Is Hell Just?

Written by Vladimir Moss

Of all the Christian dogmas, none has elicited more perplexity over the

centuries than the doctrine of eternal punishment. Thinkers from Origen to

the contemporary ecumenists have tried somehow to get round the

unequivocal statements of the Gospel that those who will stand condemned at

the Last Judgement will be cast into the eternal fire, from which there will be

no deliverance unto the ages of ages. In attempting in this way to deny the

eternity of the torments of hell, these thinkers have employed a number of

arguments, of which the most commonly encountered are the following: -

1. The Argument from God’s Compassion. . According to this, it is contrary

to God’s nature to consign anyone to hell for ever. After all, what father

would divide his children into sheep and goats? What bridegroom would

wish eternal torments on his bride? And even if some such could be found,

what has this to do with God? Is He not perfect love and infinite mercy?

The commonest answer to this very common perplexity is to say: God is

not only perfect love, He is also perfect justice; and while in His love for

mankind He wishes that all men should be saved and come to a knowledge of

the truth (I Timothy 2.4), the fact remains that very many "resist the truth" (II

Timothy 3.8), and so cannot be saved, becoming subject to the full severity of

His justice. The satisfaction of justice is an absolute demand of the Divine

Nature, not because God is a bloodthirsty tyrant seeking revenge in a human,

fallen manner, - God is not subject to any human passion, - but because evil

and injustice are utterly alien to His Nature. As St. John of Damascus puts it:

"A judge justly punishes one who is guilty of wrongdoing; and if he does not

punish him he is himself a wrongdoer. In punishing him the judge is not the

cause either of the wrongdoing or of the vengeance taken against the

wrongdoer, the cause being the wrongdoer's freely chosen actions. Thus too

God, Who saw what was going to happen as if it had already happened,

judged it as if it had taken place; and if it was evil, that was the cause of its

being punished. It was God Who created man, so of course he created him in

goodness; but man did evil of his own free choice, and is himself the cause of

the vengeance that overtakes him." (Dialogue against the Manichaeans, 37)


Now such an answer was quite sufficient for generations of Christians

brought up in the fear of God, and believing in the goodness of His

judgements without presuming to understand them. For them the fact of

impenitence, and its link with Divine judgement, was as self-evident as the

link between penitence and Divine mercy. And if there were still many things

they did not understand, this was only to be expected. After all, how can the

pot be expected to understand the potter (Romans 9.20-21)? The judgements

of God are a great abyss, and it is not for sinful mortals to plumb their depth.

If we question God’s judgements, then we are implicitly placing ourselves

in judgement over Him, as if we could be more just than He. What folly could

be greater than this? “Shall mortal man be more just than God? Shall a man be

more pure than his Maker? Behold, He put no trust in His servants; and His

angels He charged with folly. How much less in them that dwell in houses of

clay, whose foundation is in the dust? (Job 4.17-19). “For who shall say, What

hast Thou done? Or who shall withstand His judgement? Or who shall accuse

Thee for the nations that perish, whom Thou hast made? Or who shall come

to stand against Thee, to be revenged for the unrighteous men? (Wisdom of

Solomon 12.12).

It was by meditating on such passages of Holy Scripture that our

forefathers guarded themselves from highmindedness. We are not so humble

today. In proportion as our pride in ourselves and our capacities has

increased, so has our trust in, and reverence for, the judgements of God

decreased. Our attitude is: if I cannot understand this, or if it offends my

moral sense, then even if God has declared it to be so, it cannot be so; there

must be a mistake.

Hell offends not only our sense of justice, but also our self-esteem (the two

are closely connected). Whereas the holy Apostles, though innocent of

betraying their Master, still had the humility and awareness of their profound

weakness to ask: "Lord, is it I?" (Matthew 26.22), we both absolve ourselves of

any really serious sin, and, like the Popes of old, give indulgences to the

whole of the rest of humanity. Although the holy Apostle Peter says that even

the righteous will scarcely be saved (I Peter 4.18), we consider that even

unbelievers will be saved. Perhaps a few of the worst sinners, we concede,

might be worthy of hell - the Hitlers and Stalins of this world. But is it

possible to believe that the nice, caring, enlightened men of late twentiethcentury

civilisation are worthy of hell? Away with the thought!

Speaking of hell and its eternity, St. John Chrysostom writes: - "Do not say

to me, 'How is the balance of justice preserved if the punishment has no end?'

When God does something, obey His demand and do not submit what has

been said to human reasoning. In any case, is it not in fact just that one who

has received countless good things from the beginning, has then done things

worthy of punishment, and has not reformed in response either to threats or

to kindness, should be punished? If it is justice you are after, we ought all on

the score of justice to have perished at the very outset. Indeed even that

would have fallen short of the measure of mere justice. For if a man insults

someone who never did him any wrong, it is a matter of justice that he be

punished. But what if he insults his Benefactor, Who without having received

any favour from him in the first place, has done countless things for him - in

this case the One Who was the sole source of his existence, Who is God, Who

endowed him with a soul, Who gave him countless other gifts and purposed

to bring him to heaven? If after so many favours, he not only insults Him but

insults Him daily by his conduct, can there be any question of deserving


"Do you not see how He punished Adam for a single sin? 'Yes', you will

say, 'but He had given him paradise and made him the recipient of very great

kindness.' And I reply that it is not at all the same thing for a man in the

tranquil possession of security to commit a sin and for a man in the midst of

affliction to do so. The really terrible thing is that you sin when you are not in

paradise but set amidst the countless evils of this present life, and that all this

misery has not made you any more sensible. It is like a man who continues

his criminal behaviour in prison. Moreover you have the promise of

something even greater than paradise. He has not given it to you yet, so as not

to make you soft at a time when there is a struggle to be fought, but neither

has He been silent about it, lest you be cast down by all your labours.

