St. Isaac, Dickens, and Eating Away Gehenna

June 2, 2015 Length: 17:55

It is difficult for some of us who were raised on a theology of substitutionary atonement, those of us Protestant converts to holy Orthodoxy, it is difficult for us to accept that our final judgement will involve anything more than the forgiveness of sins. But the Church teaches us otherwise. Parables such as the Rich Man and Lazarus, and the Separation of the Sheep and the Goats play a huge role in the hymnology of the Orthodox Church and in its understanding of what our judgement before God will look like. That is, judgement before God is not merely about forgiveness of sin. But rather, the judgement of the Age to Come is also about comfort and torment; or as Christ puts it in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Father Abraham speaking to the Rich Man who is in torment), “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented.”

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Hello. This is Fr. Michael Gillis, and we’re Praying in the Rain. My podcast today is called “St. Isaac, Deacons, and Eating Away at Gehenna.” I’m always happy when I can throw in some 19th century British literature. It’s kind of one of the hobbies I enjoy indulging in. So let’s get started.

It’s difficult for some of us who were raised on a theology of substitutionary atonement, those of us Protestant converts to holy Orthodoxy, it is difficult for some of us to accept that our final judgment will involve anything more than the forgiveness of sins. But the Church teaches us otherwise. Parables such as the rich man and Lazarus and the separation of the sheep and the goats, play a huge role in the hymnology of the Orthodox Church and in its understanding of what our judgment before God will look like. That is, judgment before God is not merely about forgiveness of sins, but rather the judgment of the age to come is also about comfort and torment, or, as Christ puts it in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Father Abraham speaking to the rich man who was in torment, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things, but now he is comforted and you are in torment.”

A significant aspect of the torment of the age to come is connected to how we have reveled in comfort while those around us have suffered. Yes, forgiveness is part of the judgment. Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, St. John tells us in his first epistle, chapter two, verse three, and while we might debate the role of faith or acceptance in the experience of the forgiveness of our sins, one thing is certain: the problem is not on God’s side. God has forgiven all, and yet, though we are forgiven, there may still be torment. Certainly, some of this torment of the age to come, a torment that begins in this life, just as eternal life begins in this life and continues into the age to come, some of this torment has to do with struggling to accept that God has forgiven us of all our sins, that the abyss of our sins is not greater than the ocean of God’s love.

However, another aspect of the torment of the age to come has to do with what we have left undone, the good we could have done but didn’t, the help we could have given but held back; the good life we enjoy materially, spiritually, socially, refusing to reach out to and love those suffering from want of material blessings, from want of functional family or social support, for want of a healthy church community and sound Orthodox teaching about the nature of God, man, and the universe. Some of the suffering of the age to come will have to do with our failure to love.

One of the best depictions in English literature of this torment over what is left undone, this refusal to care about those around us and how it might be experienced in the age to come, is found in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. After the ghost of Jacob Marley shakes up Ebenezer Scrooge and warns him of the three Christmas ghosts who will visit him, Marley’s ghost leads Scrooge to the window where Scrooge sees

the air filled with phantoms wandering hither and thither in restless haste and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s ghost; some few—they might be guilty governments—were linked together. None were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost in a white waistcoat with a monstrous iron safe attached to his ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with her infant, whom it saw below on a doorstep. The misery with them all was clearly that they sought to interfere for good in human matters and had lost the power to do so forever.

The night is bitterly cold, we are told earlier in the story, and this poor woman is huddled on the doorstep with her infant, trying not to freeze, and Scrooge’s departed friend with an iron safe chained to his ankle now wants to help, now wants to use the wealth of his resources, what is now bound to him as a burden, to help this poor woman and her baby. And this is the torment of the age to come. These are the flames and the gnashing of the teeth and the worms that do not cease of the age to come. Freed from the voluntarily chosen blindness caused by sin, the old ghost in the white waistcoat now feels human compassion, now loves the sister and brother whom he had for a long time—for a lifetime—ignored. Now he cares, but it’s too late; now he can do nothing.

And, of course, this torment isn’t merely about money and how it might have been better used to help others. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the torment of the age to come has nothing directly to do with money. It has nothing to do with money and everything to do with love. It has to do with seeing other people, seeing their pain, loving them and suffering in some small way with them, in some small way lessening your own comfort for the sake of someone else.

And you don’t need to spend a dollar to do this. Whom do you sit with at lunch, at school? Do you sit with people that no one else wants to sit with? Whom do you hang out with at a party? Do you look for someone who would otherwise be standing alone? Whom do you talk to on a bus? Are you willing to listen politely to an old man or woman who is desperate to talk to anyone? Whom are you willing to see that you would rather not see? Who is hard to love whom you you could try a little harder to love? You don’t have to have any money to love, to care, or to see. You just need to be willing to be a little uncomfortable, to feel a little compassion, to weep a little with those who weep.

