Because sometimes the people of God need a basic lesson in the nature of existence…
On one of the roads leading into my small city a billboard has recently appeared. It is part of a larger campaign by a nationally known evangelist who is to have a revival in Knoxville. The sign is simple. In very large bright yellow letters (all caps), the sign says: HELL IS REAL. In small letters beneath it, in white, that can be read as your car nears the sign is the statement: so is heaven. Like the small bulletin boards outside of many Southern churches, this sign belongs to a part of our culture that has been with us a long time. But everytime I see this sign, my mind turns to the subject of ontology (the study of the nature of being). Thus I offer today some very basic thoughts on the subject of being – a classical part of Christian theology.
The first thing I will note is that you cannot say Hell is real and Heaven is real and the word real mean the same thing in both sentences. Whatever the reality of Heaven, Hell does not have such reality. Whatever the reality of Hell, Heaven is far beyond such reality.
St. Athanasius in his De Incarnatione, sees sin (and thus hell) as a movement towards “non-being.” The created universe was made out of nothing – thus as it moves away from God it is moving away from the gift of existence and towards its original state – non-existence. God is good, and does not begrudge existence to anything, thus the most creation can do is move towards non-being.
I’m certain that the intent of the billboard was to suggest that hell is not imaginary or just a folk-tale. It is certainly neither of those things. But in Orthodox spiritual terms I would say that hell is a massive state of delusion, maybe the ultimate state of delusion. It is delusional in the sense that (in Orthodox understanding) the “fire” of hell is not a material fire, but itself nothing other than the fire of the Living God (Hebrews 12:29). For those who love God, His fire is light and life, purification and all good things. For those who hate God, His fire is torment, though it be love.
And these are not simply picky issues about the afterlife – they are very germane issues for the present life. Christ Himself gave this “definition” of hell: “And this is condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).
It is of critical importance for us to understand that being, reality, life, goodness, beauty, happiness, truth are all synonymous with reality as it is gifted to us by God. Many things that we experience in our currently damaged condition (I speak of our fallen state) which we describe with words such as “being, reality, life, goodness, beauty, happiness, truth, etc.”, are, in fact, only relatively so and are only so inasmuch as they have a participation or a relationship with the fullness of being, reality, life, etc.
Tragically in our world, many live in some state of delusion (even most of us live in some state of delusion). Christ said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” We are not pure in heart, and thus we do not see God, nor do we see anything in the fullness of its truth. Our delusion makes many mistakes about reality. The most serious delusion is that described by Christ, when we prefer darkness to light because our deeds are evil.
I have in my own life known what moments in such darkness are like – and I have seen such darkness in the hearts and lives of others many times. The whole of our ministry and life as Christians is to move from such darkness and into the light of Christ. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship (communion) one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1John 1:7)
Is hell real? Only for those who prefer to see the Light of God as darkness.
Is heaven real? Yes, indeed, and everything else is only real as it relates to that reality. God give us grace to walk in the Light.
End of the ontology lesson.
Someone once told me that Hell is real and not only that, I could go there! 😛
What a beautiful leson that was! Thank you Father – asking for your blessing!
well,leonard, I can’t imagine why the thought gives you a ‘happy face’; it scares the (well, you guessed it) out of me.
I recently watched the Hellbound documentary created by Kevin Miller and have also been reviewing the arguments (among the Reformation and Post-Reformation traditions)for the big three views on hell (universalism, annihilationism, and conscious torment). What is common to all of these views is that they very much see hell as a separate reality from the Kingdom of Heaven on some level. Edward Fudge, a proponent of annihilationism, finds great relief in the notion that God will merely execute the wicked once and for all as their just punishment instead of keeping them alive to torture forever (and he is subsequently accused of being liberal in his theology and of soft-peddling the real nature of God). The universalists do a better job of upholding the love of God as demonstrated through Christ than the others in these traditions, but they often retain views like substitutionary atonement because they still believe God must punish sin by making someone suffer to meet the needs of justice (in this case Jesus takes our place).
Then again, there are a fair number of Orthodox Christians who view hell and heaven more or less as American fundamentalists do and would not agree with the notion that hell and heaven are the presence of God experienced differently. All this tells me is that many people don’t really ask themselves what kind of God they actually believe in. Many times the Christian God is simply retribution or karma or vengeance embodied as a Person.
I personally find a kinship with St. Isaac, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and other Orthodox universalists who believed that humans will not stay in their delusions forever, but after long suffering would finally come to the Reality of God and bow the knee so that God may be “all in all.” But this is a minority view in Orthodoxy and certainly not one I could tell a non-Orthodox person was anything beyond a private pious opinion.
All that to say that using hell as a bludgeon seems to exist in those traditions where the love of God is questionable in their outlooks. They concede that God will forgive them through Christ, but seem to imply that those outside will be subject to his “Justice” which means the need to exact retribution on them for eternity. This seems like a schizophrenic view of God. It is at least a relief that among those Orthodox that did believe in hell as a separate place of conscious punishment and torture they nevertheless emphasized the love of God rather than the fear of hell even if their views were equally schizophrenic. I wonder what the difference is? Maybe it all goes back to Augustine and his influence on the west.
What would you say to those Orthodox that claim that the “heaven and hell as the love of God experienced differently” view is a recent invention? It does appear that a fair number of Orthodox on the ground view heaven and hell pretty much the same way any American fundamentalist does (including the belief that heaven and hell are Platonic spiritual locations separate from this cosmos rather than the transfiguration of this cosmos).
Isaac, How does your view of Universalism fit with the fact that Origen was condemned by the 5th Ecumenical Council for teaching universalism?
I used to ponder the idea of sin and hell as delusion when I worked in psych care. It was very apparent working with my patients that the line between sanity and insanity is uncomfortably blurry and really exists on a broad, dynamic spectrum. It was uncomfortable to notice that I and other sane people actually participate in some of the same delusions as the mentally ill, but in much lesser, less harmful degrees.
I know it might seem unrelated, Father, but how do you think the Orthodox theology of icons informs our understanding of “reality”, both in the grand cosmic question and in our day to day lives?
Sorry, but that didn’t happen so I don’t know how to answer that question. Do you think St. Gregory of Nyssa of St. Isaac of Syria would be held in the regard they were and are if that had happened and the Church had universally condemned the belief that all will be saved?
in my way of thinking Hell the boilerroom version was invented by royals to keep the rif raf in line. As I have gotten older I do not see a prize for good or a punishment for bad. I think most of the current and post Orthodox scam artist et all have used the carrot and stick for thier own enrichment. As simple as I can see it, you do good and good will happen do bad and bad will happen, but since the true nature of eterinty is unknown no matter how many Abbots and Saints write different, the end time is light or dark and free will is the ticket to the uptown train or the express to nowhereville. out
you seem to be overlooking God as loving; merciful, and as Saviour.
(or maybe not?)
The mistake made hear is that because the torment of hell has been portrayed by man with fire and brimstone imagery that man has over dramatized it’s reality. In fact, though, man has under dramatized it because man can not fathom what it would truly be like to be separated from God, much like we can not fathom what it will be like to be in His presence.
We know through scripture that angels eternally volley, “Holy Holy is the Lord God all mighty” throughout the arc of Heaven.
May sound a little boring to even the most devout believer but OH how things will change once we are able to stop seeing through this dim glass.
Fr. Stephen – I confess that I struggled through this whole piece. Why is this a topic of conversation when what lay ahead of us cannot possibly be known until after we shuffle off this mortal coil.
People have a hard enough time agreeing on how to interpret the pages that everyone can read, let alone declaring that which is beyond our ability to comprehend.
In his blog Eclectic Orthodoxy (which I highly recommend) Fr. Aidan Kimel posted a series by St. Isaac the Syrian back in March:
Did any apostolic see deliver universalism as part of the apostolic deposit?
I’ve read much of what you have written over at EP and greatly appreciate it!
My answer to your question would be “certainly not,” but my impression is also that the idea that some will experience God as fire has not been likewise “delivered.”
In one sense you could argue that this version of paradise and Gehenna (the presence of God experienced differently) is a form of universalism since from God’s perspective they don’t exist. All of the material conditions of Paradise are present, but some or many are nevertheless in torment due to the condition of their hearts. I certainly believe this picture is far more preferable than other conceptions of hell, but I am not certain it is the end of the story. And for the record, the “River of Fire” and similar articles were very instrumental in my conversion to Orthodoxy, not a belief in universalism.
If universalism is ever dogmatized then how one lives his life becomes irrelevant. Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we will be in heaven!
I have found The Great Divorce by CS Lewis to be helpful in thinking of heaven and hell; but really nothing compares to the teaching and tradition of Orthodoxy concerning the fire of the living God. I am always reduced to saying “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” and so there is encouragement!
I would never expect universalism to be dogmatized anymore than I would expect the Church to dogmatically claim that at least a portion of humanity will be damned forever as dogma (or why pray for the dead?), but your concern is strange because it seems to imply that the only reason to strive for theosis in this life is to avoid punishment in the next life.
As an aside, we should keep in mind that the vast majority of universalists believe in Gehenna and that some or many people may be in a state of torment for “ages of ages” before they finally relent.
I don’t think that God ever punishes but I do think that He rewards. He rewards me often. I am learning to be grateful for His blessings. But I am baffled about why the human heart is so, that despite all the blessings it is still ungrateful. What a lot of work the Holy Spirit must do in us.
I suppose that there are some who on seeing others get a reward will feel that they are being punished. But that is just plain childish. And that may give us an insight into what hell is.
While I sympathize with this perspective, I have recently been reading a Catholic blog on patristics called” Ressourcement.” They had linked a series of blog posts by Fr. Al Kimel, an Orthodox priest. Fr. Kimel had both historical and philosophical objections to this “River of Fire” perspective as one unsatisfactory towards the love of God and underrepresented among the Fathers, East and West.
As far as I can understand it, Fr. Kimel seemed to take a universalist view akin to that of St. Isaac the Syrian, Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, and C.S. Lewis in that Hell is both a “river of fire” but also purgatorial and therapeutic for those who choose to repent.
I was wondering if you might be able to add some insight.
What a brave priest you are, Fr. Stephen, to bring up such a topic! Excellent article as usual 🙂
A little patronizing and even less enlightening. Whatever we draw out of the truths of the Fathers for general discussion must also be helpful in a pastoral sense or it is rife with the potential for delusion to come of our very efforts to clarify. Orthodoxy has had the luxury–for a long, long time–not to either have to speak truth into the culture at large of which it is a part or to have to relate the truths of the faith to the common person, so that (here’s a new idea!) evangelism can happen and souls can be saved. This commentary, as well-intentioned as it may be, is born of a cross between pedantry and spiritual luxury: pedantry because distinctions are called important, without truly showing why it should matter & luxury because the whole discussion occurs in a kind of vacuum which the billboard on that farm in the Bible Belt does not occupy. Leave it to the Bible Belt to not correctly understand ontology and leave it to Orthodoxy to render a simple message in such a complicated manner that, once again, it’s not communicable to the man on the street who needs someone to speak a good word about Jesus to Him and give that man a clear choice between heaven and hell. Sometime I wonder if the gnostic heresy of “knowledge for a special few” has not formed our Orthodox sensibilities a whole lot more than we are willing to admit.
I posted the links to several of Fr. Aidan’s articles to which you refer. They are currently stuck “awaiting moderation”.
No, not necessarily. In the strict sense of “universalism” that many Protestants proclaim today, yes…what is being said is that there are no eternal consequences for our temporal actions. I have yet to find any writings in the Fathers that affirm this stance.
Our strong predisposition to “justice” rejects this. Our concepts of justice & especially divine justice (more accurately “judgement”) thus turn heaven/hell into nothing more than eternal reward/punishment for temporal actions.
I wish more people would consider the difference between the meaning of justice vs. judgement before they so glibly condemn or threaten with the throes of hell. While many say “justice” when they refer to “God’s Justice”, a more accurate word for what they mean is actually “judgement”…guilty/not guilty. In judgement there is no room for mercy; a misdeed is either done or not done…one either measures up or one does not.
God’s Justice on the other hand implies & even requires God’s mercy. I think that this is more in line with what St. Isaac the Syrian & others like him in the Fathers mean. God’s presence is a fire that heals, cleanses & purifies. What is being proclaimed is that the presence of God for the sinner will be one of healing & transformation from their former delusion, sinfulness or whatever caused their temporal rejection of His love. This will not be pleasant; i.e. it will be hell. Afterwards, will all delusion removed, the sinner will then be able to worship God & experience His presence as heaven. Although these words imply a sequence or time, ultimately in God’s presence there is no such thing for He is eternal & we are then existing in eternity.
We would do well before even thinking of discussing heaven or hell about the reason that Christ came, died & resurrected for us. He did not come to eternally reward nor to eternally punish. Christ came not to make bad men good, but dead men live. I don’t remember who said that originally, but it fits. He came not to condemn, but to save. He came for the life of the world.
To answer TLO’s point: I do not know what heaven or hell will be. When it comes to such concepts the ultimate reality is & will be far beyond what we are able to conceive. But one thing I do know, heaven is good while hell is not. I sincerely hope in God’s mercy, when the time comes, for the former & not the latter regards my own eternal destiny! That is enough to know I think.
Leonard, you are spot on. What’s the point of the struggle? So we simply disregard all the passages about weeping and gnashing of teeth?
Isaac, thanks for clearing that up for me (LOL). I’ve heard that about Origen numerous places, including Ancient Faith Radio, so pardon me for not just taking your word for it.
Sadly, I see that the Orthodox faith is not immune to what plagues Evangelicalism, each person simply deciding what they wish to believe. Sad.
Fr. Stephen, Like many who follow your blog, I’m not Orthodox. Although I’ve attended many liturgies in recent years and read several O books and consider myself a serious inquirer and hope to one day become Orthodox. I have an honest question for you, but the very nature of my question will come across as confrontational, so I hope you forgive me and I hope you will answer.