"Adam committed one sin, and brought on total death. We commit a

thousand sins every day. If by committing a single sin he brought such

terrible evil on himself and introduced death into the world, what should we,

who live continually in sin, expect to suffer - we who in place of paradise

have the expectation of heaven? This is a burdensome message; it does upset

the man who hears it. I know, because I feel it myself. I am disturbed by it; it

makes me quake. The clearer the proofs I find of this message of hell, the

more I tremble and melt with fear. But I have to proclaim it so that we may

not fall into hell. What you received was not paradise or trees and plants, but

heaven and the good things in the heavens. He who had received the lesser

gift was punished and no consideration exempted him; we have been given a

greater calling and we sin more. Are we not bound to suffer things beyond all


"Consider how long our race has been subject to death on account of a

single sin. More than five thousand years have passed and the death due to a

single sin has not yet been ended. In Adam's case we cannot say that he had

heard prophets or that he had seen others being punished for their sins so that

he might reasonably have been afraid and learnt prudence if only from the

example of others. He was the first and at that time the only one; yet he was

still punished. But you cannot claim any of these things. You have had

numerous examples, but you only grow worse; you have been granted the

great gift of the Spirit, but you go on producing not one or two or three but

countless sins. Do not think that because the sins are committed in one brief

moment the punishment therefore will also be a matter of a moment. You can

see how it is often the case that men who have committed a single theft or a

single act of adultery which has been done in a brief moment of time have

had to spend all their lives in prison or in the mines, continually battling with

hunger and every kind of death. No one lets them off, or says that since the

crime was committed in a brief moment the punishment should match the

crime in the length of time it takes.

"'People do act like that,' you may say, 'but they are men, whereas God is

loving towards mankind.' Yes, but even the men who act in this way do not

do so out of cruelty but out of love for mankind. So since God is loving to

mankind He too will deal with sin in this way. 'As great as is His mercy, so

great also is His reproof' (Sirach 16.12). So when you speak of God as loving

towards mankind, you are actually supplying me with a further reason for

punishment, in the fact that the One against Whom we sin is such as this. That

is the point of Paul's words: 'It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the

living God' (Hebrews 10.31). I ask you to bear with these words of fire.

Perhaps, yes, perhaps they may bring you some consolation. What man can

punish as God has been known to punish? He caused a flood and the total

destruction of the human race; a little later He rained down fire from on high

and utterly destroyed them all. What human retribution can compare with

that? Do you not recognise that even this case of punishment is virtually

endless? Four thousand years have passed and the punishment of the

Sodomites is still in full force. As His loving kindness is great, so also is His

punishment..." (Homily IX on Corinthians, 1-3. Translated in Maurice Wiles & Mark Santer (eds.) Documents in Early Christian Thought, Cambridge University Press, 1977).

St. Barsanuphius of Optina said: “We think too abstractly about the

torments of hell, as a result of which we forget about them. In the world they

have totally forgotten about them. The devil convinces everyone there that

neither he himself nor the torments of hell exist. But the Holy Fathers teach

that one’s betrothal to Gehenna, just as to blessedness, begins while one is still

on earth – that is, sinners while still on earth begin to experience the torments

of hell, while the righteous experience blessedness, only with this difference –

that in the future age both the one and the other will be incomparably more


“At the present time, not only among lay people, but even among the

young clergy the following conviction is beginning to spread: eternal torment

is incompatible with the boundless mercy of God; consequently, the torments

are not eternal. Such a misconception proceeds from a lack of understanding

of the matter. Eternal torments, and eternal blessedness, are not things which

proceed from without, but exist first and foremost within a man himself. ‘The

Kingdom of God is within you’ (Luke 17.21). With whatever feelings a man

instills within himself during his life, he departs into eternal life. A diseased

body torments one on earth, and the more severe the disease is, the greater

the torment is. So also a soul infected with various diseases begins to be

cruelly tormented at its passage into eternal life. An incurable physical

ailment ends with death, but how can a sickness of the soul end, when there is

no death for the soul? Malice, anger, irritability, lust, and other infirmities of

the soul are vermin which will creep after a man even into eternal life. Hence,

it follows that the aim of life consists in crushing these vermin here on earth,

so as to purify one’s soul entirely, and before death to say with our Savior,

‘The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in Me’ (John 14.30). A

sinful soul, not purified by repentance, cannot be in the company of the saints.

Even if it were placed in Paradise, it would itself find it unbearable to remain

there, and would try to get out.”

“Even the bodies of sinners will experience torment. The fire will be

material; there will not only be pangs of conscience, and so forth. No, this will

really be perceptible fire. Both the one and the other will be real. Only, just

like the body, the fire will be far more subtle, and everything will bear only a

certain resemblance to earthly things.” (Victor Afanasiev, Elder Barsanuphius of Optina, Platina: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2000, pp. 283, 309, 735-736).

