God desires for all people to repent and be saved. And if we are faithful Christians, we desire the same thing. Love compels us to pray for the salvation of each individual, and the idea of universal salvation seems very attractive.
Yet God gives free-will to every man. No one is forced to be condemned, and no one is compelled to repent. This is why Universalism and Calvinism are two sides of the same coin. Ultimately, both deny man’s free-will.
Over the past 2000 years, the Orthodox Church has consistently warned us about the grave realities of hell. The torments there are real, and they never come to an end. This teaching may not be pleasant, and it may not be popular. But the Orthodox Church teaches it nonetheless, for at least two reasons:
- It is true.
- It is spiritually dangerous to believe otherwise.
This article will focus on the question of hell’s duration. Are the torments of hell unending? Are there some people who will never escape? Or will the torments of hell eventually come to an end for everyone? It is possible that hell eventually will be empty?
In this article, we will demonstrate the Orthodox Church’s teaching on this subject by reviewing a number of sources:
- The Testimony of Scripture
- The Testimony of St. John Chrysostom
- The Consensus of Numerous Saints
- The Synodikon of Orthodoxy
Then we will consider some objections to this teaching which have been raised by certain people within the Church. We will consider how these objections are a matter of wishful thinking, and how they fail to reflect an Orthodox mindset.
Finally, we will consider how this teaching is necessary for good spiritual life in the Church. We will look at the reasons why it is spiritually dangerous to believe in a “temporary hell”.
The Testimony of Scripture
In the New Testament, Jesus talks about hell more than he talks about heaven. And his testimony is not ambiguous. He says the torments of hell will never come to an end.
In one passage of Scripture, Jesus says the pains of hell are unending, and he says so eight times. Fr. John Whiteford makes this same observation. In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus states five times that the fires of hell (gehenna) will not be quenched, and he speaks three times of the worm that will not die:
And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9:43-48)
As Fr. John points out, Christ is probably alluding to Isaiah 66:24 and Judith 16:17, when he speaks of hell in these terms:
And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh (Isaiah 66:24)
Woe to the nations that rise up against my people! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgment; he will send fire and worms into their flesh; they shall weep in pain forever. (Judith 16:17)
In the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Christ addresses the wicked (the goats) and says:
Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels . . . And these shall go away into everlasting punishment (Matthew 25:26,46)
And St. Paul wrote:
since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).
Jesus and the apostles speak of hell in many more places, but the passages above are a good sample. The consistent message is that the fire and torment are unending. And if the torment does not end, that doesn’t leave any room for universal salvation.
The Testimony of St. John Chrysostom
Throughout the world, St. John Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.) has been accepted as a preeminent Orthodox Saint, and as one of the most faithful preachers in the Church. Initially, he was simply known as “John”. But over time, his preaching was so welcomed and praised by the Orthodox Church that people started calling him “Chrysostom”, which in Greek means “Golden Mouth”. According to Orthodox tradition, the apostle Paul himself appeared to St. John Chrysostom, ensuring his accurate interpretation of Scripture.
In this section, we will review several statements made by St. John Chrysostom, where he comments on the duration of hell’s torments.
While some universalists do not deny the existence of hell, they suggest the possibility that hell may not last forever. They hope that hell may simply have a cleansing effect on souls, and that the torment may eventually come to an end.
St. John Chrysostom, in his 6th homily on the Gospel of John, provides a response to people who make such conjectures:
For though we have all faith and all knowledge of the Scriptures, yet if we be naked and destitute of the protection derived from (holy) living, there is nothing to hinder us from being hurried into the fire of hell, and burning for ever in the unquenchable flame. For as they who have done good shall rise to life everlasting, so they who have dared the contrary shall rise to everlasting punishment, which never has an end. (St. John Chrysostom, The Gospel of John, Homily 6)
Commenting on a passage in 1 Corinthians, St. John Chrysostom talks about the duration of hell fire:
This is no small subject of inquiry which we propose, but rather about things which are of the first necessity and which all men inquire about; namely, whether hell fire have any end. For that it hath no end Christ indeed declared when he said, “Their fire shall not be quenched, and their worm shall not die. . . .” (St. John Chrysostom, 1 Corinthians, Homily 9)
In the same homily, he talks about specific types of unrepentant sinners, and he discusses the eternal nature of their destruction:
As I said then; that it hath no end, Christ has declared. Paul also saith, in pointing out the eternity of the punishment, that the sinners shall pay the penalty of destruction, and that forever. “Neither fornicators, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, shall inherit the the kingdom of God.” (St. John Chrysostom, 1 Corinthians, Homily 9)
In his treatise On the Statues, St. John Chrysostom warns us of the difference between temporary suffering on earth, and never-ending suffering in hell:
For the things present, whatever they are, are endurable, and have an end; but the torments there are immortal, and interminable! (St. John Chrysostom, On the Statues, Homily 17, paragraph 15)
And in his commentary on the book of 2nd Thessalonians, St. John Chrysostom explicitly says that the torments of hell are not temporary:
For the fear even from bare words is sufficient, though we do not fully unfold their meaning. But that it is not temporary, hear Paul now saying, concerning those who know not God, and who do not believe in the Gospel, that “they shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction. How then is that temporary which is everlasting? (St. John Chrysostom, 2 Thessalonians, Homily 3)
As Jesus had already done in the New Testament, St. John Chrysostom spoke many times about the unending torments of hell. And his teaching was not ambiguous. There are many people who will suffer in hell for all eternity, and will never escape. They will never inherit the Kingdom of God.
