The Not-So-Traditional View: Does Your Particular Belief About Hell Really Have Church History On Its Side? (Part 3)

It is evident now that traditionalists throughout most of church history generally held to the gruesome and lurid doctrine of hell that many traditionalists today try to disavow. But there do remain a few loose ends. The first is Martin Luther and his view on hell. The second is the Eastern Orthodox Church, and just how to fit them into the mix.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther could potentially be offered as a counterexample to the overall trend of traditionalists in I surveyed in part 2 (and he would be quite an influential figure to do so). That is not to say that he would fit in with those I cited in part 1, at least not upon closer examination. But some of his writings do express views that require us to stop and look further and see just how far, if at all, he did depart from those listed in part 2.1

Martin Luther can be a tough nut to crack. I’m no Luther expert, but I know he has a reputation for not always being consistent (or, since he was  real person, for changing his mind). There is also the language barrier. Despite Luther’s tremendous influence on the history of the entire world in the last 500 years, not all of his works are readily available in English.

Where I have seen references to his views on hell, they almost always come from a substantial collection (and translation) of quotations titled What Luther Said. This volume was compiled and translated by Ewald Plass. According to the foreword, it was the first time that much of its content had been translated into English2 It is from Plass’s massive tome that one passage in particular stands out:

The fiery oven is ignited merely by the unbearable appearance of God and endures eternally. For the Day of Judgment will last a moment only but will stand throughout eternity and will thereafter never come to an end. Constantly the damned will be judged, constantly they will suffer pain, and constantly they will be a fiery oven, that is, they will be tortured within by supreme distress and tribulation.3

Initially, this sounds like the fire view. However, Luther goes on to define “fiery oven” as internal turmoil. Not only does it speak of internal turmoil, but it defines fire as such, thereby nullifying the apparent connection to the fire view. And so one holds to the darkness view can see a connection to their view in this.

That said, there are still elements of what Luther says here that depart substantially from the darkness view (i.e. the view described in part 1). When he says “they will constantly suffer pain,” that certainly sounds like a more traditional view of hell. A number of lesser-known Luther citations in Plass’s work reinforce the idea of physical pain in hell (as opposed to it being a nuanced reference to emotional pain or something like that). It is not simply sadness and regret.

The external fire is nothing in comparison to the internal fire.4

This quote serves to both solidify the more traditional fire view aspects of Luther’s beliefs, while also showing some degree of departure. Luther emphasized the terror of what goes on inside. Nevertheless, he also affirms an external source of torment.

If the pains of the future life are to be greater and perpetual, our bodies, as now constituted, will not be able to endure them. They can hardly bear the momentary sufferings of this life. It seems to me that the bodies will be different in the future life.56

The sufferings of hell are a type of pain that would destroy mortal bodies. The most natural reading, at least, would be that Luther was speaking of physical pain.

Even more clear is the fact that Luther considered God’s wrath and vengeance to be an active component of the suffering in hell. Most notably, he says so in the same passage we began with:

This chief and unbearable punishment God will inflict is His mere appearance, that is, the revelation of His wrath.7

The “mere appearance” mentioned earlier is defined in the same document as being the revelation of God’s wrath. Citing Psalm 34:17, Luther also says:

‘The face of the Lord is against them that do evil.’ Indeed, this is the punishment which no one understands but the damned, who feel it, so that it is horrible even to think of the words of this verse, so very fittingly do they depict it.8

Rather than God being the ultimate good, whose loss will be regretted by those in hell, Luther instead saw God as the one those in hell will forever try to escape but never can:

Those put the matter correctly who hold that the punishment of hell will consist in this that the godless will wish to escape the hand of God but will find it impossible to do so, as indeed Paul indicated (1 Thess. 5:3).9

In light of this, as well as Luther’s well-known obsession with God’s wrath throughout his life, and extensive affirmations of it in the large catechism,10, Luther’s view of hell and God’s role in its torment is anything but passive.

