The Eastern (Orthodox) church has been thinking about hell a lot longer than anyone else, simply because they’ve been around the longest. Yes, there were Christians before Augustine. However, very few western evangelicals (of the post-liturgical variety) care about what the early church (post-Canon) thinks. After all, they didn’t have the benefit of the Enlightenment, and they didn’t all jump into line behind Augustine (who falls into the category of “Nice guy, but possibly a heretic”).
Yes, I’m being facetious.
What the Orthodox believe about hell
Apparently one or two people in the west are becoming interested in what the Orthodox believe about hell, possibly looking for more votes. Scot McKnight actually references a book of Orthodox theology in his post today, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective by Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev. I confess I’m not familiar with the Archbishop, but it sounds quite interesting. I like reading Orthodox theology; it certainly provides a fresh perspective.
McKnight provides some notes taken from the book (bullet-points are mine, for the sake of readability):
- Irenaeus is typical in seeing both the descent and a release of the patriarchs, prophets and saints from the Old Testament period.
- Hippolytus: John the Baptist also descended to preach to those in hades.
- Clement of Alexandria: Christ descended and preached to the saints and to the Gentiles who lived outside the true faith. Hell for him was a place of reformation. Origen is like Clement, but emphasizes human choice.
- Issue: how to define the various terms, but many saw places. That is, there’s Abraham’s bosom, and hell, and hades, and a prison.
- Athanasius: leans, at times, toward the universal redemption or release from death. The famous text “Christus patiens,” attributed by some to Gregory Nazianzen, poetically sketches a universal release of the dead through the descent. Cyril of Alexandria follows this line of thinking; so does Maximus the Confessor.
- Many are somewhat ambivalent or clearly believe Jesus’ release was only for the saints, and an example is St John Chrysostom. John Damascene emphasizes human choice by those in the realm of the dead and so not all are liberated. St Jerome is in this camp of saying at times that all are liberated but other times not all are liberated.
- A decisive voice in this issue, especially in the West, was Augustine who believed in both a descent but not all in a “second chance”. For Augustine, death was final and the only ones in hades who were released were those who were predestined in God’s elective grace. What is interesting, though, is that Augustine was clearly battling many who did think Christ emptied hades and death and hell of all its inhabitants. Gregory the Great completed the Augustinian perspective.
- Alfayev emphasizes that the Eastern fathers did not spell things out the way the Western fathers did.
It’s an interesting post. As I think I have mentioned here in the last couple of weeks, the Orthodox generally believe that everyone will end up in God’s presence; however, those opposed to God will have a negative experience (not unlike that painted by CS Lewis in The Great Divorce).
The Scarlett Rob Bell
Rob Bell, meanwhile, continues to get roasted from nearly all sides. Even Lutherans are condemning him. So, this morning I wrote him a little poem:
Everybody’s picking on poor Rob Bell.
However, his book will surely sell.
But is he in heaven, or is he in hell?
That [darned] illusive Mr. Bell.
To more accurately parody The Scarlett Pimpernel, you could change it to:
They judge him here, they judge him there,
But his book is selling everywhere.
Is he in heaven, or is he in hell?
That [darned] illusive Mr. Bell.