Christ is Risen!
I believe this essay by Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) to be very beneficial to an understanding of the torments of Hell. It is very close to the "River of Fire" school of thought, but the key difference is in the last two paragraphs, wherein not only the spiritual, but also the physical nature of the torments is affirmed. I hope others will find it as edifying as I did.
We are used to imagine the lot of sinners beyond the grave, following the parables about the Rich and Lazarus. Those condemned will be in vain crying over their sins in the infernal fire and appeal to God and the saints for forgiveness, having no response: the repentance of the dead is not accepted, it is late to change! — Why is it so? The fact why the soul, which condemned its falls and changed, is still rejected by the Divine justice remains unclear.http://www.fatheralexander.org/booklets/english/mitrop_antonij_hrapovitski_1_e.htm#_Toc90374204
From this originate the natural attempts to invent the stories about some universal reconciliation-apocatharsis. But this teaching is denied by the Church and the Origenists are considered to be heretics. It is all quite consequential: all attempts to interpret the eternity of tortures, as a rather long period of duration, but not infinity, contradict to the word of God and Church tradition. It is enough to point at the words of God in Isaiah: "For their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched" (66:24). These words are impossible to re-interpret as the long duration of tortures, for it is said directly that they will have no end. (comp. Rev. 14:11; 20:10).
Though, if neither the Holy Bible, nor the definitely substantiated teaching of the Church revealed to the people the teaching about the eternity of tortures, our mind anyway would not be able to digress from such a sad conclusion about the beyond-the-grave lot of conscious enemies of God or unrepentant sinners. Really, it would be only left to admit that the Lord would force them to be righteous and to join His joy: but, there where violence rules, there are no moral values, there disappears the very difference between the good and evil, and with that — the whole meaning of the Atonement and House-building.
Is it possible to surmise that there are no consciously and completely evil people; that the evil is the fruit of misunderstanding and imperfection, as pantheists, evolutionists and even some theists teach? But such an understanding is incompatible with the concept of free will, and more — with the teaching of the Holy Scripture and the Church about demons, which no sincere reader would be able to interpret, no matter if he is believing or not believing in God. Finally, we have the direct words of Christ about the fact that his enemies hated Him not because they did not understand Him, but precisely because they understood Him and started to hate the very truth and goodness in Him. "If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth" (John 9:41). "If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin: but now they have no cloak for their sin. He that hateth me hateth my Father also. If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin: but now have they both seen and hated both me and my Father" (15:22-24).
So, the teaching about the eternity of tortures comes out not only from clarity of the word of God and the Church tradition, but it is impossible to omit it in solving the problem through reason.
Though these are not the things, which stand in the parable about the Rich and Lazarus, — the reader will object: there the talk is not about the unrepentant and embittered villain, but about the soul, which bitterly cries over its sins, and more than that, is filled with compassion to other sinners, who are still on earth; why then the Lord would find no mercy for such a soul? — The objection, in our opinion, is quite well-founded, and it would be difficult to reject it, if in this parable the final lot of the departed was described. But let us recall what the Lord told to the Jews before His descending to hell: did not it have the saving meaning for that repenting about his sinful life rich man? Certainly it did, for the Apostle testifies that not only the righteous, but the sinners were saved by the Conqueror of hell, "For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah" (1 Pet. 3:18-20).
From these words of the apostle we make the conclusion that the words of Abraham in the parable about the Rich and Lazarus, concerning the abyss that was set between the righteous and sinners and that cannot be passed, refer to the state, typical of the times before the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the day of His saving death and resurrection the Lord passed over that abyss and led out of hell not only the waiting for Him righteous, but many, "once rebellious," but still not embittered heathens.
That is why the state of sinful souls, condemned forever, would be not similar to that, through which went the rich man from the parable, humbly begging about bringing to senses his living on earth brothers. Where in the Divine revelation should we find the references to how the perished souls will feel themselves? — "There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth," — this is how the Lord defines the lot of the outcast in His parables. These words are said about the cast out from the wedding feast evil guest, who wanted to cast gloom over the common joy through not wearing the wedding vestment, and about the lazy servant, who did not return the given to him talent and was talking with the returned master angrily. According to these words the Lord will drive away from Him those, who will be knocking at the door from the outside and saying: "We have eaten and drunk in thy presence, and thou hast taught in our streets." (Math. 24:21-30. Luke 13:28). Finally, by this expression is determined the final lot of sinners (Math. 8:12; 13:42-50; 24:51).
