|Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries||Papacy|
God as "Fire"
The Fire of Purgatory
From the homilies of Saint Mark of Ephesus at the 5th Ecumenical Council in Ferrara-Florence
Saint Mark “the Noble”, Metropolitan of Ephesus, was one of the protagonists at the Synod of Ferrara-Florence, as the exponent of the Orthodox Patristic teaching in all of the subjects. On studying his teaching, one will clearly recognize that he is indeed an exponent of the Orthodox teaching and moreso an exponent of the theology of Saint Gregory of Palamas, where the value of his theology will become evident.
It was only natural that he would deal with the purgatorial fire and present the orthodox views on this subject. Given that the things he says are so interesting and relate to many theological matters that relate to the subject, it is the reason we will provide an extensive analysis herebelow.
The things we will analyze are found in two extant sermons by Saint Mark which have been preserved (which of course are homilies that he had submitted for the debates during the Synod in Ferrara), as well as certain chapters that are a summary of his overall teaching, by which he rejected the teaching of the Latins on the existence of a purgatorial fire.
The first homily is titled: "The objection by the Very Reverend Metropolitan of Ephesus, Markos the Noble, to the proposed Latin chapters regarding the pergatorial fire". It appears that this is the homily Saint Mark had composed immediately after the topic was submitted – naturally upon the command of the emperor. The second homily is titled: "Of the most wise and scholarly Fr. Mark the Noble, a second apology addressed to the Latins, in which is also exposed the true glory of the Greeks’ Church". The chapters are headed as follows: "Ten reasonings indicating that purgatory fire does not exist".
Of course, it is difficult for one to present in detail the overall teaching by Saint Mark on this subject. A special diatribe would be required to analyze all the views. I will, however, endeavor herebelow to set forth his general placements regarding the purgatorial fire, hopefully without distorting their content. I consider this to be important because, unfortunately, we know very little about the topic of the purgatorial fire, and whatever is presented, to a large extent does not wholly express the orthodox view on the subject.
1. Dogmatic discussion is necessary
When commencing his second homily, Saint Mark emphasizes the necessity of a proper investigation of the doctrinal issues being disputed. He notes characteristically: “Those things of the dogmas that are deemed doubtful – with reasons by both sides that are considered strong and bold – are in need of true research and discussion.”
Research on disputed dogmatic matters must be done truthfully, without guile, using the strongest arguments each time. With such a discussion there would be immense profit, as the truth would be revealed: “And therefore immense will be the profit from such a discussion.” Naturally - the saint asserts - the profit will be immense, as long as both parties aspire to finding the truth and not to quarrelling - and provided they do not ensure that they win through every possible means - but instead be tolerant even if they are rightly defeated . With whatever they were saying, the Latins were being checked, as they were striving for the exact opposite: they were not seeking the truth regarding the purgatorial fire, but quite simply, as in other matters, they merely strove to impose their views.
In his reference to the apostolic Council that was convened to determine whether the Gentile Christians should be circumcised - and in fact to the discussion that took place among the Apostles, but also to the consensus after the Council - he says that they themselves ought to aspire to peace and unity during those discussions - even if the discussion is extensive.
Therefore, dogmatic discussion is necessary when there are arguments and when there is concern for peace and harmony. However, if strife and the attempt to impose every opinion prevail, then there can be no benefit. This measure is necessary for every dogmatic discussion; because, if the Holy Spirit does not act, and if peace does not prevail during discussions, then it will impossible to find the truth.
2. Heaven and Hell do exist
The Latins’ teaching regarding the purgatorial fire is linked to their teaching regarding Heaven and Hell, which is why this is also being examined.
Saint Mark rejects the existence of purgatorial fire, using as his argument the parable of the wealthy man and Lazarus, as narrated by Christ: Lazarus' soul ended up in the bosom of Abraham, whereas the wealthy man's soul ended up in Hades. in this parable - Saint Mark says – with His reference to ‘Abraham's bosom’, the Lord was revealing ”the extreme state of the blissful ending for God's friends”, and with His mention of ‘Hades’, He was describing “the final condemnation and eternal judgment for sinners”. And of course with this parable, Christ was making it clear that “He has left no other place between the two (states: Paradise-Hell), which has any temporary torment”. Consequently, Paradise and Hades exist - but no other interim place of torment. Besides, there is a huge chasm between Heaven and Hades, according to this parable.
Nowhere in the Bible do we see any mention that immediately after the soul’s exit from the body, there is Heaven, Hell - and Purgatory. The soul of man, when rid of the body, is an incorporeal and immaterial item: “it is not something that can be tortured by a corporeal (physical) fire”, given that the soul’s material body has been disintegrated. However, after the general resurrection, when the soul will have entered its (then incorruptible) body and all of Creation will have been changed, and the element of fire will have been divided – as illuminating and caustic – that is when man will be savouring eternal hell - just like the demons, for they too have a certain material state and are enveloped by a density that gives them aerial and fiery bodies. Therefore only Heaven and Hell are existent, and nothing else in between. The foretaste of both those states begins upon the exit of the soul from the body.
