Two Questions

A reader writes:

I have two unrelated questions I was hoping you could answer for me on your blog:

1. If God is the source and essence of existence, how can a soul (or the devil, for that matter) be in Hell (the state of being eternally separated from God) without ceasing to exist altogether? Is Hell not really a full separation from God, or perhaps God imparts a sort of self-sufficiency to those who choose to be separated from him?

I suspect the issue turns on the meaning of “separation”.  The Catechism describes Hell as the “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed”. and tells us “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice.” (CCC 1033).  From this, I take it that the damned are as separated from God as they can make themselves.  That’s a different thing than being separated from God absolutely since, as you note, to be separated absolutely would entail ceasing to be entirely.  The devil, presumably the creature most separated from God, still retains such goods as being, intelligence, will, and power–all of which he owes to his Creator (though all these goods are as radically perverted as Satan can make them).  For a damned soul to suffer the torments of hell, it therefore would appear to follow that it does all it can to separate itself from God, but cannot, in the end, achieve the non-existence its evil strives toward.  It “asserts its nothingness” (as I think Augustine put it) but does not fully achieve that nothingness.  God, for his part, goes on being as generous to the damned as the damned will allow him to be, continuing to give being, power, intelligence and will as gifts to the damned, which they eternally radically pervert.  Just speculation on my part, of course.  But it seems to comport with the Tradition.

2. Sometimes I hear Catholics bring up the post-Reformation fragmentation of Protestant Christianity as proof that it was a mistake for Luther and the other Reformers to split from the true Church – that this fragmentation is the fruit of abandoning the true Church. However, my aunt (a convert to Russian Orthodoxy) recently made a similar argument to me about the Great Schism. Her argument is that when the Roman church split from the true Orthodox Church, it paved the way for further fragmentation and heresy in Western Europe and Western civilization in general for the next thousand years. This makes me wonder if it’s our pontiff and bishops who should go back on their knees to the Orthodox bishops begging forgiveness and reconciliation. In fact, I wonder if that might not be the right approach *regardless* of who was right and wrong in the Schism. Interested in your thoughts, and please also join me in praying for Christian unity.

I think there’s plent of blame on all sides for Christian disunity and that Catholics certainly carry their share of it.  As near as I can see, the popes since the council, particularly JPII, have repeatedly done exactly what you seek in, for instance, the acts of repentance JPII offered in the lead up to the celebration of the Third Millennium and in such encyclicals as Ut  Unum Sint.  I’m not Orthodox, so I don’t know how those overtures of repentance have been received in the East, but they have been offered by the Holy Father.  And yes, I do join you in praying for Christian unity.

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  • GodsGadfly

    I believe St. Augustine says that the torments of Hell are precisely that the damned hate God so much yet cannot escape from Him. The fires of Hell are precisely the fires of God’s love being showered on those who reject Him.

    • Billy Bean

      This is a view prominent in Eastern Orthodoxy and is especially championed in an essay called “River of Fire” by one Alexandre Kalomiros. The acute irony of the situation is that St. Augustine is viewed by so many Eastern Orthodox with some degree of suspicion, if not outright revulsion. But that is another discussion.

      • chezami

        Why are so many Orthodox so hostile to Augustine?

        • GodsGadfly

          It has to do with his views on original sin.
          I know Augustine is seen as the epitome of Western theology by the East, and likewise most Western objections to the Eastern tradition are derived from Augustinian theology, but does that necessarily imply they think “Can anything good come from Hippo?”

    • Rosemarie


      Could you please provide a citation from St. Augustine? I’ve long liked that idea of Hell and even had something on my website about it long ago, until a reader chided me for posting something so “speculative.” So I removed it years ago but I’d like to find support for it in patristic writings. All I’ve found so far are quotes from St. Basil the Great and St. Isaac the Syrian.

      • GodsGadfly

        Note I qualified it with “I believe.” If I’m right, it’s somewhere in _Confessions_, but I either read in Augustine or C. S. Lewis, sometime in the summer of 1991.

  • Rosemarie


    I prefer the term “alienated” rather than “separated” since the latter can imply a spatial distance which is incorrect. No one is ever spatially separated from God but one can be alienated from Him.

  • James H, London

    I seem to remember that the mutual excommunication of Catholic and Orthodox from each other was lifted in the 1960s. I don’t see how the Pope could go to anyone on his knees, since the Orthodox are split up on ethnic lines and AFAIK, he’d have to go to each Patriarch in turn.

  • Rosemarie


    I would take issue with the statement that “the Roman church split from the true Orthodox Church.” It sounds rather backwards, considering the pope is with us.

    Yet apart from that, Eastern Orthodoxy actually saw its own Protestant-style fragmentation: the “Spiritual Christianity” movement which started in the late 17th century. That spawned groups like the Doukhobors, Molokans and Khlysts. There were also the Subbotniks, many of whom ultimately converted to Judaism. So Eastern Christianity has not been a total stranger to sectarianism, fragmentation and heresy.

    • ImTim

      Where would I go to learn more about those groups (other than wikipedia)?

      • Marthe Lépine

        Wikipedia might have links and/or lists of sources. I usually find it a reasonably good starting point,

      • Rosemarie


        The Doukhobors have a website:

        The Molokans also have/had a site but I can’t seem to access it. Here is a recent archived copy on the Wayback Machine:

        (EDIT: on this website they mention another group, the Pryguny, a rather charismatic group that actually played a role in the Azusa Street “revival” which launched American Pentecostalism. Wow, you learn something every day!)

        The Khlysts no longer exist but you can probably find information about them online. They called themselves the “Khristovovery.”

        The Subbotniks were mostly absorbed into Judaism but may still exist in places. The online Jewish Encyclopedia has an article on them:

  • Chesire11

    If God is the fullness of Being, then sin, which distances us from Him represents a sort of existential entropy. When we sin, we literally become less and less; when we are forgiven, our being is reasserted by God who remembers who we were created to be.

    Accordingly, damnation represents the most utter degree of diminishment possible. Nothing created can ever be “un-made,” for the simple fact that it exists eternally in God the Father, and has been temporally manifest. That said, the shades in Hell are only dim flickers of humanity, real enough to feel torment, but not enough to possess free will anymore, or the ability to create.

    At least, that’s how I make sense of it.

    • ivan_the_mad

      Nice avatar! Very poetic 😉

      • Chesire11

        Thanks, it’s a favorite of mine. 🙂