Your last two or three posts have left me in a state of despair. Despair because I HAD come to the point of believing that the O Church was the only hope left in the world for Christianity. But now you’ve posted that there was no historical Adam, and now today, there’s no real Hell, all dogs will go to Heaven, etc. I have to ask, How are these views any different from the liberal mainline Protestant denoms (Episcopal, Methodist, ELCA Lutherans) that long ago gave up on believing in the Bible? It seems apparent to me that the O church is just a generation behind the deep slide into the abyss that those churches went down. I’m so saddened to learn of this O view that the Bible is just a nice collection of stories, who knows is any of it is even true. I’m half afraid (seriously)that your next post is going to be on the fact that the resurrection of Christ didn’t really happen, but was actually meant to be just a nice metaphor for us. If we’re not going to believe anything in the Bible, then what can we believe, and on what basis?
I’m not trying to be combative or snarky. I’m actually quite distraught at this point. I’m of course welcome to read any thoughts from anyone at this point.
Thanks for your time.
Isaac, please see the attached link. It lists the 10 anathemas against Origen. Scroll down and read #9. By the way, I just happened to choose this one. There were many others I could have also chosen. I’ve never even heard that this point is in dispute.
Sorry for all of the posts tonight.
If we’re not going to believe in a real Hell, then someone’s going to need to explain this, from the Antiochian Orthodox website:
Father Stephen –
There was an episode of the Twilight Zone that I remember watching as a teen in the 70’s. It showed this family that had all died and were together again celebrating and enjoying being together in what seemed to be a room in a house. They were content, and present to each other. Suddenly a young man and woman entered the room, as it turns out their lives had been a big refusal and rebellion- they too were in the very same room, but whereas for the family this room was a place of joy, presence and reunion, for the young couple it became a prison filled with boredom and with no escape – they could not even enjoy being with each other. I’ve never thought of hell as fire and devils with pitchforks – but always thought that that episode of the Twilight Zone captured in a concrete way how we create our own hell and that God never sends or wills any of us into hell, but we put ourselves there, even in this lifetime, when our lives become a refusal to love and a continuous flight from God.
Thank you for your posting!!
Actually, Mike, Orthodoxy’s message is simple. So simple in fact that many just cannot fathom its depth! Many are not even aware that faith can have depth due to all of the shallowness they are taught. This is also true of many that call themselves pastors. Sadly many just do not want put out any effort into faith because they have basically been taught that such things are unnecessary (at best) or works based (at worst).
As I said, Orthodoxy’s message is simple; we explain it to small children. I have yet to meet an Orthodox teen raised in the Church that cannot defend their faith to the most exuberant Protestant evangelist. Furthermore, Orthodox college students are absolutely awesome at this. There is a reason for this, they have been taught & immersed in the faith from the time of their baptism at around 40 days old rather than being corralled away until their teens so they don’t disturb the adults.
“knowledge for a special few”? It is available to all, even more so with the advent of the internet which hardly qualifies as a “vacuum”; actually just the opposite. The postings of Fr. Stephen & so others like him reaches far more than just the Orthodox! Furthermore, it will for years to come thanks to search engines.
Regards evangelism: Orthodoxy is one of the very few groups in America that is not hemorrhaging members & is actually one of the fastest growing, second only to non-denominational/independent. Sounds to me like we have some evangelization going on somewhere!
Usually evangelization occurs as Orthodox Christians live their daily lives interacting with those they come into regular contact with rather than through “revivals” or “entertainment galas”. Face it, such events are done for one purpose…to make money through ticket, book & CD sales, not to mention solicitation for monthly donations. Many of lesser repute are outright charlatans that even the mainstream Protestants don’t like.
Beautifully said yet again. How simple it sounds when you explain it, Fr Stephen!
I am sure that Fr. Stephen will answer your comment, but until he does, here is my 2 cents. You are by no means being combative or snarky (although I am too old to be sure of just what that means). I understand much of what you are questioning…do not despair! Your questions are actually quite normal 🙂 We get nervous when inquirers don’t have questions!
You stated that you have “attended many liturgies…& read several O books”. Well & good, but do you have a regular relationship with a priest? That is what you need now to guide you. One cannot understand Orthodoxy without immersing oneself in Orthodoxy.
Trust me on this. I had read numerous books about Orthodoxy & had done much research before I ever stepped inside of my mission parish. I thought that I knew so much & I did know more than most that walk through our doors; but in reality I knew nothing about being Orthodox! You just cannot learn that from books.
Orthodoxy has a different mindset than the Western religious traditions. Neither can this be learned from books or even by reading Fr. Stephen’s blog, excellent as it is. The things you are questioning in your above comment are the wrong questions. This too is normal for inquirers & typical of the Western mindset. I will not address them directly (other than the Scriptures) because I do not feel that it would be helpful to you at this time. Just know this, when I first became Orthodox, I too believed in a Protestant-based literal & historic Adam…& guess what? The priest Chrismated me anyway! 🙂
Both of my priests were former ELCA ministers. I too journeyed through those same groups. The Orthodox views are vastly different than those groups you mentioned or else I would not be Orthodox.
Fr. Stephen blogs about the false ideas of religion that have become deeply ingrained into the American religious culture. One of those false ideas is how the Scriptures are understood & interpreted. He & all Orthodox Christians certainly believe in the Scriptures! Orthodox services are absolutely overflowing with Scripture references. But the Orthodox understanding of the Scriptures is vastly different from Protestantism.
You did not mention any reading of the Church Fathers. Their writings are important to understanding how the early Church interpreted & how the Orthodox Church still does interpret the Scriptures.
Anyway, I am sure that Fr. Stephen will answer your comment. For now though, I recommend that you stop reading about Orthodoxy & go discover Orthodoxy. Get in touch with Fr. Stephen outside of the blog-o-sphere & have him recommend an Orthodox parish close to you. Go find a priest & not only talk with him, but develop a continued & consistent relationship with him.
Attend Orthodox liturgical services regularly & not only Divine Liturgy, but also Vespers services in the evenings (usually Wednesday & Saturday) & whatever else is offered in the way of services. Stay for the Fellowship meal after Divine Liturgy & feel free to ask questions. Ask about an inquirer or catechumen class & attend even if it has already been started. You will never be pushed to become Orthodox just because you have participated in services or classes.
“Sadly, I see that the Orthodox faith is not immune to what plagues Evangelicalism, each person simply deciding what they wish to believe.”
No, this is not the case! The Church does not define, clarify or regulate via Tradition each & every thought that may enter the mind. Tradition merely sets the boundaries of the Faith much like parents may erect a fence around their yard. Their children are free to play anywhere inside of the fence, but not allowed to play outside of the fence where danger may exist. Outside of the boundary-fence of Tradition is danger-heresy-which one may not adhere to & remain in the Faith. An example of this would be that one is free to believe in the Trinity which has been explained many ways & with many examples, but one is not free to be a Unitarian. That is heresy. The priest may teach as he sees fit within the Tradition, but he may not teach outside of the Tradition. Tradition acts as a fence to keep us safe from dangers that will derail our Faith.
I always enjoy reading your blog—I come from a Protestant tradition of “because the Bible says so” without much thoughtfulness or explanation. I converted to the RC Church over a decade ago but find my practice so very stale….I am now somewhat of a nomad….I wander here and there seeking spiritual bits that seem just enough to keep my spirit from starving, but never really finding home and nourishment. I hope to find such a home sometime soon. Peace to you and your dear ones.
I think heaven is seen by many as an escape from hell. Defining hell thus clarifies in some way what heaven must be by contrast. This is futile, of course, because “whatever the reality of Hell, Heaven is far beyond such reality.”
But I don’t think God messes around or is satisfied that we’ll grasp His reality through mere. No. He puts his own uncreated Glory out there for us to grasp — the deifying light of grace. The kingdom and heaven are not hidden or held back from us in any way.
Unfortunately, Evangelicals settle for a kind of grace that’s nothing more than a benign favor or attitude toward us made possible by the justice wrought through Christ’s atoning death on the cross.
But grace is the glory of God Himself – uncreated light by which we participate in His divinity and kingdom.
Another mistake is to limit the power of Christ’s death. It destroyed death for ALL men and we’ll ALL be resurrected before the throne.
By His full participation in our nature and death we are given to join with Him in divine love which is nothing less than heaven. The way is to literally seek His glory every day as David did entering the temple (His presence) to offer sacrifices, starting with himself, and the whole city (world) to God. Seen this way, the kingdom is truly at hand and ours to stand in. What a gift!
Sorry: I mean to say “grasp his reality through mere concepts of heaven or hell.”
Sure, the gospel is communicable to the man on the street; otherwise, it wouldn’t be the gospel.
How about this: either heaven or hell can be real in your life now. Do you choose to accept the love of God, who loves you so much that he sacrificed his son for you to have new life, or do you reject it and live in the delusion that what you have is real life?
It’s not all about the future. Today is the day of salvation–when I start partaking in the kingdom of heaven, by the mercy of God.
I am pulled in multiple directions by this matter. Ultimately, I feel that I can pray for, but not presume upon, the mercy of God.
You’re certainly not wrong. The Christian faith is eschatological: the kingdom is here, now, among us, within us. But — but — while we no longer live in the age of shadow, we still live in the age of icon. We do not yet see “face to face,” but still in a mirror darkly. The eucharist is the prime example of this. Whereas the Jews merely received the manna as a type, we receive the true God-Man in bread and wine; yet someday we shall receive Him as He really is!
The great apocalypse — the final unveiling of the mystery of God — has yet to occur. The catholic religion maintains a delicate balance between a Hebraic sense of history and a Hellenistic sense of eternity. Pope Benedict wrote extensively about this in “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” specifically in the section on Liturgical Time. You might want to check it out.
My heart goes out to you. Like Rhonda, I’ve probably been where you are. Unlike Rhonda, I’m not Orthodox. But I’ve traveled beside them for the last 30 years. With that perspective I hope I can shed a bit of light for you, but I probably won’t go in-depth on any of your questions because what you need to understand right now more than anything else is that there is hope – LOTS of hope in fact.
The core of the matter is Jesus Christ. If there was no Incarnation and Resurrection, then we are the biggest of all fools. Even many Protestants understand that. What most of them do not fully realize is that this is everything, this is the essential crux of our whole lives. It is not just a theological point but what should drive our whole existence. The answer to life is not about getting the right facts straight but about dying daily, moment-by-moment, so that that Christ may be born in us and that more each day it may be Christ living in us instead of our old selves.
Once we understand this in our hearts – and get about the business of it – then all else begins to fall into place:
a. The Bible is the divine and inspired word of God but it is by no means without spot and blemish. How does this fact not completely obliterate our faith? Because our hope is ultimately in Christ, the Incarnation and Resurrection – not as historical facts but as realities as work in our very lives. If the Bible is incorrect in places, it is God in whom we trust to work through it despite its mistakes – the exact same way He also accomplishes works through us, as imperfect as we are.
b. There was probably a historical Adam & Eve, but we won’t lose our faith if some scientist brings out evidence to the contrary, because our hope and faith rests not in historical veracity of everything the Bible says, but in the life of Christ. We read the Bible (especially the OT) the same way children listen to stories – not with cynicism but with an open heart for what they would have to tell us.
c. We decide we believe in a young earth – or an old earth, or an in-between earth – but we don’t put any eggs in that basket. When we ask Jesus about it in Heaven, the answer won’t change our minds about who God is, His goodness and whether or not He actually loves us.
d. Heaven and Hell: there is a great irony in this topic. It is the first thing we want to understand – maybe for fire insurance purposes or because it’s so fascinating – and yet it is probably the last thing we will be ready to understand. The more we know the God who created all things, the more we will intuitively gain an understanding of what Heaven and Hell are actually like – and that we already experience both of them in our lives, day in and day out.
Alan: there are good answers, but to get there you have to drop all else and first embrace Jesus Christ and His life. Then and only then everything else will begin to fall into their rightful places and make sense.
Take heart. This confusion and despair you feel, this too shall pass.
Thank you very much Rhonda and Drewster, I greatly appreciate your comments, they are quite helpful.
Rhonda, just to be clear, I was not trying by any means to state that I know a lot about Orthodoxy. I was just trying to point out that I have more than a passing interest. Good advice about having a relationship with a Priest, and I will pursue that where I live.
Drewster, thanks for your thoughts and encouragement.
Finally, I believe that Fr. Stephen doesn’t allow links, so I can’t provide one. But the following quote is taken directly from the Antiochian website:
“HELL, unpopular as it is among modern people, is real. The Orthodox Church understands hell as a place of eternal torment for those who willfully reject the grace of God. Our Lord once said, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched where `Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched’ ” (Mark 9:43, 44). He challenged the religious hypocrites with the question: “How can you escape the condemnation of hell?” (Matthew 23:33). His answer is, “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17). There is a Day of Judgment coming, and there is a place of punishment for those who have hardened their hearts against God. It does make a difference how we live this life. Those who of their own free will reject the grace and mercy of God must forever bear the consequences of that choice.”
Interesting. In parts of eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, and southwestern Virginia, there are Primitive Baptists who believe in Universalism. Nicknamed “No-Hellers”, they don’t actually reject hell, but for them, hell happens on earth. After the resurrection, all will enjoy communion with God. Howard Dorgan wrote the definitive book on these Primitive Baptist Universalists, entitled “In the Hands of a Happy God: The ‘No-Hellers’ of Central Appalachia”. They may be universalists, but in all other ways, they are just like any other Primitive, or Old-Time, Baptist (e.g., Southern Baptist are too liberal).
This is a topic that is obviously hot! (forgive the cheesy pun please…).
Perhaps there is no clear cut single teaching on the matter, but the teaching we do have (with all the margin that allows for) is sufficient. In fact we do not need much more than what we see in the parable of the Prodigal Son and his brother (which obviously is not that far from the ‘river of fire view’ as both are invited in the Father’s house but they interpret it differently – and that it is presented without a “forever and ever” almost as if we are in the state of “time is no more”)
What Orthodoxy does respect is the experience of the purified, illumined and deified Saints, and their ‘dogmatic consciousness’ informed by actual experience rather than reading, talking and studiying.
One of my favourite examples:
Hell is real!