Of course there is also mention of Hell in the Holy Bible, before the Incarnation of Christ and before the abolition of death, through Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. But even Hades, as described in the Holy Bible, cannot be identified as the purgatorial fire of the Latins. Hades is a noetic state, given that souls have no form. The souls of the righteous were kept in Hades until the Coming of the Savior, but only for the original sin - and “certainly not as if they are in fire and torment, but as in a jail and a prison'. Thus, it is not about any purgatorial fire, as the Latins teach.
The existence of a kind of temporary purgatorial fire between Paradise and Hell is in some way linked to the teaching about the restoration of everything, since it cultivates indolence in the indolent. The restoration of everything and the end of eternal Hell, as taught by Origen and passed on to several ancient ecclesiastic authors, was renounced and anathematized by the 5th Ecumenical Council, because it makes the indolent who hope for redemption from suffering even more indolent. In the same way, the teaching about purgatorial fire must be cast out by the Church, because it cultivates the impression that they do not need to struggle in this life, since they anticipate another catharsis (cleansing). “For these reasons therefore, the present dogma of the purgative fire is considered rejectable by the church, as they make people indolent towards the important things and convince them to not struggle by any means to purify themselves in the present life, in anticipation of another catharsis (cleansing)”.
On analyzing the subject of Heaven and Hell, and expressing the teaching of the Church, Saint Mark says that after death, neither do the righteous fully attain that state of bliss, nor are sinners led to eternal Hell where they will be eternally tormented; instead, both these things - “...will necessarily take place after that final day of judgment and the resurrection of everyone”. At present, both the righteous and the sinners - are “each in their rightful place” – except that the righteous are comfortably and freely together with the angels in heaven with a foretaste of the Heavenly Realm that awaits them, while the sinners are incarcerated in Hades, waiting in anguish and inconsolable sorrow, like convicts, the final decision of the Judge, but aware of the eternal suffering that awaits them.
It becomes apparent from the teaching of Saint Mark that there is no middle state for souls, as maintained by the Latins – i.e., that there is a special place interposed between Heaven and Hell where the purgatory fire exists; rather, there exists a middle state of souls, from the viewpoint that after the soul exits the body, the righteous await the perfect enjoyment of Paradise, while the sinners await the final decision of the Judge and the final torment.
However, the relishing of the sight of God by the righteous - after the departure of the soul from the body - is of a far larger degree than it was during the present life. He characteristically writes that the righteous after death enjoy the blessed ‘sighting’ of God, “and the glory emanating from it, is both perfect and clearer than it was in the previous life.”
To support this view, Saint Mark uses many passages from the Holy Bible and the Church Fathers. At the final judgment, which will take place after the Second Coming of Christ, the righteous will hear the words: “Come, you the blessed ones of My Father, and inherit the kingdom prepared for you”. This signifies that they had not yet inherited it immediately after their soul left the body. Besides, if they had already inherited it, there would have been no need for the general resurrection of bodies, or the presence of the Judge and that terrible and universal court.
The Apostle Paul also writes: “For we all must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive the things he did through his body - whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). This means prior to that Judgment Seat, before we appear before Christ - and especially because the soul is alive without the body - “no-one receives that which he deserves for what he had done through the body”.
When Saint Athanasios the Great was asked if the righteous enjoy good things after the soul’s exodus from the body and the sinners inherit Hell, he replied: “Not so; however, the joy which the souls of the saints now have, is just a partial taste of pleasure, just as the sorrow that sinners have, is just a partial taste of torment.”
Saint Mark thus reaches the conclusion that neither do the righteous completely enjoy those eternal pleasures, nor do the sinners fully receive the condemnation and are directed to Hell. After all, before the general resurrection of all bodies, they are imperfect “that is, they are only half, and incomplete of body”. Only after the souls enter imperishable bodies will they receive the rewards and praises for their deeds.
Consequently, between the Paradise and the Hell that are foretasted by the righteous and the sinners, immediately after the exit of the soul from their body (their biological death), there is no other created purgatorial fire. This dogma of the Latins cannot be based on the ecclesiastic tradition.
3. Purgative fire does not exist
What has been said is not the only argument for the nonexistence of purgatorial fire. As bearer of the Orthodox Tradition, Saint Mark, with unwavering arguments, demolishes the theories of the Latins and presents the Orthodox view on the matter.
First of all, he argues that there is no mention anywhere in the Holy Bible and the Patristic Tradition of any existence of purgatory fire. Wherever there is a reference to this item, it implies the uncreated and eternal fire that sinners will experience after the Second Coming of Christ. However, we will return to this further along. It should be noted here that the teaching of the Latins about purgative fire prior to the Second Coming of Christ is not supported, and in fact it is not possible to substantiate it from the Bible.