I find it interesting that twice in the book of Revelation, chapters 7 and 21, it speaks of God’s wiping the tears from every eye. In both contexts, the text seems to be talking about saints who are already in heaven, already experiencing the blessing of the age to come. So here’s the question: Where do these tears come from that God wipes away? I don’t know, but I wonder if those tears have something to do with this sudden awareness in the age to come of the people we refused to see and of the suffering in others that we did not allow ourselves to share.

But as I said at the beginning, it’s hard for some of us to conceive of a world to come in which one does not experience either paradise and only paradise or Gehenna and only Gehenna. But St. Isaac the Syrian suggests that the experience of the age to come may not be as segregated as we suspect. St. Isaac emphasizes that there is no “middle place” between paradise and Gehenna; there is no limbo, no “lesser heaven” or “higher hell.” However, for St. Isaac, both heaven and hell, paradise and Gehenna, can be experienced in the human heart, in the same human heart. For St. Isaac, and some, perhaps many, Church Fathers, heaven or hell are referred to as places only metaphorically, in a way that makes sense in this current age of time and space as we know it.

However, more precisely, heaven and hell refer to experiences, or better yet, they refer to how one experiences the continued existence in the age to come. The great gulf fixed between the rich man and Lazarus, spoken of in the parable, does not refer to a literal amount of space, as though it could be measured with a ruler that’s long enough. What it exactly refers to we don’t know, for it is part of the mystery of the age to come; however, I suspect that the great gulf has something to do with the life lived and that is now over, a life on earth that cannot be changed, for it has been lived. It is what it is, and it’s over, just as I cannot change yesterday, for it is gone—a great gulf is fixed. But so long as I continue to live in this world, change is possible. I cannot do anything about yesterday, but I can love today, right now. I can open my eyes now and see the Lazarus at my gates, the poor, the lonely, the stranger, the hard-to-love, the ones I avoided yesterday but today I have another chance.

And St. Isaac says, in Homily 32 that one who suffers to love others, as one is chastised or suffers in his or her struggle to love God and neighbor and to avoid sin, as one suffers now for righteousness’ sake, for the sake of mercy and love, St. Isaac says, “He who is chastised here eats away his own Gehenna.” For St. Isaac, there is no contradiction between the experience of heavenly rest and the experience of punishment for pleasures that we allow ourselves through sinful and selfish licentiousness.

These are experienced by each of us now, in time and space as we know it. Generally, they’re experienced sequentially, that is, to quote St. Isaac, “Every rest is followed by hardship, and every hardship endured for God is followed by rest.” How hardship and rest—Gehenna and paradise—may be experienced in the age to come, we don’t know, but St. Isaac assures us that the rest, or perhaps what we would more likely call the peace that we experience as a gift from God now, is only an earnest that does not eat away its own capital. That is, that’s a quote by [him]: “it does not eat away its own capital.” It’s interesting to hear St. Isaac using terms of finance in referring to heaven, but of course that is following biblical precedents; many of Christ’s parables talk about money, using financial metaphors, so it’s a very biblical way to talk about heavenly things.

What the gift of peace and grace we experience from God now is an earnest that “does not eat away its own capital.” That is, when God grants us peace, comfort, and encouragement now, in this age, it takes nothing away from the peace, comfort, and encouragement of the heavenly reward. It’s just a foretaste, a bit of interest paid out that in no wise diminishes the capital of the heavenly blessing God has stored up for those who love him.

But suffering for Christ’s sake, suffering to avoid sin or to love our neighbor, suffering for righteousness’ sake, is actually a gift of God’s rich mercies, because suffering now eats away the Gehenna, the suffering that may await us in the age to come, especially those of us, like me, who love God with only part of my heart, with only part of my soul, with only part of my mind, and with only part of my strength. This is not a theology of works-righteousness, or not exactly. Past sins cannot be undone; only God forgives sin. However, that I recognize that I have sinned against God and my neighbor, which, by the way, is the same thing, and that I attempt to do something about it to the extent that I am willing to suffer somewhat for love, for righteousness’ sake, this is a great gift to my own conscience.

As I have said before, some of what St. Isaac writes is controversial, mostly because he’s not a systematic theologian; he’s a mystical theologian, who speaks of what he has experienced and known in his relationship with God, who speaks in a way that has, for more than a thousand years, helped millions of holy men and women—mostly Orthodox monastics—grow in prayer and the knowledge of God. St. Isaac did not write to be systematized. He wrote to help men and women meet God. He writes in paradox, in parable, about the actual experience of a life in God, what the Orthodox Church often calls “theology,” but nothing like the rational explanations you find in academic books, what popularly passes for theology.

Therefore, it would be a mistake to hear anything I say or write as I reflect on St. Isaac’s homilies, to hear anything I write or say as a challenge to Orthodox dogma. Everything St. Isaac says assumes Orthodox dogma. Everything he says fits squarely in the teaching of the Orthodox faith, even if sometimes it is a fit that cannot be rationally squared. It is a mystical fit, a fit that mystically resonates in the hearts of millions of holy men and women who have come to actually know God within the Orthodox Church.