I am aware of the council and all the controversy around it. The fact remains that St. Gregory and St. Isaac and others have not been condemned as heretics for describing universalism in the way they did. Then when you add the “hopeful universalism” of thousands if not millions of Orthodox who hope and pray that all men might be saved (which is the desire of God according to scripture)you would have something on the order of a major schism if all of these people are heretics.
I don’t know if I believe in universalism, but I did discuss the question with my priest in terms of the parameters of what an Orthodox Christian can believe and, as I pointed out above, I would never claim it is the teaching of Orthodoxy that “all will be saved” since the Church would never make such a claim anymore than it would claim that “some or many will not be saved” as dogma. Orthodoxy is nothing like fundagelicalism and I have experienced both intimately. Even so, if you are looking for absolute dogmatic certainty for every single element of the faith then Orthodoxy will be a huge disappointment.
I understand that you are frustrated, but I think you have maligned Fr. Stephen’s blog, which did not say that hell is not real they way you have put it. I believe he did argue that hell does not have a reality on par with the Kingdom of Heaven and so have thousands of other Christians as far as that goes. The point is that the sign seems to imply that Hell is the reality and Heaven is secondary. Hell, by nature, can’t have the same ontological reality as Heaven, but that does not make it not real. Also, the view that hell is not a separate realm but rather a way of describing how the wicked respond to the love and unmitigated presence of God is common and widespread enough in Orthodox thought to be considered at least one view of the Church.
Alan (and others following his questions).
Your questions are good – in fact, this post should generate such questions for some.
I want to state immediately that you should be at peace about the state of Orthodoxy. This post is not meant to question the “reality” of hell in the sense that you are using the word – though it is meant to make us think a great deal more about what we mean when we say “real” – about which I’ll say more in a moment.
Second, on matters of Biblical interpretation, I utterly reject that nonsense of liberal Christianity and its handling of Scriptures (much as I reject their handling by Protestant fundamentalists – they are two sides of the same coin). But, again, I want to press the point of understanding a mature reading of the Scriptures from a patristic perspective. Some may find that pressing less than helpful. If so, they can ignore these posts. But, I’ll say more on this in a moment.
So – On reality. Modern though, including modern Protestant thought, tends to think of “reality” as consisting of only one kind of thing. So, if we say “real,” we mean “true,” “actual,” not “make-believe,” not an “imagination.” And this is the way the word is used whether it is referring to Green dragons, God, heaven, hell, what I ate last week, etc. It is this singular meaning and singular understanding of “real” that I am challenging. I think of this “singular” meaning for “real” as false and misleading. I often refer to it as “flat,” or “literalistic,” or a number of other ways. My goal is to help readers, on a popular level, understand better the Orthodox teaching on the nature of things – on the world as sacrament – on the character of truth and reality – and thus the nature of our salvation.
The fathers, when addressing this topic, understand that truth, being (and thus “reality” and what is “real”) is a quality that belongs to God alone. As St. Gregory the Theologian said, “Inasmuch as we say ‘God exists,’ we don’t exist. Inasmuch as we say, ‘We exist,’ God does not exist.” What he meant by this is that the character of God’s existence is such that no other “existing” thing can be compared to His existence. The Baptismal prayer calls God, “hyperousia,” “beyond being.” St. Basil the Great calls God, “the only truly existing…” St. Athanasius notes that everything created was created out of nothing, and is thus “nothing” by its nature. If we were left utterly to ourselves, we would simply cease to exist because we were and are created “out of nothing.” Thus, according to St. Athanasius, the kind of existence we have is utterly a gift. It is sustained by the good will of the good God. But such an existence cannot be compared with the existence and being of God.
But the good God who brought us into existence out of nothing, also intends for us the gift of union with Himself, which is the gift of eternal life, a participation in the Divine life. Thus the fathers use the language of the created participating in the uncreated (God). St. Maximus the Confessor even says that we become “uncreated” by grace. This is the doctrine that is called “theosis,” divinization.
If divinization is thought of in terms of “being,” then it can be described as a movement from created existence towards uncreated existence (by grace).
Now. I have used the word “real” in the sense of “God alone is real,” i.e. “God is the only truly existing one.” Those things are real that have participation in God. Those things that resist such participation, that rebel are not “not existing” (or else we couldn’t even speak of them), but they are moving in a direction that is opposite from true existence, and are moving towards what they came from (nothing). In the fathers there is thus a distinction between things that do not exist (ouk ousia) and things that are tending toward non existence (me ousia). Because existence is the gift of God, and God does not take back the gift He has given, the most we can do is move towards me ousia (relative non-existence, a “not real” reality).
So. When I suggest that hell is “not real,” I do not mean that there is no such thing, but that the nature of what we call “hell,” is at heart a movement away from reality, a choice towards non-existence, something that is essentially inauthentic. C.S. Lewis’ imagery of hell as the “gray town” in The Great Divorce, is a very rich play on this thought.
Second. On the Biblical stories.
There are many kinds of stories in the Bible. Protestant fundamentalism has, more or less, decided that there is only one kind of story in the Scriptures and only one kind of truth that has any usefulness and that is a literal, historical kind of event. Thus the story of Adam and Eve is seen as only having value and only being of use if it is a description of a “factual” event. So that if I were present as an observer on the day of Adam’s creation, I would see the event of the clay being formed into the first homo sapiens, etc. This same kind of literalism is applied across the board to all OT stories. Either they are true in that way, or they are lies, fictions and worse.
Protestant liberalism (in its most extreme forms) agrees with this kind of singular reading. They, however, use this singular approach to discredit anything that seems to be questionable as a “factual,” newspaper kind of event. And they use these attacks to undermine the authority of the Church, the faith, etc. This allows them to proceed to create their own truths and build the fantasy world of their own private dreams and continue to create misery in the name of God.
Now. The fathers, when the topic is addressed (which is not the case in every use of Biblical stories, etc.), clearly understand that the stories in Scripture have a number of “levels” of meaning, a number of possibilities, a variety of uses. The story of Adam and Eve and the Creation is handled more literally by some of the fathers, and quite figuratively by others (I’ve referenced Peter Bouteneff’s work on the use of the Creation chapters in the first 5 centuries – I recommend it again for the topic of Adam and Eve). The issue of Adam and Eve and history is not a debate within the historic Orthodox Church. It was and is a debate between Protestant fundamentalists and Protestant liberals that arose with special vehemence in response to Darwin’s theories. It is their battle, not ours. Many Orthodox, living here in the West, have decided that the Orthodox should take sides in that debate – but I suggest that they are mistaken. The debate is a non-issue because both liberals and fundamentalists have a wrong understanding of Scripture and history.
Orthodoxy, for some, and I hear a bit of this in your concerns, seems like a much stronger version of conservative Protestantism (the Tradition, etc. add support to the same conservative arguments). Orthodoxy is neither conservative nor liberal – it is Orthodoxy. It need have no reference to the conversations that are happening outside. Too many people bring the baggage of their former Christianity with them and try to graft it onto the trunk of the Orthodox tree.
I have written numerous articles on the interpretation of Scripture. Many of them make the comparison between Scripture and Icons (a comparison made by the 7th council). Icons are clearly not photographs and they are not photographs for a reason. They depict what is true – in the sense of God, heaven, true existence, etc. – and not simply what we might see. Christ makes it quite clear that many people “see,” but “don’t see.” There are obviously more than one way of seeing. In that sense, there is more than one way of portraying “what happened.” Icons seek to portray the “truth,” of things. Obviously, many people saw Christ hanging on the Cross but failed to see the truth of Christ hanging on the Cross. An icon does not make that mistake. It shows the Truth of Christ on the Cross. In that sense, an icon is more “real,” than a photograph, because the ultimate truth of the event is clearly depicted whereas a photograph might miss it.
Back to the Scriptures. What is the “truth” of the story of Adam and Eve. Fundamentalists think it is the photograph-style interpretation. But Christ says that He himself is the meaning of the OT Scriptures (Jn. 5:39). Surely Christ is the truth of the account of Adam and Eve in a manner that transcends the newspaper-like interpretation. The Pharisees could have seen the newspaper account as clear as anyone, but they did not see Christ and so crucified Him – and – ironically – fulfilled the truth of the creation of Adam.
For the fathers are clear, the Woman taken out of Adam’s side, is the Church, His bride. He rests (sleeps) on the 6th day (Friday), and from His side God takes a rib and forms the woman. And on Friday, he slept (died), and “one of the soldiers pierced His side, and from His side flowed forth blood and water…” The fathers see this as the Eucharist and Baptism, that which births and creates the Church.
You may take that is simply a “commentary” an allegorical way of reading the “historical account,” and that doesn’t bother me a bit. But the mistake is that of the Pharisees. When we make the newspaper-style reading the primary and real reading, we invariably fail to see that the other is the primary and true. Christ’s Pascha is the true reading of all things. Nothing has any truth except as it relates to Christ’s Pascha. That is the beginning of creation as well as its end and fulfillment.
My writing means to “pound” on the problematic handling of Scripture by the Protestants and help others come to a more proper Orthodox understanding and way of reading. It occasionally jars and upsets, because most people are still stuck in the world-view of modern Protestantism.
This has been a long reply…but I’ll go a little longer.
The Newspaper-style understanding of truth is one of the reasons that Protestantism generally does not understand the sacraments (and is mostly non-sacramental). Things are things. Bread can remind us of Christ’s Body and His sacrifice, but it can only BE bread. And this is true for newspapers. But it is not the Truth. “I believe that this is truly Thy most pure Body…” Now, when we say, “This is truly,” do we mean that there is a lump of human flesh lying on the diskos on the altar? Does it mean that a photograph would show a lump of meat?
Of course not. But Orthodoxy clearly thinks that we “see” a reality that is more real than that of a photograph. The bread is truly His most pure Body. The “Kingdom which is to come” is truly present now. “Thou hadst raised us up to heaven…” All of these outrageously non-Newspaper ways of speaking are true and only those who are truly in Christ can say them, mean them, see them, and thus, through them, be saved.
Adam and Eve raise interesting historical questions…but the history parts of that particular story are not what matters about it.
The history of Christ’s crucifixion is important, too, and in a way that is not the case of the Creation account. First, that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered death and was buried… are also true in the newspaper-sense of the word, and are attested to in that manner independent of the Scriptures.
But, like an icon, the gospels reveal His death, burial and resurrection (which certainly has every kind of truth – newspaper and otherwise) in their ultimate and truest way. They show us Christ’s Pascha as the New Creation, the Passover, Jonah from the Whale, the Bridegroom coming forth from the Bridal Chamber, the 3 young men in the fiery furnace, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, etc. And our Baptism plunges us into Christ’s Pascha and His Pascha becomes our new creation and life in Him.
This is the Orthodox faith. It is not a private opinion or a decision about what I would like to believe. It is larger than me or you and we may be plunged into it. But it will not be managed like the newspapers of the fundamentalists or the fables of the liberals. It is the faith of the fathers – the Mystery hidden from before all ages…
Some reading this post think it favors and endorses some form of Universalism (that everyone will be saved). They read and misunderstand. “Real” is something that describes God and being “real” describes something that is moving towards God and towards the “gathering together in One all things in Christ Jesus…” (Ephesians 1). That, if you read the article carefully, is what has been said.
Hell, like sin itself, is a movement away from true being, that being and existence which is the gift of God and only finds its fulfillment and fulness in union with Him.
Does hell exist? Is there actually a hell? In the way that question is generally meant…Yes. Of course there is. I am not denying it at all. What I am saying is that hell is a form of existence that has as its character a less-than-real quality. It is less-than-real because it is a form of existence in which those who are “there” are in rebellion against God and are trying to move away from the true existence which only comes through union with God in love.
That is the “lesson in ontology” that the article means to offer.
By extension, I mean for it to be a way of thinking about life in this world and the path of salvation.
Everything that rebels against God hates true existence, true Being. Lies, hatred, greed, lust, murder, envy, etc., all hate true existence. They try to create false worlds. The hatred we have for our enemies tries to create a false world, defined by the hatred itself. But lies, hatred, greed, lust, murder, envy, etc. are not real, they do not have true existence. They were not brought into existence by the only truly existing God. They are false creations of our own and they are destined to pass away. They cannot truly exist forever because they have no true existence. They are figments of our evil imaginations.
Some people (all of us at times perhaps) make an alliance with this false existence. They unite themselves to lies, hatred, greed, lust, murder, envy, etc. The “reality” they inhabit begins already to resemble hell and what they inhabit begins to foment its misery everywhere around it. The misery is not real – it is the misery of our tending towards non-existence.
Some people make an alliance with the only truly existing God. They unite Themselves to Christ in Holy Baptism and Communion. They marry the Truth and renounce Satan and all his minions, etc. The reality they inhabit begins already to manifest and reveal the heaven that God has bestowed upon us, the Kingdom which is to come.
Now. Will all be saved? Leonard is wrong when he says only an eternal hell makes evangelism effective (“otherwise why not eat, drink, be merry?”). He is wrong because the misery of hell, even in this life, the fruit of living out of union with God, is motive enough to want to live otherwise. Indeed, until we get our heads out of the question of “what’s going to happen to me after I die,” and begin to ask the question, “What’s happening to me now?” will we even begin to live the truth of salvation. The “after death” version of salvation is simply a perversion of the preaching of the gospel.
But. Will all be saved? I don’t know (and neither do you). St. Isaac of Syria suggests that hell is ultimately (and he seems to think in very long, long terms) curative and not just retributive. It is given to us for our correction and healing and not for punishment. I like what he says, but his thought in this matter is not the dogma of the Church.
Some versions of universalism have clearly been condemned by the Councils of the Church. I certainly do not mean to offer any suggestion to the contrary.
But, in the mode of St. Isaac and St. Silouan, I gladly suggest that there are fruitful meditations to be had on the subject – that we can consider these things in a manner that is fruitful and not just argumentative/speculative.
I certainly would endorse St. Silouan’s thought that anyone who contemplates even a single person in hell should do so with tears and anguish. Create in me a clean heart, O God.
“I certainly would endorse St. Silouan’s thought that anyone who contemplates even a single person in hell should do so with tears and anguish.”
