The Salvation of All

Icon of the Last Judgment

A friend recently weighed in on a theological question that made the New York Times. One should always be suspicious when newspapers start talking about theology, because, well, newspapers seldom know anything about it.

The piece of theology essentially goes this way: There really is no hell, and God is too loving to send anyone there. How could God possibly be so cruel to damn people to hell who accidentally happen not to believe in Jesus, maybe because they never even heard of Him? (Gandhi is of course the poster boy for the heaven-deserving non-Christian.) Or what about those who simply messed up? “…can a loving God really be so wrathful toward people who faltered, or never were exposed to Jesus?” The question, of course, assumes a certain answer—namely, that God will cut everyone a break, because He’s nice, and so everyone gets saved, no matter what. There are various names for this. Universalism is the most common, and it is really beyond me why this is making news today.

The NYT defines the opposition to universalism as “traditionalist.” And those who embrace it are “liberals.” Those labels alone should let you know that the NYT doesn’t know what it’s talking about here.

After all, is someone like St. Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th century Orthodox saint, a “liberal” because he taught apokatastasis (the “recapitulation” of all things in Christ)? And is someone a “traditionalist” who insists that there will, like the Bible quite frankly says, actually be ramifications for how we lived in this life, for what we did with the light we were given? These labels make no sense, and they reveal rather the narrow theological lens through which this question is being framed, namely, a particular corner of Western Christian soteriology, mainly Protestant.

I have long believed that the God Who punishes people because they made Him mad is the God Whom atheists do not believe in. It seems some Christians don’t believe in Him, either. This is no surprise, and it’s a question that is many centuries older than these corners of Evangelical theology (and their recent occasional forays into liberal Protestantism) actually reveal. It’s not as if every “traditional” Christian for twenty centuries has believed in a God Who zaps the unrighteous and the ignorant, and now suddenly, we have this idea that perhaps God might love someone, might even be merciful(!).

Even though this question is really not a major one in Orthodox Christian circles, and even though it would be tempting to be triumphalistic about this (we’ve always believed in God’s mercy, you see), there have nonetheless been attempts to address this perennially Western theological question, such as Alexander Kalomiros’s “The River of Fire.” Yet Kalomiros really goes too far when he would seek to eliminate all language of God’s “wrath” or “punishment” from Christian vocabulary. (The best take I’ve yet read specifically on the question of apokatastasis is Metr. Kallistos Ware’s essay “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?”)

Let’s face it: It’s in there. Now, I suppose if you’d like to chuck the entire Bible and the whole Christian tradition, you can come up with something else. But then, let’s face it: You’re not really a Christian, then, are you? Christianity is a revealed religion, not something some smart people made up to enslave millions and which us modern enlightened folks can just revise in order to enslave a few more millions (or maybe just get their money).

So what is one to do with all that embarrassing hell-talk in the Bible and in what really is “traditional” Christianity? For one thing, let us not assume that we have to look at the question of salvation in purely penal/legalistic terms. Yes, that language is in the Scripture, too, but so is a lot of other stuff about healing and mercy. And let’s not forget glory.

I really think glory is the key question here. The afterlife—heaven, hell, whatever—is fundamentally about apokalypsis, the “pulling away of the veil.” On the other side of death, we will experience the glory of God. There are a lot of ways of describing that experience, depending on the capacity with which we receive it. But whatever we bring to that experience, we know that it will be essentially unmitigated. God’s glory will be revealed to all of us to the extent that we are able to receive it without being annihilated in the process.

For some, that revelation will be pretty freakin’ awesome. For others, it will be pretty horrible. Why? Because one does not step into outer space without a spacesuit. Because one does not jump off a building without wings. Because one does not dive into the ocean without SCUBA gear. Whatever metaphor you want to use, the truth is that coming face to face with God is going to require some preparation, because we’re broken.

Now, God wants to fix that brokenness. He wants to provide the spacesuit, wings, SCUBA gear, etc., that will enable us to enter into the greatest of all adventures, beyond the most fantastic dreams of the human race.

But God is too loving ever to force those things onto us.

That’s really the crux of this matter. Ironically, the “liberals” seem to believe that they’re preaching a God Who loves people too much to allow them to experience His glory as pain and suffering. But what they really want is a God Who will override the human will. They want a God Who will make you love Him, Who will make you be in communion with Him.

But that’s not love, folks. Love sets you free. Love takes the risk. Love always gives freedom and never forces anything out of the beloved, even if it means losing the beloved. God loves us all too much not to let us fail.

