The Gospel is widely available these days, but even if it wasn’t, the two possible images of afterlife that it describes are known even to those who have never opened it. Understanding the essence of these images, however, is rather difficult, since only a few have been counted worthy by the Lord to lift the veil on this mystery. While much has been said and written about the kingdom of God, much less has been said about the fire of hell.
Although the holy fathers never went into much detail, describing it (for lack of practical need and benefit in spiritual life) they were sure to cover its key points. The patristic testimonies of the future torments are very clear and eloquent, and despite the existing differences in style and language, are very similar in the essence of the subject presented.
According to the general opinion, hell is a place devoid of Divine light, which (the light) a person himself does not allow into his soul through his sins. A human soul enters this hellish state already during earthly life and remains there after death. It becomes the reality in which a person continues to live. The suffering soul becomes trapped in this sinful state of pride and enmity with God, becoming closely linked with it.
The torment of hellfire consists of four main states. The first state is the utmost remorse not subsiding for a minute.
“Every sinner,” Origen writes, “kindles the flame of his own fire, rather than immersing himself in a fire, kindled by someone else or existing before him. The conscience will persecute and beat itself with its own horrors, becoming its own accuser and witness” (On the Beginnings).
St John Chrysostom shows the action of human conscience, applicable to the present day, “And consider this, that if a secret deed of any one of us were brought forth into the midst, today, before the Church only, what could he do but pray to perish, and to have the earth to gape for him, rather than have so many witnesses of his wickedness? How then shall we feel, when, before the whole world, all things are brought into the midst, in a theatre so bright and open, with both those known and those unknown to us seeing into everything?”(Conversations on the Epistle to the Romans).
At the Last Judgement, each person will discover the truth about the Incarnation and the endless love of God, to which a sinner has responded with contempt and disobedience. “Those tormented in hell are struck by the scourge of love. O how very hot and cruel is this torment of love! Truly, those who sense that they have sinned against love, endure the torment that is beyond dreadful; the sorrow striking the heart after it sins against love is more terrible than any possible punishment…” Venerable Isaac the Syrian teaches in his Ascetic Writings.
The second state is suffering from weakness against the earthly passions, accumulated by a sinner during his life.
Origen describes it as follows, “This fire is fuelled by our sins, which St Paul the Apostle calls “wood, hay and straw” (see: 1 Cor. 3:13)… In a similar way, a soul gathers in itself a multitude of evil deeds and an abundance of sins. A time comes when all this assembly of evil is kindled bringing punishment and torment” (On the Beginnings).
The Holy Scriptures also tell us about this with the help of images like the unquenchable fire and the immortal worm (Isa. 66:24). “Of those,” writes the holy martyr Clement of Rome, “who have not kept the seal (the seal of baptism), it is said, ‘Their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh” (2 Epistle to the Corinthians by St Clement of Rome)
In the third state, a person’s heart will eternally lament, realizing that nothing can be changed and that the repentance occurred too late, forever depriving the sinner of the kingdom of heaven.
“Pagans and sinners … will be found dry and unfruitful like dry trees in the age to come. They (the sinners) will be brought to fire because they have sinned and not repented of their sins; and pagans (will be brought to fire) because they have not known God, their Creator” (the Shepherd of Hermas).
“A sinner will be longing and heartbroken, glancing at the glory of the saints, yearning for it, and seeing himself deprived of it for all eternity” wrote Theodore the Studite (Treasury of Spiritual Wisdom; Anthology of Patristic Thought).
In the fourth state, all of the above mental sufferings will become accompanied by physical ones after the general resurrection.
St Justin Martyr wrote, “The bodily members of sinners will be eternally devoured by a worm and scorched by unquenchable fire, remaining, however, always in their unimpaired form” (First Apology). Lactantius echoes him, describing the fire of hell with the following words, “It will have power to burn the wicked while preserving them… It will burn and torment bodies without destroying them…” (On Blissful Life).
It is worth noting that the torment of hell is not universally understood as physical suffering, and yet, most often the bodily suffering has a spiritual basis.
To avoid torment in hell, a person simply needs to respond to the love of God with his love. Fr Pavel Florensky writes that people who fail to accept the love of God “will burn in the fire of their own anger, eternally yearning for death and nothingness… It is no longer God Who does not forgive an evil soul full of hatred, but the soul itself is not reconciled with God… for salvation is impossible without the free will of man… A human soul cursing the very forgiveness of God, denies and refuses to accept it” (The Pillar and the Foundation of Truth).
The expression of our love for God is the fulfilment of His will, revealed to us in the commandments, and growing to know God (John 17: 3) through Eucharistic communion with Him (John 6, 53). Following that will make us capable of joining Ephraim the Syrian in saying, “Fire threatens my members, O Lord, but in me, my Deliverer, your reconciling blood is concealed; Gehenna awaits to torment me; but your life-giving body is closely conjoined to me. I am clothed with the robe of the Holy Spirit and will not be scorched. When the river of fire rumbles, threatening me with vengeance, the fire will be extinguished in me, as soon as the fragrance of Thy flesh and blood comes upon it” (Treasury of Spiritual Wisdom; Anthology of Patristic Thought).