Your words about how we read Scripture are particularly striking today, after having listened to Mormons for the past couple hours. I came away burdened with a terrible sadness about their blindness, which is deep and profound. (No doubt they would say the same about me.) The saddest part was that they use the selective patristic quotes to their advantage (according to them, Athanasius was a polytheist), yet they cannot begin to enter into a patristic, catholic, orthodox reading of Scripture. At first I was amused, then upset, finally depressed. The radical importance of the canon — the rule of truth — against which Scripture and Tradition are measured cannot be underestimated.
This last comment of yours is an excellent synopsis of the concerns I had growing up as a fundamentalist and the response to that “literal” reading of scriptures.
Also, I think that you clarify of some of my questions I had about the article itself in this comment as well, though in a round-about way of course. So, to be sure I read you correctly, you are claiming that this life is “real” (and has value?) insofar as it is a gift given by God who is the source of reality. I was concerned when reading the article that you were susceptible to the Nietzchean critique of Christian nihilism – that this world has value insofar as it connects with the other world. I find that a strong critique of much of Christianity, especially where Christianity devalues bodily, material, present existence. I am still concerned that your argument is susceptible to that critique. It seems important to me to emphasize that our present existence is a gift (as you do) but also that one might say (and correct me if I’m off track) this existence is “real” insofar as Christ took it on, both in the fact that Christ took it on AND that in taking it on connected this reality (human nature) to that reality (divine nature).
Father, this is one of the most succinct explanations of interpretation I’ve read yet. It should be in the body of a post, not lost in the comments!
Good question – especially viz. the Nietzschean critique. This life (all creation) is “real” and intended to be “real” from its inception, in that it is created as a direction and movement. Nothing can have this kind of “reality” apart from God. Thus, in some places I have said, “There is no such thing as the secular world.” This is not necessarily profound – it’s just saying that everything created has its existence from God and as a gift from God. But nothing has existence “in and of itself” other than God Himself.
On Nietzsche – this does not devalue this life, this world, or anything in them, but it reveals their true value. Everything is sacrament and a means of communion with God.
Imagine otherwise. Let’s say you eat some bread (in and of itself). You eat, the bread perishes. You perish. What was the value? What was the meaning?
Nothing is devalued simply because it’s value is found in its relation to God. God is the ground of all being. Nothing has meaning, reality, apart from its ground.
Those who have sought to ground meaning in things themselves, have proven repeatedly the emptiness of such an effort. Human beings, no longer valued as the image of God, are reduced to commodities and things – used and abused by the powerful for their own purposes. Only the imago Dei preserves even a hope of human dignity.
This is so far from Christian nihilism. It is the Christian materialism – the Christian humanism – the Incarnation of Christ and the Divinization of Creation itself.
Later today, God willing, I’ll be editing the comment into the next post. I was thinking the same thing.
If it appeared that I thought that Fr. Stephen’s blog post seemed to support universalism that is not the case at all. In the “River of Fire” article (which is probably the most well known description of this Orthodox concept of hell) Kalomiros makes it very clear that those in torment can no longer be redeemed. They have passed the point of no return.
I don’t think discussions of hell matter because we can dogmatically know exactly what it is, but because of what it says both about God’s nature and also the heart of Christians. There are versions of hell in American fundamentalism that appear to contradict the teachings of Jesus and the biblical statement that “God is Love.” I would argue that those who actually enjoy the thought of the wicked going to hell are less than charitable and that all Orthodox Christians should at least pray that all will be saved even if they won’t. I was raised in fundamentalism and for a fair number of fundamentalist heaven just won’t be heaven unless certain people are in hell.
This is especially important because people are leaving Christianity in droves in the west in part because they can’t reconcile a loving God with an eternal torturer. I think Orthodoxy offers an alternative to that view that is not universalism. I can just about guarantee that for every person who reads that sign and has a pang of conscience a hundred are disgusted by it and want nothing more to do with what they perceive to be Christianity.
Dino, I want to take exception to your assertion that St. Silouan could not be certain of the ultimate salvation of all those whom he loved, and that his tears and prayers were proof of that uncertainty.
I would be interested to know what you make of Romans 11. St. Paul talks about it being possible to graft back a branch that has been cut off. And that the Israelites were enemies for the sake of the gospel but were still loved of God. And that he would “let you in on a secret,” that in the end all Israel would be saved! (11:26) I know earlier St Paul had equated Israel with the new Christian believers, but clearly the context in that last verse that ALL Israel would be saved indicated he was talking about his “lost” brethren. I’m sure you are much more familiar with this than I. But it does appear that even as St. Paul wept and prayed over his “lost brethren” he believed that in the end they would be saved.
As you know, anyone who has experienced the hideous strength of the downward pull of the Devil would be consumed with horror and pity for those who have succumbed utterly to him and thus have to suffer the consequences of their choices. The fact that there is ultimate victory through Christ does not lessen the pity or the prayer. When St. Silouan said, “Love could not bear that,” I believe he was saying just that. Eternal conscious suffering could not be countenanced by a loving God, no matter how self-inflicted the suffering might be. The wretch would still be a human being, and our incarnate Lord who has been tempted in all things common to man will find a way to bring him to repentance, i.e. to fan the divine spark that is in him. The Devil loses, the Lord wins. 🙂
(Just my two cents worth, as one Orthodox Christian who does believe in the certainty of universal salvation.)
Isaac, thank you for your kind responses, I greatly appreciate them. Also, I like your more detailed response to my question. As you (and Fr. Stephen) can tell, I’m trying to “emerge from over 40 years in Evangelicalism” and trying to re-orient my thinking and my outlook is proving to be challenging. Thus, I’m most appreciative of those (you, Fr. Stephen, Rhonda, Drewster) who have offered up thoughts that are most helpful to me (and others of course as well).
Not that it matters what I think, but for the record, I’m fine with saying that I don’t know about Hell and about universalism. But I was much more troubled when I thought that you and others were saying dogmatically that there is no hell and that if there is, nobody will end up there. I’m fine with saying “I don’t know.” In fact, the mystery is one of the main attractions of Orthodoxy to me.
Even after Fr. Stephen’s many posts of the topic of how to properly read the Scriptures (and the purpose) I find that I’m still having trouble getting that.
Fr. Stephen, First of all, thank you so very much for your kind, gracious, and lengthy responses to my questions. They are most helpful and most appreciated. I need to go back and re-read them over and over to really let them sink in.
Secondly, if Isaac is correct and I have maligned your blog, then I sincerely apologize and I ask your forgiveness. That was not my intent. Your blog has been a Godsend to me on my journey.
Sorry for the misunderstanding. If it appeared that I was claiming that all would be saved that is certainly not the case and certainly not the teaching of Orthodoxy. Like Fr. Stephen said, nobody knows. I am sympathetic to what St. Isaac, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Silouan, and even Met. Ware have to say on the subject, but they did not or do not have the authority to teach that all will be saved either. I do think it is good to pray that all will be saved (this is the desire of God according to the scriptures) and it is bad to speculate about who is and isn’t going to hell (which was a pastime in the fundamentalism I was raised in).
It is hard to acquire an Orthodox mindset. I have been Orthodox for five years and both our sons were born into it. I was reflecting the other day that if they continue in the Church into adulthood they will have a mindset that I will never acquire in my lifetime because I started so late. I understand the fears of compromise and I don’t think you need to worry about that in Orthodoxy, but the Orthodox way of approaching things like scripture sort of defies the way I was taught to view it growing up, so it is easy to confuse a layered approach with the bloodless approach of liberal Protestantism which is really just atheism with the job benefits of being a member of the clergy.
who am I to speak on St Silouan’s or Father Sophrony’s behalf? they manage to combine the uncombinable (the heaven of love with the ‘hell’ of love) in their hearts which in turn gave birth to the prayer for all of Adam -of a magnitude unimaginable to us.
The quote is straight from the book onSt Silouan and it is all F. Sophrony’s words.
Isaac you said….your concern is strange because it seems to imply that the only reason to strive for theosis in this life is to avoid punishment in the next life…..That’s not what I said. What I said was that if universalism was ever dogmatised there would be nothing to strive for. I have no plans to strive for theosis after the resurrection.
Can you explain further why you say that? I am not sure if you are writing that because of a misunderstanding about universalism (as it is generally presented anyway) or if you are pointing to something else that I am missing. I have heard a lot of people say that “if universalism is true, then why even be a Christian” which seems like a pretty blatant admission that they see being a Christian primarily in terms of fire insurance, but perhaps you mean something different and I am missing it. If it helps, most universalists appear to believe that the wicked will suffer in hell for maybe “ages and ages” before they are redeemed so even from the point of view of fire insurance universalism doesn’t get people off the hook.
Theosis might not be static according to St. Gregory of Nyssa. For him, it implies always, “Higher up and further in!”
Isaac I have great hope for the universal salvation of mankind. My hope impels me to pray for this unceasingly. I neither presume it or despair of it. The golden mean of those two errors is hope. By the way only a truly great saint, one that is beyond anything I could ever be works for no reward even if we try to deny it.
Father that’s exactly how I conceive of theosis. An ever deeper entering into the mystery of the Holy Trinity!
And He went through the cities and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem. 23 Then one said to Him, “Lord, are there few who are saved?”
And He said to them, 24 “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able…..He never answers the question. Instead he offers some pretty sound advice
I was just thinking of that before you typed it. It came as quite a surprise too because I had always imagined heaven as a static thing but, like many things in Orthodoxy, St. Gregory seemed to convey something I always believed deep down.
As an aside, I hope you will consider writing a general introduction to Orthodoxy that is comprised of writing akin to the posts you wrote as answers above. There are some pretty good books out there, but I still feel that is lacking. Fr. Meletios Webber came very close with his book, but giving it to an American reader coming from, say, a Baptist background is problematic. I am still looking for that one book I could give to people interested in Orthodoxy (after first saying just come to services) with confidence.
I don’t disagree with that at all, and I don’t think it is even an entirely bad motivation to want to avoid hell as far as that goes. I get what you are saying now. My response was based on a misinterpretation of your earlier post.
Dino, I have the book and the quote (p. 108). The problem is that the quote within the quote was from St. Silouan but the rest of it looks like commentary from Archimandrite Sophrony. I don’t know how to decipher it. Even on the next page when Fr Sophrony quotes the verse, ‘And if I be lifted up from the earth’ I will draw all men unto Me.’ he adds to it by saying, “Thus Christ’s love hopes to bring all men to Him.” Is this specifically what St. Silouan said, or is Archimandrite Sophrony simply trying to toe the line with what He sees the Church Fathers as believing?
This must sound like nitpicking. I have a great deal of respect for what you say and simply wanted your reaction to what seemed like an inconsistency to me. But in actuality I would have to brazenly say the inconsistency was Fr Sophrony’s. (“Belief in … universal salvation predestined in the divine purpose, would certainly rule out the sort of prayer that we see in the Staretz.”
At the risk of being even more brazen, let me quote the actual words of St. Silouan on the same page (108). When asked how anyone could love all men, he answered, ‘To be one with all, as the Lord said, “that all may be one”, there is no need to cudgel our brains: we all have one and the same nature, and so it should be natural for us to love all men; but it is the Holy Spirit who gives the strength to Love.’ It is the very fact that “we all have one and the same nature” that confirms to me that the Love of God will win out in the end.
“That we all have one and the same nature…” Indeed that one nature was “saved” in the Incarnation of Christ, who assumed the one human nature of us all. But the problem isn’t with our nature…it’s with Personhood. The nature (of anything) is only encountered hypostatically (personally). We will each of us have to give ourselves to our nature (and our Lord who has taken that nature upon Himself). When we are asked, “Do you unite yourself to Christ” (at Baptism), we are not uniting our nature – it is an act of the person.
Indeed, to a certain extent, it is proper to say that the whole of human salvation is now the story of the salvation of Persons, the nature having been taken up in Christ.
Like St. Silouan and St. Isaac, I have hope and trust in the love of God. I have no doubt about that love. What I do not know, and what none of us have been given to know, is the mystery of the Person, which is even now unfolding. I would assume that if the love of God is sufficient to “woo” us from ourselves and to union with Him, then love wins. It’s not the love, it’s our own resistance that gives me doubts.
And that is a nature of a mystery…we do not know.
There is so much that we do not know. Another important example, in the mystery of Personhood, is the precise character of Personal existence in Christ. “It does not yet appear what we shall be.” If I was now already complete, and thus truly existing and a fully personal manner, in the hypostatic fullness that is promised, and not in this troubled state of the false self, then I would know what the character of Personal existence will be.
There are occasional hints in some of the (rather oblique) sayings of some of the holy fathers, and in some of the contemporary elders of the Church. I have heard enough to surmise that such a personal existence differs so greatly from that of my false self. And when most of us think of “life after death,” it is the survival of the false self that we most often want. We want it so terribly that we will not embrace a true personal existence even now, when it is already possible. It is that perversion that seems so persistent that makes me shudder.
Father, bless. Thank you!
Your remark seems to put a specific gloss on the traditional doctrine and a different doctrine on an epistemic and apostolical par. Such seems not to be the case.
While the Issuant account (I am taking this designatig term from Kvanvig for ease of use and clarity) which takes the difference to be in the effect of the glory received may not be explicitly justifiable, the traditional doctrine simpliciter clearly does without question. The Issuant account is just one way to cash it out.
Universalism is not a way to cash out the traditional doctrine. It is rather a denial of it. The two then are not on a par. One is one way Orthodox can cash out the traditional doctrine and the second is not Orthodox doctrine.
The Issuant account is not a species of universalism, for universalism is a thesis about the scope of salvation and the temporary status of any suffering in the eschaton.
Concerning Origen, universalism, and the Fifth Ecumenical Council: the 10 anathemas against Origen you cited are not those of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (AD 553), but were promulgated by the Synod of Constantinople in AD 543/544. (The page you linked to explains this.)
However, the Fifth Ecumenical Council *did* anathematize Origen by name in its eleventh canon:
“XI. If anyone does not anathematize Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Apollinaris, Nestorius, Eutyches and Origen, as well as their impious writings, as also all other heretics already condemned and anathematized by the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and by the aforesaid four Holy Synods and [if anyone does not equally anathematize] all those who have held and hold or who in their impiety persist in holding to the end the same opinion as those heretics just mentioned: let him be anathema.”
