What is Heaven? What is Hell?


The National Herald published its quarterly Religion & Spirituality insert in its June 20-26 edition. We asked our contributors to tell us if they believe heaven and hell exist and, if so, what are they? The following article was included in the insert.

By Dr. Aristotle Papanikolaou

According to the 2013 Harris Poll, 68% of American believe in heaven, while 58% believe in hell. But what exactly do they believe in, or not believe in? What is heaven? What is hell?

As Orthodox Christians, our understanding of heaven and hell must be viewed through the lens of a notion that is central to our Orthodox Christian faith – theosis. Technically, theosis means to be “deified” or to become godlike. Though it sounds idolatrous, it was never meant to signify superhuman powers; theosis does not mean becoming like Zeus. Instead, it points to the possibility of a divine-human communion in which the human being becomes what God intended for creation. If God is love, then to become godlike is to become more loving in such a way that one loves God with all heart, mind and soul, and one’s neighbor as oneself. To be such a human being that loves as God loves is not found only in the monasteries and the desert, but in the everyday, mundane expressions of love that we manifest to our family members, friends, spouses, children, and, even more radically, to the stranger, the homeless, the prisoners and those we often can’t but feel are unlovable. Love is difficult; it requires work; it is a learning, and in learning how to love we are learning how to become more godlike; we are being deified.

If the human being has been created to become like God in the sense of loving as God loves, then this understanding of what it means to be created in God’s image has at least two implications for our understanding of heaven and hell. First, heaven is not a place; heaven is God. We were created not to be put into a place, but to participate in God’s life. Heaven as a place implies that heaven is a space, and the categories of space and time only apply to what is created, not to what is uncreated. And God has called us to a communion with God’s uncreated life, which is love. If heaven, then, is God, then hell is absence of God, the lack of communion with God, “distance” from God. The Christian tradition has imagined such a distance as an eternal torment often entailing being consumed in flames of fire, as in the rector’s vivid description of hell in James Joyce’s, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; but, I do not think this to be a very helpful image. Fear is not the best motivator, even if it is where the spiritual life begins. St. Maximus the Confessor says that we must progress from fear to love of God. Ultimately, God does not want us to be afraid of God, but to freely love God. Moreover, to those who suffer from severe anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, or other similar challenges, talk of the punishment of hell and the devil may do more harm than good.

The second implication of the Orthodox understanding of theosis for our understanding of heaven and hell is that we can experience heaven or hell now before the fullness of divine-human communion is realized at the end of time. When our Orthodox Christian faith affirms that we were created for communion with God, it means that such a communion is possible now in our lifetime. When we experience God in our lives, then we are experiencing heaven, even before our death. Being in the midst of heaven in this life does not necessarily mean performing superhuman feats, such as miracles; nor does it mean, as Fyodor Dostoyevsky expresses so well with the character of the Elder Zosima in the The Brothers Karamazov , that one’s decomposed body will emit a sweet-smelling fragrance. The measure of the presence of heaven in our life is the nature and character of our relations with one another. We experience heaven to the degree that we notice ourselves more capable of loving our family members, friends, spouses, children, the stranger, the homeless, the prisoners and those whom society often deems the unlovables. We know that we are in the grips of God’s love (heaven) when we realize that we are less prone to anger, fear, hatred, and other impulses, desires and emotions that destroy our relationships. We need not look any farther than addiction, war, violence, narcissism—to name only a few—to witness what is appropriately called “a living hell.”

What God has made possible as the Incarnate Christ is not simply a heaven that is to come, but an experience of heaven that is possible now and that is the presence of the Holy Spirit. This belief in the possibility of heaven now—theosis—is what differentiates us from Evangelical Christians, who are constantly putting emphasis on what occurs after death. As Orthodox Christians, we believe that we can do the things that open ourselves to experiencing God’s love for us in ever-increasing doses. We do not fast or pray to score points with God; God does not want to tally our good and bad deeds. God has created us for a living communion with God. Such a living communion with God is the hope of the resurrection. Let us then use special times of the year like Lent to figure out how to love better, how to learn how to love, because when this happens, we’ll already be experiencing the Resurrection.


Dr. Aristotle Papanicoalou is Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture and Senior Fellow and co-founder, Orthodox Christian Studies Center, at Fordham University.


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