What we have in Luther’s view of hell, at least insofar as it can be seen as consistent and unchanging, are elements of the darkness view but without rejection of the elements of the fire view. The unfathomable horrors of hell are experienced from every angle. It is internal and external. There is physical pain and internal terror. Although the unsaved are obviously cut off from God’s blessing, God is still the active, vengeful source of the whirling torrent of pain and misery.

Luther’s words do leave some wiggle room, but like Calvin11, where Luther saw metaphor, he saw it describing how God would retributively and violently repay sin with endless suffering. Whichever way the metaphors ultimately come into play, it is clear that Luther did not limit the nature of hell to only things like the conscience and regret.

It does appear that Luther did begin to take things in the direction that would eventually lead to hell being the tortureless, wrathless place of sadness and inner turmoil that many think of it as today. It also appears that Luther didn’t take it nearly so far. What we ultimately have is some degree of a departure from what had been traditionally taught up to that point, but it is a departure to a much lesser degree than modernists today. It is God, in his wrath and fury, who subjects the unsaved to their incredible torment. It is neither mere separation from him nor an incidental result of them being in his loving presence that torments them. God torments them in his vengeance, though not always in the way many of Luther’s forebears would have described it.

Eastern Orthodoxy

Within Eastern Orthodoxy (and within the Orthodox tradition overall), there exists an alternative form of traditionalism that is not as emphatic on torture and God’s vengeance as the examples I cited in part 2. In a nutshell, there is a common view that hell is not a separate location. Instead, in the eternal state, all creatures are in God’s presence. Those who are saved enjoy it. To them, they are in heaven enjoying the world as it should be. For those who are wicked and opposed to God, however, his glorious presence, and in some descriptions, his love, torment them.

Such a view is a significant departure from the more fire-and-brimstone descriptions of hell because God doesn’t actively inflict torment out of vengeance. Instead, hell is the same place as heaven. It is just that the unsaved cannot stand it. Some apologists within Protestantism today argue that for the unsaved, heaven would be worse than hell, and that is why God sends people to a fireless, tortureless hell.12 In many ways, this Eastern Orthodox view agrees; heaven would be hell for the wicked.

For the sake of ease, I will refer to this as the “river of fire view,” since an influential essay presented on the topic in 1980 by Alexandre Kalamiros was called “The River of Fire.”  The following gives a good overview of what this view entails.

The Light of Truth, God’s Energy, God’s grace which will fall on men unhindered by corrupt conditions in the Day of Judgment, will be the same to all men. There will be no distinction whatever. All the difference lies in those who receive, not in Him Who gives. The sun shines on healthy and diseased eyes alike, without any distinction. Healthy eyes enjoy light and because of it see clearly the beauty which surrounds them. Diseased eyes feel pain, they hurt, suffer, and want to hide from this same light which brings such great happiness to those who have healthy eyes.13

The question that we must raise for our purposes here is how historical this view is. How far back does it go, and how wide spread has it been in the past? How common historically has the view been that people in hell will be tormented for ever and ever, not in vengeance and fire, but simply in God’s benevolent presence which they hate?

If this view has had a significant following throughout church history, then it gives alternative views of an eternal, conscious hell potentially more of a historical leg to stand on. That isn’t to say it fully undermines my argument in part 2. Whatever the case, the more Dante-themed view of fire and pain and torture and God’s fury in hell was dominant in church history. And even the river of fire view is substantially different from the kinds of descriptions of hell we looked at in part 1. But it is more similar to the descriptions in part 1 than are the descriptions in part 2, and so it does potentially give at least a little wiggle room to alternative views.

However, if it is the case that it is a fairly novel view, then it does not serve as an example of an alternative conception of hell (among traditionalists) with historical backing.

I cannot speak on Eastern Orthodoxy with any great authority, and there may be things I am missing. That said, from what I can tell, this common Eastern Orthodox view does not have substantial historical backing.

