In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen!
A burning sensation, an unquenchable thirst, an aching hunger and indescribable pain; Last week, my dear brothers and sisters, we were in celebration; Last week, we recalled the feast of Joyous Living – Poon Paregentan – as we remembered how humanity enjoyed the presence of God and all His Divine blessings in the Garden of Eden; Last week, we explored Heaven. And as much as heaven captures our imaginations and curiosity, hell intrigues us even more. Where is it? What is it? Is it even real or something the Church has made up in order to scare the faithful into obeying the rules?
Last week, as we looked at Heaven, we understood that Heaven is not merely a physical place but rather, it is the physical presence of God.
Heaven cannot exist outside of the presence of God, whether that is in the clouds somewhere, or the paradise of the Garden of Eden, or even our own Church. When we are in the presence of God, when we are in communion with God, we are already in Heaven. Therefore, it is fair to deduce that hell must be the absence of God. Hell or Hades, or whatever name we call it by for most of us is understood as the place the Devil resides and where all who don’t believe in God will be tortured for all eternity. We think that Heaven is the place good people go; whereas, Hell is the place bad people go. This imagery is fueled by Hollywood and certain misunderstood passages of scripture, such as when Christ teaches, “The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’ (Matt. 13:40-42)
Unfortunately, because we stop there or because our imagination run wild, this causes many of us to think that our Christian faith is merely about obeying rules and going to heaven or hell. We come to Church not so we will grow closer to God but so that we get further from hell. However, this is not the purpose of Christianity. The purpose of our Christian faith, of why we repent, why we come to Church and pray, why our priest every week preaches a message is to bring us into communion with God. This distinction is very important to understand because it explains what the difference of Heaven and Hell truly is. If Heaven is the presence of God, then Hell must be what? Not the absence of but rather, it is the inaccessibility of God. We believe that God is ever present everywhere. He is here now, He is in Armenia now, in Europe, Asia, in the Cosmos, in Heaven and also in Hell; God is. Therefore, if God is in Heaven as well as, in hell, how do we understand this?
When Adam and Eve, where expelled from the garden, did God abandon them? No! In fact, we see repeatedly throughout the Holy Scriptures that God wanted his children to come back to Him, trust and love Him, to be reconciled, to be in a covenant. God taught humanity that sinful actions have consequence but Godly lives bring blessings. Yet, the power of sin was too burdensome for humanity to remain faithful and so even though God was present in their lives, they through their lives rejected Him and could not fully access Him. They witnessed His love only from a distance; they witnessed healing only by remembering the past. It is only through Christ Jesus, that humanity gained full access, full communion with God. Just look at the way we pray. In Judaism most prayers begin with God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses and yet, all of our prayers begin with Our Father! Why did God continue to be with us? Because God’s love continued and continues for all of us.
We always quote John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son”, yet, that love for each of us can be understood very differently. St. Isaac the Syrian, one of our Orthodox Church Father’s writes, “Love…is given to all. But the power of love works in two ways: it torments sinners, even as it happens here when a friend suffers because of a friend; but it becomes a source of joy for those who have observed its duties” (Spiritual Works of St. Isaac the Syrian) In other words, God’s love for those who reject it, for those who remain unrepentant, and careless and lazy and who do not “observe its duties” becomes the fires of hell. Just as when someone we love betrays us – that love torments us. But when that love is returned we feel fulfilled.
Another image we read from the ancient Church Father’s is of God as fire. What happens when we place a piece of wood into fire? It burns and eventually turns into ash. Yet, when we place gold into the same fire, it becomes hot and begins to glow brightly like the flame. The gold doesn’t lose it property but by being united to the fire, it is purified and retains the heat and light of the flame – the gold is transformed. As St. Paul writes, therefore, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
My dear brothers and sisters, this is the greatest torment of all – this is true Hell. That rather then be cleansed, purified and transformed by God, we lose our communion and ability to come to Him even when we know He is there. Our thirst remains, and our hunger aches and we be burned. If here in this life we must have faith to come to God, in the life after we will see God with our eyes and will no longer need faith. For those who believe now, we will be always in the warmth and light of God. For those who do not, they will see God but never feel His warmth or enjoy that light. The prophet Jeremiah writes, “As Lord God I am near…and not a distant God. Is it possible for man to flee and hide from me in his covering, that I may not see him? Are not the heavens and earth filled by me?” (23:23-24) God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is near; God is always with us from this life and He desires to be in communion with Him by observing all that He commanded us so that we will be transformed by Him.
God is not waiting for us to die in order to punish us. God is not like a child with a magnifying glass, trying to burn ants with the sun. As we say in our prayers, “God does not desire the death of even one unrepentant sinner.” Rather, He stretches out His merciful and loving hand each day and each moment to lift us up and bring us back into His presence. It is our choice to reach back and take His hand. It is our choices that ultimately will determine how close or far we remain from God, in this life or the next.
God’s love is given freely to all, how will we accept it? Will we be purified and transformed or be reduced to ash? Will we choose communion or the unquenchable thirst? My the grace and love of God our Father, let us through prayer and repentance come into communion with Christ our Lord and be cleansed and transformed by the Holy Spirit to do all that He has commanded us. May this time of Great Lent be a time of awakening and understanding that we must come to Him because He continues to come to us, Amen!