‘Fathers and teachers! I ask: What is Hell? I answer: Suffering on account of the impossibility to love any longer’. These are the words of Elder Zosima, Dostoyevsky’s celebrated monk in The Brothers Karamazov.
Why Hell? many people ask. Why does God condemn people to eternal damnation? How can the image of God the Judge be reconciled with the New Testament message of God as love? St. Isaac the Syrian answers these questions in the following way: there is no person who would be deprived of God’s love, and there is no place which would be devoid of it; everyone who deliberately chooses evil instead of good deprives himself of God’s mercy. The very same Divine love which is a source of bliss and consolation for the righteous in Paradise becomes a source of torment for sinners, as they cannot participate in it and they are outside of it.
It is therefore not God Who mercilessly prepares torments for a person, but rather the person himself who chooses evil and then suffers from its consequences. There are people who deliberately refuse to follow the way of love, who do evil and harm to their neighbors: these are the ones who will be unable to reconcile themselves with the Supreme Love when they encounter it face to face. Someone who is outside of love during his earthly life will not find a way to be inside it when he departs from the body. He will find himself in ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ (Ps 23:4), ‘the darkness’ and ‘the land of forgetfulness’ (Ps 88:12), of which the psalms speak. Jesus called this place, or rather this condition of the soul after death, ‘the outer darkness’ (Matt 22:13) and ‘the Hell of fire’ (Matt 5:22).
One should note that the notion of Hell has been distorted by the coarse and material images in which it was clothed in Western medieval literature. One recalls Dante with his detailed description of the torments and punishment which sinners undergo. Christian eschatology should be liberated from this imagery: the latter reflects a Catholic medieval approach to the Novissima with its ‘pedagogy of fear’ and its emphasis on the necessity of satisfaction and punishment. Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel depicts Christ hurling into the abyss all those who dared to oppose Him. ‘This, to be sure, is not how I see Christ’, says Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov). ‘...Christ, naturally, must be in the center, but a different Christ more in keeping with the revelation that we have of Him: Christ immensely powerful with the power of unassuming love’. If God is love, He must be full of love even at the moment of the Last Judgment, even when He pronounces His sentence and condemns one to death.
For an Orthodox Christian, notions of Hell and eternal torments are inseparably linked with the mystery that is disclosed in the liturgical services of Holy Week and Easter (Pascha), the mystery of Christ’s descent into Hell and His liberation of those who were held there under the tyranny of evil and death. The Church teaches that, after His death on the Cross, Christ descended into the abyss in order to annihilate Hell and death, and destroy the horrendous kingdom of the Devil. Just as Christ had sanctified the Jordan, which was filled with human sin, by descending into its waters, by descending into Hell He illumined it entirely with the light of His presence. Unable to tolerate this holy invasion, Hell surrendered: ‘Today Hell groans and cries aloud: It had been better for me, had I not accepted Mary’s Son, for He has come to me and destroyed my power; He has shattered the gates of brass, and as God He has raised up the souls that once I held’... In the words of St. John Chrysostom, ‘Hell was embittered when it met Thee face to face below. It was embittered, for it was rendered void. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was despoiled. It was embittered, for it was fettered’. This does not mean that in the wake of Christ’s descent into it, Hell no longer exists. It does exist but is already sentenced to death.