. I resist the common interpretation that these images are *merely* pedagogical for us who are wholly worldly and lack any real fear of God. Something in me tells me, or perhaps I simply want it to be so, that these images are more than that. Is this the voice of Hell itself? Perhaps, but then I confess I listen to these sorts of demonic voices (these “terrible thoughts”) all too often. Only in the quiet, does His Name become louder than the noise, and I am only beginning (really only beginning to make a beginning if I understand Elder Aimilianos correctly) to realize how to carry that quiet with me some small part of the day.

  40. Paula Hughes Avatar
    Paula Hughes

    Father , I know that we have moved on from this conversation, but my question is not answered. I know that our bodies are not our only or main problem regarding salvation, but our passions and darkened perceptions are caused by being in bodies.

    If we are still ‘ourselves’ , the people who sinned and suffered in the body, but now free of bodily passions and as St Paul says now seeing clearly, why would we not be able to continue to become holy? It seems unfair to say that while you are apt to confusion and sin you must become holy, but once you are dead and therefore free of confusion and passion you are condemned. it is like a plant taken out of the dark into the sunlight. The issue of Hell has never made sense to me. It seems petty for God to treat us this way. maybe the great sinners on earth can still become great saints in Heaven after death as they can before It?

    And yes, I understand that the Church and her practices are what keeps Mystics from. Drifting into La La land…. And Hell.

  41. Christopher Avatar

    “but our passions and darkened perceptions are caused by being in bodies.”

    This is a gnositic idea (e.g. early gnostics said that Judas was doing Jesus a service by helping him free himself from his physical body). Sin, in Christianity, is not “caused” by the body/physical world but rather by the misuse (fallen) *will* of the human soul. Thus, when we are “free” of our bodies after death we can still be subject to hell or heaven (though this is somewhat misleading because we believe in a resurrected body), and the fallen spirits/angels are of course created without a physical body and still suffer from “passions and darkened perceptions”. The body/physical universe is corrupted because of the fall, but is not the “cause” of the fall.

    Perhaps someone can link a good gnosticism vs. Orthdoxy article…

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I do not think that our passions and darkened perceptions are caused by being in bodies. They are certainly effected, but only in a measured way.

    On Athonite elder described the brain as a violin and the soul as the musician. If it’s missing a string, or is out of tune, it will create problems for the musician’s efforts to express himself. The elder then recommended medications when appropriate. I liked the image.

    I have written on the hidden work of grace before. The purpose of our present construction may sometimes puzzle us. Why not create us as unhindered souls? Plato would have liked that (as would Origen). But it is not our task. Among our many tasks of salvation is the union of the created/material world with God the Uncreated. The struggle of our daily existence, within and as embodied material beings is part of what that union looks like. The hidden part that we do not see so well is what this is, in fact, doing in the soul. It will not be clear in the this life.

    And though the soul is “freed” from the body at death – this separation is considered tragic in the Fathers. It is indeed tragic, because the soul is not “true self” but only a fragment of our true self. The fullness of the true self is in the union of body and soul. That will be fulfilled in the resurrection.

    I think that our desires for an unencumbered spiritual life is an echo of our American Dream. “All of the shoes of Imelda Marcos and the spiritual life of Mother Theresa,” is my favorite way to describe it. Instead, this present struggle, encumbered and wrestling with many issues of the body, is what the true spiritual life looks like. Really. Everything else is fantasy.

    The Fathers describe certain passions as being rooted in the body. Interestingly, they see all of those as “natural” passions, rooted in things like the desire to eat, to procreate, etc. They are minor things. It is the passions of the soul and the “complex passions” that involve both soul and body that are truly difficult. Dee Pennock’s book The Path to Sanity is probably the best summary and explanation on the passions that I’ve seen in English. Extremely readable and accurate.

  43. tess Avatar

    Father, bless,

    I’m currently reading the Therapy of Spiritual Illness trilogy by Larchet. Do you think Pennock’s book will have much to add to that work? I ask because I’m very interested in reading about the topic, but my book-buying budget is very small.


  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I don’t think it would add much.

  45. […] Orthodox  blogger Father Stephen Freeman on the ontology of hell : is hell real? […]

  46. Isaac Avatar

    Fr. Freeman,

    In your second to last line, you state: “Is hell real? Only for those who prefer to see the Light of God as darkness.”

    I thought you might speak more to this idea. It seems to me that anyone who prefers to see the Light of God as darkness is doing so not out of free will, but ignorance. Do you believe one can actually, freely choose evil for evil’s sake, and not due to mental illness or a distorted perspective of reality?

