The Hell of Being Unseen
“Walking in the desert one day I found the skull of a dead man lying on the ground. As I was moving it with my stick, the skull spoke to me. I said to it, ‘Who are you? ‘ The skull replied, ‘I was a high priest of the idols and of the pagans who dwelt in this place; but you are Macarius, the Spirit-hearer. Whenever you take pity on those who are in torment, and pray for them, they feel a little respite.’ The old man said to him, ‘What is this alleviation, and what is this torment?’ He said to him, ‘As far as the sky is removed from the earth, so great is the fire beneath us; we are ourselves standing in the midst of fire, from feet up to the head. It is not possible to see anyone face to face, but the face of one is fixed to the back of another. Yet, when you pray for us, each of us can see the other’s face a little. Such is our respite.1”
“Hell is not other people; hell is myself, cut off from others in self-centeredness.2”
Hell is a faceless torment. It is absence of countenance. It is the inability to see others and to perceive oneself in relation to them. It is the absence of personhood. It is the complete nonexistence of hypostatic delineation. Hell is the consequence of fabricating a bulwark around one’s own ego. It is the byproduct of the demeanor of pride that is gradually allowed to encrust the heart. It is the finality of the turning of one’s own disposition away from loving communion. It is the repudiation of finding value in the otherness of God and our neighbor.
As such, hell is not a location that God creates for us (or, will create for us). It is the condition that we create within ourselves.
Hellfire is not a flame which burns the skin. It is the wildfire of prideful isolation which torments the soul.
Hell is the loss of selfhood. In the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus3, Lazarus is known by his name whereas the rich man’s identity is ambiguous. The rich man has sunk himself into a faceless anonymity. He has no personal demarcation of being about him. He is only known by descriptors, not by a name which specifies his uniqueness. The same is true in the story about Macarius as well. Macarius is known by his name. His specificity is articulated. The skull which was once a man, however, is nameless just like the rich man. He is only known by descriptors. His essence is described by adjectives. He has attributes, but no title. He was a high priest of a pagan idolatrous religion. This is how he describes himself to Macarius.
Notice as well that Macarius asked him, “Who are you?” However, the skull did not answer the question directly. He couldn’t reveal his name, only his pagan lifestyle. The skull was not able to articulate his essence. He was not able to provide a name which would specify his being. The skull, like the rich man, had slipped into obscurity. In speaking of hell, Dumitru Staniloae articulates a position held by Pavel Florensky that describes both the skull and the rich man quite well, “by closing in on himself, man is altered to such an extent that he is no longer an objective reality for others.4”
Hell is an impersonal reality. What Eastern pantheistic religions view as heaven, we Christians view as hell. Their notions of “heaven” are faceless and devoid of all personal uniqueness. They treasure and seek after the hell which Macarius’ skull loathes and seeks alleviation from. In a state where I become emptied of the essence of me, and all of my particularity is stripped of me, I cease being an objective reality. There is no value in anything I am or anything I ever was. All is lost. My personal particularity was of no consequence. The stripping of selfhood and the blurring together of all things in nirvana (or other salvific notions akin to it) is the ultimate tragedy, not the ultimate eschatological goal. Being personally forgotten is the not the equivalent of heaven. It is the essence of hell.
Deep down, we know this to be true. Being forgotten, being unseen, is an utterly disparaging feeling. It is the feeling that we get whenever we are in a room full of people and no one takes the time to acknowledge or converse with us. It is the mood which sets upon us whenever we are listening to someone who constantly drones on and on while never noticing our needs or feelings. It is the numbness which accompanies being neglected and mistreated by the ones who should love us the most. We inevitably feel as though we have done something to deserve our invisibility. In these moments we feel the hell of isolationism taunting our souls. We feel discarded and alone. We sense that we have entered somehow into the realm of the forgotten. We feel as though our personal significance has been stripped of us. In moments like these, in such relationships and circumstances, we feel as though our faces are concealed. In these moments we find ourselves longing for the respite which Macarius’s skull describes. We want someone to simply remember us. We want to be able to turn and see others face-to-face and have them see us for who we truly are. We desire to escape the faceless hell of such situations.
There is a story that I heard once. I believe it was about C.S. Lewis. A few folks were debating about what it is that distinguishes Christianity from other religions. Lewis came in, heard the question, and responded with, “That is easy. It is grace.”
It is agreeable that grace is quite central to the Christian faith. However, one can argue that other religions also embody and articulate dynamics of grace in various ways as well. Christianity has its own unique understanding of grace but it certainly isn’t the only religion to claim to offer grace to the world. While there are probably numerous ways to answer the debaters question, one of the best answers would have to be, “That is easy. It is personhood.”
God has revealed his “hypostatic principle” (as Elder Sophrony called it5) to us in his Name, “I am.” God is not just an impersonal essence, an unconscious substance. He is not a spirit devoid of personality. He is not just an existence, but a personal existence. Moreover, he is the God of personal relationship. He is the God of Abraham, of Isaace, of Jacob. He seeks relationship. He seeks interaction. Moses spoke to him as “one who speaks to a friend face to face.” The Church recognizes the “glory of God in the face of Christ.” The throne is hovered over by seraphim who sing of God’s holiness while constantly fixating upon his countenance with bodies covered in eyes. The eucharist is not just the eucharist for us; it is also communion. In the end, God will acknowledge and touch our faces as he wipes every tear from our eyes.
God values the personhood of human beings because he is, himself, the personal being after whose image we are made. We are not destined to be mere biology, devoid of entity. We are not just a human nature. We are meant to personalize our human nature. We are meant to embody our creaturely substance with our own distinctive personalness. In our relationship with God who is distinctively himself, God shapes us distinctively into ourselves. Salvation is not about our selfhood being discarded into the background. It is about selfhood being pulled to the forefront of God’s remembrance. God remembers his children:
But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
the Lord has forgotten me.”
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget, I will not forget you!6”
Christianity is about escaping the hell of isolationism, the agony of being entrapped by our egos. Christianity is about waking to a communal reality, receiving and taking on the way of the Triune God. It is about escaping facelessness and finding eternal countenance in both God and our neighbor. It is about seeing God for who he is and seeing others for who they are. It is about finding being in communion. The members of the Trinity live in constant communion with one another. Their being exists in one another. This is why, “it is not good for man to be alone.” For, God exists as communion. Man cannot bear God’s relational image if he is left to himself. Christianity is about escaping the “not goodness” of man’s loneliness and receiving the “very goodness” of camaraderie and genuine love. It is about, by God’s abundant grace, breaking out of the hell that is myself in isolation. It is about finding heaven in the countenance of Christ and the faces of the communion of saints.
- I do not recall where I got this version of the story. Another version, just worded slightly differently, can be found on this page. https://oca.org/saints/lives/2012/01/19/100226-venerable-macarius-the-great-of-egypt
- Ware, Kallistos. The Orthodox Way. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 1979.
- Staniloae, Dumitru. Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, Volume 6: The Fulfillment of Creation. Brookline:Holy Cross Orthodox Press. 2013.