The River of God
Photo credit: Jack Brauer
There’s a river flowing through the Scriptures. Ezekiel saw it welling up under the temple of God.
Then he brought me back to the door of the temple; and there was water, flowing from under the threshold of the temple toward the east, for the front of the temple faced east; the water was flowing from under the right side of the temple, south of the altar. He said to me, “Son of man, have you seen this?” Then he brought me and returned me to the bank of the river. When I returned, there, along the bank of the river, were very many trees on one side and the other. And it shall be that every living thing that moves, wherever the rivers go, will live. Along the bank of the river, on this side and that, will grow all kinds of trees used for food; their leaves will not wither, and their fruit will not fail. They will bear fruit every month, because their water flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for medicine.” (Ezekiel 47:1-12, condensed)
Zechariah saw the river flowing on earth at Christ’s coming.
And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the east. And the Mount of Olives shall be split in two, from east to west, making a very large valley; half of the mountain shall move toward the north and half of it toward the south. And in that day it shall be that living waters shall flow from Jerusalem, half of them toward the eastern sea and half of them toward the western sea; in both summer and winter it shall occur. (Zechariah 14:4,8,12-14)
John saw the same river at the end of time flowing from the throne of God.
And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1,2)
God Himself is the fountain of living waters.
“For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn themselves cisterns — broken cisterns that can hold no water. Those who depart from Me Shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the LORD, The fountain of living waters. (Jeremiah 2:13)
God indwells the Christian and the river of life is to flow from His sanctified people, the Church.
Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” The woman said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep. Where then do You get that living water?” … Jesus answered and said to her, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:10ff)
“He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive. (John 7:38,39a)
On the Judgment Day, John saw the waters as a sea.
Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne. And He who sat there was like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white robes; and they had crowns of gold on their heads. And from the throne proceeded lightnings, thunderings, and voices. Seven lamps of fire were burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. Before the throne there was a sea of glass, like crystal. (Rev 4:2-6a)
Daniel, seeing the same vision, described it quite differently. Until now the running river or calm, glassy sea has been described as life and healing. Now it’s a river of fire:
I watched till thrones were put in place, and the Ancient of Days was seated; His garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head was like pure wool. His throne was a fiery flame, its wheels a burning fire; a fiery stream issued and came forth from before Him. A thousand thousands ministered to Him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him. The court was seated, and the books were opened. I watched then because of the sound of the pompous words which the horn was speaking; I watched till the beast was slain, and its body destroyed and given to the burning flame. (Daniel 7:9,10)
It’s the same river.
And I saw something like a sea of glass mingled with fire, and those who have the victory over the beast, over his image and over his mark and over the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass, having harps of God. (Revelation 15:2)
John also saw this sea as fire:
Then the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who worked signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image. These two were cast alive into the lake of fire burning with brimstone. (Revelation 19:20)
And fire came down from God out of heaven and devoured them. The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:9b-15)
In Zechariah’s vision, at the return of Christ the river flows on earth and judgment begins. Again, the flowing of the waters is associated with judgment on the wicked.
And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the east. And the Mount of Olives shall be split in two, from east to west, making a very large valley; half of the mountain shall move toward the north and half of it toward the south. And in that day it shall be that living waters shall flow from Jerusalem, half of them toward the eastern sea and half of them toward the western sea; in both summer and winter it shall occur. And this shall be the plague with which the LORD will strike all the people who fought against Jerusalem: Their flesh shall dissolve while they stand on their feet, their eyes shall dissolve in their sockets, and their tongues shall dissolve in their mouths. It shall come to pass in that day that a great panic from the LORD will be among them. Everyone will seize the hand of his neighbor, and raise his hand against his neighbor’s hand. (Zechariah 14:4,8,12-14)
God does not change but we are all different. The experience of His presence is life and health and peace to some; and to others it is destruction and torment.
This is consistent with the God Who is called both the fountain of living waters, and also fire.
For the LORD your God is a consuming fire. (Deuteronomy 4:24, Hebrews 12:29)
David twice answers the question of who may abide in the presence of the God, the Consuming Fire:
LORD, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill? He who walks uprightly, and works righteousness, and speaks the truth in his heart; he who does not backbite with his tongue, nor does evil to his neighbor, nor does he take up a reproach against his friend. (Psalm 15:1-3)
Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? Or who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to an idol, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive blessing from the LORD, and righteousness from the God of his salvation. (Psalm 24:3,4)
In Isaiah’s vision the same answer is received – but to a very different question!
The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness has seized the hypocrites: “Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?” He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, he who despises the gain of oppressions, who gestures with his hands, refusing bribes, who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed, and shuts his eyes from seeing evil: He will dwell on high; his place of defense will be the fortress of rocks; bread will be given him, his water will be sure. Your eyes will see the King in His beauty; they will see the land that is very far off… But there the majestic LORD will be for us A place of broad rivers and streams (Isaiah 33:14ff)
It is the righteous who can dwell in the devouring fire with everlasting burnings.