2. The Argument from the Saints’ Compassion. According to this argument,

heaven would not be heaven for the righteous as long as they knew that the

sinners were being tortured in hell. Being filled with compassion, their bliss

would be spoiled as long as there was even one sinner still suffering torment.

So God in His compassion, and so as to give His chosen ones a perfect and

unspoiled reward, will forgive all men eventually.


However, the Fathers teach that that feeling of compassion which is so

necessary while there is still life and hope will be taken away by God when

there is no more use for it. For if, as St. John of Damascus says, "in hades [i.e.

after death but before the Last Judgement] there is no confession or

repentance" (P.G. 96, 1084B. Cf. Psalm 6.4), then much less will there be confession and repentance after the

Last Judgement in gehenna. And if there is no repentance how can there be



Thus St. Gregory the Great writes, in his commentary on the parable of

Lazarus and the Rich Man: "We must ponder these words: 'They who would

pass from hence to you cannot' (Luke 16.26). For there is no doubt that those

who are in hell long to enjoy the lot of the blessed. But since the latter have

been received into eternal happiness, how can it be said that they desire to

pass over to those in hell? It must be that, as the damned desire to go to the

dwelling of the elect, to escape from that place of suffering, so the just wish to

cross over in mercy to that place of torments, to bring them the freedom they

desire. But those who wish to cross from heaven to hell can never do so; for

although the souls of the just are aflame with mercy, nevertheless they are so

united to the divine justice and guided always by rectitude, that they are not

moved by any compassion towards the reprobate. They are in complete

conformity with that judge to whom they are united, and so they cannot have

compassion for those whom they cannot free from hell. They consider them as

strangers, remote from themselves, since they have seen them repelled by

their Maker who is the object of their love. So neither the wicked can cross

over to the felicity of the blessed: because they are shackled by an irrevocable

condemnation, nor the just go to the unjust: because they cannot feel

compassion for those whom the divine justice has rejected..." (Parables of the Gospel, Dublin: Scepter Publishers, pp. 155-56)

3. The Argument from Ignorance.  This argument can be summarised as

follows: "Neither are the works of faith necessary for salvation, nor even faith.

For most men have never had the Gospel preached to them, and so belong to

other faiths simply out of ignorance, because they were born into non-

Christian societies or families. The All-loving and All-just God will certainly

not judge them for that. Indeed (continues the argument in some of its forms),

all that is necessary for salvation is good faith, by which we do not mean the

one true faith (for there is no such thing), but sincerity, even if that sincerity is

manifested in non-Christian beliefs and actions: blessed are the sincere, for

they shall inherit the Kingdom of Heaven."


However, God attaches little value to sincerity per se: "The way of a fool is

right in his own eyes" (Proverbs 12.15), and: "There is a way which seemeth

right unto a man, but the end thereof is the ways of death" (Proverbs 14.12). In

any case, if true faith in Christ were not absolutely necessary for salvation,

and one could be saved without knowing Him, then it would not have been

necessary for the Martyrs to confess Him, for the Apostles to preach Him, or

for Christ Himself to become incarnate for our sakes.

"Are you saying, then” retort the ecumenists, “that all the Hindus and

Buddhists will be damned?!"

We neither assert this nor deny it, preferring to "judge nothing before the

time" (I Corinthians 4.5), and to follow St. Paul's rule: "what have I to do to

judge them that are without?… Them that are without God judgeth" (I

Corinthians 5.12-13). We know with complete certainly about the perdition of

only a few men (Judas, Arius, etc.), just as we have complete certainty about

the salvation of only a few men (those whom the Church has glorified as

saints). As Archbishop Theophan of Poltava wrote, when asked about the

salvation of the Jews: "When St. Anthony the Great was thinking about

questions of this kind, nothing concerning the essence of these questions was

revealed to him, but it was only told him from on high: 'Anthony, pay

attention to yourself!', that is, worry about your own salvation, but leave the

salvation of others to the Providence of God, for it is not useful for you to

know this at the present time. We must restrict ourselves to this revelation in

the limits of our earthly life." (Pis’ma Arkhiepiskopa Feofana Poltavskogo, Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1976, p. 31 (in Russian))

Nevertheless, when compassion for unbelievers is taken as a cloak from

under which to overthrow the foundations of the Christian Faith, it is

necessary to say something more, not as if we could say anything about the

salvation or otherwise of specific people (for that, as Archbishop Theophan

says, has been hidden from us), but in order to re-establish those basic

principles of the Faith, ignorance of which will undoubtedly place us in

danger of damnation.

Ignorance - real, involuntary ignorance - is certainly grounds for clemency

according to God's justice, as it is according to man's. The Lord cried out on

the Cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23.24);

and one of those who were forgiven declared: "I obtained mercy because I

acted in ignorance” (I Timothy 1.13; cf. Acts 3.17, 17.30). For our Great High

Priest is truly One "Who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them

that are out of the way" (Hebrews 5.2).

However, there is also such a thing as wilful, voluntary ignorance. Thus St.

Paul says of those who do not believe in the one God, the Creator of heaven

and earth, that "they are without excuse" (Romans 1.20), for they deny the

evidence from creation which is accessible to everyone. Again, St. Peter says:

"This they are willingly ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were

of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: Whereby the

world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: But the heavens

and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved

unto fire against the day of judgement and perdition of ungodly men" (II

Peter 3.5-7). Again, claiming knowledge when one has none counts as wilful

ignorance. For, as Christ said to the Pharisees: "If ye were blind, ye should

have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth" (John 9.41).

