The Orthodox Christian understanding of heaven and “punishment” (called ‘hell’ in the west) is inextricably linked to the Biblical concept of the Uncreated Light of God. In fact, it is impossible to understand the process of salvation outside of the energy/divine light context. The Uncreated Energies or Light are understood by the Orthodox to be the Divine Uncreated Energies of God. This Energy is the "consuming fire", also called the Shkhinah Glory in Hebrew, the spiritual fire that is "like a refiners fire…refiner and purifier of silver” [Mal 3:2-3]. It is the fire that burns the weeds left in the field, the fire that burns the pruned branches, it is the Lake of Divine Fire of the Book of Revelation, and the thirst and burning that torments the Rich Man in Hades. Yet, the same fire that torments the impure gives warmth, healing, life and comfort to the pure of heart.
The tern “uncreated” was first used by St. Gregory Palamas in the 16th century in order to distinguish these energies from created energies. This concept was not new with St. Gregory, it was only a clarification that he made of what was already understood by the Orthodox. St. Gregory was engaged in debates with some Italian theologians who were advocating the Roman Catholic heresy of created “purgatorial fires” with which God “purges” imperfectly atoned Christians in the after life before they can enter heaven. Unfortunately they could not properly understand the Greek of the New Testament and the west had invented this concept to explain their misunderstanding.
The Greek word “energeia”, and it’s various forms, appears over 30 times in the New Testament, yet it is not translated as “energy” even once in most popular English translations! It is variously rendered as: operation, strong, do, in-working, effectual, be mighty in, shew forth self, and even simply dropped out of the sentence; everything except what it means. Yet, this word was well established in the Greek language in the first century. It was first known to have been used by Aristotle, some three centuries before Christ, as a noun "energy" in the metaphysical sense, and has been borrowed in recent years in English and used as an engineering term. Notice that a noun is a “thing”, yet it is typically rendered in English as a verb or an adjective, which violates basic grammar rules.
When we are fully and perfectly energized by the Divine Energies, we radiate the pure Light of God. Translating directly from the Greek, Saint Paul writes “For it is God who is energizing in you, according to His will and to energize for the sake of His being well-pleased.” (Philippians 2:13). The NKJV translates it as, "For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure". Note how much clearer the translation is when the word “energon” is translated as "energize" rather than as "works".
St. Paul further writes “[Christ] who will change the appearance of our humble bodies to take on the form of the body of His Glory, through the energization of His Power, and to put into submission all things to Him” [Philippians 3:21]. And to the Ephesians in verse 1:19-20 Paul writes “and what exceeding greatness of His power, in us who believe, through the energization of His mighty strength, energized in Christ, raising Him from the dead and seating Him in the right hand of Him in the heavens”. This energy “in us” is the same Energy that will change the bodies of the saved to be glorified resurrected bodies. It is the same Divine Energy that raised Christ from the dead. This Energy is in fact, the Grace of God. As St. Paul writes “… I became a minister according to the gift of the Grace of God given to me by the energization of His Power”. (Ephesians 3:7). The NKJV- incorrectly uses the words “effective working” for energization in this verse.
This Energy has the power to heal, as St. James writes “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. Prayers energized by a righteous one are very powerful”. [James 5:16]. The word “energized” is the correct meaning, rather then the typically “fervent” or “earnest” (both adjectives) used in most English translations. The Greek word means “given energy to” hence, ‘energize’.
Receiving this Divine Energy is the results of faith in the true God, as St. Paul says"…[you received]…according to the truth, God’s Word, which also energizes in you who believe" (1 Thess.2:13). You do not receive this Energy by works, but by faith, “[isn’t it] in vain, if the One who provides you the Spirit and the powerful Energies in you, were by works of the law, or by hearing in faith?” (Galatians 3:4,5). In fact, freedom from the law comes through the energizing of love “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any strength, but rather faith energizing through love” [Gal 5:6]. This energy is the Grace of God, in Eph 3:7 St. Paul writes “That I was made an attendant through the gift of the Grace of God, granted to me by the energization of his power”.
This same energy also restrains evil “for already the mysterious lawless one is only restrained now by His Energies, until he come out of the midst of it” [2 Thess 2:7]. So again we see that these Energies are both Grace to us, but also a restrainer of evil. Notice that in comparing all of the above verses with typical English translations, it would be difficult to discern this Biblical concept of Divine Energy. Demonstrating that the very heart of the means of salvation is simply missing from most English translations.