Ezekiel’s lament for the “King of Tyre” (Satan in metaphor) refers to the place from which he was cast out as “the midst of the stones of fire.”
You were the anointed cherub who covers; I established you; you were on the holy mountain of God; you walked back and forth in the midst of stones of fire. You were perfect in your ways from the day you were created, till iniquity was found in you. By the abundance of your trading you became filled with violence within, and you sinned; therefore I cast you as a profane thing out of the mountain of God; and I destroyed you, O covering cherub, from the midst of the fiery stones. (Ezekiel 28:14-16)
It seems heaven and hell – paradise and destruction – are described in nearly identical terms.
If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there… Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, but the night shines as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike. (Psalm 139:8,12)
In the furnace, the three youths and the guards were exposed to the exact same conditions.
And they walked in the midst of the fire, praising God, and blessing the Lord… But the angel of the Lord came down into the oven together with Azarias [Daniel] and his fellows, and struck the flame of the fire out of the oven. And he made the midst of the furnace as it were a moist, blowing wind, so that the fire touched them not at all, neither hurt nor troubled them. (Song of the Three v.1,26-27)
To the guards it was destruction, while to Daniel and his companions the flames were dew and a refreshing breeze. What makes the difference in whether the experience of God’s presence is delight or torment? God is one, and does not change; it’s we that make ourselves enemies of God, or – by the action of grace – are transformed into His likeness. It is we that are conformed to love, poured out in compassion and service to all; or who turn all our love inward, to serve our own ego, compulsion, appetites and obsessions, and risk becoming unable to respond to love and mercy when we meet them in Person.
The Fathers on Hell:
St Isaac of Syria:
I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna, are scourged by the scourge of love. Nay, what is so bitter and vehement as the torment of love? …It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of God… The power of love works in two ways: it torments sinners… Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret. But love inebriates the souls of the sons of Heaven by its delectability. (Ascetical Homilies 28, Page 141)
St Basil the Great:
‘The voice of the Lord divides the flame of fire.’ [David] says that this miracle happened to the Three Children in the fiery furnace. The fire in this case was divided into two, so that while it was burning those outside it, it was cooling the Children, as if they were under the shadow of a tree. In what follows he observes that the fire which had been prepared by God for the devil and his angels ‘is cut by the voice of the Lord.’ Fire has two properties, the burning and the illuminating energies, and that is why it burns and sheds light. Thus those suited to the fire will feel its burning quality and those suited to the light will feel the illuminating property of the fire. Therefore he finishes very expressively: ‘the voice of the Lord divides the flames of fire’ and in the dividing, the fire of hell is without light, and the light of peace remains unburnt. (On Psalm 28, PG 29:297A)
St Gregory Nazianzen:
Receive besides this the Resurrection, the Judgment and the Reward according to the righteous scales of God; and believe that this will be Light to those whose mind is purified (that is, God — seen and known) proportionate to their degree of purity, which we call the Kingdom of heaven; but to those who suffer from blindness of their ruling faculty, darkness, that is estrangement from God, proportionate to their blindness here. (Oration (40) on Holy Baptism 45, NPNF II 7:377)
St Gregory Nazianzen:
Wherefore we must purify ourselves first, and then approach this converse with the Pure; unless we would have the same experience as Israel, who could not endure the glory of the face of Moses, and therefore asked for a veil; or else would feel and say with Manoah “We are undone O wife, we have seen God,” although it was God only in his fancy; or like Peter would send Jesus out of the boat, as being ourselves unworthy of such a visit; and when I say Peter, I am speaking of the man who walked upon the waves; or like Paul would be stricken in eyes, as he was before he was cleansed from the guilt of his persecution, when he conversed with Him Whom he was persecuting–or rather with a short flash of That great Light; or like the Centurion would seek for healing, but would not, through a praiseworthy fear, receive the Healer into his house. Let each one of us also speak so, as long as he is still uncleansed, and is a Centurion still, commanding many in wickedness, and serving in the army of Caesar, the World-ruler of those who are being dragged down; “I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof.” But when he shall have looked upon Jesus, though he be little of stature like Zaccheus of old, and climb up on the top of the sycamore tree by mortifying his members which are upon the earth, and having risen above the body of humiliation, then he shall receive the Word, and it shall be said to him, This day is salvation come to this house. Then let him lay hold on the salvation, and bring forth fruit more perfectly, scattering and pouring forth rightly that which as a publican he wrongly gathered. For the same Word is on the one hand terrible through its nature to those who are unworthy, and on the other through its loving kindness can be received by those who are thus prepared, who have driven out the unclean and worldly spirit from their souls, and have swept and adorned their own souls by self-examination, and have not left them idle or without employment, so as again to be occupied with greater armament by the seven spirits of wickedness…” (Oration (39) on the Holy Lights 9-10, NPNF II 354-355)
St Gregory Nazianzen:
O Trinity, Whom I have been granted to worship and proclaim, Who will someday be known to all, to some through illumination, to others through punishment!” (On Peace 3, PG 35:1165B)
St Gregory Palamas:
He says: ‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire’, that is to say, with illumination and punishment, according to the disposition of each. (Homily 59, EPE 11, Page 498)
St Raphael of Optina:
The Kingdom of God begins here on earth, just as hell does – within us, that is, in the heart and soul of a man, by his way of life. Beyond the threshold of eternity both the one and the other only grow, infinitely, unto likeness to the angels or to the devils.