  47. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I believe it because I’ve seen it and experienced it. I believe that in the last analysis, all things are for our sakes (2Cor. 4:15). There is much to be healed, burned away, purified, made whole. The question of free will and ignorance is almost beside the point. It needs to be healed, etc. And I trust God to do that.

    I have no final opinion on how things turn out, it is in the hands of God. But that means that it is in the hands of an infinitely good God. And so I have peace.

    Christ descended into hell in order to get us out. This I know.

  48. Dino Avatar

    The question of free will vs ignorance concerning Hell (explored over at Fr Aidan’s blog) invariably reveals that knowledge, (true knowledge, that ‘omniscient’ kind of knowledge that allows the ‘gnomic will’ no other option than its complete alignment to the ‘natural will’) cannot be imparted without its free acceptance by the person…

  49. Dino Avatar

    Free ‘gnomic’ willing ‘needs’ ignorance for its deliberations in a sense (if one can say that) and it’s a bit like a chicken and egg scenario… One’s such choosing eventually maturing into alignment with their ‘natural’ willing (in accordance with their ‘logos’ ) would spawn their true freedom, as a voluntary, unceasing affirmation (the “yes” towards God coming from a rational being created with an eternal potential to –‘ignorantly’– say “no” too)

  50. Isaac Avatar

    Fr. Freeman,

    Thank you for your answer.

    “I believe it because I’ve seen it and experienced it.” Do you mean by this that you have seen people with their wits about them choose sin for sin’s sake? I’m not denying that this is a possibility, but in my experience people who choose sin are doing so because they see it as a good thing, or because they aren’t choosing at all, but are rather deranged or addicted.

    I completely agree that, regardless of free will, the point is that we need to be healed. However, the reason I believe free will is extremely relevant is because many contemporary Orthodox Christians adhere to a free will view of hell that posits that free will is so sacred and untouchable that, even if it leads one to eternal misery and the inability to be healed, it should not be interfered with. Then again, it is still hard for me to believe such a thing could be freely chosen, at least not according to any definition of “freedom” that I am familiar with.


    I am not sure if I understand what you are trying to say properly, but the idea that true knowledge can only be imparted with free acceptance, as you put it, brings to mind someone unknowingly running towards the edge of a cliff because they didn’t stop to ask if the road ahead was safe. Sure, you can say that it is the person’s fault for not doing their research, but if it was in your power, wouldn’t it be right for you to inform the person of the danger ahead?

  51. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The Orthodox teaching regarding the will is more complex than is commonly discussed, and many people get confused as a result. Dino was touching on this. The will, properly, is the natural will, something that belongs to our nature, and is therefore not fallen. A nature always wills its proper end – that’s why it’s a nature.

    But fallen man has a different experience. We have been fragmented and we experience what St. Maximus calls the “gnomic will.” This is the will that is governed by choice, rationality, desire, etc. And it doesn’t get it right. Salvation ultimately heals this fragmentation and we have true integrity of will and always want to do what our nature does. This is also the proper definition of freedom. Freedom is the ability of a nature to fulfill its end.

    The gnomic will doesn’t have an end. It’s more like noise. It is not free. It is not involved in “free will.” It’s just choice. Indeed, the gnomic will is more or less what it means to be enslaved. We are enslaved by the gnomic will and do not act in accordance with the end of our nature.

    God, I think, is not underwriting the bondage of the gnomic will for eternity. I do not begin to understand the whole story of our ultimate healing. But a lot of people waste a lot of breath defending a notion of freedom that is neither Biblical nor Patristic.

    The gnomic will is why Dino says it “needs ignorance.” It’s our broken notion of freedom. It is interesting that in the dogma of the Church, Christ clearly has no gnomic will. He does not experience “gnome.” He is without sin. To experience gnome is the very heart of sin.

    Much that happens in our lives – prayer, fasting, repentance, etc. – are disciplines that are slowly putting to death the gnomic will and experiencing and fulfilling the natural will. This is part of what is meant by becoming “truly” human. If you do not live in accordance with your nature, how can you be truly human? To be human is to live in accordance with human nature. Christ is what “truly” human looks like. He is the true Adam.

    There is also the “hypostatic principle” as described by the Elder Sophrony, in which as true Person, we embody the natural will. That true Personhood is so much more than what common parlor talk describes as being a person. Strangely, fallen man is neither truly human, nor truly personal.