Wilful ignorance is very close to conscious resistance to the truth, which

receives the greatest condemnation according to the Word of God. Thus those

who accept the Antichrist will do so "because they received not the love of the

truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them

strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned

who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness" (II

Thessalonians 2.10-12). And if it seems improbable that God should send

anyone a strong delusion, let us remember the lying spirits who, with God's

permission, deceived the prophets of King Ahab because they only

prophesied what he wanted to hear (I Kings 22.19-24).


Conscious, willing resistance to the truth is the same as that "blasphemy

against the Holy Spirit" which, in the words of the Lord, "shall not be forgiven

unto men" (Matthew 12.31). As Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky)

explains: "Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, or 'sin unto death', according to

the explanation of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (VIII, 75), is a conscious,

hardened opposition to the truth, 'because the Spirit is truth' (I John 5.6).” ("The Church's Teaching about the Holy Spirit", Orthodox Life, vol. 27, no. 3, May-June, 1977, p. 23). 
It is not that God does not want to forgive all sins, even the most heinous: it is

simply that he who bars the way to the Spirit of truth is thereby blocking the

way to the truth about himself and God, and therefore to the forgiveness of

his sins. As St. Augustine says: "The first gift is that which is concerned with

the remission of sins... Against this gratuitous gift, against this grace of God,

does the impenitent heart speak. This impenitence, then, is the blasphemy

against the Holy Spirit." (Homily 21 on the New Testament, 19, 20. See also St. Symeon the New Theologian, Discourse XXIII, 1. There are other interpretations of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit which complement and follow from this one. Thus St. Ambrose (On Repentance, II, 24), followed by St. Augustine (Homily 21 on the New Testament, 28), regards heretics and schismatics as blasphemers against the Holy Spirit insofar as they deny the Spirit and Truth that is in the True Church.)

Wilful ignorance can be of various degrees. There is the wilful ignorance

that refuses to believe even when the truth is staring you in the face – this is

the most serious kind, the kind practised by the Pharisees and the heresiarchs.

But a man can also be said to be wilfully ignorant if he does not take the steps

that are necessary in order to discover the truth – this is less serious, but still

blameworthy, and is characteristic of many of those who followed the

Pharisees and the heresiarchs.

Thus we read: "That servant who knew his master's will, and prepared not

himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.

But he that knew not, and did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with

few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be

required; and he to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask

the more" (Luke 12.47-48). To which the words of St. Theophylact of Bulgaria

are a fitting commentary: "Here some will object, saying: 'He who knows the

will of his Lord, but does not do it, is deservedly punished. But why is the

ignorant punished?' Because when he might have known he did not wish to

do so, but was the cause of his own ignorance through sloth." (Explanation of the Gospel according to St. Luke 12.47-48)

Or, as St. Cyril of Alexandria puts it: "How can he who did not know it be

guilty? The reason is, because he did not want to know it, although it was in

his power to learn." (Homily 93 on Luke. Translated by Payne Smith, Studion Publishers, 1983, p. 376)

To whom does this distinction apply? St. Cyril applies it to false teachers and parents, on the one hand, and those who follow them, on

the other. In other words, the blind leaders will receive a greater

condemnation than the blind followers - which is not to say, however, that

they will not both fall into the pit (Matthew 15.14). For, as Bishop Nicholas

Velimirovich writes: "Are the people at fault if godless elders and false

prophets lead them onto foreign paths? The people are not at fault to as great

an extent as their elders and the false prophets, but they are at fault to some

extent. For God gave to the people also to know the right path, both through

their conscience and through the preaching of the word of God, so that people

should not blindly have followed their blind guides, who led them by false

paths that alienated them from God and His Laws." (The Prologue from Ochrid, Birmingham: Lazarica Press, 1986, vol. II, p. 149)

Are Hindus and Buddhists who have lived their whole lives in non-

Christian communities wilfully ignorant of the truth? Of course, only God

knows the degree of ignorance in any particular case. However, even if the

heathen have more excuse than the Christians who deny Christ, they cannot

be said to be completely innocent; for no one is completely deprived of the

knowledge of the One God.

Thus St. Jerome writes: "Ours and every other race of men knows God

naturally. There are no peoples who do not recognise their Creator

naturally." (Treatise on Psalm 95)

And St. John Chrysostom writes: "From the beginning God

placed the knowledge of Himself in men, but the pagans awarded this

knowledge to sticks and stones, doing wrong to the truth to the extent that

they were able." (Homily 3 on Romans, 2)

14 And the same Father writes: "One way of coming to the

knowledge of God is that which is provided by the whole of creation; and

another, no less significant, is that which is offered by conscience, the whole

of which we have expounded upon at greater length, showing how you have

a self-taught knowledge of what is good and what is not so good, and how

conscience urges all this upon you from within. Two teachers, then, are given

you from the beginning: creation and conscience. Neither of them has a voice

to speak out; yet they teach men in silence." (First Homily on Hannah)