The opinion that it is possible for souls to be freed from sin through purgative punishments, which are caused by some temporary fire, "we find nothing explicitly written, not in the prayers and chants made in their favor, nor in the discourses of the teachers". Of course, in some texts, which were used by the Latins, reference is made to this subject, but they are misinterpreted, that is, they are part of another interpretive tradition, as we will see in more detail below.
One may spot in patristic texts that the sinners and the unrepentant are “being partially punished”, but not that they have ended up in Hell. In the texts of the Holy Bible and of the Fathers, there is mention of the sorrow by those who are in the interim state which torments and punishes them, or of shame and torment in their conscience, or of the afterlife, or of gathering and darkness, or of fear and the uncertainty of the future, or merely of the postponement of the divine theoria (“God-sighting”), depending on what they had done in this life, but there is never any mention of a “bodily (physical) fire that torments and eliminates bodiless souls”. None of the Fathers of the Church who had interpreted the relevant texts of the Holy Bible had presumed that such a reference was to the purgatory fire as taught by the Latins.
In His Sermon on the Mount, the Lord says that he who calls his brother a moron (crazy), “will be guilty during Judgment”. And Saint Mark explains that the Lord was not referring him “to purgatory, but to Gehenna (Hell)”. Account will be given for every indolent word spoken “at the time of Judgment most certainly, but they shall not be cleansed through fire”, he teaches.
In the Holy Bible it is said that the sight of God is a perfect reward for those who have cleansed their heart, according to the words of Christ, “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 6:8). Of course, there are degrees to the theoria (sighting) of God, depending on the degrees of catharsis (cleansing). As such, not all people have the same degree of cleansing, nor, of course, is there a need for a cleansing fire, if the cleansing in some is incomplete. Throughout the Holy Bible it appears that “those who are more cleansed shall see God more”. People will “see” God according to their degree of catharsis. For this very reason, there is no need for any further “cleansing” after exiting this life.
So, neither is anything explicitly said in the Holy Bible about the existence of a purgatory fire immediately after the exit of the soul from the body, but neither is this innovative teaching of the Latins in harmony with the entire spirit of the Bible. There is no mention of purgatory fire between the death of each person and the Second Coming of Christ.
4. Theological reasons against the existence of purgatory fire
The homilies of Saint Mark the Noble on the subject of purgatory contain a wealth of information – something naturally difficult to present fully in this abridged analysis of his teaching. We are brief and fragmentary, out of necessity. But, in spite of the difficulties presenting the entire teaching of Saint Mark, we strive to not alter it, but only examine his general views on the topic that interests us.
At the end of his first homily, he presents as conclusions the reasons it is not possible for purgatory fire to exist, the way that the Latins present it – i.e., as a created thing, temporary, and interposed between human death and the Second Coming of Christ. The reasons are as follows:
1. Given that one’s passion - that very love for the divine - cleanses living people and renders them godlike, why can’t the same thing also occur post mortem? Can’t that same passion cleanse them of their minor sins also, instead of necessitating a purgatory fire?
2. It is up to God’s benevolence to not overlook the minor good or to punish the minor sin. The thing is, a minor good amidst major sins does not garner any reward. Nor is it necessary for a minor sin by those who have accomplished great things to be brought to trial. It is precisely for this reason that there is no need for a purgatory fire to exist.
3. A minor good in sinners can’t garner any reward - only a difference in their postmortem torment. The same applies with the saints. A minor sin in their case does not garner any torment - only a difference in their postmortem bliss. Consequently, given that there is a differentiation in bliss for the righteous and a differentiation in torment for the sinners, there is no reason for purgatory fire to exist.
4. Continuation of the previous notes is that the "sighting" of God is achieved similarly by all people, but it will depend on the difference and the degree of their cleansing. Therefore, for those who have incomplete cleansing, there is no need for purgatory fire.
5. Saint Gregory the Theologian in his homily on Easter expressly and clearly states that there is no cleansing “after this night”; that is, there is no cleansing whatsoever postmortem, where he characterizes this life as “night”.
6. In another homily, Saint Gregory the Theologian says that it is preferable to be cleansed here and not be led to the torment of hell, because then “it will be time for torment, not cleansing”. So it is clearly obvious that there is no purgatory purging after the soul leaves the body. Only eternal torment (“Hell”).
7. On the parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus who (after their death) ended up between Paradise and Hell: “Nor again did He leave any other place which has some temporary torment; instead, a vast and impassable chasm showing their extreme and direct opposition" .
8. It is not feasible for the incorporeal and immaterial soul -after being freed from the body- to be tormented by a material fire. The eternal fire will indeed exist, but only after the Second Coming of Christ and after we have all obainined an incorruptible body.