One tricky part of this is that there aren’t a lot of specific arguments that the view is historical (at least not that I have found). That the view has ancient backing is more implied by the citing of church fathers, and it is not always clear to what extent it is actually being argued that the view itself was ancient. For example, in describing the river of fire view, Frederica Matthewes-Green gives the following Origen citation: “‘The same sun that melts wax hardens mud’ is how Origen, the 3rd century Egyptian writer, put it.14 But Origen is well-known for having been a universalist, so he wouldn’t have been saying that in hell, some are eternally tormented by God’s presence while others enjoy it. In the context of Origen’s statement, he is writing about the human heart and free will, not hell.15 Was Matthews-Green taking Origen out of context and reading her view into what he said? Or was she just appealing to the historicity of a  general principle and not actually claiming that Origen held her view? To the extent that the latter is the case, we don’t even have to address it. To the extent that a case is being made that past church figures held the river of fire view, however, we must dig deeper.

In this particular situation, the evidence given is usually limited in its scope. One particular church father is cited often (more on that below). Sometimes a few are cited more that speak to certain principles on which the river of fire view is made but who do not advocate the view specifically. There isn’t  ton to work with.

Another factor that makes the history of the river of fire view a bit gray is that a lot of Greek patristic works have not been translated into English. It gets especially confusing when Orthodox theologians will give English quotes with no citation, or with citation of a work that doesn’t seem to exist.

For example, George Metallinos writes the following: ”Among the patristic testimonies, Saint John of Sinai (of the Ladder) says that the uncreated light of Christ is ‘an all-consuming fire and an illuminating light.’”16 No citation is given, and I could not find the quotation. This is a common occurrence. And this makes it very difficult to verify quotations or to know the context. Was Saint John of Sinai even talking about people in the afterlife? I don’t know. For all I know he was talking about something completely different than Metallinos. In cases like this, are commentators taking works that only exist in Greek and translating portions themselves? Or, are they just being really sloppy?17 This kind of thing makes it hard to say anything with a strong sense of certainty.

Whatever the case, few sources from before the 20th century regularly are cited as explicitly advocating this view. Most sources, even as given in English, only speak to general principles which this doctrine can be built upon. While it is hard to respond to a number of sources given, there aren’t that many that really need responding to all that much in light of what they actually say.

Isaac of Nineveh

The most prominent name that I have seen referred to is Isaac the Syrian (also known as Isaac of Nineveh).18 Variations of the following quotation pop up frequently:

Also I say that even those who are scourged in Hell are tormented with the scourgings of love…It is evil for  man to think that the sinners in Hell are destitute for love for the Creator.1920

This description of hell does sound consistent with the river of fire view. The torment of hell is ultimately God’s love, while Kalomiros also affirms:

Love will enrobe everything with its sacred Fire which will flow like a river from the throne of God and will irrigate paradise. But this same river of Love — for those who have hate in their hearts — will suffocate and burn.

However, there is doubt as to whether Isaac of Syria actually held the river of fire view. Instead, there is reason to believe that Isaac of Syria was actually a universalist, and therefore, not an ancient example of a traditionalist who held an alternative view. Even the language of Homily 27 (or 84) is arguably more consistent with a universalist outlook than a traditionalist one. The idea of scourging someone with love sounds like a parent disciplining a child, something that is temporarily painful but with a good outcome in the long run.

Other scholars have taken note of Isaac of Nineveh’s writings on hell and come to the universalist conclusion as well. He is cited, for example, by universalist scholar J.W. Hanson21 Upon analyzing a number of Isaac’s writings on hell, Catholic theologian Wacław Hryniewicz, devotes an entire chapter of The Challenge of Our Hope: Christian Faith in Dialogue to making a compelling case that Isaac the Syrian was a universalist.22 One notable quotation of Isaac of Nineveh (pointed to by Hryniewicz) is found in one of the writings collected and translated by Sebastian Brock:

He [God] has a single ranking of complete and impassible love towards everyone, and He has a single caring concern for those who have fallen, just as much as for those who have not fallen. And it is clear that he does not abandon them the moment they fall, and that demons will not remain in their demonic state, and sinners (will not remain) in their sins; rather, He is going to bring them to a single equal state of perfection in relationship to His own Being – in a (state) in which the holy angels are now, in perfection of love and a passionless minds…No part belonging to any single one of (all) rational beings will be lost, as far as God is concerned, in the preparation of that supernatural Kingdom which is prepared for all worlds.23

God loves everyone. Demons and sinners will not remain in their state of sin but will be perfected. No rational beings will be lost. That does not at all sound like they spend eternity being tormented in God’s “love” for all eternity.