So, this state is compared to that, which will experience the invited evil guest and the rejected embittered servant. "Outer darkness" means that dark night, which is so awful after the beautiful, full of light wedding room, or the royal palace. Here not the inflicted sufferings are terrible, but the state of being deprived of common joy, which became absolutely inaccessible to these miserable only because they themselves neglected it and tried to introduce their malice into it, bring the gloom over it through the feeling of senseless bitterness.
What does it mean: weeping and gnashing of teeth? Are only heavy unbearable sufferings or something else meant by these words? It is not said about the rich man of the parable that he gnashed the teeth, but only that he suffered in that fire. What is the direct meaning of this expression? Are sufferings expressed exactly in the gnashing of teeth? No, the gnashing of teeth is the sign of malice and intense struggle. The same way angry dogs, which are attacking their enemies, are gnashing their teeth, as any predatory animals. In the Bible the gnashing of teeth defines the intensified anger and threat, often powerless rage of sinners, directed to the righteous. "The abjects gathered themselves together against me, and I knew it not; they did tear me, and ceased not: "With hypocritical mockers in feasts, they gnashed upon me with their teeth" (Ps. 34:16-17). "The wicked plotteth against the just, and gnasheth upon him with his teeth. The LORD shall laugh at him" (Ps. 36:12-13; the same meaning in Lamentations 2:16).
But the special character of this phenomenon — the gnashing of teeth — is expressed in the unjust execution of the first martyr of Christ Stephan. When this blissful young man revealed the purity of his faith according to the law and prophets and accused the prophets’ and Christ’s murderers, revealing "the face of an angel," what did his enemies experience? "When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth" (Acts 7:54).
Was not that experienced by all villains, overwhelmed by rage and conscious of their powerlessness to fight with the truth? And if this powerlessness is such, that they are not only able to confound it, but to cause any physical damage as well, then the gnashing of teeth joins the wail of powerless rage. — This happens to a ferocious man, who, attacking the hateful neighbor, turns out to be caught and bind: then he cries in malice and gnashes the teeth; this can be often seen by the outraged women, when people around have bound them and do not let them fulfill their malignant intentions.
So "weeping and gnashing of teeth" means not only the sufferings but rage and suffering of powerless rage, of the impossibility to pour it out upon the hated Kingdom of God. This is in what is the meaning of beyond-the-grave tortures! These are not simply the twinges of conscience, which should be followed by repentance, and with this repentance forgiveness shall come. It is impossible to imagine the ever-good Lord, Who would not listen to the centuries-long repentance of sinners and would not ease their state.
But is it possible to imagine such bitterness in the state of rage, which would not cease with the revelation of Divine judgment, with shaming of the kingdom of the devil? — Why one has to ask about the possibility of all, what had already happened in reality? — one should always compare our future appearance before the Lord with how people accepted the Lord, Who had come and worked among them: the kind people joyfully accepted Him; those having the fight between the good and evil, accepted Him after inner struggle and tortures, as the possessed, being cured, as the malefactor on the cross, as Nicodemus, one of the Jewish leaders. The evil ones, on the contrary, the more they knew Him, the more they hated Him, and when they saw the resurrection of Lazarus, "then from that day forth they took counsel together for to put him to death" (John 11:53). This was expressed by the Lord in the words of the farewell conversation, which were mentioned at the beginning of this article. And Apostle John based all his Gospel, his epistles and the Revelation exactly on the revealing of that sad law of war between God and the world, which is in the unceasing fight of the latter against Christ and His Kingdom, — the fight that does not stop, but on the contrary, becomes more intense, the more the Divine plans are being revealed. "And the fourth angel poured out his vial upon the sun; and power was given unto him to scorch men with fire. And men were scorched with great heat, and blasphemed the name of God, which hath power over these plagues: and they repented not to give him glory." This is how sinners will act in the fire of hell and its eternity will depend only on their absence of repentance. But listen to the Revelation further: "And the fifth angel poured out his vial upon the seat of the beast; and his kingdom was full of darkness; and they gnawed their tongues for pain, And blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and repented not of their deeds" (Rev. 16:8-12; compare 9:20-21).