9. Hades, into which the souls of the Old Testament saints used to descend, was not of the “fire and hell” kind, but rather of the “jail and incarceration” kind. Similarly, for the souls of those who have sinned moderately, “this is the kind of Hades that will exist after death”. That is, those who had moderately sinned will - until the Second Coming of Christ - live as if in a jail and prison, awaiting the final trial, following which, “Hell” will begin. This is the reason a purgative fire is not necessary.
10. The holy Fathers who had lived the equal-to-angels polity on earth and were taught by apparitions and dreams and miracles in regard to the life of eternal damnation for the irreverent and the sinners (as also depicted by the parable of the rich man and Lazarus), “did not specify anything anywhere about a purgative fire”.
11. The dogma on purgatorial fire must be expelled, because it leads people to laziness and not striving to be spiritually cleansed in the present life by expecting a future catharsis. This is exactly how the dogma of restoration of everything was also expelled: because it leads people to the same results.
He also expounds the same arguments in his reasoning about the nonexistence of purgatory fire, making evident the reasons we cannot accept the existence of such a (temporary and created) fire. In those syllogisms, Saint Mark's arguments focus on three points.
The first is that, as taught by the entire Holy Bible and the Tradition of the Church, the “sight” of God differs, depending on a person’s catharsis-cleansing during the present life: the more cleansed one can see the glory of God more perfectly. Hence, there is a greater and a lesser “sighting” of God, depending on one’s catharsis. One who may have a few sins, “will also see God – without invoking the purgatorial fire”, this being dependent on God's philanthropy - and to an analogous degree, of course.
However, the teaching of purgatory fire negates this difference in savouring the glory of God. Because, if the people of this category pass through the temporary purgatorial fire, it follows that all the souls of the righteous “are at the same degree of seeing God, which is the state of blessedness”. But this is a lie, because Christ had said that in His Father's Kingdom “there are many monasteries” (John 14:2).
The second argument is that it is not possible for man’s will to be changed by any purgative fire after he has exited from this life. “Whether it be movements of the will, or of things out of necessity, both are enclosed in the present life”. The will can be changed while a person is in this life; but wherever he may be found after death, the will remains inert. “And this also applies to any struggle or trial, of not passing through purgatory”. Given, therefore, that the state of blessedness requires straighfowrwardness of the will, and since purgatory cannot change the will from evil to good (because this can take place only while man is living a biological life), ergo, “purgatory contributes nothing” towards blessedness. This also means that people cannot be cleansed by any purgatory.
The third argument is: just as there is a difference in the savouring of the Heavenly Realm, there is likewise a difference in the savouring of torment. And, as we said earlier, the minor good of sinners cannot garner any reward, “only a difference in torment”. Thus, even a minor sin of the righteous “does not garner torment, only a difference in savouring bliss”. For this reason it is not possible for there to be a purgatory fire, as the Latins claim.
5. Interpretation of apostolic passages
In seeking to support the purgatorial fire, the Latins used various Scriptural passages. For this very reason, Saint Mark the Noble in the homilies that he used at the Synod of Ferrara - Florence to disprove the Latin arguments, had interpreted those hagiographical passages in the Orthodox light, proving that the Latins had actually misinterpreted them, in order to confirm their new doctrine.
The passage on which the discussion had mainly focused is the one that comes from the 1st Epistle to Corinthians, in which there is the reference to the testing of works “by fire”. Specifically there, the Apostle Paul writes: “.... as a wise master builder I laid the foundation, and the other builds upon it. But let each one take care how he builds upon it, for no other foundation can anyone lay than the existing one, which is Jesus Christ. Now, if one builds upon this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, grass, reeds, each one’s work will be revealed, for that Day will declare it, when it shall be revealed by fire; and whatever kind their work was, the fire shall test it. If one’s work which he built has endured, he will receive wages; if one’s work is entirely burned, he shall suffer loss, while he himself will remain intact, as having passed through fire. (1 Cor. 3:10-15).
This passage, as Saint Mark says, while seemingly introducing the fire of purgatory, “in fact it mostly negates everything”. The reasons that prove it are the following.
Firstly, the Apostle Paul called it a testing, not a purging fire.
Secondly, all works, even the benevolent and precious ones, will pass through this fire - which implies that not everything needs cleansing/purging.
Thirdly, the Apostle clearly says that while the works of the wicked will be completely consumed by fire, they will have only suffered losses; however, according to the Latins’ interpretation, it means they personally will be benefited.
Fourthly, what was said by the Apostle will be taking place on the day of Judgment and the coming Age, and was not about any purgatory fire wedged between Paradise and Hell. Besides, nowhere is this mentioned in the Holy Bible. In fact, Christ is categorical when he says: “These shall depart to eternal torment, whereas the righteous to eternal life” (Matth.25:46).