Many have abandoned the darkness of idolatry by following the voices of

creation and conscience alone. Such, for example, was St. Barbara, who even

before she had heard of Christ rejected her father's idols and believed in the

One Creator of heaven and earth. For she heeded the voice of creation: "The

heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaimeth the work of

His hands" (Psalm 18.1). And she heeded the voice of her conscience, which

recoiled from those "most odious works of witchcrafts, and wicked sacrifices;

and also those merciless murderers of children and devourers of man's flesh,

and the feasts of blood, with their priests out of the midst of their idolatrous

crew, and the parents, that killed with their own hands souls destitute of

help" (Wisdom of Solomon 12.4-6). But her father, who had the same

witnesses to the truth as she, rejected it - to the extent of killing his own

daughter. (The Lives of the Women Martyrs, Buena Vista: Holy Apostles Convent, 1991, pp. 528-542)

Thus there is a light that "enlightens every man who comes into the world"

(John 1.9). And if there are some who reject that light, abusing that freewill

which God will never deprive them of, this is not His fault, but theirs. As St.

John Chrysostom says, "If there are some who choose to close the eyes of their

mind and do not want to receive the rays of that light, their darkness comes

not from the nature of the light, but from their own darkness in voluntarily

depriving themselves of that gift." (Homily 8 on John)

This mystery of the voluntary rejection of the light was revealed in a vision

to a nun, the sister of the famous novelist Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, who

rejected the teaching of the Orthodox Church and died under anathema:

"When I returned from the burial of my brother Sergius to my home in the

monastery, I had some kind of dream or vision which shook me to the depths

of my soul. After I had completed my usual cell rule, I began to doze off, or

fell into some kind of special condition between sleep and waking, which we

monastics call a light sleep. I dropped off, and beheld... It was night. There

was the study of Lev Nikolayevich. On the writing desk stood a lamp with a

dark lampshade. Behind the desk, and leaning with his elbows on it, sat Lev

Nikolayevich, and on his face there was the mark of such serious thought, and

such despair, as I had never seen in him before... The room was filled with a

thick, impenetrable darkness; the only illumination was of that place on the

table and on the face of Lev Nikolayevich on which the light of the lamp was

falling. The darkness in the room was so thick, so impenetrable, that it even

seemed as if it were filled, saturated with some materialisation... And

suddenly I saw the ceiling of the study open, and from somewhere in the

heights there began to pour such a blindingly wonderful light, the like of

which cannot be seen on earth; and in this light there appeared the Lord Jesus

Christ, in that form in which He is portrayed in Rome, in the picture of the

holy Martyr and Archdeacon Laurence: the all-pure hands of the Saviour

were spread out in the air above Lev Nikolayevich, as if removing from

invisible executioners the instruments of torture. It looks just like that in the

picture. And this ineffable light poured and poured onto Lev Nikolayevich.

But it was as if he didn't see it... And I wanted to shout to my brother:

Levushka, look, look up!... And suddenly, behind Lev Nikolayevich, - I saw it

with terror, - from the very thickness of the darkness I began to make out

another figure, a terrifying, cruel figure that made me tremble: and this figure,

placing both its hands from behind over the eyes of Lev Nikolayevich, shut

out that wonderful light from him. And I saw that my Levushka was making

despairing efforts to push away those cruel, merciless hands... At this point I

came to, and, as I came to, I heard a voice speaking as it were inside me: 'The

Light of Christ enlightens everyone!" (I.M. Kontzevich, Optina Pustyn' i ee Vremia, Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1970, pp.372-73 (in Russian))

If the Light of Christ enlightens everyone, then there is no one who cannot

come to the True Faith, whatever his situation. If a man follows the teachers

given to everyone, creation and conscience, then the Providence of God, with

Whom "all things are possible" (Matthew 19.26), will lead him to the teacher

that is given at the beginning only to a few - "the Church of the living God,

the pillar and ground of the Truth" (I Timothy 3.15). For "it is not possible,"

writes St. John Chrysostom, "that one who is living rightly and freed from the

passions should ever be overlooked. But even if he happens to be in error,

God will quickly draw him over to the truth." (Homily 24 on Matthew, 1)
Again, as Chrysostom's disciple, St. John Cassian, says: "When God sees in us some beginnings of good will, He at once enlightens it, urging it on towards salvation." (Conferences, XIII, 8)

This point was developed in an illuminating manner by Cassian's French

contemporary, Prosper of Aquitaine: "The very armies that exhaust the world

help on the work of Christian grace. How many indeed who in the quiet of

peacetime delayed to receive the sacrament of baptism, were compelled by

fear of close danger to hasten to the water of regeneration, and were suddenly

forced by threatening terror to fulfil a duty which a peaceful exhortation

failed to bring home to their slow and tepid souls? Some sons of the Church,

made prisoners by the enemy, changed their masters into servants of the

Gospel, and by teaching them the faith they became the superiors of their own

wartime lords. Again, some foreign pagans, whilst serving in the Roman

armies, were able to learn the faith in our country, when in their own lands

they could not have known it; they returned to their homes instructed in the

Christian religion. Thus nothing can prevent God's grace from accomplishing

His will... For all who at any time will be called and will enter into the

Kingdom of God, have been marked out in the adoption which preceded all

times. And just as none of the infidels is counted among the elect, so none of

the God-fearing is excluded from the blessed. For in fact God's prescience,

which is infallible, cannot lose any of the members that make up the fullness

of the Body of Christ." (The Call of the Nations, II, 33)

However, there are few today who have a living faith in God's ability to

bring anyone to the faith, whatever his situation. It may therefore be useful to

cite the famous example of God's favour to the Aleuts of Alaska, to whom He

sent angels to teach them the Orthodox Faith in the absence of any human

instructor. Fr. John Veniaminov (later St. Innocent, metropolitan of Moscow

(+1879)) relates how, on his first missionary journey to Akun island, he found

all the islanders lined up on the shore waiting for him. It turned out that they

had been warned by their former shaman, John Smirennikov, who in turn had

been warned by two "white men", who looked like the angels on icons.

