Hell is an unhappy topic. On the one side, there is the stereotypical “Turn or Burn!” idea. (However that became an evangelistic strategy is beyond me!) On the other side is an empty hell—perhaps not even occupied by the devil himself, popularized by fallen evangelical Rob Bell. (Rob Bell is no dummy; I often wonder if he came to his conclusion because he was burned—pardon the pun—by the bad evangelical soup he had been fed?)
Money and Hell are the two things that Jesus talked more about than nearly anything else.
Maybe the Orthodox Christian view of Hell—the early church view—is one with which most are unfamiliar? It was certainly foreign to me as a cradle-born Episcopalian with an MDiv from the most reputable, and evangelical, Episcopalian seminary in the United States (before “Anglican” meant “good guy” and “Episcopalian” meant “bad guy”).
I remember questions raised about salvation and damnation, as I explored the early Christian beliefs. “Sorry”, I learned, “’once saved always saved’ is a ridiculous idea”, and forms no part in style or content, of the early Christian faith. THAT was challenging to learn!
But the other bookend was also a wild pill to swallow. “So, you are saying that since the Orthodox Faith is the ‘true Faith’ that I, and all others who are not Orthodox Christians, are going to burn and rot in hell?” The answer to that one, I was surprised to learn from my teacher, Fr Thomas Hopko: “we expect that if Hell is populated—and according to the Scriptures, there seems to be no way around the fact that it shall be—its first inhabitants will be the damned Orthodox Christians.”
Orthodox Christians, the first in hell? Now, there is another failure of a marketing and evangelistic strategy! “Come and See! Unite yourself to Christ in the One, True Church. And be first in line for hell!” What could this possibly mean?
Well, God is hardly God, and hardly a God who loves, if He created even one person in order to damn Him. The God of the five-point Calvinists is not the One True God. For the person so far away from Christianity that no one ever reached him—is God going to damn him because “he never accepted Jesus as His Lord and Savior”? How could that be? Is that love?
Fr Hopko’s answer gets to this very question: maybe hell will be filled first with Orthodox Christians who did not follow the Great Commission! Is it the fault of the unreached that no one ever showed him Jesus, or is it mine, for not going to share the Truth with him? A person can only be judged on what he has, not what he lacks—unless that lack is the result of his own willful neglect. For this reason—willful neglect—the Church teaches sobriety, seriousness of purpose, watchfulness, and the fear of God.
The principle behind Fr Hopko’s Answer is this: to whom much is given, much is expected.
If the imitation of Christ is the mark of a true Christian, then any Orthodox Christian who has squandered the whole toolbox we’ve been given, will answer first for that.
What about everyone else? For that, I’ll invite you to come and listen. Fr Lawrence Farley, once Anglican himself is well-known in Orthodox Christian circles on this very topic. He is the author of commentaries on the Bible (find them at www.ancientfaith.com); a prolific writer and podcaster; and he recently wrote the book, “Unquenchable Fire: The Traditional Christian Teaching about Hell”.
He is coming to South Carolina to speak on it. He’ll speak at Furman University’s Daniel Chapel at 7pm on Feb 6; the following night in Toccoa, Georgia, at St Timothy’s Orthodox Church; Thursday, February 7, 7pm, at St James Orthodox Church in Beaufort, SC, and Friday, February 8, at 7pm, at Holy Ascension, 265 North Shelmore Blvd, in Mt Pleasant.
Chances are good that what you have been taught is radically different from the early Church. To invest time listening to Fr Lawrence Farley will comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. All are welcome; bring a friend.
On Saturday, February 9, he’ll give two additional talks on the nature of salvation, heaven and hell, at Holy Ascension, to which you are also welcome. CFor more information, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 843-881-5010.