These teachings are not provided to make us feel comfortable. These teachings are provided to warn us, so that we will be diligent to avoid the eternal fires of hell at all costs.
The Consensus of Numerous Saints
Of course, we must not base our beliefs on the testimony of an isolated saint. To be confident that a given teaching is truly Orthodox, we must be satisfied with nothing less than a full consensus of the saints. We must believe that which has been received and believed by Orthodox saints throughout the world, and throughout time.
Therefore, let us consider the voices of many Orthodox saints who have spoken on this topic. Do the torments of hell last forever, or do they eventually come to an end? Is hell eternal, or is it only temporary?
St. Clement of Rome (27-97 A.D.)
So, then, if they were sure of this, that the punishment of eternal fire awaits those who do not worship God, when would they cease warning and exhorting?
— Recognitions – book 7, ch. 35
St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107 A.D)
Corrupters of families will not inherit the kingdom of God. And if they who do these things according to the flesh suffer death, how much more if a man corrupt by evil teaching the faith of God for the sake of which Jesus Christ was crucified? A man become so foul will depart into unquenchable fire: and so will anyone who listens to him
— Letter to the Ephesians, ch. 16
St. Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.)
And that no one may say what is said by those who are deemed philosophers, that our assertions that the wicked are punished in eternal fire are big words and bugbears, and that we wish men to live virtuously through fear, and not because such a life is good and pleasant; I will briefly reply to this, that if this be not so, God does not exist; or, if He exists, He cares not for men and neither virtue nor vice is anything, and, as we said before, lawgivers unjustly punish those who transgress good commandments
— Second Apology, ch. 9
St. Theophilus of Antioch (120-190 A.D.)
Give studious attention to the prophetic writings [the Scriptures] and they will lead you on a clearer path to escape the eternal punishments and to obtain the eternal good things of God. . . . [God] will examine everything and will judge justly, granting recompense to each according to merit. To those who seek immortality by the patient exercise of good works, he will give everlasting life, joy, peace, rest, and all good things. . . . For the unbelievers and for the contemptuous, and for those who do not submit to the truth but assent to iniquity, when they have been involved in adulteries, and fornications, and homosexualities, and avarice, and in lawless idolatries, there will be wrath and indignation, tribulation and anguish; and in the end, such men as these will be detained in everlasting fire
— To Autolycus 1:14
St. Irenaeus of Lyons (125-202 A.D.)
[God will] send the spiritual forces of wickedness, and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, and the impious, unjust, lawless, and blasphemous among men into everlasting fire
— Against Heresies 1:10:1
The penalty increases for those who do not believe the Word of God and despise his coming. . . . [I]t is not merely temporal, but eternal. To whomsoever the Lord shall say, ‘Depart from me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire,’ they will be damned forever
— Against Heresies 4:28:2
St. Hyppolytus (170-236 A.D.)
since to those who have done well shall be assigned righteously eternal bliss, and to the lovers of iniquity shall be given eternal punishment. And the fire which is un-quenchable and without end awaits these latter, and a certain fiery worm which dieth not, and which does not waste the body, but continues bursting forth from the body with unending pain. No sleep will give them rest; no night will soothe them; no death will deliver them from punishment; no appeal of interceding friends will profit them
— Against Plato – On the Cause of the Universe, paragraph 3
Minucius Felix (~226 A.D.)
I am not ignorant of the fact that many, in the consciousness of what they deserve, would rather hope than actually believe that there is nothing for them after death. They would prefer to be annihilated rather than be restored for punishment. . . . Nor is there either measure nor end to these torments. That clever fire burns the limbs and restores them, wears them away and yet sustains them, just as fiery thunderbolts strike bodies but do not consume them
— Octavius, chapters 34–35
St. Cyprian of Carthage (200-270 A.D.)
