As we prepare to enter the time of Great Lent, the Church reminds us that our lives belong in a greater context than the mundane and immediate things of everyday life. In the Sunday of the Last Judgment, the Church reminds us that we trust in Christ’s love and mercy, and yet we must not forget His righteous judgment when He comes again in glory. Fasting and praying are ways to prepare our hearts towards true works of love.
Recently our Bible study group was discussing how hell is not a “place” because it is outside time and space, and it is a subjective (and real) state. It is not a specific location where God sends people in order to torture them there. This would be a view that imagines God as the great torturer, who will have his blood, either from Christ on your stead in a legal fiction, or from you (a view common in Protestantism).
Rather, to experience the disembodied state, beyond physical death, as we discussed, is the experience of the unveiled presence of God who is a consuming fire – for those who love God, that fire is the uncreated light of the unending day that warms, purifies, deifies, and fills with joy and love.
For those who have rejected the love of God, his unveiled presence is not experienced as the fire of his love, but a fire that burns. Hell is not the absence of God (which is impossible); it is the presence of his fiery love. A fire that is not desired, but rejected, alien.
It is not experienced as the burning bush, filled with the glowing fire of God but never consumed; but as the fire that burned Sinai.
This has been the common view of the Church since the beginning, as seen in many of he Fathers.
It occurred to me that CS Lewis, in the Great Divorce (my favorite book by him, and I haven’t read it since college) paints a picture that is not entirely different. The people leave the beautiful land of heaven because they can’t stand the grass, which hurts them. So they return to the Grey Town.
In Lewis’ allegory, he sees everything in heaven (grass, rocks, trees, water, etc.) as “much solider than things in our country” in contrast to the people coming from earth who are transparent and ghostly. They have thought of their world as the “real” one, the one with substance, while thinking of heaven as the less substantial spirit world. If they are not changed, Heaven will have no appeal to them. They cannot live there, and neither will they want to live there.
Conversely, a small taste of hell is already experienced here, even if temporarily, by those who love God and by those who don’t. God uses suffering in this world to refine and purify his people. As St Paul said, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
From Old Testament times, the prophet Malachi had already said,
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.” (Malachi 3:1-4)