Consequently, it is all about the uncreated Grace of God, which illuminates the righteous and burns the sinners. The passages of the Holy Bible, which Saint Mark cites, also agree with this. The Prophet-King David says: “Fire burns before Him, and a fierce storm surrounds him' (Psalm 49: 3). Similarly: “Fire shall move ahead of Him, and shall inflame His enemies around Him” (Psalm 7: 3). And the Prophet Daniel writes: “A river of fire flowed before Him" (Dan.7: 10).
Of particular importance is the phrase in Apostle Paul: “if one’s work is entirely burned, he shall suffer loss while he himself will remain intact, as having passed through fire.” Interpreting this phrase, Saint Mark says that the works that the fire will consume and completely eliminate are the wicked disposition or energy. The words “shall suffer loss” refers to the wicked burdens that sinners had, and that they 'will remain intact” refers to their preservation. He writes characteristically: “...but to preserve them intact - that is, for eternity – He shall preserve and guard, so that they not be lost,along with their wickedness”.
This means God's Grace will also preserve sinners, restore their nature and they too shall remain in Hell eternally. Consequently, salvation is in reference to preservation.
This interpretation by Saint Mark the Noble is not an arbitrary one; it is a teaching of the Holy Fathers of the Church. Saint Mark cited the interpretation by Saint John the Chrysostom and the teaching of Saint Basil the Great regarding the fire of the Age to come.
The blessed Chrysostom - who is the mouth of Paul, just as the Apostle Paul is the mouth of Christ - when interpreting this phrase by the Apostle Paul, writes precisely: “he will remain intact, because the sinner will burn as one who has passed through fire” - meaning that he will remain intact in the fire of Hell, and not be consumed along with his evil works and dispositions. This is not unrelated to the orthodox teaching that man is a person; that he can never be led to non-existence - to non-being - and that Christ with His resurrection gave resurrection for all people -righteous and unjust- as His gift, which will take place during His Second Coming, also that there will be a restoration of Nature, but not of one’s will, and that while the righteous will enjoy the “forever well”, the sinners will receive the “forever hell”.
In his interpretation of the psalm excerpt “...a voice of the Lord interrupting the flame of fire”, Saint Basil the Great says that, because fire has two qualities, the illuminating and the caustic, the voice of the Lord will interrupt this fire, “so that the fire of hell becomes without luminescence, and the light of repose remains non-caustic”.
When presenting this passage by Saint Basil, Saint Mark says that the bright and luminous works of the righteous appear much brighter, and the righteous will become heirs of the light. But the sinners will suffer losses with the expulsion of their works, while they themselves are “spared, with things worse than the loss of salvation, by remaining perpetually within the fire (for this means chiefly that their voice is also spared), so that they will not believe they will be lost once and for all because of the fire’s destructiveness”. At the same time, Saint Mark says that if there is any exegete, who by the word “salvation” understands it to mean “deliverance from hell”, and by the “passing through fire” means “cleansing”, he has “obviously misconstrued this completely”.
According to Saint Mark the Noble, Saint Chrysostom's interpretation is the most noteworthy, and all the teachers of the Church agree with it. Thus, Chrysostom's interpretation “is the more accurate and truer than everything else”. Within these contexts he himself adds an interpretation, which is connected to the events that took place in Corinth and gave the Apostle Paul the occasion to give this speech.
Saint Mark asserts that the Apostle Paul in this case was referring to the Christian of Corinth who had committed fornication. He was one of the teachers who, albeit having fallen into a serious transgression, “continued to teach, thus showing trust in his not-to-be-despised system of external wisdom and wealth”. Thus it appears that the Apostle had in mind a certain teacher who, even though he had sinned, nevertheless continued to teach, trusting in external wisdom and intellectual wealth. He surmises this from what is said in the relevant chapter of Apostle Paul's Epistle.
Therefore, according to Saint Mark, this homily “is obviously addressing the fornicator”. A teacher such as him not only would not receive any wages for his teaching, as his work of teaching would be incinerated. He, however, would stay on, to be eventually judged for his actions. “For a teacher such as he shall not be consumed along with his work, but shall remain intact, waiting to appear before the Judge and give account of his actions, and to submit to an eternal judgment, not burdened by that teaching which has been consumed... and he shall remain intact, for things far worse than the loss of salvation; for it would heve been better for him either to never have been, or to have remained intact, carrying such material”.
It should be noted that Saint Mark repeatedly uses the words of Saint Chrysostom, that the term “remain” refers to salvation: “...salvation is understood as this only: that to not be co-incinerated with his work but to remain intact, after his work is incinerated”. This man will appear before the Judge 'conflagrated'. Besides, the fire that the Apostle Paul is speaking of is only a testing one, “not the one that receives sinners eternally”. Clearly, therefore, Saint Mark here distinguishes between the trial conflagration during Judgment at the Second Coming of Christ, and the eventual eternal fire of Hell. Of course, the fire of judgment is not a created thing, but an uncreated one. I think this distinction reveals, on the one hand, the trial of Judgment, which is executed by Christ Himself, and on the other, the caustic quality of God's energy, which is attributed to the person’s spiritual state.