Even if Isaac of Syria was a traditionalist (which really doesn’t seem to be the case), his existence would establish that a form of the river of fire view existed, but it would be a far cry from saying that it was a popular view. It wouldn’t even establish that it was anything but a peculiar view that was picked up much later by theologians with the dilemma of needing to believe in eternal torment in an age where talking about God’s wrath was no longer kosher.

The Historical Ties Between Eastern Orthodoxy and Figures from Part 2

Furthermore, it’s hard to argue that the Eastern Orthodox church would have had this separate view from the beginning when the Great Schism didn’t occur until over 1,000 years after Christ. That isn’t to say differences weren’t developing among theologians and teachers in the East and West before then, but at the end of the day, all three main branches of Christendom – Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant – point to the same church fathers from many centuries after the time of Christ.

This means that all of the early church fathers whom I cited in part 2 (i.e. Tertullian through Gregory the Great) who held to views that were nothing like this Eastern Orthodox view are as much a part of Eastern Orthodox theology and tradition as they are for Catholics or Protestants.24 Many early church fathers are shared between the so-called West and East churches. The Greek Orthodox Diocese of America, for example, includes every early church father cited in part 2 and many more in their list of church fathers.25 Even one of the three Holy Hierarchs, John Chrysostom, was cited in part 2.26 These fire-and-brimstone, early church teachers are venerated saints of the various Orthodox churches.27

Even in Eastern Orthodox dogma, it must be granted that the more fire-oriented view was a major part of Christian tradition.

Concluding Thoughts

If there is not much evidence that the river of fire view had substantial historical backing, why would some advocates of the view argue that it did have such backing? Well, one possibility is that they just simply know something that I do not (and that they have not themselves expressed). But it could also just be the result of a denomination being as heavily emphatic on tradition as the Eastern Orthodox Church is. Part of the Eastern Orthodox outlook is that their church is the true apostolic church, and that it has lived on continuously since the time of the apostles. That isn’t to say that those outside of it are necessarily damned, just that they stray from the truth. But if your outlook is that your church is the apostolic church that has lived on without interruption, then of course you are going to be inclined to believe that any view commonly held within your denomination has been believed throughout church history. To (dubiously) cite one or two church fathers is sufficient because you aren’t trying to prove a case from scratch. You are simply giving an example of something you already believe to be true.

At the end of the day, it is impossible for me to give you a firm conclusion about the popularity of the river-of-fire view. But that said, there is reason to believe it simply was not a major alternative to the fire-oriented view of those cited in part 2. It may not have had any ancient presence at all for all I know, especially given that the most popularly cited adherent was probably a universalist.

Ultimately, even if it had some impact before recent decades, it would mitigate the dilemma of the darkness-oriented traditionalist, but it does not come close to resolving it. While this view of everyone being in God’s love but hating it has become popular in Eastern Orthodox circles, I don’t think it is nearly as historical as its proponents say. Just because a view is common now doesn’t mean it was historically prominent. That is true when you are Eastern Orthodox and saying that God never punishes anyone but bad people just hate being in his loving presence. And that is definitely true when you are an evangelical and think that the eternal torment of hell is the passive separation from God.