Furthermore, the Fifth Council also elaborated another fifteen anathemas, spelling out and condemning specific Origenist doctrines. These 15 anti-Origenist anathemas of the Ecumenical Council are listed further down the page you linked to, under section 3.5. The anathemas relating to universalism are #1, #14, and #15:
“1. If anyone advocates the mythical pre-existence of souls and the monstrous restoration (apokatastasis) which follows from it, let him be anathema.”
“14. If anyone maintains that one day all rational beings will again form a unit, when the individuals and the numbers are removed with the bodies; and that the destruction of the worlds and the laying aside of the bodies will follow upon the knowledge of rational things, and that the abandonment of names and an identity of knowledge and person will result; further, at the fabled apokatastasis only spirits alone will remain, as it was in the feigned pre-existence—-let him be anathema.”
“15. If anyone says that the life of spirits will then be like the earlier life when they had not yet descended and fallen, so that the beginning and the end will be like each other, and the end the measure for the beginning, let him be anathema.”
The specific form of “universalism” proposed by Origen and condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council was a sort of deterministic destiny, tied up with (and implied by) Origen’s ideas about the pre-existence of souls and other heretical Neoplatonist doctrines. This is not at all what St Isaac, St Silouan, et al were advocating. Their very different “universalism”, grounded in their experience of God’s infinite love for His creatures, is not a dogma of the Orthodox Church, but it isn’t condemned either.
There is a key, perhaps, in Jesus description of the fiery lake of hell being prepared for the devil and all his angels but we go there by choice. I’ve always wondered about that. Even Satre posited that we chose hell over heaven because we are more comfortable in hell.
There is a question in their some where.
Is hell comfortable (for those who choose it)?
I appreciate your attention to my comment. I’m not sure I followed everything you said. 🙂 But as for St. Silouan’s comment about our common nature, I took it to be simply a common desire in every human being at root to love God and be loved by Him. I don’t see how the fact that we all have gone astray and believed the lies of the Devil and substituted all manner of other things for that love takes away that one basic desire that we are born with. St. Silouan seems to be saying that identitying with all other human beings is rather easy. I believe it is so in this light (our common desire for love and our common propensity to slide into “nothingness.”)
You say, “I would assume that if the love of God is sufficient to “woo” us from ourselves and to union with Him, then love wins. It’s not the love, it’s our own resistance that gives me doubts.”
I am not capable of arguing why I believe no one could eternally resist the love of God any more than I can articulate why I believe it is the nature of all God’s judgment to lead us to the Truth. I also cannot explain why knowing myself to be a chief of sinners makes me so one with all sinners that I personally feel that the loss of one single sinner would be a defeat of God’s purposes to the greatest magnitude, and hence unthinkable. I know this stops all argument, but I wanted to express my deeply heartfelt belief.
I will try not to belabor it any longer.
Isaac & Co.,
Here are some thoughts.
Isaac the Syrian’s thought depends on a specific view of impassability. God cannot change in any way and cannot suffer. If God were wrathful, then this would imply a change in God. This is impossible. Therefore, God must only be love and relate to creatures in love.
Likewise, God cannot suffer. Consequently on the Cross, the Logos doesn’t suffer but “the man” with the Logos suffers on the Cross.
In short, if this is right, Chalcedon is wrong (along with Cyril of Alexandria among others). Biblical and conciliar Christology seems like an awfully high price to pay for his universalism.
If person is the apex of being, then everything here turns on what persons can do with themselves. That is, can persons determine themselves? Do they have the power of self determination or not? If God can find some creative way to bring everyone around, then it seems not. So the question is, can people fix their characters a certain way or not?
If they ultimately they can’t because God has some nifty trick up his sleeve, then I for one can’t see how this doesn’t make everything worse. If God could bring everyone around, why not do it sooner? or in sum, if God has sufficient power and motive to eliminate evil, then there should be none. Therefore there is not a God with sufficient power and motive to eliminate evil. (Omnipotence or omnibenevolence but not both.) That seems to lead to atheism real fast. The trajectory of American universalism seems to move along this path and that seems like no accident in my judgment.
Further, as to hopeful universalism, as a species of contingent universalism, it gives the impression that it solves the hard problem of hell (how to reconcile divine goodness with the seeming evil of hell) when it only masks the problem. Here’s how.
Even if in this world, everyone ends up going to heaven as a matter of the arrangement of things and the way things just happened to go in this world, there are other logical possible situations (logically possible worlds) were some people never get out of hell and God doesn’t and can’t save all. If that is so, then the incompatibility remains. God’s goodness would be contingent on the way the world in fact went and that seems like a very large price to pay. In this way contingent universalisms fail to really address what we want them to in dealing with the problem of hell.
Fr. Kimel’s treatment or redeploying of Steenberg’s objections to the Issuant account is something he needs. The strategy seems to be to undermine the Issuant account’s coherence and credentials to cut out the theological space it occupies so that one is then forced to choose between universalism or a more penal model. But since the latter is untenable, the former is the only real option. This seems to be the implicit disjunctive argument he is attempting to make, or it is at least the apparent trajectory of his posts.
I for one do not find Steenberg’s objections to be insurmountable. In fact I find them to be quite easily answered. Kimel’s problem and that of any universalist is to explain why it was not delivered by the Apostles.
Regarding your first response:
I don’t disagree with that. I should have pointed out that the view of hell as being “God experienced as fire” has a much different place than universalism. And for the record I believe that this is the nature of hell i.e. the vision described in modern articles from Kalomiros, Metallinos, Romanides, and Chopelas. I think a very strong case can be made for it starting with scripture and moving to early Fathers and right up to the present time. But I also have to acknowledge that a fair amount of Orthodox Christians reject that idea and have a picture of hell that is nearly indistinguishable from the traditional view of the west (a created “place” where the wicked consciously experience tortures for ever and ever without end). Between those two views, do you think you could make a case that the former has much firmer ground to stand on and should therefore be viewed as the more representative view? I agree that universalism doesn’t even come close to meeting the criteria of the Vincentian canon. Would you argue that “hell is the experience of God’s presence by the wicked” does? I would love to see you make the case since I haven’t seen anybody do so convincingly on internet yet or in any book I have come across. I believe it is the “correct” view, but I don’t know if it has the kind of authority where it should be accepted by Orthodox Christians as the teaching of the Church. I’ve certainly come across a fair amount of criticisms on the internet that it is a novel view pushed in the last 30 years or so by a few heretical priests.
I will get to your second post later…
I think there are saints who know God’s love so deeply and profoundly that they have good reason to hope- to reasonably hope- all will be saved. Somehow.
It is their experience of God’s love that communicates this to them. I do not think any of them followed a line of reasoning the way you so eloquently articulate it. Is there not a deeper way of knowing? A knowledge that surprasses understanding– a knowlege rooted in communion; friendship with God?
You and I have not attained to this. But some have- and from this place they hope- reasonably hope- for the salvation of all. It seems your way of determining that it is unreasonable, is not this “knowledge that surpasses understanding.”
“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.””
I think there is a quality of love- saintly love- that so identifies with the most wicked with a merciful heart while simultaneously participating in the love of God that it knows Love is greater than anything imaginable, even the experience of darkness in the most withered and withdrawn sinner.
This, at least, seems to be the place from which mystics speak. They do not “reason” to the hopeful salvation of all the same way you “reason” to it’s unreasonableness.
They’re knowledge comes from a broken and contrite heart. It knows that “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
I am a simple man…it’s rather difficult for me to follow the scholastic terms: Issuant Account…implicit disjunctive argument…yada yada yada. I also have a fair number of foreign readers for whom formalistic English will not be accessible. Lastly, I think you succumb to a form of Orthodox scholasticism where logic is trumping everything. It can make for tight arguments, but there are other things that get left out.
For example, I do not think that St. Isaac is driven by impassibility. I think he is driven by his comprehension of God’s love. St. Isaac does not argue for a lack of Divine freedom, God must love. It’s not at all his language. You’re turning St. Isaac into a version of kind Calvinism. And it’s simply inaccurate.
Lastly, and I draw a line here…I think the ad hominem jab at Fr. Kimel, “something he needs,” (I am assuming you are referring to the tragic death of his son) is out of bounds. If you feel nothing over such things, then it is your own heart that is wounded, and not his. I read Steenberg’s (Achim. Irenaeus) objections and thought that they only shifted the problem. But, since those articles and responses were not posted on this blog, it is a distraction to bring them up. There are exquisite Orthodox minds, far more knowledgeable in the fathers than any of us (Alfeyev, Ware, Louth, et al) who seem to know St. Isaac and yet not make the kind of judgments which you make in such a facile manner. We could suggest in an ad hominem fashion that this failing of theirs is due to some perversion within their character (certainly not within their intellect). But then we would be suggesting that you (or Fr. Irenaeus) are a better man. There we get on very shaky ground.
I have not within this blog, ever sought to endorse St. Isaac’s conclusions – that would be outside the bounds that I’ve set for my writing. I am very generous towards him (as are Ware, Alfeyev, et al).
You’re welcome here, but please write within the ambience of Glory to God’s conversation, rather than Energetic Processions (a fine blog). It will contribute to the give and take.
“You’re turning St. Isaac into a version of kind Calvinism.”
It’s funny you should say that. Over at Fr. Kimel’s blog, I referred to Isaacian universalism as “optimistic Augustinianism.” To me, Isaac and Augustine often seem like two sides of the same coin.
🙂 Yes. But it first requires that Isaac be turned into a scholastic.
Do you read Isaac, by the way? He is exceedingly non-scholastic – closer to poet. I think only poetry can go to the place of the heart. He is, of course, one of the great hymnographers of Orthodoxy. St. Isaac’s theology “sings.” That is the rarest of compliments, raising him to the holy company of St. David, St. Ephrem, St. Romanos, etc. It is a choir led by the Mother of God, the sweetest hymnographer ever to breathe the air of this world!
Re: Universalism – sort of. Charles Williams, in his novel “Descent into Hell”, writes of a character sensing himself going hand-over-hand down a rope in a black space. He knew that at any time he could stop the descent and climb back up the rope, but didn’t bother to do so. At some point he realized that there was no longer a rope.
@ Phil, thanks for your thoughts, I appreciate the response.
@ Peyton, Wow…..I like that account. Thanks for sharing.
I do not know if I am correct, but I think that what makes those deified persons who encountered God first-hand, having seen the Hypostatic Light (such as St Silouan, F. Sophrony, F. Aimilianos), talk of an all conquering love, while at the same time however, combining this with the seemingly uncombinable – Man’s capability of perdition even at the face of such Love (as in the prodigal’s eldest brother)- is based not on their knowledge of God as much, but on their deep knowledge of Man’s nature. They have (in other words) acquired through experience a dogmatic consciousness of anthropolgy too.
Father Stephen brilliantly provided an explanation.
All that we can do, I sometimes think, is pray and unify to God, that part of humanity (ourselves) which is in our power to be unified to God…
One’s salvation has the most powerful repercussions on the entire body of humanity.
I might clearly and consciously desire to have God for me and for others. And when the Truth of all is revealed in that unending Day, my interpretation of what I perceive will then be what we term paradisial. But if another has chosen and cultivated and turned into second nature the desire to eat, drink, be merry, and succumb to every whim and sin of an ego that has displaced God (man’s heart retains that ability or he is not human) and wants as little of the True God as possible, then in the revelation of Christ as all in all, this would be interpreted as highly undesirable, no?
Now, just as a temtpter (who tempts me to try something I interpret as ugly e.g. try a particular drug) can be much more tempting if he is very much like me, and seems fine doing it, and his example gradually convinces me of the harmless fun to be had if I gave it a try etc. leading me to the wrong state of interpretation; so too, my joyful example of what union with Christ is, can “tempt” another who does not see that interpretation (ie: that this union is actually Heaven) better than anything…
I cannot however, get into speculation about what happens once time is no more…
The great problem is that the tempter often sounds a great deal like me to me. Much like the rich man who wanted to tear down his barns and build more. I have avoid some great sins because as much like me as the voice was I could tell, by God’s grace, that it was not.
The greatest temptation I have found is in thinking a sin is actually a virtue or at least justifying it that way.
Still, I think it is clear that hell, whatever it may be, was not prepared for us. Jesus does not want us there, yet we find ways to ignore and resist His love. Tomorrow. Yet at sometime we will face what the rich man face and “this night will your soul be required of you…”
The readiness is all.
Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand and death has been spoiled.
I can’t have your toothache. They could have experiences and they be wrong, even if they sound nice, compassionate and such. Such things are well known in the history and life of the Church. Likewise, given that individual saints can and have erred, I can only go with what the church says. So given that there is knowledge beyond the propositional, which I happily accept, I have to think about what I can know and what I ought to believe relative to the safe harbor of the Church’s teaching.
Thanks for the reply.
There may be things left out, but what is included is not overturned by them. That is just to say there is more to the story than logic, exitentially speaking, to be sure, but there isn’t less. As you well know, we aren’t Apollinarians.
As to my reading of St. Isaac, I am just going off the assessment of Bishop Hilarion who does gloss St. Isaac that way in his monograph on St. Isaac. He is quite explicit about it in his book in the section on universalism. If I am misreading him, its only because Hilarion (among others) read him that way regarding impassability as a basis for his views. And Bishop Hilarion’s work is often referred to support a universalist position. And I wasn’t reading him in a calvinistic way, but a Nestorianizing way undergirded by view of impassability common among Nestorians (Theodoret of Cyrrus also exemplifies it for example). Given his unredacted remarks on Christology, that is not really controversial or so it seems to me, and others who write on him at a professional level. I can only go off what I read on that score. And while I am no expert in St. Isaac, is there some other work you would recommend that I read where Hilarion’s reading is corrected?
As far as the alleged ad hominem, I did no such thing, nor intended any such thing. Nor could it be implied by what I wrote. When I spoke of need, I spoke of it in the context of his *arguments* for universalism and this is *why* I described how the implicit argument worked. So please believe me when I say, there was nothing personal in what I wrote.
I only referred to Steenberg’s arguments because they were gestured at via Fr. Kimel by others so i was just discussing what was already on the table.
