You probably have heard of a view that has become common among those in the Eastern Orthodox Church and its various subsets, a view that says both the saved and unsaved go to be in God’s intimate presence. Whether it is a heavenly experience or a torturous one depends on whether you love God or not, and therefore, whether you consider his constant presence to be a blessing or curse.
I often refer to this as the “river of fire” view because of the seminal presentation given on the topic by Alexandre Kalamiros called “The River of Fire.” 1 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 January 15, 2016).
I have addressed the view somewhat in a past blog article (see endnotes), but I would like to raise another issue to consider in regards to certain versions of this view. 2 For more on the river of fire view, with emphasis on the question of how it fits into church history, see “The Not-So-Traditional View: Does Your Particular Belief About Hell Really Have Church History On Its Side? (Part 3)“.
Hell Is Being Eternally Tormented By God’s Love?
Among those who adopt this view (which now includes some outside of Orthodox churches), there are some who say that it is not just God’s presence, but specifically, it is God’s love that is heaven for some but eternal conscious hell for others.
Kalomiros himself seems to take this specific position, that the torment of hell involves the experience of God’s love, love that tortures some of its recipients like immortal people being burned in fire:
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. 3 Ibid.
Such an approach is consistent with a trend in much of modern Christianity, even in conservative circles, to say that God is all-loving and therefore, everything he does to anyone or with anyone must be a loving act.
How Compatible Is This View of Hell With The Idea of Love?
It isn’t. At least it is not consistent with the idea of love without major qualifications (more on this below).
I don’t say that as an argument against eternal torment itself (more on that below), but only against this particular variation of it. This is because this view goes beyond just saying that God can be a loving God and nevertheless send people to eternal conscious hell; this view says that hell is an act of love towards the condemned themselves.
Such an idea, that eternal torture as painful as being burned alive is caused by experiencing God’s love, mangles the idea of love beyond all recognition.
I credit co-contributor Chris Date with the comparison between such an idea and the idea of someone who thinks “love” means punching you in the face, repeatedly and for no good reason. You can’t just call anything “love” and have it pass muster.
Love Seeks to Benefit The Recipient, Even When Temporarily Painful
It is true that love is not always a soft and nice thing on the surface. So-called tough love is a thing, after all. But fundamental to the idea of love, by its nature, is that it must be for the good of the person receiving it. The reason we can speak of something as “tough love” is because such love isn’t so soft and sentimental like hugs and kisses, and it may cause unhappiness in the short term, but it is ultimately for the benefit of the recipient. It isn’t just a euphemism for hurting someone. The reason a good parent disciplines a child or takes them to the doctor for medical treatment that might cause temporary pain is because doing so benefits the child in the long run.
Some may speak of love being complicated (which it is). Or they may assert that God, in his word, defines love to be whatever he does, and therefore love doesn’t have to be good for the recipient. But no one goes down that road consistently, because once you do, words lose their meaning and teachings in the Bible that use words to communicate become meaningless.
The biggest objection I have to the idea that God defines love, and therefore every interaction he has is defined as loving, is that the Bible never actually does that. The Bible rarely defines words or terms in that way at all. There is a reason why God uses words in the Bible to communicate with humans: generally speaking, people know what words mean. Words and ideas themselves rarely need to be defined. Even when love may look different within different relationships (e.g. two friends vs. a parent and child vs. two spouses), we know the general idea of love is caring about the other person’s well-being. The Bible doesn’t have to tell us this is what love means, as opposed to, say, “love” being defined as a form of musk that animals excrete to ward off predators.
God teaches us things. The Bible gives us examples of what love looks like when it comes from a God who is pure and perfect. The Bible tells us, in passages like 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, what love rightly looks like when practiced by people whose hearts are now steered by the Holy Spirit and not the flesh. But the Bible gives no indication at all that we should define love in such a counter-intuitive way as to see unending and inescapable torture as an act of love towards those being tormented.
A Word About 1 John 4:8 and “God Is Love”
One may point to 1 John 4:8, where John says “God is love,” to say that love is defined by whatever God does. But that reads too much into the passage. It is not even a question of being literal or not, since no one actually takes that passage literally. If we did, we would say that God is literally an abstract concept and not a living, acting, personal being. It doesn’t say “what God does is love”; it says God himself is love – if we were to actually take it at face value.