    The hypostatic principle is love – all-embracing, all-encompassing union with God and all creation. It self-empties and finds itself in the Other. It is the life of the Holy Trinity lived by man in accordance with his nature. It is in the realm of Person that our salvation takes place primarily. The Person is that which gives expression to the nature. All of our disciplines are geared towards the Person.

    I tend to have a very strong reading on God’s role in our salvation. He intervenes (clearly). The action of the Incarnation and Pascha are the work of a God is utterly active for our salvation. But for the Person to be truly Personal, freedom is required. This freedom, I think, isn’t always simply about the will. But that’s a bit of a mystery. It is like Fr. Thomas Hopko used to say, “Sometimes I want to want to…” It is a free orientation towards God, even when willing is too great.

    CSLewis says that he became a Christian the same summer that he learned to dive (in water). And he compared the experience. His story resonates with my experience. I first learned to dive the year I got “saved” as well. Standing on the board, frightened beyond description, taunted by my swimming teacher, cheered by friends, I eventually, more or less made an almost suicidal decision to give myself over to falling head-first into the water. “Willing” it would have been ever so much prettier. But I sort of fell off the board in a manner that had intention at some level – if barely.

    I think that our salvation often begins in such a manner (our real salvation). I’ve done some things with the simple understanding that “this is the sort of thing real Christians do,” but not with a whole lot of faith. Like falling head-first off a diving board.

    Most of the conversations about free-will are too clean and pretty. Falling off the board, I allowed my nature to have its way – I fell into the water.

  52. Isaac Avatar

    Fr. Freeman,

    Thank you for the thorough and helpful response. I did have some understanding of the differences between the gnomic and natural wills, but your explanation classifies things. I suppose the intricacies of how one might eternally choose or end up in hell will remain a mystery, and I will continue to hope and pray such a choice is never made.

  53. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I suppose I think of it less as a choice, and more as simply a problem that hasn’t yet been worked out.

  54. Christopher Avatar

    ” It seems to me that anyone who prefers to see the Light of God as darkness is doing so not out of free will, but ignorance. Do you believe one can actually, freely choose evil for evil’s sake, and not due to mental illness or a distorted perspective of reality?”

    Yet, I do this all the time. I choose, freely, sin-evil-hell-death with full knowledge, based on both trusted “theoria” and hard won experiential knowledge, that this is exactly what I am doing. Why? The answer of course is the Christian answer. Following Archimandrite Aimilianos it is a “fig leaf”, a running away from the abyss of my own nothingness. In other words, there are deeper things to the human being, deeper motivations and “causality” of choices than knowledge. This is why Christianity is not a system of knowledge, or even a belief, but ‘a way’ – an action, a praxis. One can “understand” Christianity in an intellectual sense, one can even have perfect knowledge of it, and not actually do Christianity, not actually follow God. I would even say that to know God (i.e, to be Christian) is not to “know” in the usual sense. Thus we talk about “union” and “theosis” and not knowing/knowledge as such.

    One of the central darkness’s of modernity is that the human problem is a problem of knowledge. It might be said that to a modern person, love IS knowledge, or at least that perfect knowledge would lead to perfect love.

    I have a book on my shelf written by an Orthodox laymen (I have yet to read it) that is entitled “To Love is to Obey”. Action, doing, “follow me”, even “obedience” (something the god of SELF only does in relation to itself)

    I am not in the least surprised that a person would choose hell with perfect knowledge that that is exactly what he is doing. I myself choose hell all the time. It’s one of the many reasons I am not a universalist. Much the same sort of things can be said of the “will”. Also, some things I have read about “addiction”, “mental illness” and other ways to talk about an irresistible physical/psychological compulsion acknowledge that it is not really about knowledge and the will, but other things I have read seem to want to pull it back into these realms…

  55. Isaac Avatar

    “I myself choose hell all the time. ”

    Choosing hell and choosing what, if uncorrected, might lead to your damnation are not synonymous. If you knew, without a doubt, that your next sinful action would guarantee your damnation, my bet is that you would abstain.

  56. Christopher Avatar


    Putting aside the ontology of hell and focusing on the question whether I would choose damnation, I think that I and others choose damnation all the time.

    “From my mother’s womb I began to grieve Thee…Bad habits entangle me like snares, and I rejoice at being thus bound. I sink to the very depths of evil, and this delights me. Daily the enemy give me new shackles, for he sees how this variety of bonds pleases me.” (St. Theophan’s “A Spiritual Psalter”, which is a selection of St. Ephraim)

    No, I sink to the very depths of evil (even unto damnation) and it, *truly*, delights me. I do this with a complete knowledge as I need, and willfully. I don’t have to move towards God, and it delights me when I don’t, even though I “know” that this satisfaction (along with my soul) is damnable. Only God, if He wills, will save me, I won’t “choose” heaven. You would loose your bet.