But let us be clear about what failure is. It is not simply accidentally never having heard of Jesus. I’m sorry, but that’s really too arbitrary a criterion to be taken seriously. (If you want to dance with Calvin, then go ahead, I suppose. God damns certain people, maybe by never sending them a missionary, whether they like it or not. That being the case, let’s stay home on Sunday and watch football instead. Really.) Failure is also not a matter of having slipped up, having “faltered” and committed a sin. Sin does not keep one out of that awesome experience of glory. (If it did, again… football!)

Failure is to choose darkness over light, again and again. Those who sit in darkness are given many, many chances of emerging into the light, so many that, by the time they cross over to the other side, it’s really clear that that’s what they prefer. They prefer pride over humility. They prefer indulgence over abstinence. They prefer the self over the selfless. This is not “faltering.” It’s our criminal justice system that beats you up when you falter. You can make one mistake and get sent to prison for years for it.

But God is not our kind of judge. He’s the kind that looks at a whole life and discerns what that person really wants, and then He gives it to them. All will be resurrected, and all will get what they really want. Some want communion, and they’ll get it. Others want self-sufficiency, and they’ll get that. Both will receive the natural consequences of going into the afterlife with those sets of equipment. God gives mercy to all, but He forces it on none.

So, yes, as my friend quoted from that song, it really is all about mercy. God loves you too much to make you love Him. But He is also a consuming fire. So let’s make sure we’re ready for the flame, shall we?


  1. Well said, Fr. Andrew. There was only a minor quibble I had:

    “Ironically, the ‘liberals’ seem to believe that they’re preaching a God Who loves people too much to allow them to experience His glory as pain and suffering. But what they really want is a God Who will override the human will. They want a God Who will make you love Him, Who will make you be in communion with Him.”

    I’m not sure where you get this from, though. At least, I don’t know any of these “liberals” myself. I’d wager that, as a group, they think as I do: that we all have a choice to move towards God or away from God, and we make that choice every moment of our lives. Of course, as a Methodist, I believe in prevenient grace as a bootstrap with which we pull ourselves up by, but after that, you’re free to choose.

    Also: a note on that song, “Mercy”: I have always loved that song, even though it is a bit naive. I mainly like the last stanza (“wishes and wants fall from my pocket, &c”).

    Someday all too soon we shall both Know the final answer.

    1. I didn’t get it from anywhere, but I believe it’s the only possible conclusion, given the universalist position. That is, human free will must become inoperative in order for God to save everyone. Because salvation is precisely communion with God, then those who do not wish that communion will have to have their wills overridden in order to receive it.

      Calling that “liberal” is the NYT’s choice. I think liberal is a pretty useless term in theology. Better to map out what the doctrines actually are.

      I’m not sure where Methodism really is theologically these days. The UMC, at least, has its union founded precisely on doctrinal pluralism, so I’m not sure that one really can pin down a Methodist position.

      Now, Methodist founders John and Charles Wesley were very interesting, theologically, and in many ways quite close to Orthodoxy. They certainly shared a love for the Church Fathers. There are actually some books out comparing Wesleyan theology to Orthodoxy:

  2. Fr. Andrew,

    Just a question, what do you think of Vladimir Moss’ works in general? He seems to support many of the ideas that I was told Orthodoxy does not endorse, i.e., we are legally guilty for the sin of Adam and Eve

  3. Fr. Andrew,

    Thank you for an excellent article on the problem of universalism. I am Anglican, and I thought the metaphors of the space suit, wings, and SCUBA gear were very helpful. I especially appreciate the perspective that every human being is going to experience God’s glory, whether as glorious bliss for those who choose to be prepared by God through Christ, or as pain and suffering for those who choose repeatedly to reject the light God has offered them through Christ in this life. This is a brilliant perspective, in my opinion, on how the glory of God remains unchanging, while our human response will ultimately decide how how each of us experiences His glory in the next life.

    Do any of the Early Fathers present this perspective that you know of? Or do any Eastern Orthodox theologians, besides yourself? I’m told by Orthodox friends that St. Athanasius, St. Basil the Great, and St. Maximus the Confessor did address this issue. Are their writings a good place to look into?

    Thank you!

    1. I don’t know of any specific citations off-hand. Really, though, this is just simply another way of referring to the “fire” imagery for God that is found in the Scriptures. Fire both purifies and burns, depending on what it contacts.

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