In refuting the view that the word “salvation” is not used for the evils, but only for the good, Saint Mark quotes the relevant passage from Job. Following the disaster, the messenger went to Job to announce what had taken place, telling him: “Having myself been saved, I came to inform you” ('Job 1:15). The messenger was saved, preserved from that destruction, and thus went to announce the misfortune to Job.
Consequently the apostolic words cannot possibly be supporting any purgatory fire, as the Latins claim. It clearly refers to the forthcoming Judgment, the judging and the preservation of the sinner – that is, his “passing through the fire” without being consumed together with his wicked works.
6. Patristic passages during the dialogue
To support their innovative teaching about the purgatory fire, the Latins also used patristic passages during the dialogue. And this was because the Orthodox had asked to learn who supported their teaching, which was foreign to the Orthodox Church. But we shall see further along that the Latins had actually altered the texts of the Fathers, just as they had done after all, to the Scriptural passages.
I am not going to do an extensive analysis of this aspect of the issue, but will merely comment on it and draw the necessary conclusions.
The Latins had used “certain words of the fifth Ecumenical Council”, which appear to have accepted the teaching of the blessed Augustine and Saint Ambrose. They then used passages by Saint Gregory Dialogus, also prayers by Basil the Great, sayings by the blessed Gregory of Nyssa, as well as sayings of the divine Dionysios the Areopagite, the great Epiphanius and the God-worded Damascene. Reference was also made to the blessed Theodoret.
By referencing all these patristic passages, the Latins had concluded that divine justice leaves nothing unpunished, and therefore it is necessary that there be another place for those who have not been punished in this life (nor will be punished in either heaven or hell), in which place they will be punished and cleansed. Following these claims, the Latins had stated that: “there is missing another dedicated place, where their cleansing must take place, through which each one who is cleansed will instantly be taken to the heavenly bliss”.
Saint Mark the Noble, bearer of the Orthodox Tradition and authentic interpreter of the Scriptures and the words of the Fathers, analyzes and interprets all these passages orthodoxically, thus dismissing the views of the Latins. He clearly proves that in none of those patristic passages is there any clear mention of a so-called purgatory fire. As such, nowhere is the existence of Purgatory justified, as the Latins claimed. Quite simply, in their attempt to solidify its truth, they altered and misinterpreted the patristic texts.
Saint Mark thus proved that other passages than these do not speak clearly about the purgatory fire - for example the passages from Augustine and Saint Ambrose; they have been misconstrued, just as the passages by Saints Basil the Great, Dionysius the Areopagite, John of Damascus, Gregory of Nyssa, etc. were misconstrued.
Of course, we need to note that Saint Gregory of Nyssa does not speak about the restoration of all things in a philosophical and heretical manner - as several modern scholars influenced by the Western hermeneutical tradition want to present him - but instead aligns himself with the ecclesiastic Orthodox Tradition. We will examine this in another chapter.
Also, the fact that the Latins use passages from the Fifth Ecumenical Council also became the objects of criticism and checking by Saint Mark, who argues that it is not possible for this major Ecumenical Council to establish such a teaching. Saint Mark then characteristically concludes: “ for neither did Scripture deliver to us a double hell and a double fire, nor did the fifth of the Ecumenical Councils”.
In his second homily, Saint Mark analyzes this topic thoroughly, both by presenting various patristic passages that refer to future events, without making any clear mention to a purgatory fire, as well as the teaching of Saint Gregory of Nyssa, and how the Church deals with this serious issue. But this is not the suitable place to expound it.
Generally speaking, Saint Mark argues that the Latins misconstrue and falsify the patristic teaching on this subject. The Latins do not have orthodox prerequisites for comprehending the Orthodox Fathers of the Church, which is why they fail in their interpretive presentation.
Of course, in Orthodox teaching there is mention of the forgiveness of sins and the value of memorial services. These two events cannot be truly comprehended by the Latins. A brief reference to the pertinent teaching by the Church will be presented below:
The forgiveness of sins in the Orthodox Tradition is to be freed of hell and punishment. And this absolution takes place in three ways and at three different times. The first at the time of Baptism, the second after Baptism, with one’s return and their repentant mourning during the present life, and the third is after death, through the prayers and blessings and everything else that the Church of Christ performs.
Absolution through Baptism is attained without requiring any labour and is of equal status for all. It is a work of Grace and no work is required on the part of the person - only faith. Post-Baptism absolution is arduous and requires repentance and contrition by the person. The postmortem absolution is also arduous, inasmuch as it is closely linked to repentance “which attacks the conscience, and frets over the failure of material goods”, but that is purely a punishment, since it is not possible to have absolution and simultaneously punishment.