Therefore, regarding “God is love,” we must judge, based on context and reason and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, how best to understand John’s point. Given that love is a concept that we already have a general understanding of (even if it can get badly perverted by sinful humans in practice), and given how John soon after reminds us of the gospel as an example of God’s great love towards us (1 John 4:10), it seems most reasonable that John is hyperbolically saying how loving God is. Love is such a key part of God’s character that you could practically say they are one in the same. The fact that we even have a concept of love is because it is such a core attribute of the world’s creator.
It doesn’t mean, however, that everything God does is loving to all involved any more than it means that God literally is love. Other factors, like the demands of justice, may take priority in a given situation. This idea is hardly unique to me or to those who deny the traditional view. For example, John Piper:
Talbott assumes that God’s character of love is inconsistent with his treating any individual in a way that is not loving. But this assumption is not defensible from Scripture. We are not encouraged even by Johannine theology to infer from the statement “God is love” that God relates to individuals only in terms of love. 4 John Piper, “How Does A Sovereign God Love? A Reply to Thomas Talbott,” Desiring God, February 1, 1983, accessed January 31, 2021, http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/biopsy-blows-and-the-helmet-of-hope. 5 See also John Blanchard, “Hell on Trial,” Ligonier, February 1, 2024, accessed January 31, 2021, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/hell-trial/. 6 Intervarsity, “A Loving God wouldn’t Send People to Hell,” Intervarsity, n.d, accessed January 31, 2021, https://evangelism.intervarsity.org/resource/loving-god-wouldnt-send-people-hell.
Hell Can Be Love Only If It Is To Benefit Those In Hell
I must grant to the Christian universalist that their view, where God sends an unrepentant person to a fiery, horrible, painful hell for a time, makes perfect sense as an act of love. This is because doing so causes those people to become saved and able to go to heaven. God makes them suffer for a finite time so they can have eternal life. It is very tough love, but it is love nonetheless.
And as noted before, that’s what is advocated by at least one of the church fathers often appealed to by adherents of this modern Orthodox view. For example, Isaac of Ninevah (also called Isaac the Assyrian) is often cited for his comparison of God’s love to a fiery scourge that is painful to the wicked:
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. 7 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 January 31, 2021).
However, what is missed is that elsewhere, Isaac of Ninevah clearly elaborates universalist views:
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. 8 Isaac of Nineveh, “Chapter XL,” The Second Part, Trans. Sebastian Brock (Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, 1995), 175-176.
The scourge of God’s love, therefore, is not eternal torture, but rather, it is a means of painful but ultimately loving discipline of God towards his wayward children that eventually leads to repentance and salvation.
But in the modern Orthodox view, this pain and torture doesn’t lead to any ultimate good for the person being tortured. It doesn’t end, but lasts forever. There is no escape or hope of escape. The apparently unimaginable torture of experiencing God’s love doesn’t lead to any positive change. It is clearly not for the good of the unsaved, and therefore, it is not love (at least not in any meaningful sense).
Love and Non-Universalist Versions of Hell
Is it possible for any non-universalist version of hell to be consistent with an all-loving God and hell itself being an act of love towards those sent there?
The answer is yes, but only within specific, alternate views that go against the traditional approach to both eternal torment and annihilationism.
Regarding the Eastern Orthodox view that equates eternal conscious burning in fire with experiencing God’s love, the only way you could reconcile this version of hell with love for the unsaved is if, somehow, the unsaved deserve worse and God is sparing them the fullness of their deserved penalty. One would have to demonstrate that it would be worse for God to do other things, such as annihilate the unsaved.
I cannot say that this is impossible, but it is really hard to imagine.
For example, most would say that past a certain point, pain and torture become worse than death. This is not to deny that death is an incredibly fearful fate, as others here pointed out elsewhere. 9 E.g. Rethinking Hell Podcast 50. But most would rather die completely, cease to exist (for lack of a better description), than burn alive for eternity, for example. 10 For more on the question of whether annihilationism really means to “cease to exist,” see “Do Annihilationists Believe that People Cease to Exist? (It Depends – And That’s Okay)“.
If this is so, then wouldn’t annihilating the unsaved be a more loving thing than burning them alive with the fire of so-called love?