Smirennikov told his story to Fr. John, who wrote: "Soon after he was

baptised by Hieromonk Macarius, first one and later two spirits appeared to

him but were visible to no one else... They told him that they were sent by

God to edify, teach and guard him. For the next thirty years they appeared to

him almost every day, either during daylight hours or early in the evening -

but never at night. On these occasions: (1) They taught him in its totality

Christian theology and the mysteries of the faith... (2) In time of sickness and

famine they brought help to him and - though more rarely - to others at his

request. (When agreeing to his requests that they help others, they always

responded by saying that they would first have to ask God, and if it was His

will, then they would do it.) (3) Occasionally they told him of thing occurring

in another place or (very rarely) at some time in the future - but then only if

God willed such a revelation; in such cases they would persuade him that

they did so not by their own power, but by the power of Almighty God.

"Their doctrine is that of the Orthodox Church. I, however, knowing that

even demons believe - and tremble with fear [James 3.19], wondered whether

or not this might be the crafty and subtle snare of him who from time

immemorial has been Evil. 'How do they teach you to pray, to themselves or

to God? And how do they teach you to live with others?' He answered that

they taught him to pray not to them but to the Creator of all, and to pray in

spirit, with the heart; occasionally they would even pray along with him for

long periods of time.

"They taught him to exercise all pure Christian virtues (which he related to

me in detail), and recommended, furthermore, that he remain faithful and

pure, both within and outside of marriage (this perhaps because the locals are

quite given to such impurity). Furthermore, they taught him all the outward

virtues..." (Paul Garrett, St. Innocent, Apostle to America, Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1979, pp. 80-81)

Very apt was the comment of one of the first who read this story: "It is

comforting to read about such miraculous Divine Providence towards

savages, sons of Adam who, though forgotten by the world, were not forgotten by

Providence." (Garrett, op. cit., p. 85, footnote)

These cases lead us to draw the following conclusions: (1) The Providence

of God is able to save anyone in any situation, providing he loves the truth.

Therefore (2), although we cannot declare with categorical certainty that those

who die in unbelief or heresy will be damned, neither can we declare that

they will be saved because of their ignorance; for they may be alienated from

God "through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their

heart" (Ephesians 4.18), and not simply through the ignorance that is caused

by external circumstances. And (3) if we, who know the truth, say that such

people do not need to become Christians in order to be saved, then we shall

be guilty of indifference to the truth; for which we shall certainly merit damnation. For while we cannot presume to know the eternal destinies of

individual men, we do know this, that the Word of God is true that declares:

"He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved; but he that believeth not

shall be damned" (Mark 16.16). And again: "Except a man be born of water

and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God" (John 3.5). And

again: "Whosoever shall deny Me before men, him will I also deny before My

Father Who is in heaven" (Matthew 10.33).

Moreover, to the unlying Word of God we may add the witness of Holy

Tradition, in the form of the experience of Theodora, the spiritual daughter of

St. Basil the New, who, after passing through the toll-houses and being

returned to her body, was told by the angels: "Those who believe in the Holy

Trinity and take as frequently as possible the Holy Communion of the Holy

Mysteries of Christ, our Saviour's body and Blood - such people can rise to

heaven directly, with no hindrances, and the holy angels defend them, and

the holy saints of God pray for their salvation, since they have lived

righteously. No one, however, takes care of wicked and depraved heretics,

who do nothing useful during their lives, and live in disbelief and heresy. The

angels can say nothing in their defence... [Only those] enlightened by the faith

and holy baptism can rise and be tested in the stations of torment [that is, the

toll-houses]. The unbelievers do not come here. Their souls belong to hell

even before they part from their bodies. When they die, the devils take their

souls with no need to test them. Such souls are their proper prey, and they

take them down to the abyss." (Quoted by David Ritchie, "The 'Near-Death Experience'", Orthodox Life, vol. 45, no. 4, July-August, 1995, pp. 22-23)

Some believe that even those condemned to hell after their death, may yet

get a “second chance” at the Last Judgement, through the prayers of the saints

and the Mother of God. The present writer knows no patristic witness that

would clearly confirm or refute such an idea. However, we know from St.

Simeon the Theologian that if a man is making progress towards the truth in this

life he will not be deprived of further progress in the life to come: "It is a great good

thing to believe in Christ, because without faith in Christ it is impossible to be

saved; but one must also be instructed in the word of truth and understand it.

