We (humans) seem to have a deep fascination with hell, eternal fire and all related elements. We (the Orthodox) like to condiment our prayers with images of hell, we adorn our churches with huge icons of the Last Judgement or St John’s Ladder (or both), we have beautiful poetry about hell, we sing about hell, and we especially enjoy thinking about it during Lent.
I’m not saying there is no reason to do so. After ten years of monasticism, I’ve got the basic ideas about how one can use hell to feed one’s humility, prayer, compassion for other human beings and so on. However, I would be a liar if I said these ascetic ‘methods’ ever did any good for me. I’ve never done anything our of fear, and if the only way to God were by fear, I would probably not be in the Church. I left the world and followed Him precisely because He is not like the world: His love is not conditioned by my own deeds, His forgiveness and compassion are beyond ‘righteousness’, He simply loves. He IS and He LOVES, and there is no difference between these two.
I remember reading somewhere that God is like earth: no matter what you bury in the ground, sooner or later, the ground will return flowers and fruits. The world is not like that: if you make a mistake, you pay for it. Sometimes, you even pay for mistakes you haven’t made – people behave horribly for absolutely no reason. Well, God is like the ground: whatever you give Him (your lack of interest, your hatred, your sinfulness), He will continue to love and bless you. It is this Christ that won me over, this Love that I want to follow.
Not hell, not fear, but Love, always Love, beyond reason and logic, beyond right and wrong, beyond worthiness and unworthiness – this is Who won this war, once and for all: Love, always Love. All I must do is learn how to respond to this love. And Lent is the best time in the year to try harder to do just that: learn how to respond to Christ’s Love for me and the whole creation.
Aware as I am that one cannot generalise one’s own experience, I am still to meet a good Christian whose experience is based on fear and contemplation of hell. I’m not saying I haven’t met such people; unfortunately, I have (they tend to abound in traditionally Orthodox countries, especially in monasteries), but I have never felt love or compassion from any of them. Even as a confessor, these hell-obsessed people are (paradoxically, or not) the first to judge, condemn and separate themselves from the rest of the church.
Lent is not a period to fight the devil. Lent is not about the devil. Rather, it is the time we follow Christ to His Resurrection. There’s nothing we need to do over what He’s already done for us; there’s no-one to fight with, because He’s already defeated hell; all we need to do is to follow Christ, and to hold on to the Salvation He’s already granted us.
Nothing ever helped me except love and hope. Christ has never given me anything except love and hope. I would be a liar and a hypocrite to tell you otherwise. Have faith, hold on to your hope, get up and follow Him – He is our Sanctification, and He is ‘The Existing One’. As long as Christ IS, our Sanctification IS, too.
So look up, wash your faces and take courage. What is there to be frightened of?