As far as my own person goes and what I feel, I wasn’t aware that that was on the table. But in sum, I get it, which is why I have not said more and I am not alone in this across clergy and laity. It may not seem like restraint on my part, but out of my heart, it most certainly is.
I have read Isaac, though not nearly enough of him. And, while he certainly isn’t a scholastic, he is fluent in the language of mysticism, which is often technical and esoteric.
Nonetheless, his writing is very beautiful. But, then, St. Augustine is also capable of remarkable beauty:
“If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying “Amen” to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear “The body of Christ”, you reply “Amen.” Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your “Amen” may ring true! But what role does the bread play? … [L]isten … to what Paul says about this sacrament: “The bread is one, and we, though many, are one body.” Understand and rejoice: unity, truth, faithfulness, love. “One bread,” he says. What is this one bread? Is it not the “one body,” formed from many? Remember: bread doesn’t come from a single grain, but from many. When you received exorcism, you were “ground.” When you were baptized, you were “leavened.” When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, you were “baked.” Be what you see; receive what you are. This is what Paul is saying about the bread. So too, what we are to understand about the cup is similar and requires little explanation. In the visible object of bread, many grains are gathered into one just as the faithful (so Scripture says) form “a single heart and mind in God”. And thus it is with the wine. Remember, friends, how wine is made. Individual grapes hang together in a bunch, but the juice from them all is mingled to become a single brew. This is the image chosen by Christ our Lord to show how, at his own table, the mystery of our unity and peace is solemnly consecrated.”
Isaac and Augustine lived in much different worlds. Their characters weren’t all that similar. And yet their is a strange and definite correspondence between their respective eschatologies — one is the inverse of the other.
Agnikan and Michael Bauman,
While I don’t know if Scripture or Tradition has anything to add about that, the poet Dante Aligheri might have suggested something similar. Christian philosopher Eleanor Stump wrote an article on this (which can be found online) in order to explain how Dante conceived Hell, which like Thomas Aquinas’ view was located at the farthest, most weighty point from God at the center of an Aristotelian cosmos, was an artifice of Divine Wisdom and Love (!).
And, I believe either Sts. Teresa of Avila or Catherine of Siena (not sure which) saw Hell as the only possible place for those who did not want heaven, still held in existence by the love of God. For them, Hell was like a mental facility or an asylum (please pardon the analogy) where sin could no longer hurt the world and human souls trapped in their self-destructive, illusionary natures could still act out without harming anyone – kind of like C.S. Lewis’ Greytown. Of course, most Western Catholic theologians saw natures as fixed beyond death out of habituation.
In a video interview (which can be found on Youtube), Dr. Stump (who is Catholic) tries to explain historically why that was considered the case but admits some difficulty with it. She even entertains the idea that for souls which could repent and persist in the Really Real Reality of Paradise (working out of C.S. Lewis’ idea of eternal time working itself backwards in a soul’s subjective experience) Hell becomes Purgatory – at least until the Final Judgment when Heaven and Earth come together.
On an additional note, I’ve seen Catholic theologians beginning to take alternative views (more in line with the equally diverse perspectives of the many Fathers?). Besides the obvious and controversial Hans Urs von Balthasar, Peter Kreeft, for example, has adopted the “River of Fire” theology. Stratford Caldecott (who writes excellent articles at the online magazine Second Spring and with whom I’ve communicated in the past) has revived the Harrowing of Hell not unlike Metro. Hilarion Alfeyev.
I suppose that the best thing to remember at the beginning and end of all these thoughts are the words of Bl. Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Death has been conquered.
Bishop Hilarion’s book on St. Isaac is handy, but there is really no reason to go to secondary sources. There is a great new edition of St. Isaac’s homilies from Holy Transfiguration Monastery that would keep anyone busy for a lifetime reading them and then Sebastian Brock’s translation of the more recently discovered “Second Book” would complete the set (although this is an academic publication and very expensive for a mere softcover book).
Perry, you write: “If I am misreading him, its only because Hilarion (among others) read him that way regarding impassability as a basis for his views. And Bishop Hilarion’s work is often referred to support a universalist position. And I wasn’t reading him in a calvinistic way, but a Nestorianizing way undergirded by view of impassability common among Nestorians (Theodoret of Cyrrus also exemplifies it for example).”
***You’re not misreading but maybe over-reading? Bp. Hilarion makes very clear that Saint Isaac is no dyophysite. He explicitly distances the Christological thought of Saint Isaac from that of Theodore Mopuestia, for example, highlighting Saint Isaac’s use of the “mingling” (“hultana”) of God and creation at the Incarnation. Though not completely commensurate, this gets pretty close to perichoresis (and I think this is Bp. Hilarion’s main point). Please reread pp. 49-60 in Bp. Hilarion’s book that you cite. So while Saint Isaac may rely on Theodore Mopuestia’s teaching that torment is not unending, I don’t think Bp. Hilarion means also to assert that this shared belief comes from a shared Christology–something he earlier argues against (i.e., a shared Christology).
Thanks for the clarification. I’m sensitive in certain regards (the ad hominem question). Forgive me for even thinking it – my own darkness clearly makes me suspect others. I’ll go back to Hilarion myself and read more. Thanks. Met. Hilarion is clearly better read than I in St. Isaac. I had not seen the impassibility per se as such an issue in my own reading.
I’m not sure I’m being understood about what I’m saying about dogmatic universalism. It’s the difference between a professor saying you are all guaranteed an A in my class and a professor saying if you work hard you are guaranteed an A in my class. The last thing corresponds to Theosis
Be assured I don’t dispare of Universal salvation but I don’t presume it either
Thus, “the image of God as Judge is completely overshadowed in [St] Isaac by the image of God as Love (hubba) and Mercy (rahme).” Archbishop Hilarion points out that Hell (Gehenna) is a mystery, but created by God to perfect those who had not reached it during their lifetime. Actually, St. Isaac’s view of hell is closer to the Western Church’s view of purgatory. The separation of the “sheep and the goats” (Mt 25: 32-46), need not be final…..Part of the mystery may be the fact that the door of hell may very well be locked from the inside. That the person is so filled with hate he prefers hell to the act of humility that is required of unlocking the door and coming out. Sometimes children act like this when they are sent to their rooms and told they can come out when they are sorry.
The Church has not taught that all will not/cannot be saved. So then can we hope that all might be saved? Yes.
Many of those who draw nearest to God and know his love in ways most of us cannot imagine, tend to become more and more hopeful for the salvation of all
There is a certain logic in this. That is where I come from.
Logic and study have their place, but there is a more excellent way. When I listen to the Elders of the church- in whom Holy Tradition dwells bodily- I am encouraged to see the only one in danger of damnation is my own self- and to repent. As for everyone else, I will try to soften my heart enough to hope for the salvation of all.
Purity of heart is need to see things as they are. Logic will be purified in my own repentance; I will try to hold lightly what seems logical to my darkened mind now.
I wonder if we see the teaching of the Church slightly differently? I believe truth dwells only in merciful hearts. Hearts brimming with co-suffering love; these are the Apostolic deposit. This transfigured heart, alone, is holy tradition.
Blessed Sophrony, in his book about St Silouan’s life, recounts, “In the vast sea which is the life of the Church the true Tradition flows like a thin pure stream… When anything of self is introduced the waters no longer run clear, for God’s supreme wisdom and truth are the oposite of human wisdom and truth. Such renunciation appears intolerable, insane even, to the self-willed, but the man who is not afraid to ‘become a fool’ has found true life and true wisdom.”
On necessity. I’ll be re-reading Hilarion. But, I can’t say I’ve mastered the written arguments of Fr. Aidan, but we have many private conversations. I don’t even see him as having an argument in the sense of logical necessity. Rather I see the necessity of Divine Love (not a necessity that binds God, but a necessity incumbent upon us because of the revelation of Divine Love). This is a very different thing. I only know God as He is made known to me in Christ. The love of God made known in Christ Jesus constrains me in certain ways – it is this constraint that I hear in Fr. Aidan’s writings and conversations.
I hear the same constrain in the teachings of St. Silouan and others (as given us by Fr. Sophrony). I find it of interest that we have had a number of contemporary saints/elders who have echoed such thoughts. There are reasons many hope for a salvation from hell in our modern world. And I give no consideration for those who simply think of such things for reasons of mere liberalism. I have no regard for such thoughts.
But I do wonder at the modern phenomenon. One reason, I think, is that many, many Christians (or wannabe’s) have utterly thrown over certain versions of Christian tradition, and with it, entertain thoughts that a generation ago would not have been whispered. I also think there is in many quarters a predictable backlash to the harsh claims and teachings of cultural Calvinism, which has colored the thoughts of cultural protestantism rather strongly.
I hear in the universalist sympathies a hunger of love – for a transforming love that has the power to heal everything and all things. That sounds like a legitimate hunger – particularly as our world has seen so much of the opposite.
I file St. Isaac, St. Silouan, and their like under the heading of hope. They do not offer a dogma, but suggest a hope. That hope directs the heart and draws forth prayer. There is no conciliar decree against the hope of St. Silouan or St. Isaac.
One of my favorite akathists is the Akathist for the Departed found in the Jordanville Book of Akathists. It is clearly for “private” usage, though I suppose it might be used within the Church. It prays very boldly indeed and extends the love of God, through hope, about as far as can be imagined (not as far as St. Isaac, however).
May God keep hope within our hearts – in a world that frequently feels so hopeless.
Father Stephen, it is a joy to read this last comment of yours.
“what makes those deified persons who encountered God first-hand … talk of an all conquering love, while at the same time however, combining this with … man’s capability of perdition even at the face of such Love … is based not on their knowledge of God as much, but on their deep knowledge of Man’s nature.”
I have often thought that the difference between me as a universalist and others in Orthodoxy is not our view of God (we agree that He is Love and all His judgments derive from Love) but our view of man. We see, of course, in this life, all kinds of resistance and rebellion. We only have to look at our own base natures, our egotistical thoughts, who we are when we’re angry (the heart is deceitful above all things), to empathize with those who would find the presence of God distatesful (or torturous). C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce amply illustrates that slide into nothingness. My own heart does too.
Is man truly capable of resisting God forever? I believe that at the heart of every person is a divine spark that wants only to love and be loved. (Can anyone who has had children deny this?) I believe everything a child seeks when he goes the myriad splintered ways of his own devices are but substitutes for that love. But however wrong and deceived the person becomes as an adult, I could not take the child out of the adult in this world or the next! It can never be! Don’t ask me why I believe this. The child is still there within, and if that resistance continues to his death, then being cast into the outer darkness or the fire of God’s consuming Love will burn away the chaff and reveal the child again. It is very simple. 🙂 One can ask, if God is truly capable of bringing everyone to repentance why not do it sooner? I believe the answer to this is also very simple. We all need the darkness, whether in this world or the next, to see the light. By some mysterious interweaving of all things there is an educational process we all must go through. God has consigned all to disobedience so that He might have mercy on all (Romans 11:32).
I suspect that Dino, like myself, is simply being circumspect in his speech for reasons similar to my own. I do not and could never argue against the hope held out by the likes of St. Silouan. Indeed, I find it among the most endearing things of Orthodoxy. But we cannot speak where the Church has remained silent. I can’t because I’m an ordained priest and blog as an extension of that ministry (thus I may occasionally express opinions – but largely I seek to do the same thing here that I do in my parish ministry – which is teach and engage people with the teaching of the Church.) I’m sure Dino has his reasons for reservation as well.
Actually, I rarely, if ever, have encountered an Orthodox Christian who “wanted” hell to be eternal. It would trouble me if that were the case. And that’s a world of difference from thinking that, given certain things within the Tradition as well as certain Scriptures, thinking that it might, nevertheless, be eternal. To want it to be would be perverse. And in that sense, I think I could say that there is a deep universalist hope in the heart of Orthodoxy. I hear it in many of the ancient Paschal homilies. It’s why this discussion is not really unusual for an Orthodox blog where it would be highly unlikely in many other Christian locations.
Thank you for these words, Fr. Stephen. It is true that I have a very uncomfortable distrust of the Fathers who defend the eternality of hell and have considered it providential that the Divine Liturgy and the prayers that accompany it can all very easily be taken in a universalist light — this in spite of the fact that St. John Chrysostom himself would not have meant it to be. (But I believe now he would. 🙂 )
If it weren’t for St. Isaac who gives credence to my own beliefs and others such as you and Father Aidan, who from our eternal Source of Love have voiced that life-giving hope for the final healing of all Creation, I would be teetering on the very edge of the Orthodox Church. This is sufficient for me, praise be to God.
My greatest joy will be to be able to praise God with Arius and Nestorius in the great banquet of the Kingdom! My whole being revolts against the liturgical dancing on their graves we find in the canons!
Wow. Not everybody makes it Leonard. While there will certainly be surprises your approach seems to indicate that belief does not matter.
If they are there it will be because they genuinely and deeply repented.
We can hope for that but we cannot assume it even for ourselves.
I pray for both of them Michael and I explain to my friends that I don’t especially enjoy the liturgical dancing on their graves in the canons. It can get a little venomous. Listen to them sometimes
I suppose it’s easy to talk about universal salvation as long as you don’t dig any actual bodies up!
The real question is whether Jesus’ work of salvation goes on after bodily death or if we get only this brief and transient time united with our bodies?
Perhaps Father can address that.
Is the venom directed at them personally or have they become archetypes? Perhaps both?
They are archetypes I suppose of people who have tried to harm us and whom we are permitted to hate. I think what happened with St Nicholas at the council has been misunderstood. That incident has become heroic. Actually the punching of Arius was shameful and will remain so for all time. Nicholas was reinstated not because what he did was meritorious but for other reasons. But I repeat there was nothing heroic about punching Arius in the face. He was lucky it wasn’t George Zimmerman he was punching!
We are no where permitted to hate our enemies. The canons of the Church at no point sing of hate or encourage it. They do poetically describe various heretics and their heresies but do not teach us to hate. That would be contrary to the commands of Christ.
indeed: “at the heart of every person is a divine spark that wants only to love and be loved.”
However, this very thing that leads us to Love Himself is what becomes perverted and leads us astray.