It is a good thing to be instructed in the word of truth, and to understand it is

essential; but one must also receive Baptism in the name of the Holy and Lifegiving

Trinity, for the bringing to life of the soul. It is a good thing to receive

Baptism and through it a new spiritual life; but it is necessary that this

mystical life, or this mental enlightenment in the spirit, also should be

consciously felt. It is a good thing to receive with feeling the mental

enlightenment in the spirit; but one must manifest also the works of light. It is

a good thing to do the works of light; but one must also be clothed in the

humility and meekness of Christ for a perfect likeness to Christ. He who

attains this and becomes meek and humble of heart, as if these were his

natural dispositions, will unfailingly enter into the Kingdom of Heaven and

into the joy of the Lord. Moreover, regarding all those who are running on the

path of God according to the order I have indicated, if it happens that natural

death should cut off their course in the midst of this, they will not be banished

from the doors of the Kingdom of God, and these doors will not be closed

before them, according to the limitless mercy of God. But regarding those

who do not run in such a way, their faith also in Christ the Lord is vain, if

they have such..." (St. Symeon, The Sin of Adam and our Redemption, Platina, Ca.: St. Herman of Alaska Press, 1979, pp. 57-8)

4. The Argument from the Supremacy of Love over Justice. "Let us suppose

that most men are not worthy to enter the Kingdom of heaven, if only because

they will find nothing akin to their own corrupted nature there. Nevertheless,

God is love, and he would never cast the creatures He has created and still

continues to love into the unimaginably terrible torments of hell, whose

purpose, since they are unending, cannot be the rehabilitation of the sinner,

nor deterrence of future evil. We do not deny that the Scriptures speak in

many places of the existence of just such a hell, and of a great multitude

entering into it. But we cannot but hope and believe (for 'love believeth all

things, hopeth all things' (I Corinthians 13.7) that these images are placed

before us simply as a deterrent, and that in the end hell will be an empty place,

not only spiritually but also physically. God has shown, by His Death on the

Cross, that His love for us is greater than His love for the abstract principle of

justice. Is it possible that he would finally deny that, admit that His Sacrifice

had been in vain (for the great majority of people, at any rate), and allow cold

justice to triumph over love?"


In attempting to answer this objection, we must first arm ourselves with

the most basic weapon of the Christian life: the fear of God. The fear of God is

not an abject trembling before a despotic tyrant. It is a rational, heartfelt

awareness that we all, and every part of our lives, are in the hands of a Being

Who infinitely transcends everything that we can say about Him, and even

the very categories of our discourse. This applies not only to clearly

inexplicable and unimaginable acts of His such as the creation of the world

out of nothing. It also applies to those definitions of His nature which seem to

correspond to something in our experience, such as: "God is love".

If human love sometimes seems incompatible with justice, this is not so

with Divine love. For what is the whole economy of God’s incarnation, life on

earth and death on the Cross if not perfect love in pursuit of perfect justice - an

extraordinary, paradoxical, but for that very reason characteristically Divine

justice? For He, the Just One, Who committed no sin and had done everything

to deter us from it, out of love for man died to blot out all the sins and

injustices of the whole world. When we could not pay the price, He paid it for

us; when we were dead in sin, He died to give us life; "for Christ hath once

suffered for sins, the just for the unjust" (I Peter 3.18).


The Church has expressed the paradoxicality of God’s justice with great

eloquence: "Come, all ye peoples, and let us venerate the blessed Wood,

through which the eternal justice has been brought to pass. For he who by a

tree deceived our forefather Adam, is by the Cross himself deceived; and he

who by tyranny gained possession of the creature endowed by God with

royal dignity, is overthrown in headlong fall. By the Blood of God the poison

of the serpent is washed away; and the curse of a just condemnation is loosed

by the just punishment inflicted on the Just. For it was fitting that wood

should be healed by wood, and that through the Passion of One Who knew

not passion should be remitted all the sufferings of him who was condemned

because of wood. But glory to Thee, O Christ our King, for Thy dread

dispensation towards us, whereby Thou hast saved us all, for Thou art good

and lovest mankind." (Menaion, September 14, Great Vespers of the Exaltation of the Cross, "Lord, I have cried", "Glory... Both now...")

Here there is no contradiction between love and justice. And if there is no

contradiction between them in the Redeeming Passion of Christ on the Cross,

then there is likewise no contradiction between them in His Coming again to

judge men in accordance with their response to His Passion. But in order to

understand this it is necessary, first, to rid ourselves of the idea that God’s just

wrath against impenitent sinners is comparable to the sinful human passion

of vengefulness. Such vengefulness is condemned by the Word of God

(Romans 12.17-21), and cannot possibly be attributed to the Divine Nature,

which is alien to all fallen human passion. We must at all times hate the sin

and not the sinner; we must wish for the destruction of sin and not of sinners.

If we wish to identify our will with the Will of God, then our first desire must

be for the salvation of all sinners, including our enemies, paying special

attention (lest we become hypocrites) to those sinners we know best and for

whom we are primarily responsible - ourselves.


The wrath of God,” writes Archbishop Theophan of Poltava, “is one of the

manifestations of the love of God, but of the love of God in its relationship to the

moral evil in the heart of rational creatures in general, and of man in

particular." ("On the Redemption"; quoted in Fr. Anthony Chernov, Archevêque

Theophane de Poltave, Lavardac: Monastère de St. Michel, 1988, p. 146 (in French).