    I agree with Fr. Stephen (or perhaps not – I could be misreading him), modern man makes too much of knowledge and choosing/freedom.

    I know it is too easy to set up an false antithesis between “knowledge” and the spiritual life and God, and I don’t mean to do that. It’s just there is a way to delude oneself that knowledge is following God. Or that the “correct” choice leads to salvation.

    Perhaps it is just me, but I am more and more convinced that the way these terms are normally used (i.e. “knowledge” and “choice/freedom”) is delusional.

    “What can I do for God? Nothing. In fact, I can’t even seek Him; I can’t even repent. But what I can do is struggle.” Archimandrite Aimilianos

    I can’t even repent – that is, I cant even not choose sin, hell, death. I can struggle (acesis), and God does the rest, if He so wills…

  57. Dino Avatar

    that’s a very germane point… Knowledge, desire, pride, will, (and obviously ‘freedom’) are not as clear-cut as many of our rationalisations make them out to be.
    When the Fathers speak of the devil’s utter lack of ever desiring to be humbled, to repent, -with the exception of Nyssa and Isaac’s claim of a purgatorial Gehenna, ‘prompting’ to repentance and non-delusion-, they generally imply that any ‘prompting’ to repentance and non-delusion (and the ensuing recognition of another God than pride’s god as the locus of the devil’s [the par excellence self-damned rational being] knowledge, desire, will, and ‘freedom’) itself is part of their hell.

  58. Dino Avatar

    I meant (by a “very germane point”) the point that the core of prideful non-repentance is not just a (“gnomic”) lack of knowledge, but a “fig leaf”, a running away from the abyss of my own nothingness (not towards God but towards further nothingness), in denial of the truth of God (“naturally”) being my everything, my God, – an eternal preference of ‘me being my own god’,
    a ‘god-like’, self-determining choice/preference -on the part of rational beings- for delusion rather than truth.

  59. Dino Avatar

    Whether this choice/preference will be eternally and unceasingly renewed or not (by its agent) has, admittedly, had a variety of answers -even within the body of Saints

  60. Isaac Avatar


    I can see that we might as well be having this conversation in two different languages which the other doesn’t understand. You clearly don’t understand my points, and I don’t understand yours.

  61. Dino Avatar


    If you knew, without a doubt, that your next sinful action would guarantee your damnation, my bet is that you would abstain.

    Knowing is liberating from delusion, but, only to those who are not enslaved to passion. A deep-seated and willfully culivated passion (pride in particular) has a power over its subject that can be greater than one’s nature itself. So much so, perhaps, that it can, indeed, not be resisted even in the face of such knowledge.
    The subject is not ‘defined for eternity’ by his actions in this thinking, but is creating a ‘way of interpreting [misinterpreting] all that exists’ based on the wrong vantage point – the self-god.
    The quote by Elder Aimilianos on struggle, in light of Elder Sophrony’s notion of salvific [healthy] “self-hatred” seems to be a offering a ‘way’ out of this luciferean ordeal.

  62. Christopher Avatar


    Forgive me! No doubt you are correct. It is all too easy to talk past each other in this medium I am afraid.


    Coming back again to Elder Aimilianos, where he describes “dispassion” (the opposite of being enslaved to the passions) in ways that on the surface seem anti-material and anti body, almost in the sense that the body IS what weighs us down into the passionate, the carnal. Yet, it is more nuanced than that, and follows St. Paul “…whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell” (2 Cor 12).

    I was listening to a podcast from Ancient Faith lately (can’t remember which one) where the author was explaining that the NT (Mark 12:30 for example) contains ” And you shall love the Lord your God…with all your mind” as a sort of interpolation to Deuteronomy 6 because the greeks would not understand that the hebrew “flesh” *contains* mind, so they needed the “expansion”. I think as modern people we readily admit that our “flesh” is impassioned, diseased, etc. We however want to place our mind above the flesh, as an ideal outside our impassioned flesh and existence. Yet, as modern medicine and psychology is affirming, the state of our mind is highly “physical”, thus we have brain disease that is directly tied to our mind.

    In the New Creation, our flesh is risen, and thus our minds. In this world, our flesh is passionate and enslaved, and because of this, so is our minds.