An ever-burning Gehenna and the punishment of being devoured by living flames will consume the condemned; nor will there be any way in which the tormented can ever have respite or be at an end. Souls along with their bodies will be preserved for suffering in unlimited agonies. . . . The grief at punishment will then be without the fruit of repentance; weeping will be useless, and prayer ineffectual. Too late will they believe in eternal punishment, who would not believe in eternal life”
— To Demetrian, paragraph 24
Lactantius (290-350 A.D.)
We therefore speak better and more truly, who say that the two ways belong to heaven and hell, because immortality is promised to the righteous, and everlasting punishment is threatened to the unrighteous.
— Divine Institutes, book 6
St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-395 A.D.)
Certainly, in comparison with one who has lived all his life in sin, not only the innocent babe but even one who has never come into the world at all will be blessed. We learn as much too in the case of Judas, from the sentence pronounced upon him in the Gospels; namely, that when we think of such men, that which never existed is to be preferred to that which has existed in such sin. For, as to the latter, on account of the depth of the ingrained evil, the chastisement in the way of purgation will be extended into infinity
— On Infants’ Early Deaths
St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.)
If therefore all those works “shall not possess the kingdom of God” (yea not the works, but “they that do such things;” for such works there shall be none in the fire: for they shall not, while burning in that fire, be committing theft or adultery; but “they that do such things shall not possess the kingdom of God“); they shall not therefore be on the right hand
— Exposition on Psalm 81, paragraph 19
For neither is eternal fire itself, which is to torture the impious, an evil nature, since it has its measure, its form and its order depraved by no iniquity; but it is an evil torture for the damned, to whose sins it is due. For neither is yonder light, because it tortures the blear-eyed, an evil nature.
— Against the Manicheans, ch. 38
St. John Cassian (360-435 A.D.)
For whoever after baptism and the knowledge of God falls into that death, must know that he will either have to be cleansed, not by the daily grace of Christ, i.e., an easy forgiveness, which our Lord when at any moment He is prayed to, is wont to grant to our errors, but by a lifelong affliction of penitence and penal sorrow, or else will be hereafter consigned to the punishment of eternal fire for them, as the same Apostle thus declares: “neither effeminate, nor defilers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous persons, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners shall possess the kingdom of God.”
– Conference 23 – ch. 15
St. Justinian the Great (483-565 A.D.)
If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary, and will one day have an end, and that a restoration (ἀποκατάστασις) will take place of demons and of impious men, let him be anathema.
– Liber Contra Origen, Anathema IX
The fires of hell are not temporary, and the pains of hell are never-ending.
The consensus of the Saints is clear.
The Synodikon of Orthodoxy
Along with the testimony of Scripture and Saints, it is also important to learn from the Liturgy itself. Over the centuries, the Holy Spirit has inspired many Saints to bring it to its present form, and it has shaped the worship of hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians. If a particular teaching can be found in the Liturgy, and in the liturgical calendar, then that teaching has been accepted by the Orthodox Church worldwide, and is therefore trustworthy.
Every year, on the first Sunday of Lent, the Synodikon of Orthodoxy is read in Orthodox Churches worldwide. Thus, its teachings are authoritative for Orthodox Christians. It is a document which summarizes some of the most central beliefs and teachings of the Orthodox Church.
The Synodikon of Orthodoxy is unflinching in its condemnation of universalist heresy:
To them who accept and transmit . . . that there is an end to the torment or a restoration again of creation and of human affairs, meaning by such teachings that the Kingdom of the Heavens is entirely perishable and fleeting, whereas the Kingdom is eternal and indissoluble as Christ our God Himself taught and delivered to us, and as we have ascertained from the entire Old and New Scripture, that the torment is unending and the Kingdom everlasting to them who by such teachings both destroy themselves and become agents of eternal condemnation to others: Anathema! Anathema! Anathema!
– Synodikon of Orthodoxy
It is important to notice that the Synodikon attacks the heresy of universalism from two different directions. From the negative direction, an anathema is pronounced upon all those “who accept and transmit . . . that there is an end to the torment” of hell. And from the positive direction, the Synodikon states, “we have ascertained from the entire Old and New Scripture, that the torment is unending”.
There are some who would try to get around the Synodikon’s anathema, assuming that it is only directed against the followers of Origen. (He taught the preexistence of souls, and the ultimate universal redemption of all souls. His teachings were condemned at the Fifth Ecumenical Council.) And since modern universalists don’t believe in the preexistence of souls, some assume that this anathema – the Synodikon’s negative pronouncement – doesn’t apply to them.
This is where it becomes important to consider the positive pronouncement made by the Synodikon. Quite apart from anything it says about certain heresies, it also explains what the Bible itself teaches. And according to the Synodikon of Orthodoxy, Scripture says that “torment is unending” in hell.
And if the torments of hell are truly “unending”, then every form of universalism is a false teaching – not only Origen’s particular version of it.
