Preaching the Gospel of Hell

by Jacob Sparks

May 2019
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If I should go up to heaven, thou art there: if I should go down to hell, thou art present.
— Psalm 138:8 (LXX)

About every month or so, out of town preachers stroll onto the campus of the University of Georgia, set up shop in the middle of campus with microphones, loud speakers, and large signs. They preach a message familiar to most of us raised in the Bible belt: “You deserve hell.” Their signs have lists of people who they believe are guilty of sin and will thus be sent to hell unless they repent immediately: homosexuals, democrats, Catholics, masturbators, fornicators, idolaters, etc. (I was disappointed that the Orthodox didn’t make the list). Their message of guilt and condemnation is not received well by the students of UGA: one time someone in the crowd gathered around them said bluntly, “Do you think you’re being effective?” Condemnation is usually not received well by people.

I have, on occasion, stopped and talked to these preachers when I am walking by them on campus. I do not doubt that they are well intentioned and trying to bring people to Christ. However, I find that their focus on hell as a punishment usually drives people away and gives them the impression of Jesus Christ as a God who desires to condemn people to eternal suffering. This impression given is quite the opposite of an Orthodox Christian understanding, which understands Christ as the one saving the world and all humanity:

For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
— John 3:17

The Orthodox proclamation of the gospel usually centers around the radical love of God becoming man in order to set humanity free from all the enemies opposing them: these include sickness, sin, death, hell, and the devil. Christ directly proclaims himself as the one who liberates the captives in his proclamation of the prophet Isaiah:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written,

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.’

And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
— Luke 4:16-21

This message of healing and liberation extends to the point of Christ allowing himself to be tortured and executed as a criminal by his own people. At this point, most non-Orthodox accounts skip straight to the resurrection and gloss over Christ’s three days in the tomb. However, the New Testament itself proclaims Christ’s liberation of the dead in hell between his death and resurrection:

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah… For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God.
— 1 Peter 3:18-20, 4:6

The ancient Christian account of the gospel understands Christ’s message of salvation as a message for all humanity – even for the dead. Christ is the one “who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel”, and thus we believe that Christ descended into hell to preach liberation in order to free them from its bondage (2 Timothy 1:10). Hell, then, is seen in the Orthodox Church as the place of suffering and isolation rendered powerless by the self-emptying love of God. Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev puts it this way (1):

According to many theological and liturgical texts of the Eastern Church, Christ in his descent into hell liberated all people from hell – without exception. Truly, hell has been ‘abolished’ by the resurrection of Christ: it is no longer unavoidable for people and no longer holds them under its power. But people re-create it for themselves each time sin is consciously committed and not followed by repentance.

The radical love of God for his creation extended to the worst of sinners is at the heart of the gospel. This, of course, does not mean that we do not have to repent, that all will be saved in the end, or that that we lose our free will to reject God. Just as God did not force himself on Israel but humbled himself to be born in a manger in a cave when no room was made for him in the inn, God honors our free will and does not force anything on us - not even salvation itself. Christ set all free from the gates of hell, but he did not force anyone to leave; who did and did not leave is a mystery known to God alone (2). Rather, Christ’s liberation of hell means that the love of God is freely available to all who are willing to receive it through repentance. This is the same love proclaimed each year in the resurrection of Christ in the celebration of Pascha, eloquently articulated in St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal Homily (3):

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.

May God grant us a blessed Pascha and celebration of our liberation and victory in Christ.

 1: Cunningham, Mary, and Theokritoff, Elizabeth. The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology. (Cambridge University Press, 2008), 114.

2: C.S. Lewis gives a beautiful and poetic vision of why some might not leave hell in his allegorical novel The Great Divorce.

3: Orthodox Church in America, “The Paschal Sermon.”

Jacob SparksComment