That is why the martyrs under the heavenly altar, filled as they

are with the love of God to the highest degree, are at the same time filled with

a holy wrath: “How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost Thou not judge and

avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6.10). And yet,

as the Venerable Bede writes, "the souls of the righteous cry out these words,

not out of hatred for enemies, but out of love for justice". (On Genesis 4.10)


This love of justice is natural to man, for it is made in the image of God’s

own love of justice. The love of justice proceeds naturally from the Nature of

God, like heat from the sun. Thus to say that God should be loving but not

just is like saying that the sun should give light but not heat. It is simply not

in the nature of things. What is in accordance with the nature of God is that

He should divide the light of His grace from its fiery heat at the Last

Judgement, giving the light only to the blessed and the heat only to the


As St. Basil the Great writes, commenting on the verse: “The voice of the

Lord divideth the flame of fire” (Psalm 28.6), writes: “The fire prepared in

punishment for the devil and his angels is divided by the voice of the Lord.

Thus, since there are two capacities in fire, one of burning and the other of

illuminating, the fierce and punitive property of the fire may await those who

deserve to burn, while its illuminating and radiant part may be reserved for

the enjoyment of those who are rejoicing.” (On Psalm 28.6)

The Lord placed justice on a par with mercy and faith (Matthew 23.23), and

it was the Ephesian Church’s hatred of injustice that redeemed it in His eyes;

for “this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also

hate” (Revelation 2.6). This lesson is particularly important for our century,

when the Orthodox Church has been persecuted by the ecumenists with their

indifference to the truth, on the one hand, and the sergianists with their

indifference to justice, on the other. We have to kindle in ourselves a holy and

dispassionate zeal for the truth and hatred of injustice.

Thus, as Archbishop Theophan writes in reply to the question “Can one

have a negative feeling in relation to the enemies of the Russian people and

the Orthodox Church or must one suppress in oneself this feeling, repeating

the words: ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay’?”: “To have a negative feeling

towards the enemies of God and of the Russian people is natural. And on the

contrary not to have a negative feeling is unnatural. Only this feeling must be

correct. And it will be correct when it has a principled, not personal character,

that is, when we 'hate' the enemies of God and of the Russian people not for

their personal offences against us, but for their hostile attitude towards God

and the Church and for their inhuman attitude towards Russian people.

Therefore it is also necessary to fight with these enemies. Whereas if we do

not fight, we will be punished by God for our lukewarmness. He will then

take His vengeance not only on them, but also on us..." (Pis'ma, op. cit., p. 40)

The whole burden of the Old Testament Prophets was an impassioned, yet

holy lament against the injustice of man against God and against his fellow

man. And if anything to the Prophets was proof of the corruption of Israel, it

was that, instead of repenting of their own injustice, they accused the Just One

of injustice. Thus the holy Prophet Ezekiel laments: “The house of Israel saith,

The way of the Lord is not equal. O house of Israel, are not My ways equal?

Are not your ways unequal? Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel,

every one according to his ways, saith the Lord God.” (Ezekiel 18.29-30). And

the holy Prophet Malachi laments: “Ye have wearied the Lord with your

words. Yet ye say, Wherein have we wearied Him? When ye say, Every one

that doeth evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and He delighteth in them; or,

Where is the God of judgement?” (Malachi 2.17).

The God of judgement is within us, manifest in that extraordinarily

powerful love of justice that is created in the image of God’s love of justice.

Faith teaches, and human nature cries out for, a last and most glorious

Judgement in which all tears will wiped away from every innocent face

(Revelation 21.4), and every apparently meaningless suffering will find its

meaning and reward. Again, faith teaches, and human nature cries out for, a

last and most terrible Judgement in which those who laughed over the

sufferings of others will weep (Luke 6.25), and those who feasted on human

flesh will gnash their teeth in eternal frustration. "Be not deceived; God is not

mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that

soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the

Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting." (Galatians 6.7,8)

Thus the Last, Most Terrible Judgement is a mystery proclaimed by the

Word of God and grounded in the deepest reality of things. It both proceeds

from the nature of God Himself, and is an innate demand of our human

nature created in the image of God. It is the essential foundation for the

practice of virtue and the abhorrence of vice, and the ultimate goal to which

the whole of created nature strives, willingly or unwillingly, as to its natural

fulfilment. Without it all particular judgements would have a partial and

unsatisfactory character, and the reproaches of Job against God, and of all

unbelievers against faith, would be justified. And if the Last Judgement is

different from all preceding ones in that in it love seems to be separated from

justice, love being distributed exclusively to the righteous and justice to the

sinners, then this is because human nature itself will have divided itself in

two, one part having responded to love with love, to justice with justice, while

the other, having rejected both the love and the justice of God, will merit to

experience His justice alone...

And if, like Ivan in Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, we still

cannot come to terms with the tears of an innocent child, this is not because

our love is too great, but because our faith in God's justice is too small. God’s

ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts, and His justice, we

must humbly accept, is not our justice. At some times we cannot understand

why the innocent suffer; at others – why the guilty get away with it. At some

times we cannot understand why great sinners are forgiven in a moment; at

others – why those who seem to us to be less guilty appear destined for the

eternal fire. The only right way to respond to this is to recognise humbly that

the creature cannot and must not argue with his Creator, and to say with the

Psalmist: “Righteous art Thou, O Lord, and upright are Thy judgements”

(Psalm 118.137)…

‹‹ Back to All Articles
Site Created by The Marvellous Media Company