In the Old Testament, there are references to Paradise and then to Sheol or Gehenna. The Old Testament word uses the term Gehenna when referring to that place of suffering. The term comes from that place outside the city walls in times past. This is where all of the trash was taken to be burned. It refers to a place where there is constant fires and horrible stench.
Sheol or Hades refers to the lower parts of the earth where the people are removed from the light of God. Before Christ, there was no other alternative; people were still outside of that perfect union with God. This union is what the righteous spend their life trying to achieve. When we die we believe that we will begin foretasting of our ultimate state of being. Some teachers are looser than others with their terminology, but the intermediate states are usually referred to as Paradise and Hades.
Paradise is also sometimes referred to as Abraham’s bosom, consistent with the Lord’s parable of the “Rich Man and Lazarus.” It is believed that souls are still in existence during this intermediate state between death and the Final Judgment of Christ. There are several biblical references to this belief including Jairus’ daughter, Lazarus, Elijah’s prayer for the boy, and the like. In Genesis, when discussing the death of Abraham, “Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people.” (Gen 25:8). The other two obvious references are the Transfiguration when Elijah and Moses are present, and of course, Christ himself tells the thief, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
References to Heaven and Hell are usually used for the ultimate state of existence after Christ returns in His glory for the final judgment. It is at this time when everything will be restored. The divine love of God will shine everywhere. “The Kingdom of God is not a world-ruling created reality, but the vision of the uncreated Light…the Kingdom of God is participation in the glory of God.” (Vlachos, Life After Death, p.350). It represents a renewal of all creation, where everything is restored and man is liberated from living in a sinful state with death. And as St. Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” (2 Cor 5:17) The whole of created order will be renewed—a noetic paradise and heavenly Jerusalem.
*Important to note is that all of creation was affected by the fall. The Genesis story gives very little information about what life was like before the fall. But, after the fall, our work in the world was a toiling of pain. Women suffer pain in childbearing as a result. When we plant and till the ground, it fights us and makes our hands bleed and callous. “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.” (Romans 5:12)
The whole created order will be renewed when Christ comes back in His glory. We also believe that we will continue in our growth, in our divine development. Eternal life does not stand still, but is in continual movement. We will never be perfect, but will continue to become ‘more perfect’ (Life After Death, pp. 326-330).
Fr. Pulcini explaining the teaching of the Fathers on the subject during a weekend institute says that “each man’s conscience will judge himself.” Hell is the divine love of God “searing the conscience” of the sinner. (Lecture 4). When a man realizes that God has given completely of himself and the man rejected the love of God, his conscience condemns him. There is no place where the light and love of God do not shine. This love is all consuming and inescapable. This person also has eternal life, but he is ablaze with the divine energy of God. Each state is the result of man’s free will. (Life After Death, p. 313)
Their moment of clarity occurs when they are in Sheol, where all those who have rejected God experience the overwhelming love of God. There is no escape, because there is no place where the love of God does not shine.
The conscience examines itself through its own self examination. It is experiencing a foretaste of the remorse of what is to come. The conscience is the judge of the person when it enters into self reflection. “All men stand condemned, not by some alien code of ethics, but by their own, and all men therefore are conscious of guilt” (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, pp. 22-22). The repentant experience an excited expectation like a child does when awaiting Christmas morning. This is the foretaste to come, which will be fully experienced on the last day when Christ restores all things.
The Kingdom of God is the radiant love of God for eternity. Metropolitan Hierotheos says that the mansions that Jesus speaks of are the measure of the love and vision of the radiant love of God in His Son through the Holy Spirit. St. Isaac the Syrian tells us that “Paradise is the love of God, wherein is the enjoyment of all blessedness.” But also, “those who are punished in Genenna are scourged by the scourge of love. Nay, what is so bitter and vehement as the torment of love?” (quoted in Life After Death, pp. 254-255). St. Basil adds by comparing this to the three youths in the fiery furnace. The fire consumed those who were unworthy, while the three continued to pray with joy at the presence of God. Paradise is not an emotion of sorts, but an experience of the uncreated grace of God.
We understand Heaven and Hell as states of man in the age to come. They are like two sides of the same coin. Every person will experience the power and energy of God. Our job as Christians is to purify ourselves and to be illuminated. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt 5:8). In his discussion on the subject, Metropolitan Vlachos gives a few main points: Heaven and Hell are energy of uncreated light of God; people have different experiences depending on their level of relationship with God; the deepest work of the Church is to cure man by helping him to purify the nous and heart; we should not be unguided in our curiosity of the end times; Hell is not absence of God—it is the way that certain persons will experience His love. This will be determined by how the person experiences Him now, while he is in this life.