I am ready to agree with the correctness of such an interpretation and Biblical utterances, and the state of the condemned sinners, — the reader will say: but how is it possible to permit eternal resistance in such insane bitterness against God, the eternal absence of repentance among His enemies? — And what is repentance? — We shall ask in our turn, and shall answer this way. Repentance is the turning point, concerning the will, the change in the human mood, which is caused either by the new way of perceiving oneself, i.e. the awakening of the just found and till that time concealed content of one’s soul, one’ inner life, — or by the assimilation of this new content because of the influence of other people, books, outer world, the very Lord at last, as it happened to Zacchaeus, when he was listening to His holy words and felt His compassionate attitude towards him. — But all these conditions take place only within the gradual process of perceiving oneself and Divine plans, and when it all will be done, when "there should be time no longer" (Rev.10:6) — the plans of God will come true and there will remain nothing to perceive neither in oneself, nor in the outside world; all blessedness and wisdom of God will be revealed before everybody in all its grandeur, and the enemies of God will blaspheme it and curse it and finally turn away from it, without having accepted the accusation neither concerning their terrestrial life, nor the long period between their death and the Dread Judgment (when the prayers of the believers and saints for the souls of the departed raised to God). Then there will be no new chance remaining for the inner change of embittered souls; there will remain only inner necessity for both the righteous and sinners to take root in their mood — in blissful love and thanksgiving, or on the contrary, in powerless rage and painful tortures.
Though, why then these tortures will be so painful, if they are, on the major part, the tortures of powerless rage? — We shall answer this question, recalling one of the Biblical expressions about the weeping and gnashing of teeth. The tortures of powerless rage are very painful. But here, on earth, they are eased by the temporal character and variety of the experienced emotions and states; and as well by the fact that the outraged person hopes to satisfy himself if not in one evil act, then in another, or at last, to find oblivion in wine, earthly entertainments, in some other, accessible to him pleasures and comforts, — and in the other life nothing of this will exist. The complexity and fuss of this life will disappear. "The earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up" (2 Pet. 3:10). For reasonable creatures there will remain only the chance of taking root in moral position in respect of God and the Divine Kingdom: either love for them, or hatred, powerless rage, which is self-accusatory and therefore infinitely torturing. The wedding palace of the Lamb will shine in front of the outcast, to be precise — that sinner who cast himself out. He would be bound and would not interrupt the course of the celebration, there would be light in front of him, but he would be in darkness; the Divine love would shine in front of him, in readiness to forgive everything, but this love would be hated by him, and the forgiveness — undesired. The same way it is said in the Revelation: "And he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb" (14:10). — The words of the Lord at the Dread Judgment "Depart from me, ye cursed," and other similar to them words of the Catechism, which explain that hell is the place away from God, should be understood in the sense of moral, but not positional deprivation, as well as the words of Christ, said to the unwisely speaking disciple: "Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me" (Math. 16:23).
But what is the fire, making sinners burn? — First of all, it is the same fire, which will enlighten the righteous since the day, "when all deeds, good and evil, will be tried by fire," as we read in the canon to the Guardian Angel; it is like the Chaldean furnace: "A furnace once in Babylon, by divine decree, divided its action, burning up the Chaldeans but refreshing the faithful". The fire burns the wood, hey and straw, but cleanses gold and silver. The sinners shall be cast "into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (Math. 13:42-43). Similarly Apostle Paul tells about one and the same fire — the Divine touch — that influences different souls in a different way. "Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire" (1 Cor. 3:13-15).
In this sense the Lord is called as consuming fire in the Old and New Testaments. Isaiah calls him eternal fire, eternal flame, which burns the sinners. "The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings? He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions", and further (33:14-15).
Do not you want to say that the lot of the righteous and sinful will be the same if to look at them from aside: it is the state of constant vision of God and the impossibility to hide from Him, — but for one it will be the source of pleasure, and for others — of tortures, forthcoming from their hatred and powerless rage? — Or do you want to say that the eternal fire is nothing but the Divine presence, which is so hard to bear for his enemies? I did not mean "nothing but" but what was meant is "in the first place". To say "nothing but" will be possible only in the case, when someone compares the eternal fire with material fire from the church legend (and the church legend is as well holy for us, as the words of the holy Bible), and only if it is possible to bring this idea together with that indisputable truth about the resurrection of the body, so precious for most ancient Christians and so obviously revealed to us through the Word of God.
But, in the vast course of dogmatics there is no expression of the holy fathers about the material fire in hell. But, certainly, we would not dare to deny the presence of physical tortures there, — it is only easier to talk about the soul in respect of future life, than in respect of the resurrected body, for as well in this life the spiritual aspect is more understandable for us, then that of flesh and matter, as correctly states one Russian philosopher, who passed away long before. No one could yet define what matter is, and it is more difficult to imagine, which qualities of matter will definitely remain in the resurrected flesh.