Holy Scripture is clear, the consensus of the Saints is clear, and the Synodikon of Orthodoxy is clear. Yet, in spite of the overwhelming consensus, there are still some individuals who balk at this teaching. Some people simply want to believe that hell is temporary, and to justify their desire, they are willing to go to great lengths.
Bishop Kallistos Ware is a prominent example of someone who takes this unfortunate approach. The final chapter in his book, The Inner Kingdom, is titled, “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?” To support his idea, he focuses primarily on three voices from the early church: Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Isaac the Syrian.
The author spends seven pages — nearly a third of the chapter — focusing on the teachings of Origen. He considers him a valuable resource, even though the Orthodox Church officially condemned Origen as a heretic, at the Fifth Ecumenical Council.
He spends the next two pages talking about St. Gregory of Nyssa, claiming him as an advocate of universal salvation. Yet it is disputed whether St. Gregory actually believed such a thing. While his writings may have certain excerpts which entice universalists, there are other passages which they seem to avoid. In St. Gregory’s treatise regarding the early deaths of infants, he does not talk like any universalist I have ever met. Nor does he express any hope that Judas Iscariot will ever experience salvation.
In agreement with the words of Jesus Christ, St. Gregory says that Judas would have been better off if he had never been born. But if Judas is eventually going to be saved, then how could such a statement be true? St. Gregory says, “that which never existed is to be preferred to that which has existed in such sin.” With sobriety, and with great gravity, we need to reflect on the awful fact that the chastisement of Judas “will be extended into infinity”. Here is the full quote from the Saint himself:
Certainly, in comparison with one who has lived all his life in sin, not only the innocent babe but even one who has never come into the world at all will be blessed. We learn as much too in the case of Judas, from the sentence pronounced upon him in the Gospels; namely, that when we think of such men, that which never existed is to be preferred to that which has existed in such sin. For, as to the latter, on account of the depth of the ingrained evil, the chastisement in the way of purgation will be extended into infinity . . .
– St. Gregory of Nyssa, On Infants’ Early Deaths
After discussing Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa, Bishop Kallistos Ware spends four pages talking about the writings of St. Isaac the Syrian. He was a 7th century ascetic, and most people agree that he believed in the possibility of universal salvation.
Having introduced us to these three men, the author makes this statement:
Within the tradition of the Christian East, then, we have identified three powerful witnesses who dare to hope for the salvation of all. (The Inner Kingdom, p. 210)
Thus, in a 23-page chapter, this author spends over half his time — 13 pages in all — focusing on the writings of Origen (a condemned heretic), St. Gregory of Nyssa (who may not have believed in universal salvation), and St. Isaac of Syria. These are his “three powerful witnesses” to this teaching.
Of course, cherry-picking a few minority quotes is not an Orthodox approach. As one priest noted,
Those who advocate for this heresy are forced to place all their weight on the supposed advocacy of a few saints of the Church, while ignoring the clear and unambiguous teachings of all the other Fathers, the Councils, the Apostles, and even Christ Himself. This is not how Orthodox Christians approach such matters. We affirm that which the Church has consistently taught — we do not go hunting for theological exotica.
– Fr. John Whiteford, Is Universalism a Heresy?
Instead of giving a significant amount of space to the countless Orthodox Saints who taught a traditional view of hell, Bishop Kallistos Ware spends an inordinate amount of time talking about a small minority of people who happen to agree with him. At least he makes the following admission:
Yet it has to be admitted that in East and West alike . . . the voices raised in favor of universal salvation remain a small minority. (The Inner Kingdom, p. 210)
And in another book, Bishop Kallistos Ware admits:
“It is heretical to say that all must be saved, for this is to deny free will” (The Orthodox Church, p. 262)
He admits that the doctrine of universal salvation is a heresy. Yet he continues looking for some way to believe that maybe everyone will be saved anyway. This approach seems neither wise nor safe.
Within the Orthodox Church, the consensus is clear. The Scriptures, the Liturgy, and the overwhelming majority of Saints have taught a traditional understanding of hell. The sufferings there are unimaginable, and the torments there do not come to an end.
Ideas have consequences. Universal salvation is a dangerous teaching. According to the Synodikon of Orthodoxy, when people promote that teaching, they “both destroy themselves and become agents of eternal condemnation to others”.
This destruction comes in two forms:
- Evangelism is endangered. Why go to the trouble of introducing other people to Orthodoxy, if everyone is eventually going to heaven anyway?
- Personal salvation is endangered. Why go to the trouble of struggling against sin, if you will eventually go to heaven anyway?
Perhaps the best warning of all comes from the lips of an Orthodox Saint:
Struggle with all your power to gain Paradise. And do not listen to those who say that everyone will be saved. This is trap of Satan so that we won’t struggle.
– St. Paisios of Mt. Athos