The River of Fire - part 6

This article is a continuation from the last issue of Cornerstone. It analyses in depth, the differences between the theology of the Eastern and Western mind.

By DR. ALEXANDRE KALOMIROS A reply to the questions (1) Is God really good? (2) Did God create hell?

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Thus Saint Macarius writes, “And as the kingdom of darkness, and sin, are hidden in the soul until the Day of Resurrection, when the bodies also of sinners shall be covered with the darkness that is now hidden in the soul, so also the Kingdom of Light, and the Heavenly Image, Jesus Christ, now mystically enlighten the soul, and reign in the soul of the saints, but are hidden from the eyes of men… until the Day of Resurrection; but then the body also shall be covered and glorified with the Light of the Lord, which is now in the man's soul [from this earthly life], that the body also may reign with the soul which from now receives the Kingdom of Christ and rests and is enlightened with eternal light.”

Saint Symeon the New Theologian says that it is not what man does which counts in eternal life but what he is, whether he is like Jesus Christ our Lord, or whether he is different and unlike Him. He says, “In the future life the Christian is not examined if he has renounced the whole world for Christ’s love, or if he has distributed his riches to the poor or if he fasted or kept vigil or prayed, or if he wept and lamented for his sins, or if he has done any other good in this life, but he is examined attentively if he has any similitude with Christ, as a son does with his father.”

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Saint Peter the Damascene writes: “We all receive God’s blessings equally. But some of us, receiving God’s fire, that is, His word, become soft like beeswax, while the others like clay become hard as stone. And if we do not want Him, He does not force any of us, but like the sun He sends His rays and illuminates the whole world, and he who wants to see Him, sees Him, whereas the one who does not want to see Him, is not forced by Him. And no one is responsible for this privation of light except the one who does not want to have it.

God created the sun and the eye. Man is free to receive the sun’s light or not. The same is true here. God sends the light of knowledge like rays to all, but He also gave us faith like an eye. The one who wants to receive knowledge through faith, keeps it by his works, and so God gives him more willingness, knowledge, and power.” (Philokalia, vol. 3, p. 8)

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I think that by now we have reached the point of understanding correctly what eternal hell and eternal paradise really are, and who is in reality responsible for the difference.

In the icon of the Last Judgment we see Our Lord Jesus Christ seated on a throne. On His right we see His friends, the blessed men and women who lived by His love. On His left we see His enemies, all those who passed their life hating Him, even if they appeared to be pious and reverent. And there, in the midst of the two, springing from Christ's throne, we see a river of fire coming toward us. What is this river of fire? Is it an instrument of torture? Is it an energy of vengeance coming out from God in order to vanquish His enemies?

No, nothing of the sort. This river of fire is the river which “came out from Eden to water the paradise” of old (Gen. 2:10). It is the river of the grace of God which irrigated God's saints from the beginning. In a word, it is the out-pouring of God’s love for His creatures. Love is fire. Anyone who loves knows this. God is Love, so God is Fire. And fire consumes all those who are not fire themselves, and renders bright and shining all those who are fire themselves (Heb. 12:29).

God many times appeared as fire: To Abraham, to Moses in the burning bush, to the people of Israel showing them the way in the desert as a column of fire by night and as a shining cloud by day when He covered the tabernacle with His glory (Exod. 40:28, 32), and when He rained fire on the summit of Mount Sinai. God was revealed as fire on the mountain of Transfiguration, and He said that He came “to put fire upon the earth” (Luke 12:49), that is to say, love, because as Saint John of the Ladder says, “Love is the source of fire.”

The Greek writer, Fotis Kontoglou said somewhere that “Faith is fire, and gives warmth to the heart. The Holy Spirit came down upon the heads of the apostles in the form of tongues of fire. The two disciples, when the Lord was revealed to them, said ‘Did not our heart burn within us, while He talked with us in the way?’ Christ compares faith to a ‘burning candle.’ Saint John the Forerunner said in his sermons that Christ will baptize men ‘in the Holy Spirit and fire.’ And truly, the Lord said, ‘I am come to send fire on the earth and what will I if it be already kindled?’ Well, the most tangible characteristic of faith is warmth; this is why they speak about ‘warm faith,’ or ‘faith provoking warmth.’ And even as the distinctive mark of faith is warmth, the sure mark of unbelief is coldness.

“Do you want to know how to understand if a man has faith or unbelief? If you feel warmth coming out of him - from his eyes, from his words, from his manners - be certain that he has faith in his heart. If again you feel cold coming out of his whole being, that means that he has not faith, whatever he may say. He may kneel down, he may bend his head humbly, he may utter all sorts of moral teachings with a humble voice, but all these will breathe forth a chilling breath which falls upon you to numb you with cold”.

Saint Isaac the Syrian says that “Paradise is the love of God, in which the bliss of all the beatitudes is contained,” and that “the tree of life is the love of God”.

“Do not deceive yourself,” says Saint Symeon the New Theologian, “God is fire and when He came into the world, and became man, He sent fire on the earth, as He Himself says; this fire turns about searching to find material - that is a disposition and an intention that is good - to fall into and to kindle; and for those in whom this fire will ignite, it becomes a great flame, which reaches Heaven.... this flame at first purifies us from the pollution of passions and then it becomes in us food and drink and light and joy, and renders us light ourselves because we participate in His light”.

God is a loving fire, and He is a loving fire for all: good or bad. There is, however, a great difference in the way people receive this loving fire of God. Saint Basil says that “the sword of fire was placed at the gate of paradise to guard the approach to the tree of life; it was terrible and burning toward infidels, but kindly accessible toward the faithful, bringing to them the light of day.” The same loving fire brings the day to those who respond to love with love, and burns those who respond to love with hatred.

Paradise and hell are one and the same River of God, a loving fire which embraces and covers all with the same beneficial will, without any difference or discrimination. The same vivifying water is life eternal for the faithful and death eternal for the infidels; for the first it is their element of life, for the second it is the instrument of their eternal suffocation; paradise for the one is hell for the other. Do not consider this strange. The son who loves his father will feel happy in his father’s arms, but if he does not love him, his father's loving embrace will be a torment to him. This also is why when we love the man who hates us, it is likened to pouring lighted coals and hot embers on his head.

“I say,” writes Saint Isaac the Syrian, “that those who are suffering in hell, are suffering in being scourged by love.... It is totally false to think that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is a child of the knowledge of truth, and is unquestionably given commonly to all. But love’s power acts in two ways: it torments sinners, while at the same time it delights those who have lived in accord with it”.

God is love. If we really believe this truth, we know that God never hates, never punishes, never takes vengeance. As Abba Ammonas says, “Love never hates anyone, never reproves anyone, never condemns anyone, never grieves anyone, never abhors anyone, neither faithful nor infidel nor stranger nor sinner nor fornicator, nor anyone impure, but instead it is precisely sinners, and weak and negligent souls that it loves more, and feels pain for them and grieves and laments, and it feels sympathy for the wicked and sinners, more than for the good, imitating Christ Who called sinners, and ate and drank with them. For this reason, showing what real love is, He taught saying, ‘Become good and merciful like your Father in Heaven,’ and as He rains on bad and good and makes the sun to rise on just and unjust alike, so also is the one who has real love, and has compassion, and prays for all.”

To be continued next issue......