A Consuming Fire: When God’s Love Becomes Hell

a consuming fire

Our God is a consuming fire.

This phrase from the epistle to the Hebrews is used in a song by contemporary Christian band Third Day. It’s a vivid image of an all-powerful God burning away the chaff of sin.

Growing up as an evangelical Christian, I was raised to understand Hell as a physical reality. All manner of demons and devils awaited those who had sinned. I knew Hell was a real place, and I didn’t want to go there.

As an Orthodox Christian I have been learning to see Hell in a different way. This week I saw something that brought it into clarity.

Our church has servers (what you might think of as altar boys) who assist the priest in performing the Divine Liturgy each week. Two of them are grown men who have served for years. A few are elementary school youths being taught these traditions.

One of the servers is a tousle-haired rascal who has more than a little trouble keeping still and quiet during the service. Having these responsibilities has helped keep him occupied and given him purpose. He’s a good kid that needs a firm hand, and our priest is helping guide him and teach him.

In the middle of the service I noticed our priest gesturing off to the side of the open doors of the iconostasis. He appeared agitated.

A moment later, one of the doors to the side opened, and the little boy walked out alone. His shoulders were slumped and his face turned downward. He sat down at the front of the room and buried his face in his hands. Apparently he’d been acting up, and the priest banished him for the remainder of the service.

The Liturgy continued on, and as it progressed, I occasionally looked over at the boy.

Our prayers and songs seemed to be lashing him like a harsh rain. He slumped lower and lower as the minutes passed, his head almost disappearing between his shoulders as he attempted to shut out the sights and sounds of worship.

What the rest of us were experiencing as a beautiful time of worshiping God, he was experiencing as punishment.

Our God is a consuming fire

When we perceive Hell as being unable to participate in God’s love, it becomes more terrible than anything we can imagine in the physical realm. What demon can inflict worse punishment than our own knowledge that we have rejected God for eternity?

It is totally false to think that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is a child of the knowledge of truth, and is unquestionably given commonly to all. But love’s power acts in two ways: it torments sinners, while at the same time it delights those who have lived in accord with it.  – St. Isaac the Syrian

If you have ever loved someone and, through your own error, become separated from their love, you know the horrible sadness that comes with the mention of their name. How much more terrible to be apart from Christ, and to feel His love – not as glorious light – but as a consuming fire.

For those who love the Lord, His Presence will be infinite joy, paradise and eternal life. For those who hate the Lord, the same Presence will be infinite torture, hell and eternal death.   – Fr. Thomas Hopko

Is Hell a real place? Perhaps. St. John Chrysostom certainly seems to indicate it is.)

To me, the question is almost irrelevant. I can imagine torture and flames and suffering. What I fear more is knowing for eternity that I had the chance to experience God’s love as beauty and mercy and light. And instead I chose to experience that same love as an unquenchable, consuming fire.

As always, your comments, wisdom and correction are welcome.

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