In the first and the third absolution, God's Grace is abundant, while prayers also contribute, “as our contribution is small by far”. The middle absolution is by the Grace of God, but more by our own toils: “the middle one, quite the opposite, has a little by Grace, but is mostly dependent on our labour”. Also, the first absolution, through Holy Baptism, differs from the last absolution, after death, because the first absolution is the forgiveness of all sins, whereas the last one is the absolution only of the non-mortal sins, and in fact of those for which the person had repented during their biological life.
This is the teaching of the Orthodox Church, as Saint Mark says, which is why She prays for the absolution of the reposed. She beseeches God to forgive the sins of repentant Christians who have departed within the Faith, without imposing any punishment, because She knows that in such sins “divine goodness far outweighs the word of justice”. Thus, in the Orthodox Church we speak of the benevolence of God and not of the satisfaction of divine justice.
Related to the forgiveness of sins is the issue of memorials. The Orthodox Church holds memorial services for the reposed Christians and prays to God for them, but in a different way and for a different reason than the Latins. In other words, it is not possible to connect the Latins’ purgatory fire with the memorial services held in the Orthodox Church, given that the former presupposes cleansing through punishment, whereas the latter presupposes cleansing during man's unending journey towards deification (theosis). Saint Mark provides interesting information on this subject.
The memorial services of the Orthodox Church are held for all people who have reposed with the hope of resurrection and their faith in Jesus Christ. Subsequently, the memorial services and the prayers of the Church benefit all the deceased - righteous and unrighteous, saints and sinners. Of course, the prayers for each individual Christian differ. That is to say, memorial services are held for the saints, and the symbolic, boiled wheat (“kollyva”) offering is prepared in memoriam for them also; but, because they have presented undeniable signs of holiness, and have been numbered in the list and the choir of the saints, it is why the prayers for them are different. We do not beseech God to “have mercy on them”, but instead, our prayers are “in their honor and in memoriam”, and we ask them for their blessings.
Saint Mark writes about the benefits of memorial prayers: “For all those who have fallen asleep in the faith we do the same things, and we ask that these will act and contribute to strength and benefit for all of them.” Hence we see that prayers are offered for all who have reposed in the Orthodox faith.
To begin with, the Church prays for the sinners who are held in Hades, “that they may find some small comfort, albeit not a complete relief.” She mainly prays for those who have fallen asleep in the faith, “even if they were major sinners”. Of course, there are also cases of saints who have prayed for irreverent people too, but “God's church does not pray at all for this kind”. The incarcerated sinners do benefit after death in Hades from these prayers; on the one hand, because they have not been finally condemned nor have they heard the final decision of the Judge and on the other hand, because they have not yet ended up in Hell, which will take place after the Second Coming of Christ, If this is what applies to sinners, memorials and prayers are far more beneficial to those who have repented, but have not managed to be completely cleansed and have attained illumination of the nous (mind). If they have few or no hollow sins, they will be restored into the choir of the righteous, or they remain where they are, that is, in Hades, and “remain hollow among the difficulties, in anticipation of more worthwhile hopes.”
However, the memorial services and the prayers of the Church benefit both the righteous and those who have lived God-fearing lives. This is a central teaching of our Church. Saint Mark claims that the prayers of the Divine Liturgy are proof that “even to those already enjoying the blessedness of God, the power of those prayers - and more so of the Mystic Sacrifice - passes on to them”. This is apparent in a related prayer during the Divine Liturgy of Saint Chrysostom: “We also offer You this logical worship for the reposed-in-faith forefathers, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, abstainers, and for every spirit of the reposed-in-the-faith righteous ones”. Even if, when praying for the saints, we do not ask of God any good things for them but only give God thanks for them, “doing this for their glorification, thus somehow making this Sacrifice also for their sake, and that it passes on to them also”.
Elsewhere, Saint Mark analyzes more extensively what the benefit of the saints is, when tested by the “fire” that is always found with God – which is His uncreated energy. He writes: “For to the saints, such a fire is not a work and a characteristic of an evil thing, as it reveals them even more radiant, the way that gold is, when tested in a furnace...”. It is clear in this passage, as well as in other related ones by the holy Fathers, that saints become even more luminous and are rendered even more capacitous when partaking of God's glory.
Saint Mark also uses a passage from Saint Dionysios the Areopagite, in which it appears that the hierarch also prays for those who have passed away according to the divine way of life. By quoting this passage, the saint says that the power of prayers, and especially of the mystical Sacrifice, also passes on “to those who lived justly and righteously”. This is explained, because compared to perfection, saints are also imperfect and, therefore can become more capacitous of the divine Glory. Specifically, he writes: The power of the prayers and the Divine Liturgy also passes through to those who lived justly and righteously,”as they are also imperfect and albeit in continuous reception of the good, are never enjoying perfect blissfullness”.
Hence, the prayers of the Church pass on to everyone, both the sinners and the righteous, but they act differently on each one, depending on the spiritual state attained during this life. And the saint concludes: Given that the prayers of the Church extend to everyone, that is why there is no need for us to accept the fire of purgatory. Catharsis (cleansing) and salvation are effected by the benevolence and the philanthropy of God.
