Tuesday, May 13, 2014

St Isaac the Syrian: The Triumph of the Kingdom over Gehenna -- by Fr Aidan Kimel

“Those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love”—these words of St Isaac the Syrian have profoundly influenced the Orthodox understanding of hell and damnation. I suspect that most readers of St Isaac’s writings have long assumed that this mystical insight represents the apex of his reflections on hell. But in 1983 Sebastian Brock discovered in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, the complete text of a group of discourses that were virtually unknown in the Byzantine and Latin Churches. Unlike the well known homilies belonging to the First Part, translated into English under the titleThe Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, these other discourses had never been translated into Greek nor into any other language (except perhaps Arabic). That they existed was known to scholars, but the one extant text in Iran was lost in 1918. And then Brock made his remarkable discovery, and in 1995 he published an English translation of the text under the riveting title The Second Part. In this volume we find three homilies specifically devoted to the Last Things. These three eschatological homilies, chapters 39, 40, and 41, reveal an Isaac of Ninevah whose understanding of hell was far more original and daring than previously suspected outside the Syrian Christian world: the damned may be “scourged by the scourge of love,” but the scourging is not forever!
As we have seen, underlying Isaac’s reflections on eschatology is his fierce conviction that retributive punishment is utterly incompatible with the God of absolute and infinite love. Our Father wills, always wills, our good. He does not inflict unnecessary pain and suffering. If he chastises, it is always with the aim of our conversion and sanctification:
For it would be most odious and utterly blasphemous to think that hate or resentment exists with God, even against demonic beings; or to imagine any other weakness, or passibility, or whatever else might be involved in the course of retribution of good or bad as applying, in a retributive way, to that glorious divine Nature. Rather, He acts towards us in ways He knows will be advantageous to us, whether by way of things that cause suffering, or by way of things that cause relief, whether they cause joy or grief, whether they are insignificant or glorious: all are directed towards the single eternal good, whether each receives judgement or something of glory from Him—not by way of retribution, far from it!—but with a view to the advantage that is going to come from all these things. …
That is how everything works with Him, even though things may seem otherwise to us: with Him it is not a matter of retribution, but He is always looking beyond to the advantage that will come from His dealing with humanity. And one such thing is this matter of Gehenna. (II.39.3,5)
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