To use an extreme example -as St Silouan does somewhere -, take a selfish man who is never content with his lot -St Silouan talks of this man as being like Lucifer. This ‘man’ is not like those who suffer in the desperate darkness of hades but are eventually saved due to a combination of the Church’s prayers for the departed and other things. This ‘man’ is never content due to a deep perversion that pride has cemented in his heart. Call it ‘extra-selfish’. It is not that he is “cast into hell”, no. It is that he is placed in heaven and wants a little higher, and a little higher, and when he is placed next to God’s throne he still isn’t content – like Lucifer!
It’s all a little reminiscent of that ugly joke:
God promises two poor farmers a wish, one of them is selfish the other is ‘extra-selfish’. The first thinks hard -the sky is the limit- and asks for a fine cow…! The second however, asks for his neighbour’s cow to die!
In this scenario, if a third, saintly person was to ask for a cow for each of the others -ignoring himself- it would have a benign effect -at least of gratitude- on the first one, however, the ‘extra selfish’ one would become hardened further even by this!
I hope that all are saved! Indeed, but our Fathers knew better than we did when they said what they said… There is great doubt even now in some circles in Greece on the authenticity of the newfound Homilies assigned to St Isaac that are far more universalist (the ones that talk of Satan’s eventual salvation). I do not know what to make of those claims – i had a discussion with F Aidan on that a while ago. The fact remains that, as much as I want it I must be obedient to the Church.
A very holy clairvoyant Elder, the constantly smiling Elder Evmenios Saridakis who fought physically and won the devil like saint Anthony once said to Metropolitan Neophytus of Morphos, Cyprus:
Dino the elders prayer lacked one thing. You indeed didn’t forget to pray that God save all Catholics but it seems he forgot pray for God tom to save all Orthodox.
We are Orthodox Christians. Catholics are, sadly, divided from us. Do you understand then why the Elder would pray for those who are not in Communion with us? There is something lacking in the Catholic Church- the hope and desire of this Elder is for Christ’s overwhelming love would make up for what is lacking.
There is something lacking in the Catholic Church- the hope and desire of this Elder is for Christ’s overwhelming love would make up for what is lacking……huh?
Although It wasn’t wrong for him to ask God to save Muslims, the devil, and Catholics
Mark Basil there is so much about the Orthodox church that compels me to join it and so much about the Catholic church that compels me to leave it. It’s the constant mis-characterization of Catholics that eventually sobers me up and reminds me that I may not be any happier there
I cannot tell an eskimo he needs to realise that people lying on beaches is far more normal…
please realise that this is an Elder that was brought up in Crete, unlettered, very simple and without the ‘globalist’ mindset that is now part of every westerner’s knowledge. As a very traditional unlettered Greek he would have only even found out about the existence of non Orthodox at a later age than kids find out about the existence of suicide, homosexuality and even porn in a western city. His words -especially the original Greek recording which is saved- are grossly misunderstood by such a critical lens/angle.
I have only had a chance now to read Fr Stephen’s fine article and read through the many comments. What an interesting discussion.
Given all that I have already written on my own blog, I do not have much to add. I simply want to strongly reiterate what others have said: it’s all about the absolute, infinite, impassible love and mercy of God, sealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those of us who confidently hope in the salvation of all do so not because we have embraced some form of secular ideology or philosophy, but because we have been persuaded by the gospel that divine love will ultimately triumph over all sin and evil.
Is hell real? Of course it is. I have experienced hell in the depths of my soul. Is it possible for me to take my hell with me into the afterlife? Of course it is. This possibility terrifies me. It terrifies me that family and friends and neighbors and strangers might realize this possibility in their historical lives.
But I refuse to concede that this possibility will ultimately and eternally prevail. Why? Because: “Christ is risen from the dead, Trampling down death by death, And upon those in the tombs Bestowing life!” As Fr Stephen likes to say, Pascha is our hermeneutic. The resurrection is precisely good news, good and wondrous news for all. It is not good news for some, namely, the saints, and terrible news for the rest of us who know hell all too well. I do not need to know precisely how God will realize his universal salvific will. All I need to do is to trust in his omnipotent Love. God will triumph over my sin, over my attachments to the world, over my hatred and bitterness and disillusionment. He will do so, not through physical coercion or brainwashing, but through the ravishment of his suffering Love.
The Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde was once asked, “Do you believe that the love of God is irresistible?” His reply: “I certainly hope so. Don’t you?”
Fr. Aidan. My own experience is that the divine love is not irresistible, just relentless, never ending, a bit like the Chinese water torture when I am holding hard to my sins. He is always there, waiting with unutterable patience and mercy. When my will fatigues, there He is to remind me to come back, the door is open, the table set and He would love to have me.
I think it entirely possible that someone could be so determined in a Satanic way, that they would not respond to His entreaty. My hope however is that those people are rare indeed.
Having been through a hell similar to yours, I take great comfort in that hope and do not believe my hope is without foundation or in vain.
Our God is not just as we perceive justice for “in the course of (human) justice none of us should see salvation…”.
Nevertheless I reject universalism as normally conceived because repentance is always required and my understanding that our Lord will never force us.
I also reject the belief that only a select few will really be included in His Kingdom. Hell is prepared for satan and his angels, not us. That has been so from the beginning.
By your prayers Father.
All of the universalists I have come across have insisted that all must freely repent to be saved. Can you explain what you mean by “as normally conceived?” Maybe there are universalists that are like Calvinists in positing an irresistible grace for all people (instead of only a few people) but I have not personally come across them.
Isaac the universalism in the common mind outside the Church is that God forgives everyone since the idea of the need to repent and the idea of sin is so watered down as to be nonexistent.
A variant of it is prevalent in the “once saved, always saved” folk that is being extended to include everyone. Kinda the Disney version of salvation.
Universalism that includes the necessity of repentance really isn’t universal is it?
Since many Christians live in a time bound universe. That question does not occur to them.
In any case, we are better served in this world to make repentance the main point as did Jesus when He began His ministry.
The only real question then becomes is there a time limit to the offer?
“Nevertheless I reject universalism as normally conceived because repentance is always required and my understanding that our Lord will never force us.”
But no one has suggested otherwise, Michael. Of course we must turn to the Lord in repentance, humility, and faith. How could there be a relationship of mutual love otherwise? And of course God does not “force” us against our will. How could there be a a relationship of mutual love if he violently imposed himself us and violated our personal integrity and freedom?
But might we not entertain the possibility of transcending the alternatives as posed? We are not talking about coercion but a Love that can knock us off our horses and persuade us of its truth, a Love that can conquer our willful resistance and bring us to faith, a Love that can quietly seduce our hearts and inflame them to love. Was the Apostle Paul coerced? Was St Augustine coerced? Was C. S. Lewis coerced? I know that our logic cannot take us beyond the impasse posed by philosophy and commonsense–Hell is so damn logical!–but St Gregory Nyssen and St Isaac of Ninevah saw beyond the impasse. The Song of Songs is a better guide at this point than the hard, uncompromising logic of the philosophers. Love always comes to us as grace and surprise. Lovers know this.
Olivier Clement once asked Elder Sophronius what would happen if a person does not agree to open his or her heart and accept the love of God. Sophronius replied, “You may be certain that as long as someone is in hell, Christ will remain there with him.”
And if Christ is eternally with the damned, then there must always be hope, confident hope. The only alternative is despair.
I cannot answer on Michael’s behalf, but I do agree with him… I think that ‘freely’ repenting implies there must be something in man and in angel that always retains the capacity to say no. Remove that and you have not got a human. As Elder Aimilianos says in his commentary on Saint Nilus from Calabria, the scary thing is that a Saint is someone who constantly has the ability to fall and yet doesn’t. He is completely free when he makes his self a ‘slave’ to God. He has no psychological complexes of self-oppression (because of his up-bringing or his fear of hell, or his desire for heaven – he must ascend much further than this pitiful state). A Saint is a “Son/Daughter”! He too, like God, will refrain from ‘seducing’ with love for the sake of an infinite respect of another’s freedom first and foremost. In fact he inspires others to respect their selves through this…
God’s love is ‘irresistible’ precisely because He chooses to allow such an omnipotent force to be ‘resistible’!
This inconceivable respect of God for his creatures who have been granted freedom is the aspect of His love that man struggles to understand because it means that creation of free creatures entails -from the beginning – the Cross! This is why the Church cannot as a whole proclaim what she prays for (salvation of all)….
“You may be certain that as long as someone is in hell, Christ will remain there with him.” certainly agrees with the river of fire notion too does it not? (For some very few like Satan perhaps)
And here’s the wrinkle in a universal salvation that has not been noted – which is – in fact – the most common Orthodox wrinkle. Many of the fathers and elders teach that there can be no repentance beyond death – and this thought is based on certain considerations viz. the soul apart from the body, etc. (which I’ve never quite comprehended thus I can’t replicate it here). In this understanding, the hope beyond death lies in the prayers of the Church and God’s mercy – in that sense we’re all in this together. Considering the sorry shape of my soul, I want all of you to know that I’m counting on you.
There are many thoughts that are possible within this model. I particularly like it on account of it’s emphasis on communion, and salvation as communion, whereas the other could be treated as the ultimate individualistic account.
Thank you for this wonderful post, Fr. Stephen.
Father, no one here has suggested salvation without repentance, but many not here do. I believe it was Bonhoeffer who coined the term “cheap grace”, i.e. grace without the cross or without repentance among other things. Many in the world, even if they haven’t abandoned God, long for the easy way out. Dino did reflect my point quite well in his post.
Unfortunately, there are probably some within the Church who want the cheap stuff too. That is why I think the necessity for repentance needs to be emphasized as my reply to Isaac said.
Although reductionistic, it could be said that a great deal of Western Christian thought has been squandered on “easy” ways to salvation from indulgences, to predestination, to “once saved, always saved”, to absolute universalism.
I have a question: does the approach we are discussing lend itself to limited acceptance of some sort of purgatory like state?
The parable of the Prodigal Son, right from the beginning of the narrative, reveals the Father’s answer to His younger son’s demands: the Crucifixion! This is because it has the same kenotic (self-emptying) character…
This is because the Father of the parable accepts to be behaved towards -by His son- exactly as if He was dead. Although Alive, the deeper aspect of the son’s side of the relationship implies this very concept of death. And what does this mean for the son? It means that he has been given an aspect of perfect and absolute freedom: freedom to act as if there he no longer had a Father; freedom to behave towards Him as if He was deceased, nothing.
This freedom is the freedom God gave to man at his creation. He has allowed him to treat Him as if He did not exist. As if He, the Creator, were dead. And further still, He has bestowed such freedom, that man can even kill Him if he so wants.
In this respect the creation of man contains within it the Cross. The creation of man by God, as an act of emptying and self-offering, included the death of God on the Cross. The glorious Resurrection and the glorious Cross, are one and the same in Orthodoxy. My understanding is that this is not unrelated to the notion of God’s Love being both Light and Fire at the same time. Where one interprets the Cross as shameful and the Love as Fire, another interprets them as glorious and as light… The younger brother eventually repents and sees the light of love (no matter how suspect his motives – God accepts everything in His immeasurable love), however, the elder son sees the fire of love. He does this not so much because God’s / the Father’s love towards him scorches him. No! He does this because God’s love towards all others scorches him.
Father Stephen salvation as communion. We are urged and at times required to go to confession before partaking of the Eucharist yet within the Divine Liturgy, the priest says that the Eucharist is for the forgiveness of sins.
So how does the wrinkle you bring up, which was lurking in the back of my mind too, fit in with the rest of our discussion?
It could be said that some are in hell only because the prayers of the Church are not yet complete…
Concerning the aspect of Communion with all others being a stumbling block (as we see in the elder brother of the prodigal) in their interpretation of heaven as heaven, Elder Paisios’ metaphor I have repeatedly recounted comes to mind:
Another famous description of the reason why someone ‘remains’ in hell is communion with others, the lack of it, is the parable of the Onion (From The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky). Although, to start off with, it describes a classic folk-style legalistic understanding of hell, widespread after the middle-ages in Europe, (I plead we don’t go off on that criticism and actually ignore that here) it then goes on to the “real, deep matter at hand” –lack of communion with our neighbour:
Here is an embellished version I found and absolutely loved:
“And the angel wept”. And I can’t often find tears for my own sins because I love them too much. How can I weep for the sins of others and not condemn them?
this very weeping of the angel, the weeping of the Saints for the others is what proves their union with God. It is as if that blessed union which is paradise, (union with Christ -the enhypostasised Paradise), births effortless oneness with all others (His body), and all separation is healed.
And to look at it another way:
Just like a demonic soul “feels hell even in heaven” (because hell is born of separation, non-communion- the main characteristic of his ego), a holy one, “feels heaven even in hell”(since heaven is the communion that has become the main characteristic of his person)…!
I believe the answers to these things are only revealed to the pure in heart. They are utterly opaque to reason. It is their knowledge of true communion that causes many of the fathers and elders to speak as they do. We hear them as if they were visitors from another world.
“There are many thoughts that are possible within this [no repentance after death] model. I particularly like it on account of it’s emphasis on communion, and salvation as communion, whereas the other could be treated as the ultimate individualistic account.”
The emphasis on communion and salvation as communion in this model sounds appealing and makes me think of Ezekial 22 where God was dependent on finding someone to “stand in the gap” (i.e. pray?) so that He would not have to destroy the land (Ezekiel 22). Definitely a communal effort implied here. But if this “model” is true, the question can’t help but be raised: What would we be praying for when we pray for those who died unrepentant other than that they turn to God? How could God’s mercy save them if they did not repent and turn toward Him?
I have heard it taught among the Orthodox that the unforgivable sin is simply that sin which is not repented of. So apparently it is unforgivable only as long as it stays unrepented. If this is true and we keep in mind Jesus’ words that the unforgivable sin will not be forgiven in this life or the next, it seems Jesus is saying that even in the world to come a sin cannot be forgiven without being repented. It would seem that to be forgiven after death requires repentance every bit as much as it does in this current life.
There are many people who claim that the teaching that there can be no repentance after death is a dogma (or the Consensus?) of the Church. Is it?