There are many stories, both ancient and relatively modern, that tells of saints radiating light when they pray. For example St. Mary of Egypt, St. Sava, St. Mathew of Ethiopia, and many others, all are reported to have radiated this divine light. The Light that Christ radiated on Mt. Tabor during the Transfiguration is this Uncreated Light, seen in Christ revealing his Divine Nature to his disciples. The Orthodox Hymn for this Feast Day says "inasmuch as they could bear it". The halos in icons are not rings or crowns (as often wrongly represented in western religious art) but rather a sphere of light, like the sphere of light around a candle in a dark room. This light that Christ, his mother the Theotokos, the angels and the saints are depicted as radiating in the halos shown in icons is this Uncreated Light of God. This is the Transforming Light that “makes all things new” (Rev. 21:5). The Energy is Uncreated because it existed before creation, it is the Light and Truth and Grace and Love and Life that IS God. When we have that Truth, Grace, Love and Life of God, than we become transformed, and too will radiate this Divine Light.
Salvation in Orthodox Christianity, as taught in the Holy Scriptures, begins with being forgiven, and then ultimately "getting to" heaven, but the process is much more than that. It means being healed, purified, illumined and transformed by God by His Divine Energy into a similitude of God [Jas 4:9], which will bring us into union with Him. It is the process in which humans are completed or “perfected” [see Heb 10:14 among others], “divinizing” us, making us “Christ-like” or more accurately “assimilated to God”, through the Energization of His Power. When we are in perfect harmony with God [in the Gr. “synergy”--1Cor 3:9 ‘for we are God’s synergisers’], the Holy Spirit energizes within us, transforming us, and then we too radiate this Uncreated Light. Just as the saints radiate this Light of Christ; “All our faces were unveiled, and we beheld in a mirror the same image [Gr. “ikon”], transformed by the glory into glory, the glory of the Lord” [2 Cor 3:18]. “And having put on the new, getting renewed into full knowledge, into an image [or ‘icon’] of the One that created him” [Col 3:10]. Which is why we make icons of the saints radiating this “glory of the Lord”.
Interestingly, in properly rendered icons none of the Apostles have halos until after Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out into the Church. Pentecost is when the Apostles were “assimilated” into divination (that is “made similar” to divinity), transforming them [literally in the Greek “metamorphoses”] into holy beings, into “non-earthy ones” (lit. meaning of the Greek word for “holy”), and when the Holy Church had begun. Human similitude with God was lost by Adam and Eve [see the Septuagint Gen 1:26 “in the image and similitude of God”], and only became available again to us at Pentecost.
The ancients understood that light was the purest form of energy. This is why there are so many Biblical allusions to the sun as an example of what God is. The sun was the source of “pure” light, life and heat, and this created light was likened to the Uncreated Light of God, the source of Everlasting “Zoe” and “Zesty”, spiritual “life” and “heat” or more properly “vitality”—as in energy. This is why the term “illuminated” is used to describe the saints who saw these “divinizing” Visions in Heaven. In fact, it is impossible to properly understand the role of Light in the Bible if one does not understand it from the Light-Energy Transfiguration perspective.
Yet, Saint Paul also cautions the Romans about this Energy; “…for when we were in the flesh, passionate for sins according to the law, the Energy in our members brings forth the fruit of death“ (Romans 7:5). And likewise he warns the Corinthians “For this reason it energizes death in us, though it is Life in you” (II Cor 4:12). In Hebrews 4:12 there is another sober warning “For the living Logos of God, and [the living] Energies, also sharper than a two edge sword, passing through, dividing both the soul and spirit, joints from marrow, judging the thought and intents of the heart”. In this verse, in English Bibles the word “energies” is just dropped from the text. The implication in the Greek is that the “logos” is one edge, and the “energy” is the other edge of the sword, implying that without this Energy, one is not fully armed.