This teaching by Saint Mark is orthodox and is found in many texts of the Fathers. We do not intend to expound it thoroughly here. What must be underlined is that, according to orthodox teaching, there are three stages of spiritual perfection, namely, the catharsis (cleansing) of the heart, the illumination of the nous (mind) and the theosis (deification) of man. The perfecting of man is imperfect. Man is always open to improvement of his spiritual state. This trend will continue during the Age to come, therefore when a person through repentance enters the stage of cleansing-catharsis, but, on account of death, cannot complete it and move on to illumination, it will be fulfilled through the prayers and the memorial services by the Church. That is to say, there will be a continuous development in the partaking of God's cathartic, illuminating and deifying energy. This is how we should understand many cases that we encounter in the lives of the saints, in which their prayers justified their spiritual children. If we pause to think that justification is the illumination of the nous-mind (this of course being mainly and above all the forgiveness of sins), then we can explain those cases.
7. Eternal fire is uncreated
Nowhere in the Fathers is there any mention of a purgatory place and a punishing fire, through which people will pass after their death - especially those who did not manage to fulfill their penance. In the teaching of the Fathers, as we have seen, it is clearly stated that Heaven and Hell exist, after the Second Coming of Christ, and that after the soul leaves the body, there is only a “foretaste” of Heaven and Hell. Until the Second Coming of Christ, the Church will continue to perform the memorial services, the power of which extends to all those who have fallen asleep in faith, whether they are sinners or righteous and holy. Nowhere is it mentioned that there is also a purgatory fire for the repentant Christians who have not completed their repentance.
Saint Mark says that, wherever fire is mentioned in the Holy Bible and the patristic texts, it is the eternal fire of Hell that is implied - which of course is uncreated and not a created item. In other words, it is not about something created = a certain created reality - but about an energy of God, which is experienced by the incurable ones as a burning fire.
At one point in his first homily, he asserts: “Even if there is mention of fire in those chants and prayers, it is in reference – not to any temporary one with a purgative power - but to that eternal fire and boundless Hell, from which the saints ask God to release those who had reposed in the faith...”
This fire that is referred to by the Church texts is not a temporary fire, but the eternal fire. Citing a passage by Saint Gregory the Theologian, he says: “That fire is not a temporary and passing one, but much more more painful and enduring”.
Thus, the fire of hell is not corporeal, created, but uncreated. “Light” to the worthy ones is the theoria (sight) of God, says Saint Mark. And of course, that light is the uncreated glory of God. Saint Mark also connects the uncreated light with the fire of hell. That is, he says that the eternal fire is not physical, “as it is also light, for those who are worthy of seeing Him”. Analyzing this aspect, he maintains that the saints of the Church “had allegorically perceived" the eternal fire and the endless Hell. It is an allegory, because neither is the light of the righteous a corporeal one, nor the fire of sinners a created and corporeal one. They are actual facts and true situations, but they are not situations that we are familiar with in this tangible world.
Of course, the Bible uses many images to portray the state of the condemned – such as fire, worm, reptiles and the gnashing of teeth. All these are expressions of other realities. “Fire”, according to the saints implies an ignorance of God: “...so that neither will it be thought as being physical fire, or any outer darkness, but will be nothing more than ignorance of God”. Of course, when he speaks of ignorance of God, he means non-partaking of God, given that we know that sinners will see God, that is, they will have the sight of God, but will not partake of God – hence the “ignorance”.
After all, “knowledge of God” in the Orthodox Tradition is the partaking of God. The “worm”, or some virulent and carnivorous genus of reptiles, signifies the suffering of those untouched by conscience and any bitter remorse. The “gnashing of teeth” means exactly the same; that is, it denotes the sorrow, the bitter wailing and the mania of anger tantrums.
It is clear, therefore, that where “fire” is mentioned in the ecclesiastic tradition, the eternal and uncreated fire is implied. This means it is not about any temporary purging fire, but the experiencing of God’s uncreated Grace as a burning fire, due to the uncleanliness of man. It is precisely for this reason that there cannnot be any interim purgative fire, as implied by the Latins.
In general, we can say that the teaching of Saint Mark the Noble - as observed in his homilies during the Synod of Ferrara - Florence, is integrated organically within the Tradition of the Orthodox Church on the life of man after the soul leaves the body. Saint Mark is an authentic interpreter of the Orthodox teaching, because he is himself the bearer of the Orthodox Tradition. Thus, it is proven that the purgatory fire of the Latins is a hollow glory, a novel teaching, an unprecedented doctrine which cannot be adopted by the Orthodox Church. Saint Mark is proven to be an authentic interpreter of the Orthodox Tradition on this subject also.
Article published in English on: 11-11-2023
Last update: 11-11-2023.