“Almost annhilationism” is an important concept to grasp if one wants to understand precisely what the patristic concept of Hell is. In short, mankind (and all created things) have their very existence constantly sustained by God: “And how could any thing have endured, if it had not been thy will? Or been preserved, if not called by thee?” (Wis 11:25) And so, created things without will persist according to God permitting them to (in the end, God essentially recycles and re-creates inanimate creation when He makes a new heaven and earth). However, for those in creation with free will (specifically humanity), their continued existence depends upon being sustained by God. This mercy is given to man as a default, but when man turns against God and rejects this vivifying grace, man (to quote Saint Maximus in the reblogged article) sets onto a course to non-existence. Man cannot exist rejecting the very basis of his existence. After all, “the Lord said, ‘My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.'” (Gen 6:3)
The damned therefore deteriorate in every way imaginable. In body and soul, in form and in their willing. They start becoming non-entities, just like a log thrown in a fire starts reducing to ashes and is no longer a log.
And so, this begs the question, are the damned ever completely annihilated and cease to exist? Not anymore than the ashes in one’s fireplace. Just as the saved for eternity are transformed into God, never reaching the fullness of His grace but like a line approaching infinity for eternity getting closer and closer to it forever, the damned go in the opposite direction. They increasingly cease existence for eternity, but never entirely so. Instead of approaching infinity and never attaining to it completely, they approach zero but never attain to this.
Just as the state of the saved is incomprehensible in its greatness (“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him,” 1 Cor 2:9), the sorry, annihilated (and practically non-existent) state of the damned cannot be contemplated. The damned almost cease to be entities, weeping and gnashing teeth, having seemingly lost all reason, reflection, and other authentic human mannerisms. Their forms, I speak logically, would be indistinguishable and difficult to make out–just as it would be hard to discern which log the embers in the fireplace belong to. However, the damned will persist for eternity in this state as individuals.
This patristic view of damnation, whose Biblical merits is obvious as the above shows, may be of some ironic “comfort” to the heretics. Universalists and the annhilationists do not actually have real evidence, biblically or traditionally, for their peculiar views. They simply do not think it is “fair” God permits the eternal “torture” of individuals for finite bad decisions. And so, such a view where in 100 years, let along 1,000,000, the damned are virtually annihilated (will they even have awareness of their suffering at a certain point when they lose all reason?), will seem less repulsive to these heretics. It makes Hell “less bad” in their twisted view.
However, the Christian must understand that this is much worse than one can truly contemplate. It is an eternal lobotomy, an infinite separation from God which increases forever and ever. If God is the greatest thing there is and man’s sole comfort is to rest in God, to be eternally denied this and be increasingly distanced from God more and more without end is literally the worst thing imaginable.
The whole judgement of mankind by his works and willing makes sense in such a system. For the saved, such as the Theotokos, their cooperation with the grace of God in their earthly lives translates into a proportionate capacity to receive grace in the afterlife. And so, the Theotokos likely has more grace now then any of us will attain to in 999 quadrillion years, but in that time the Theotokos will have attained to infinitely more grace–as God’s grace is without end. And so, one can see how the “many mansions” in Heaven makes sense given how heavenly reward is contingent upon the will and its faithfulness to God, as that makes the individual receptive to grace–and God’s grace IS heaven.
To the contrary, the damned will suffer their degree (and pace) of almost-annihilation in proportion to how much they were faithless and refused to cooperate with the grace of God. So, just as it will be worse on the day of judgement for Chorazin and Bethsaida than Sodom and Gomorrah (cf Matt 11:21), those with wills more set against God in their faithlessness will suffer more (due to the increased pace of their degeneration) than those who were not as profoundly wicked and faithless.
Lastly, one can see how it is precisely faith, the inclination of the will towards God, which is the determining factor in salvation (and lack of in damnation). Faith is one’s inclination for God, and so those without works in this life (due to lack of time) such as the thief on the cross and sincere deathbed repentants attain to a lifetime of good works simply because their faith substitutes for this. Their wills have become receptive to God and His grace, and a profound enough repentance even without it being experienced in works (again, due to lack of time), eliminates attachments to sin which would inhibit the will from being receptive to God’s grace. Lack of faith, despite a lifetime of good works or obedience to the Jewish Law (or whatever else) are obviously useless, as doing good for the wrong reasons makes one closed off to God’s grace. One cannot become God, which is what grace does and what heaven is, but not want anything to do with God and be closed off from Him. And so, as Saint Nicolai of Zica reminds us, a great ascetic with a lifetime of good works forfeited heaven because he was proud of “his accomplishments” right before he died. The saints give us hard teachings, but they necessarily connect and explain how everything works.
And so, with all of this in mind, we must redouble our repentance. Whether this be in the giving of alms, increasing our prayers, doing good works, or fasting more profoundly, we must do all these things with the goal of making ourselves dependent upon God for our provision, thoughts, motivations, and sustenance. The more one leans upon God and trusts in Him, the more faith one has in God, the more receptive to grace one becomes. And so, it is with this motivation we must pursue the spiritual disciplines and draw near to God so He will draw near to us. (cf James 4:8)
In his paper, “Patristic Views on Why There is no Repentance After Death,” David Bradshaw explains how St. Maximus the Confessor follows St. Dionysius the Areopagite in teaching that all human beings have the free will to either choose God or reject Him, and their eternal fate will simply be the perpetual realization of this free choice. Those who choose God, who is the very foundation of goodness and being itself, will themselves naturally tend towards higher states of goodness and being, which finds its fullest culmination in the age to come when God is all-in-all. When this happens, turning away from God will no longer be an option, as He will simply be fully-filling all things, and so those who have disposed themselves towards receiving God in this life will eternally experience the fullness of the divine presence as a state of never-ending bliss and happiness.
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