St John Climacus:
It is one thing frequently to keep watch over the heart, and another to supervise the heart by means of the mind, that ruler and high-priest that offers spiritual sacrifices to Christ. When the holy and super-celestial fire comes to dwell in the souls of the former, as says one of those who have received the title of Theologian, it burns them because they still lack purification, whereas it enlightens the latter according to the degree of their perfection. For one and the same fire is called both the fire which consumes and the light which illuminates.” (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 28:51)
St Theophan the Recluse:
The righteous will go into eternal life, but the satanized sinners into eternal torments, in communion with demons. Will these torments end? If satanism and becoming like satan should end, then the torments also can end…there is no hope either for men who become satanized by his influence [to change]. (quoted in Father Michael Pomazansky, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, page 351)
St. Makarios of Egypt:
The heavenly fire of the divine nature, which Christians receive in this world, where it works within their hearts, this fire will work from outside, when the body is destroyed; it will restore again the disjointed limbs, and will bring to life the bodies which have decayed… (Spiritual Homilies 11:1, PG 34:544)
St Isaac of Syria:
Sin, Gehenna, and Death do not exist at all with God, for they are effects, not substances. Sin is the fruit of free will. There was a time when sin did not exist, and there will be a time when it will not exist. Gehenna is the fruit of sin… (Ascetical Homilies 27, Page 133)
St Isaac of Syria:
This is the aim of Love. Love’s chastisement is for correction, but it does not aim at retribution…But the man who considers God an avenger, presuming that he bears witness to His justice, the same accuses Him of being bereft of goodness. Far be it, that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness! The aim of His design is the correction of men.” (Ascetical Homilies 48, Page 230)
St Isaac of Syria:
Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good’, He says ‘to the evil and to the impious.’ How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers?…How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth?…Where, then, is God’s justice, for while we are sinners Christ died for us!” (Ascetical Homilies 51, Page 251)
Vladimir Lossky on St Symeon the new Theologian:
For according to St. Symeon, there are two judgments: one, in this life, the judgment to salvation; the other, after the end of the world, the judgment to condemnation ‘In this present life, when by repentance, we enter freely and of our own will into the divine light, we find ourselves accused and under judgment; but, owing to the divine love and compassion the accusation and judgment is made in secret, in the depths of our soul, to purify us, that we may receive the pardon of our sins. It is only God and ourselves who at that time will see the hidden depths of our hearts. Those who in this life undergo such a judgment will have nothing to fear from another tribunal. But for those who will not, in this life, enter into the light, that they may be accused and judged, for those who hate the light, the second coming of Christ will disclose the light which at present remains hidden, and will make manifest everything which has been concealed. Everything which today we hide, not wishing to reveal the depths of our hearts in repentance, will then be made open in the light, before the face of God; and the whole world, and what we really are will be made plain.’ At the second coming of Christ, all will be made fully conscious, in the power of the divine light. But this consciousness will not be one which opens up freely in grace, according to the divine will; it will be a consciousness coming, so to speak, from outside, and developing in persons against their will, a light being united to beings extraneously, that is to say, ‘outside grace,’ as St. Maximus has it. The love of God will be an intolerable torment for those who have not acquired it within themselves…The resurrection itself will reveal the inner condition of beings, as bodies will allow the secrets of the soul to shine through.” (Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Pages 233-234)
St Maximos the Confessor:
God , it is said, is the Sun of righteousness (cf. Mal. 4:2), and the rays of His supernal goodness shine down on all men alike. The soul is wax if it cleaves to God, but clay if it cleaves to matter. Which it does depends upon its own will and purpose. Clay hardens in the sun, while wax grows soft. Similarly, every soul that, despite God’s admonitions, deliberately cleaves to the material world, hardens like clay and drives itself to destruction, just as Pharaoh did (cf. Exod. 7:13). But every soul that cleaves to God is softened like wax and, receiving the impress and stamp of divine realities, it becomes “in spirit the dwelling-place of God” (Eph. 2:22). (First Century on Theology)
The wrath of God is the painful sensation we experience when we are being trained by Him. (Philokalia, Vol. II, p. 211)
Only through repentance shall we receive God’s mercy, and not its opposite, His anger. Not that God is angry with us: He is angry with evil. Indeed, the divine is beyond passion and vengefulness, though we speak of it as reflecting, like a mirror, our actions and dispositions, giving to each of us whatever we deserve. (Philokalia, Vol. II, p. 370)