The Greek word “anathema” consists of two words: “ana”, which is a preposition indicating movement upwards and “thema”, which means a separate part of something. In military terminology, “thema” meant a detachment; in civil government “thema” meant a province. We currently use the word “theme”, derived from “thema”, to mean a specific topic of a written and intellectual work.
“Anathema” literally means the lifting up of something separate. In the Old Testament this expression was used both in relation to that which was alienated due to sinfulness and likewise to that which was dedicated to God.
In the New Testament, in the writing of the Apostle Paul it is used once in conjunction with “maranatha”, meaning the coming of the Lord. The combination of these words means separation until the coming of the Lord; in other words – being handed over to Him (1 Cor 16:22). The Apostle Paul uses “anathema” in another place without the addition of “maranatha” (Gal 1:8-9). Here “anathema” is proclaimed against the distortion of the Gospel of Christ as it was preached by the Apostle, no matter by whom this might be commited, whether by the Apostle himself or an angel from the heavens. In this same expression there is also implied: “let the Lord Himself pass judgement,” for who else can pass judgement on the angels?
St John the Theologian in Revelation (22:3) says that in the New Jerusalem there will not be any anathema; this can be understood in two ways, giving the word anathema both meanings: 1) there will not be any lifting up to the judgement of God, for this judgement has already been accomplished; 2) there will not be any special dedication to God, for all things will be the Holy things of God, just as the light of God enlightens all (Rev 21:23).
In the acts of the Councils and the further course of the New Testament Church of Christ, the word “anathema” came to mean complete separation from the Church. “The Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes”, “let him be anathema”, “let it be anathema”, means a complete tearing away from the church. While in cases of “separation from the communion of the Church” and other epitimia or penances laid on a person, the person remained a member of the Church, even though his participation in her grace filled life was limited, those given over to anathema were thus completely torn away from her until their repentance. Realizing that she is unable to do anything for their salvation, in view of their stubbornness and hardness of heart, the earthly church lifts them up to the judgement of God.
That judgment is merciful unto repentant sinners, but fearsome for the stubborn enemies of God. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God … for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 10:31 ; 12:29).
Anathema is not final damnation: until death repentance is possible. “Anathema” is fearsome not because the Church wishes anyone evil or God seeks their damnation. They desire that all be saved. But it is fearsome to stand before the presence of God in the state of hardened evil: nothing is hidden from Him.