    All this ties back (though I don’t pretend to see it systematically) to will and universalism through “choice”, which necessarily includes something of the mind (otherwise it is instinct or something like that). It is as if the universalists are saying with the question “why would you choose hell” from the idea that the mind is not enslaved with the body and thus can “freely” choose in a dispassionate way/life/heaven. Well, of course a dispassionate mind would choose dispassion, but that is not our situation in this fallen life and it don’t think the Judgement is a purely rational exercise where we are “disembodied”. This is a caricature of the universalist understanding no doubt, but I am simply trying to isolate this “choice” that has as an unspoken presupposition behind it a dispassionate starting point…

  63. Dino Avatar

    Issac & Christopher et al,
    I often think of the simplicity of those sayings of certain Saints, the coherency of which our philosophical deliberations can fail to spot. {As evidenced in some of the very long altercations over at Eclectic Orthodoxy on this issue}
    Many of them –from Dorotheos to Paisios- come back to the extremely simple idea of Hell and Heaven (the ‘afterlife’) being an eternal Liturgy, and how one is predisposed to a long Liturgy (feelings of wonder, boredom, hate, love etc…) being an indicator of how they will respond to an eternity of a visible God and an over-and-done-with “outside of the Liturgy world”.
    May we condition our response benignly and help all others according to the measure we can too…

  64. William Gautsch Avatar

    I like this. Makes me Hmm.

  65. Darius Avatar

    As a former Catholic who converted to Orthodoxy, the Catholics are the ones who made hell as a place separated from the presence of God and where demons torture people and Satan rules hell from Dante. Then those Evangelical Christian hell houses and judgement houses, like this one, (, as well as visions from some Protestants, borrowed those perceptions of hell and kept it alive. Though there are some Protestants who believe that Satan and the demons don’t torture people in hell and in fact they’ll be the ones tormented in hell, Catholics and move Protestants believe that hell is a place of total separation from the presence of God. When looking at how the Orthodox Church views hell, some Orthodox Christians believe that hell is literal place as explained in this cathecism: “HELL, unpopular as it is to modern people, is real. The Orthodox Church understands hell as a place of eternal torment for those who willfully reject the grace of God. Our Lord once said, “If your hand makes you sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched — where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44-45). He challenged the religious hypocrites with the question: “How can you escape the condemnation of hell?” (Matthew 23:33). His answer is, “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17). There is a day of judgement coming, and there is a place of punishment for those who have hardened their hearts against God. It does make a difference how we will live this life. Those who of their own free will reject the grace and mercy of God must forever bear the consequences of that choice.” What is the correct teaching on hell in the Orthodox Church? Is hell a literal place or an experience of God’s presence? Is hell a place of everlasting seperation from any of God’s presence? I’m quite confused here.

  66. Dino Avatar

    perhaps a good way to grasp this is to base it on the truth that there’s nothing worse than not having God for my God; in other words, there’s nothing worse than having become utterly hardened into having –in His place– the ego for my god, this is all those things that we have heard of about hell, all of them in one, (separation from God, the torment of the unbearable futility of my existence, an eternal utter loneliness, a continuous misinterpretation of the God of Love, etc) – also, it clearly isn’t ‘topical’ but ‘tropical’.

  67. Dino Avatar

    And all this is fairly easily appeased amongst the garden of distractions we find ourselves in now, in this life; but not so when the truth of God will be the only thing that remains and the falsehood of all else is revealed in His Light – our recourse to this distracting delusion disabled.

  68. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    Darius, I’m an infant (not yet one year old) in the faith and converted to Orthodoxy through an ontological understanding of salvation. If I were to say what hell is, my hope is that what I say is not different from Dino’s words in meaning. But sometimes using different words can be useful. Using my simple understanding, Hell is the experience of lacking communion with God. In this life, if we choose to live in such a way that is not in communion with God, we might be able to distract ourselves from our sufferings that such lack might cause. But in the end of our life and afterward, we will no longer be capable of such distractions. And the suffering will likely be more significant without distractions. Such suffering may not necessarily be a consequence of lacking God’s presence but the opposite, being in God’s presence and embraced by God’s love, we suffer for having chosen ‘non-being’ the opposite of love and opposite what we were created to become.

    I don’t think I am in a position in this life to be able to say more about what comes after this life. I lack knowledge and eloquence. But I recommend Fr Stephen’s article: “Salvation, Ontology, Existential and Other Large Words”–posted on Sept. 17th, 2011. You might find it helpful if you haven’t already read it.

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