Decades ago the Paulist Fathers produced a television show called Insights (I’ve mentioned this show before) that presented old concepts in a new light (like I try to do here), one of those episodes dealt with heaven and hell under the New Covenant. On the episode an elderly couple is sitting in a room enjoying the classical music playing while reading books they obviously enjoy. An angel enters with a new “guest” for the room, one who is obviously not enjoying the sounds as much, the angel leaves. Near the end of the episode the new person calls for the angel to return, at which time he complains about how terrible the room is, and whose idea of heaven is this? To which the angel responds, pointing to the elderly couple, that for them this is heaven. The episode ends. The meaning is clear, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2), and a special room for each of us is being readied. But, is that room your idea of heaven?
Jesus rarely referred to hell (sheol / hades) during his teachings, even so the eastern view of hell is not what westerners imagine. Hell was not a place of eternal damnation, but rather a place where the dead were to reside until the coming of the Messiah (at least according to those who believed in the resurrection). It was a place of torment for both the good and the bad, similar to the Roman idea of Purgatory. The dead were cut off from the glory of God. Afterwards, in the epistles, there is no mention of hell as a place that still exists, rather it is used as examples. James uses it as an example of the problems caused by an untamed tongue, Peter mentions it as a place where the wicked angels were cast for torment.
My point? That the western concept of hell cannot exist under the New Covenant. In western teaching hell is a place of eternal torment, cut apart from the presence and love of God. A place where the demons torment the damned for all eternity. A place made legend in Hollywood movies and television shows, and used as a threat by preachers of all denominations. This concept of hell does not exist in the eastern church and, in fact, cannot exist in the Kingdom of God.
Why? Because God is all encompassing love, a love that never ends and can never be taken away. According to the Eastern Fathers, when Christ rose from the dead he broke the gates of Sheol, allowing those who were imprisoned to rise again (Matt 27:52). Once the gates were broken they cannot be restored, so there is no hell for which man is to be imprisoned. The Fathers teach us that when the final judgement comes all men will have to stand in the presence of the Lord, a presence of pure love and forgiveness. To the saints this will be a marvelous thing, they will be baptized by the fire of the Holy Spirit, as the Apostles were, and will enter into the kingdom where they will bask in the Eternal Love.
But, it will be no different for those judged to be unrighteous. They will experience the same Eternal Love, they will experience the same fire from the Holy Spirit. This, for them, will be the eternal torment, for they will be unable to accept this love and forgiveness, unable to bask in the fire; rather for them the fire and love will be an unending torture. “For our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29) who “dwells in unapproachable light.” (I Timothy 6:16). As in the story that started out this post, both the good and the evil will live together in the Light of God, with the saints sharing the forgiveness and love of God with the fallen, who cannot accept their gift. Rather than Heaven and Hell, consider Heaven and Heaven