There is an Orthodox tradition that hell is the ongoing eternal presence of God experienced by those who have chosen not to be in communion with him.
Note: The following is a minor revision of an article I wrote originally published in 2010 for the Huffington Post. The piece picked up some traction with nearly 2,000 FaceBook likes and 640 shares. Given its popularity, I thought it might be worth it to revisit the theme.
Common depictions of the Christian doctrine of hell, borrowing images from popular imagination rather than from tradition, portray it as a place of literal fire, where tortured souls repose in anguish, a vision much used by itinerant evangelists and manipulative preachers. One might think of the famous sermon of the revivalist Jonathan Edwards, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" to get an idea:
[N]atural men are held in the hand of God over the pit of hell; they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked, his anger is as great towards them as to those that are actually suffering the executions of the fierceness of his wrath in hell, and they have done nothing in the least to appease or abate that anger, neither is God in the least bound by any promise to hold 'em up one moment; the devil is waiting for them, hell is gaping for them, the flames gather and flash about them, and would fain lay hold on them, and swallow them up; the fire pent up in their own hearts is struggling to break out; and they have no interest in any mediator, there are no means within reach that can be any security to them. In short, they have no refuge, nothing to take hold of, all that preserves them every moment is the mere arbitrary will, and uncovenanted unobliged forbearance of an incensed God. [from http://bit.ly/1c7yvhN, accessed 6/28/2016.]
A further degradation of this cartoon vision finds human souls not only suffering extreme torture, but prodded by red devils with tiny horns, cloven hoofs for feet, spiraling tails, and pitchforks at hand, a caricature used to both trivialize the concept as well as mock the very idea of hell.
In the Revelation of John, we discover a lake of fire, prepared for the devil and his angels, as an abode of punishment, as well as a bottomless abyss. Jesus himself, of course, named hell as the place where the worm doesn’t die and the fire is never quenched, but he spoke of eternal darkness as well, eternal destruction and eternal death.
Such descriptions are at best figurative, much like other parts of the Bible where, for instance, God is described as a hen brooding over her chicks (God isn’t literally a fowl.) Rather, it seems apparent that according to the teachings of the ancient Church, the non-literal descriptions of hell that appear in Scripture and elsewhere pertain to fundamental qualities of a disposition of being, not one defined primarily as punishment, but of death.
Strains of western Catholicism and Protestantism have fundamentally defined death as legal punishment, an expression of God’s wrath. Death is entrenched within a judicial context; it is a sentence for sin. God is angry, according to the western view, and Christ’s merit applied to us satisfies his anger, so He dies as a sacrifice to appease the Father. We see that clearly in the quote from Edwards above.
A gross oversimplification and popular notion of the historical understanding of death in the West paints an ugly and frightening picture for those who take it seriously. Good people or redeemed people who have faith in Jesus, whom the Father punishes in our place through an expression of divine anger, overcome the punishment of death and go to heaven; unrepentant sinners suffer their just punishment and are cast howling into hell for their evil deeds. Death is the judicial sentence of all humanity; some overcome it totally through an abstract and forensic transaction, others do not.
The Greek fathers and the eastern churches historically do not share the western legal emphasis, nor the consequent view of atonement. The fathers of the church teach that humanity is the author of death, not God. St. Basil in the fourth century writes, “God did not create death, but we brought it upon ourselves.” Death is the result of sin; it is the final product that we, apart from God, create for ourselves through the power of the human will, that also ensnares and condemns us.
For the Christian Orthodox, death is much more than what happens when the lungs quit, the heart fails or the brain stops functioning; it is also the source of corruption and spiritual myopia, producing deep-rooted fear and a whole legion of consequent disorders, maladies, pathologies and suffering. The separation of the spirit and the body at the end of physical life is the culmination of a long period of smaller separations; existence is filled with estrangement. Death is embodied by division and the truncation of significance. As the late Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann writes:
When we see the world as an end in itself, everything in itself becomes a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is the “sacrament” of God’s presence. Things treated merely as things in themselves destroy themselves because only in God have they any life. The world of nature, cut off from the source of life, is a dying world. For one who thinks food in itself is the source of life, eating is communion with the dying world, it is communion with death. Food itself is dead, it is life that has died and it must be kept in refrigerators like a corpse. [For the Life of the World, SVS Press].
It is possible to envision death, defined in this way, as at least tolerable -- an eternal separation from God without proactive torture, as it were, somewhat akin to the figurative description of hell in C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce, but if we posit the reality of redemption, that is, from a certain perspective, the added imposition of the presence of infinite and divine personality figuratively signified by fire, death then takes on a further dimension. Death doesn’t dissolve away into nothingness, but energized by the presence of creative, personal and divine love, it becomes a separation fixed in an eternal disposition. Death is transmuted into bitter torment and despair.
As St. Symeon the New Theologian writes:
God is fire and when He came into the world, and became man, He sent fire on the earth, as He Himself says; this fire turns about searching to find material — that is a disposition and an intention that is good — to fall into and to kindle; and for those in whom this fire will ignite, it becomes a great flame, which reaches Heaven. ... [T]his flame at first purifies us from the pollution of passions and then it becomes in us food and drink and light and joy, and renders us light ourselves because we participate in His light. (Discourse 78)
The same fire, the love of God, that ignites in the hearts of the faithful transmutes in the experience of those who reject it into the fire of hell; it purifies the former, but burns the latter, per St. Isaac the Syrian:
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. (Homily 84)
Hell in this view is understood as the presence of God experienced by a person who, through the use of free will, rejects divine love. He is tortured by the love of God, tormented by being in the eternal presence of God without being in communion with God. God’s love is the fire that is never quenched, and the disposition and suffering of the soul in the presence of God who rejects him is the worm that does not die. Whether one experiences the presence of love as heaven or hell is entirely dependent on how he has resolved his own soul to be disposed towards God, whether communion or separation, love or hatred, acceptance or rejection.
Hell, then, is not primarily a place where God sends people in his wrath, or where God displays anger against sinners, but rather, it is the love of God, experienced by one who is not in communion with him. The figurative, spiritual fire of God’s love is transcendent joy to the person purified and transfigured by it through communion in the body of Christ, but bottomless despair and suffering to the person who rejects it, and chooses to remain in communion with death.
Update, 2016: Six years after writing this piece, and thinking further on the subject, a couple of thoughts occur to me. In the first place, I think the idea of God's love as manifest in his presence being torturous remains a metaphor, and is analogous to an ontology I cannot grasp. The basic idea that God's love is experienced either as love and bliss by those who are in communion with him, or torture and despair by those who are not in communion but remain in the domain of death speaks to the idea that hell, like death, is the subjective product of the human capacity to turn away from God.
So, I think this works well as a conceptual signpost, but that it would be a mistake to substitute the map for the territory. What the actual territory is like is up for debate because it is unknown, and possibly beyond any present available conception.
The problem with taking this description literally is that it tends to make God out to be mechanical or akin to a chemical reaction which produces results based on our own disposition or composition. But the love of God is not a chemical or fire -- these are metaphors. God's love is bound up mysteriously in his Triune personality, of which we may become partakers, which invokes the idea of personal relationship and all its corollary divine liberties. So while I think this understanding of hell is better and truer than the legalism offered by Edwards and others in our present culture, it shouldn't be taken as a literal or exhaustive exposition of the whole story, but rather as an approach and insight of the heart.
Also, Alexander Kalomiros develops some of these ideas further in his 1980 presentation, The River of Fire.