Furthermore, if the aim was for God to love the unsaved eternally, why then are they all eternally doomed? If God can regenerate some and make their salvation inevitable, like Calvinism teaches, then why wouldn’t he do it for all so that all enjoy the presence of his love? But if a more Arminian view is true and God chooses to only regenerate those who come to him in their free will, then why would the unsaved be locked in their status forever? If they don’t need God to regenerate them prior to coming to faith for it to happen, then why wouldn’t God at least still give them the option of choosing to repent after death? 11 For this reason, some Christian philosophers, like Jerry Walls of Houston Baptist University, believe that the opportunity to repent and be saved remains after death, and that some will take it. For more on this, see his book Hell: The Logic of Damnation. 12 For Jerry Wall’s presentation of this view at the 2015 Rethinking Hell conference, see Rethinking Hell, “Jerry Walls – Optimal Grace and Eternal Hell,”
YouTube video, posted September 27, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=De1ubJpdf74 (accessed January 30, 2020).
Admittedly, this is a problem for most believers who say that God is literally all-loving, since they would have to explain how God is actually being loving in not just a broad sense, but in a specific sense towards every unsaved individual who ends up eternally condemned. This is true whether the unsaved are condemned to eternal torment or are destroyed. If God is just condemning people to the eternal, irreversible fate that they deserve, then there is no mercy and there is no benefit to the unsaved person. If hell is to be an act of love to those who go there, most approaches towards hell, other than universalism, would need to be rejected.
Personally, I am okay with that. As far as I can tell, the Bible doesn’t require that hell itself be an act of love, or that God act lovingly towards every person in every way he acts towards them. I don’t think it is in any way petty or unChristlike for “God to repay with affliction those who afflict [his people],” or for Jesus himself to come “in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God, and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (emphasis mine) (2 Thessalonians 1:6, 8). I believe that the unsaved are annihilated not as an act of love towards them, but because it is the just punishment that they deserve.
But if you are to claim that eternal conscious hell is the experience of God’s love, as this subset of those who hold the modern Orthodox view say, then you have to deal with all these problems. Your view believes that love hurts the recipient, endlessly, with no benefit to them ever.
Without further elaboration, such as arguing that eternal torment in the fire of God’s love is still a better fate than annihilation, this view of eternal conscious hell being the experience of God’s love turns the very idea of love into empty, meaningless words.
Rather than demonstrating the depths of God’s love and showing him to be more personal and compassionate than traditionally thought, this view does the exact opposite because it dilutes the very idea of love to the point that one has to ask why being loved is any better or different than being hated.
Other than sounding nice on the surface, other than allowing you to both have your cake and eat it too by remaining in the in-crowd (by believing in eternal conscious hell) while still getting to say that God is all-loving, there is simply no merit to the view at all.
|￪1||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 January 15, 2016).|
|￪2||For more on the river of fire view, with emphasis on the question of how it fits into church history, see “The Not-So-Traditional View: Does Your Particular Belief About Hell Really Have Church History On Its Side? (Part 3)“.|
|￪4||John Piper, “How Does A Sovereign God Love? A Reply to Thomas Talbott,” Desiring God, February 1, 1983, accessed January 31, 2021, http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/biopsy-blows-and-the-helmet-of-hope.|
|￪5||See also John Blanchard, “Hell on Trial,” Ligonier, February 1, 2024, accessed January 31, 2021, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/hell-trial/.|
|￪6||Intervarsity, “A Loving God wouldn’t Send People to Hell,” Intervarsity, n.d, accessed January 31, 2021, https://evangelism.intervarsity.org/resource/loving-god-wouldnt-send-people-hell.|
|￪7||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 January 31, 2021).|
|￪8||Isaac of Nineveh, “Chapter XL,” The Second Part, Trans. Sebastian Brock (Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, 1995), 175-176.|
|￪9||E.g. Rethinking Hell Podcast 50.|
|￪10||For more on the question of whether annihilationism really means to “cease to exist,” see “Do Annihilationists Believe that People Cease to Exist? (It Depends – And That’s Okay)“.|
|￪11||For this reason, some Christian philosophers, like Jerry Walls of Houston Baptist University, believe that the opportunity to repent and be saved remains after death, and that some will take it. For more on this, see his book Hell: The Logic of Damnation.|
|￪12|| For Jerry Wall’s presentation of this view at the 2015 Rethinking Hell conference, see Rethinking Hell, “Jerry Walls – Optimal Grace and Eternal Hell,”|
YouTube video, posted September 27, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=De1ubJpdf74 (accessed January 30, 2020).