It's a Western error to think of heaven and hell as places? I find that difficult to believe, but I'd be glad to see your evidence.
I suppose I understand what you mean by "physical" location. The problem is that our concept of things like location are generally constrained by a purely material vision. The reality of course is that material and spiritual realities are intertwined. So you can have "spiritualized" bodies like our Lord after the Resurrection, which at the same time ate and drank but then moved through closed doors and transported instantly from place to place. So I am quite prepared to believe that heaven is a place, but maybe in some kind of dimension we cannot perceive with our material vision, and likewise hell. Similarly, the directions of "up" for heaven and "down" for hell are real, but maybe the reality is not something we can easily perceive, and when we think of physical up and down in our own material perspective that is only an imprecise image of the reality.
My point is that while admitting that the physical reality of heaven and hell may be hard for us to perceive currently, we should not exclude it completely.
Jonathan, I think you are right here. I don’t think there is a problem speaking of heaven and hell as places, as long we understand that they are not to be understood as places in our usual materialistic understanding. As you pointed out in reference to the resurrected body of Christ, though the resurrected body will have some sense of materiality, this materiality will be of a different order than the materiality which we have grown accustomed to since the Fall. Time, space, materiality, location, place, etc., are, and will be, of a different order than we currently understand them, and this different order manifests itself in the post-Resurrection account of Christ entering through the closed door, the account of Christ and some of the saints (like St. Mary of Egypt) walking on water, the story in the book of Acts of St. Philip who was “caught away” and translated to another location after baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch, Elder Porphyrios in Athens who could see events occurring miles away while physically blind, and many other stories related in the Gospels and in the lives of the saints where we can see the order of the “kingdom of heaven” being manifested on earth.
With regard to the Lord’s Ascension, the demons inhabiting the air, the souls of the unrepentant being dragged down to hell, etc., these locational or directional references describe what actually takes place, yet again I think we have to be cautious about interpreting such locational and direction information in an overly materialistic manner. Does the fact of Christ’s Ascension imply that heaven is in space somewhere? Or, if the soul of the unrepentant sinner is dragged down to Hades, does this necessarily imply that Hades is located in the center of the earth? These things could be, but if this is the case they may exist in an order that would not be perceptible to our post-Fall material vision. We do not see the Garden of Eden, for instance, whose entrance has been barred because of the Fall. It does not exist in the material way which would be perceptible to our vision in our current fallen state. We cannot bodily approach the entrance of Eden and look into it with our physical eyes, for instance.
It seems that the imagery used for heaven and hell in the Scriptures can be approached in a similar manner as the anthropomorphic references to God, His “throne”, His “hand”, etc. which are found in the Old Testament. These references are intended to convey a true meaning about the reality conveyed, and the imagery used has been divinely chosen based on the impression which this imagery should convey upon the soul. In other words, God speaks to us in human language using material symbols to refer to divine things in order to convey to our souls the right impression of divine things to the extent possible while we still inhabit our fallen material bodies. That the Fathers highly regarded all Scriptural images is very evident, such as in St. Dionysius’ book on the Divine Names, or in Fathers’ instructions to constantly meditate upon the imagery used to describe the torments of hell as a way to gain victory over our passions. To the Fathers, this imagery is real, for if the imagery is not real or true how could one obtain any value from constantly reflecting upon them? Yet, while the imagery employed is true and reflects reality, the reality itself is above and beyond the symbol to the extent that the imagery is mostly physical and yet the experience of heaven and hell will certainly not be merely physical, or physical in the way we understand it. Physical or earthly fire will burn and hurt the body but will not afflict the soul, while the sufferings of hell will be complete and entire, afflicting the whole person, both soul and body, with no possibility of escape.
I think where the Western approach goes wrong with the conception of heaven and hell is not in the reference to either as “places”, but rather in their overly materialistic understanding of the symbolism employed in the Scriptures, as well as their conception of these places as though they are created material places outside of God. While the Fathers’ encourage us to constantly reflect on the imagery used to describe the torments of hell, it seems as though they consistently speak of the kingdom of heaven in a more spiritual manner in order for our aspirations for entering the kingdom of heaven to reflect the proper inner disposition we must have on our earthly pilgrimage. Non-Orthodox, in attempting to encourage a desire for the heavenly kingdom, may go on about how pretty and nice and beautiful it would be to have streets made of gold, and other such Scriptural imagery is likewise understood in such a way to appeal to our materialism or carnality. The non-Orthodox also fall into error in speaking about hell as though it is “separation from God”, as if anything can be “separate from God”. Spiritually there is separation from God, but insofar as this experience of separation is actually the experience of God’s own Uncreated Energies by a soul that has turned eternally away from God, this “separation” cannot be understood in the entire manner in which non-Orthodox often interpret it when referring to this “separation”.
So, again, I think the problem is not in referring to heaven and hell as existing or as places, but rather in understanding either in an overly materialistic manner, or in understanding hell as a place outside of God, or in understanding the joys and sufferings of either heaven or hell as somehow the experience of created realities rather than the experience of the Uncreated Energies of God, which are experienced either as heaven and hell depending on the orientation of one’s soul in reference to God.