When we come face to face with this powerful Uncreated Light in an impure, sinful and unregenerated condition, we cower in fear and pain, for our impurities are revealed and "burned" by this Illuminating Energy. Yet those who love God and want nothing but to be in constant communion with God, will strive towards purity and will bask in glory in this same Light. The same Energy that causes eternal death in the sinful, purifies and strengthens the faithful. A prayer of St. Simeon the Translator states: “...Thou who art a fire consuming the unworthy, consume me not, O my Creator, but rather pass through all my body parts, into all my joints, my reins, my heart. Burn Thou the thorns of all my transgressions. Cleanse my soul and hallow Thou my thoughts ...that from me… every evil deed and every passion may flee as from fire”. (The Liturgikon, Antakya Press, Prayers of Thanksgiving after Holy Communion, p.328).
In the day of Judgment, as we stand naked before God, the penetrating Divine Light of God’s Presence will open the “books”. His Light will reveal what is in these books – the books of our hearts. And it will be shown that the heart is either drawn to God or repulsed by Him, to be either in heaven or in hell. St. Symeon the New Theologian (10th century) says that it is not so much what we do but what we are that will determine our future state. He says, “In the future life the Christian is not examined if he renounced the whole world for Christ’s love, or if he has distributed his riches to the poor or if he fasted or kept vigil or prayed, or if he wept and lamented for his sins, or if he has done any other good in this life, but he is examined attentively if he has any similitude with Christ, as a son does with his father”.
St. Ignatious of Antioch, (late first and early second century) describe God as the furnace that a craftsman uses to temper a sword. When a properly prepared sword is placed within the fire, it makes it stronger and the sword takes on the properties of the fire, it gives off heat and light. However, this same fire will melt and destroy a sword that was not properly prepared. This is a metaphor of how those that desire God and His Life are energized and transformed by that Life and Light and how those that don't, experience destruction.
This Biblical concept of the Uncreated Energies of God is at the root of difference between the Eastern Orthodox and Western Christianity, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic. In the west, the mystery of the Divine Energies was abandoned because it can only be understood within the metaphysical mystiric perspective, which was rejected in the west in favor of the juridical rationalist perspective. Tragically, in the west a few centuries after the Great Schism (1054 AD) this innovation (i.e. heresy) developed as a result of an attempt to rationalize God’s purifying fires. Latin theologians surmised that God created a place called purgatory with created purging fires (as opposed to uncreated) to "purify" those that die with imperfect atonement. They further rationalized that paying indulgences could buy our loved ones out of these painful purging fires faster. This rationalization also helped keep the church prosperous and coffers full.
The western ideas had its roots in Augustinian theology (who was heavily influenced by the Greek pagan philosophers). Unfortunately Augustine could not read Greek and had to devise his own theology from imperfect Latin translations. Late in his life he recanted much of his earlier writings, an act which was ignored in the West. Thomas Aquinas, Luther and Calvin all developed their own theologies from Augustine's erroneous writings, and ignored Augustine’s later retraction. This is how the pagan notion of a God that both punishes and rewards made its way into western Christian theologies. Another major influence was the 13th century fantasy novelist Dante, who’s political satire known as the "Inferno" borrowed heavily from pagan mythology and bears little resemblance to Biblical eschatology. Some Orthodox would contend that the western view of God as He who both claims to love us, but also would condemn us to eternal punishment, is a schizophrenic view of God. It is reminiscent of the abusive groom who claims to love his bride but can not stop punishing her.
Clearly this is not the nature of a loving God, a God that pours his energizing love out on everyone unconditionally. There is no "place" of torment, or even a "place" apart from God, because there is in a sense no "place" at all in the after life; being outside of time and space. The “place” is actually a condition of either punishment – “hell” or of great joy -- paradise, depending on how one experiences the presence of God and His Uncreated Energies. This Energy is also what "separates” the saved from those that are lost. It is also what restrains evil and sin when “caught” in the Energy of God.
For a person who hates God, and has done nothing but pursued his own self-centered desires all his life, it would be far more terrifying and painful to spend eternity in the fiery embrace of God’s almighty and Divine Love with no escape, than it would be to be far from Him in a place where He is not present (which is not possible). For there is nothing that can separate us from the Love of God even if we wanted it! “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” [Romans 8:39]
This is why Christianity is the religion of Love. Experiencing God’s loving Presence and His in-filling transforming Energies in glory or in torment, as Paradise or as punishment, is the Heaven and “hell” of the Bible.