I was talking to my spiritual father one day, and asked him to listen to my understanding of hell, to correct it if it is heretical or doctrinally unsound. I said to him ‘There are no bars around hell, sinners and demons can leave anytime they want, but why would they want to leave?’ And my spiritual father agreed with this theology, saying, ‘There is no repentance left after death.’
I have heard from Archbishop Lazar Puhalo that some of the Fathers of the church say that people can be saved from hell after death, but the church won’t form a doctrine about it, because none of the theologians know for sure. He stated as well, ‘But we assume the love of God is greater than all things.’
Even the devil is eligible for salvation. However, there was a monk in the desert who one day asked an angel, ‘Can the devil be saved?’ So the angel returned to heaven and asked the Lord this question and came back to the monk with the answer. The angel said ‘The Lord will utterly forgive the devil, if he should repent.’ Later on, when the devil appeared before the monk, the monk told the devil, ‘You can still be saved if you repent.’ The devil laughed in his face and disappeared.
Satan would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven. God does not punish the demons and sinners with some kind of material fire. They punish themselves with the fire of their own unwillingness to accept the light of God as love and warmth. When Jesus says of the last judgement, ‘I never knew you! Depart from me, you practitioners of lawlessness!’ I think he really meant what sinners say to God throughout their entire lifetimes, ‘I never knew You! Depart from me, you God of wickedness!’
The Protestant and Catholic traditions have a long history of believing that hell is a material fire and is a state of separation from God. This is not what the Eastern Rite Orthodox Church believes.
Psalm 139:8: ‘Even if you make your bed in Sheol (hell), I (the Lord) am there.’ I could only come up with this verse to prove the reality that hell is not a place, but a condition of the soul.
To quote Archbishop Lazar Puhalo of the ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia), ‘God doesn’t send anybody to hell. God doesn’t punish us either in this world or the world to come. And as St Anthony the great says, “It would be great error to think that God could love people in hell any less than He loves people in heaven.” Because hell is your condition, it’s not a place. The malice we feel is the fire that burns. The malice within our own conscience.’
St Isaac the Syrian describes the state of the sinners in hell as a state in which they are ‘scourged by the whip of God’s love.’
I shall give you an example from my own life. Each time I attend the divine liturgy at my Greek Orthodox church, I feel as though I am in hell, I feel the fire that burns. I feel the malice and rancor of my tendency to judge others, even my fellow parishioners in the temple of the Lord.
I am not looking forward to my day of judgement, where I will have to face the Lord. The Lord will not accuse me of anything. My own conscience, the basic input-output system of our morality, will accuse me, where I will feel the ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Luke 13:28).
One of the Saints, in his deep humility, said, ‘I will go to the place where the devil will be condemned.’ If I were to say that about myself, it would not be humility, it would be a fact.