  1. Recall from Part 1 my explanation of how I group different ways of envisioning eternal torment in hell as being in the “fire” camp and the “darkness” camp. []
  2. Martin H. Scharlemann, “Foreword to the First Edition,” What Luther Says: A Practical In-Home Anthology for the Active Christian, ed. and trans. Ewald Plass, (1959; reprint, Concordia, 1994), v. []
  3. Martin Luther, “1919,” What Luther Said, 625. []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. “Martin Luther, “1919,” What Luther Said, 628. []
  6. Plass cites a German version of Luther’s Table Talk as the initial source, although I could not find a translation in any English edition. []
  7. “Martin Luther, “1925,” What Luther Said, 625. []
  8. Ibid. []
  9. Martin Luther, “1917,” What Luther Says, 626. []
  10. E.g. Martin Luther, “The First Commandment,” The Large Catechism, (n.p., n.d.), 11, 14, reproduced at Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d., http://www.ccel.org/ccel/luther/largecatechism.pdf (accessed April 1, 2016).

    Martin Luther, “Part Second: The Creed,” The Large Catechism, 58. []

  11. See part 2. []
  12. e.g. Hank Hanegraaf, “Why Should I believe in Hell?” Christian Research Institute, April 22, 2009, http://www.equip.org/article/why-should-i-believe-in-hell/ (accessed March 31, 2016). []
  13. Alexandre Kalomiros, ”The River of Fire,” [presentation] 1980 Orthodox Conference, Seattle, WA, 1980, reproduced at Ancient Faith Blogs, n.d.,  http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/the-river-of-fire-kalomiros/ (accessed April 2, 2016). []
  14. Frederic Matthewes-Green, “Why We Need Hell,” antiochian.org, n.d., http://www.antiochian.org/node/18270 (accessed April 2, 2016). []
  15. Origen, De Principis, III. i. 11, trans. Frederick Crombie, found in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Vol. 4, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907), 311, reproduced at Google Books, n.d., (accessed April 2, 2016). []
  16. George Metallinos, “Paradise and Hell According to Orthodox Tradition,” Orthodoxy Today, January 29, 2009, http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles-2009/Mettalinos-Paradise-And-Hell-According-To-Orthodox-Tradition.php (accessed April 2, 2016). []
  17. Unfortunately, quoting ancient sources without giving any useful citation seems to be a big problem in many circles, not just in this one (assuming that that is even what is happening here). []
  18. e.g. Kalomiros. []
  19. Isaac of Ninevah, “Homily 27,” Mystic Treatises, trans. Arent Jan Wensinck (Koninklije Akademie Van Wetenschappen, 1923), 136, reproduced at Archive.org, n.d. https://archive.org/details/IsaacOfNinevehMysticTreatises (accessed April 2, 2016). []
  20. I am not entirely familiar with the numbering of the homilies. The above quote was found in Homily 27, but it frequently is attributed to Homily 84. The Orthodox sources may be using a different version. []
  21. J.W. Hanson, Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years (Universalist Publishing House, 1899), 256, reproduced at Google Books, n.d., https://books.google.com/books?id=ezURAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA235&lpg#v=onepage&q&f=false (accessed March 5, 2016). []
  22. Wacław Hryniewicz, The Challenge of Our Hope: Christian Faith in Dialogue, (The Council of Research in Values and Philosophy, 2007), reproduced at Google Books, n.d., https://books.google.com/books?id=y7dq4-Xvn0EC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false (accessed March 28, 2016). []
  23. Isaac of Nineveh, “Chapter XL,” The Second Part, Trans. Sebastian Brock (Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, 1995), 175-176. []
  24. Really, these early church fathers are a more integral part of Eastern Orthodox theology than they are for Protestantism, since Orthodox denominations put much more emphasis on tradition and the church fathers than Protestants typically do. []
  25. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, “The Writing of the Apostolic Fathers,” goarch.org, n.d., http://www.goarch.org/resources/fathers (accessed April 2, 2016). []
  26. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, “Feast of the Three Holy Fathers, Great Hierarchs and Ecumenical Teachers, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom,” goarch.org, n.d., http://www.goarch.org/special/threehierarchs/index_html (accessed April 2, 2016). []
  27. This sharing of early theologians goes both ways too: The Roman Catholic Church, which traditionally has not held to universalism or the river of fire view, canonized St. Isaac of Ninevah. []
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  • disquswithme

    Very useful articles. Thank you!

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