Connie, I’ve not seen the “no repentance after death” as a dogma. But I’m open to correction on it. St. Gregory of Nyssa would be a dissenter from such a teaching. But I just don’t know.
Try this one on for size: “What would we be praying for?” We would be repenting for them. There is far more in the nature of true communion than most people have dreamed. It’s no harder to grasp that than to understand that Christ took our sins upon Him (particularly if you’re not thinking of that act of communion as a propitiation for God’s wrath).
I know that the linkg to Fr. Aiden’s blog discussion on hell has already been provided.
However, I would like to link to a particular comment there that stuck in my mind and is relevant to this discussion. (see the final line of the second comment – interesting idea presented by “sorqaqtani”)
Again, I just haven’t seen this cheap grace model from the universalists I have read. Thomas Talbott is a big name among evangelical universalists and he emphasizes repentance and the idea that many may suffer long ages in Gehenna before they finally relent. George MacDonald certainly doesn’t have a cheap grace model in his sermons and stories.
If anything waters down the nature of repentance I think it would be the fundamentalists and evangelicals who preach the gospel in the “if you died tonight do you know where you would go?” mode which is followed by having the unsaved say a simple prayer to get out of hell. I’ve seen so many people “saved” that way that exhibited not even a hint of change or repentance after it. It is like salvation is reduced to saying the secret password rather than being transformed into a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven such that it would actually be paradise and not hell for them to live in it. But these are the same people who would reject even the hope of universalism out of hand because they believe in a God that won’t forgive and won’t permit people out of hell unless they say the right things and take advantage of free gift of salvation. This is miles away from the universalist picture of the Father who waits on his prodigals to come home or the good shepherd who goes out searching for a single lost sheep in the dark and danger of night.
I have thought for a long time that the question of universalism does not revolve around God, but only revolves around whether particular persons will not open the door and will not bow the knee. It really doesn’t even occur to me that it could happen any other way, either by force from God or by simply looking the other way and letting many in on a technicality.
I always have a response ready to those who would ask me if I died tonight do I know where I would go. I’d say that I was absolutely certain it would not be heaven.
we’ve certainly seen a solid faith, solid beyond all doubt, in those Elders on mount Athos of late, that “the Law of communicating vessels” is at work – even with those departed. First and foremost in the Divine Liturgy, then in all prayer, as well as absolutely everything else, down to minute thoughts. Even these apparently small details can (and do) have cosmic repercussions…
A common example would be the advise to “go and take Holy Communion ‘in place’ of your dying relative” (who is perhaps too ill to even swallow on their death bed), as well as countless other such counsels.
While reading in one of Markides’ small books, the monastic character uses the word anadoche as a sort of spiritual principle – clearly in a manner much deeper than the sense of “sponsorship” that it would have for the use of a godparent’s role. I’ve found no discussion of the term anywhere else. Markides loves to use Greek words (perhaps allowing the reader to be freed from English presumptions). But I have wanted to know more. Can you say anything about this? Is it related to the “law of communicating vessels”?
leonard – you wrote:
“I always have a response ready to those who would ask me if I died tonight do I know where I would go. I’d say that I was absolutely certain it would not be heaven.”
I would rather say, “I would throw myself upon the infinite mercy of God” (to hope for heaven does not mean that I am good but that God is). Let us keep our eyes on mercy and heaven, rather than on sin and hell.
Father Stephen, I have been a quiet reader of your blog for years and always very interested and delighted with your writing. You have reached a very sensitive topic in one of your comments which sadly only now have noticed: the Personhood and its mystery, our false self and inner resistance.
Please, Father Stephen, if you would care at some point to write extensively on this precise topic, because I find this inner resistance to be the ultimate doom of us (well, myself) and something of paramount importance in our relationship to God and salvation.
I want to believe I am not the only one orthodox who DESPITE the gifts of holy baptism, communion, some modest ascesis and prayer, finds herself in a hole of inner self-confusion when it gets to “Thy will be done”. I know I am flawed in ways that sometimes feel almost unfixable but I also cannot begin to imagine what would be left of me if God indeed all of a sudden “healed” me. Where would I be if I indeed were to (with Grace from God) lived in Christ.
This subject is smth that brings forth a host of anxiwties (in the face of an imagined self-destruction and annihilation of my identity) and also major guilt when I realize that I cant understand this process yet in my current state I cannot be saved.
Please do not ignore this comment because this thing creeps in almost my every prayer and confession, tainting it with falsehood somehow and by clinging to “myself” (because what else is here inside?) I feel I am constantly lieing to God and hiding behind bushes trying to preserve this self.
Sogned, a 30 yo orthodox by name from Romania.
I have no certainty and can only offer my logismos on the subject father… My suspicion is that the term ‘anadoche’ -in monastic circles- does indeed have added nuance. The standard synonym in Greek -for ‘anadochos’ and ‘nonos’ (Godparent)- is funnily enough, ‘spiritual father’ -obviously a different understanding to the more commonly referred definition for ‘confessor’ etc.
The thing is that ‘pneymatiki anadoche’ would easily be understood as referring to that particular Spiritual Father who has birthed you (once – “or the most”) into Christ. It is often the case that a novice who goes through that most beautiful period of extremely frequent confession and a permissible ‘attachment’ to his geronda/confessor, like an open vessel, is emptied of his previous content and filled with his spiritual father’s tradition, who has also been through the same process before with his staretz etc. The ‘New Man’ emerges, consciously having been birthed into Christ by that Spiritual Father, who has left an indelible mark on his disciple. This as we know (less commonly) could be someone else. The obvious examples being St Silouan and F Sophrony or Joseph the Hesychast and Elder Ephraim of Katounakia who had other confessors initially, as well as subsequently. However, the spiritual ‘anadoche’ seems to me to be something that stays for ever. No matter how many confessors Elder Ephraim of Katounakia had after and before Joseph the Hesychast, his “by the prayers of our holy fathers’ will always mean for him -mainly- Joseph the hesychast, until the end of time. The same with F Sophrony and St Silouan, the same with all the monks and nuns who were birthed in Christ and tonsured by Elder Aimilianos. The father’s ‘phronema’, his spirit – as they say in Greek- is profoundly evident. Moreover, one who has had that experience clearly feels that they are constantly ‘swimming’ in that spirit – especially in their coenobium or their skete. They see compunctionate dreams of their long deceased Father giving them sweet consolation decades later when they are totally ‘standing on their own two feet’.
The Father too, knows that he is to enter the Heavenly Kingdom with those particular children of his, and like Moses, would have them enter first.
The “law of communicating vessels” seems to come into it (me thinks) when we see aspects such as this:
I become a novice and go through this ‘process’, indelibly connecting myself to a particular Father whom I delight in wanting to obey in everything more than I want to breath, I see it clear as day that this is the fastest of all roads to Christ! – he is like a direct vessel through which God flows towards me.
Now. The strange thing is that my father’s father, whom I have never ever met, becomes someone I know unbelievably intimately – the “vessel communication” extends further and further back, I read about his geronda/father in Christ and realise I know him too!
There is great breadth in this understanding of course. Eg: St Mary of Egypt would probably consider the Theotokos her spiritual anadochos, I am pretty certain of that. Sorry for the benighted rambling… I ask for your prayers Father!
This is quite helpful – and what I had already thought was the case – I needed confirmation.
I do not know whether God will permit me to travel in the manner that my heart desires. I long to visit Greece and the Holy Mountain, and long as well for certain places in Russia. It has been interesting to me of late, that some of my writing has been translated and posted on sites related to the Holy Mountain, as well, recently, on sites related to Moscow. It’s obvious to me that there is a spiritual kinship there, and I would love to have the freedom to engage in that face-to-face. Orthodox America is extremely isolating (when it comes to faces).
I have seen these (excellent) translations too, and it made me very glad. There is undeniable kinship Father, indeed!
But the long pilgrimages and excursions are inevitable for those not living in such blessed settings. However, I lately suspect that the cosmic aspect of that hesychastic spirit one finds in those places is starting to have its benign repercussions in America, irrespective of the multiplication of secularism. Your words often inflate this impression I get. 🙂
Like lx crow, I would also be glad of any thoughts on ‘true self’ and ‘false self’. I had been wondering ( as a student of psychoanalysis) about correlations (though not conflations) with Hell and being ‘stuck’ in a false self. I read your post some time back on Fr. Thermos’ book on this topic and have found that book hugely helpful.
Within the large spectrum of psychoanalytic theory, it seems true across the board that healing comes through being able to truly relate to an other (communion). From every foray I’ve made in any psychoanalytic direction, I see no evidence that speaks against an ontological claim that we are made for communion and to live from a ‘true self’. It’s also interesting that empathy is considered a powerful agent of change…I think of that and the phrase ‘that which is not assumed is not healed’ as the ontological basis of all empathy.
lx crow, you will be in my prayers. I think I understand some of what you are saying. I certainly understand existential anxiety. But, I do believe that God works through transformation and growth, not annihilation. Of course, I don’t speak with any ‘authority’ on that, but that has been my experience over and over again.
“Try this one on for size: “What would we be praying for?” We would be repenting for them. There is far more in the nature of true communion than most people have dreamed. It’s no harder to grasp that than to understand that Christ took our sins upon Him (particularly if you’re not thinking of that act of communion as a propitiation for God’s wrath).”
I can almost grasp this in light of the interconnectedness of all of Adam. And I’m open to this possibility as long as it does not contradict my belief in the God whose love does not (ultimately) fail. 🙂 If I became convinced that the teaching that there is no repentance after death was definitively a dogma of the Church I would have to seriously look into what repenting FOR someone else might mean. But for now it makes my brain feel like jello. lol
Thank you for again expressing so beautifully what I so fervently believe to be true.
I have not heard of “the Law of communicating vessels” — an interesting phrase. I think for many Christians, Orthodox and non Orthodox, when they pray in the context of “Thy will be done,” they are truly aligning themselves with Christ, and the love and forgiveness they desire for others might be “in the air” so to speak and somehow reach and change them. And I do find Charles Williams’ concept of coinherence appealing as I find C.S. Lewis’ assertion that we can paddle everybody’s canoe but our own to be true and life-giving.
The interconnectedness of all of Adam…..This is an amazing and interesting idea. I wonder what some of the consequences would be.
I wouldn’t be 100% comfortable with the description of God’s love as ‘failing’, universalism or not.
If His respect of His creatures’ freedom endures forever, His love also never fails, but those who talk of an eternal rejection of God, clearly imply that the rejecting ones are tormented by that very love that never fails. This is what the River of Fire view describes: those locking themselves in their hell/ego do not want God’s love to win them over, they would want it to fail, but it never does!
I am clearly describing what the Fathers say about Satan here of course, but we must be careful not to shift the argument towards the direction Satan would want… This direction is one that can enable man to blame God… Discernment and vigilance is needed here!
Dino, I do not have quite the confidence you do in any of the Fathers or saints. They have said some very odd things that leave us still to have to sort out and determine for ourselves (by the grace of God) what is true.
So here is a wild conjecture: Maybe if the Church Fathers had ever had children of their own, some of their conclusions would be very different! I cannot imagine St. John Chrysostom looking into the eyes of a child, one given him by God to love and nurture from the very beginning of his life on earth, and seeing the child’s trust and love for him, and then being able to say the (to me, repugnant) things he said about hell, retribution, and punishment. Pain is needful, certainly. As Lewis says, it is God’s megaphone. But apparently according to Chrysostom, the vast majority of humanity will end up consciously in torturous pain, not as God’s megaphone, but for sheer retribution and for all eternity.
Chrysostom was a very holy man, apparently, yet every honest bone in my body has to say he is dead wrong here. The saints are not infallible, and I personally can only trust “teaching” that is consistent with the God whose Love does not fail. You say you can only trust to the teaching of the Church. But the question is, which saints, what teaching, what consensus? It is my personal belief that man is not capable by his very makeup to resist the love of God eternally. And that if he could, it would be a major failing of the Love of God to maintain someone in (self-inflicted) torture for eternity. I don’t see this belief as going against any official dogma of the Church. I am under the impression that in Orthodoxy, between all the Church Fathers, the saints and elders, we are given a pretty wide berth on issues that are not dogmatized.
How would we be able to determine the differences between Fathers that saw Gehenna as temporary and those who saw it as a forever thing? The Greek is more confusing than helpful in these situations. I think it would make a huge difference to know that a person describing the pains of hell took it for granted that they would not continue forever.
What does it mean that Christ will put everything under foot before turning over the Kingdom to the Father? How could every knee bend unless this was willingly? How can God be “all in all” and why does the process of getting to this seem to imply a distance between the Last Judgment and Christ turning rule over to the Father? What about the interpretation that the gates of the Heavenly Jerusalem are always open? Reading St. Paul assuming he was a universalist and then reading him assuming he believes in the forever separation of a portion of humanity makes a huge difference in how he is interpreted. So on top of wondering which Fathers to follow we have to ask if we have truly understood them. Chrysostom’s words seem all out of character of his life and charity.
I will give some thought to your question and try to write more extensively on the matter. But in the meantime, try not to give it thought or let it trouble you. We will not fail in the kingdom of God because of our lack of understanding. Seek God, trust in His mercy.
Though, in a manner, if you or I were “healed” of an instant, and were suddenly our “true selves,” it would not be a shock or a pain of loss. I believe it would be a wonder of true recognition. We have moments – short glimpses of this true self – and such moments are marked with great peace and even with great joy. There is no second-guessing in such moments. I think it would be a tremendous relief to find ourselves suddenly unburdened in such a way – not a loss of identity – but the discovery of true identity.
When Christ named Simon to be “Peter,” in truth he seemed so unlike a rock. He was a braggart. He boasted. He trusted in his own strength. He felt so self-confident (in the false self) that it did not trouble him to rebuke Christ Himself. He was carrying a sword in the Garden of Gethsemane, and immediately drew it and tried to kill a man (he missed and cut his ear off). And then he fled and denied Christ. He is not recorded as having been at the scene of the Cross (unlike the Beloved Disciple John).
But he was becoming the rock. In the full story of the life of St. Peter, it seems clear that becoming his true self “the rock,” took his entire life. He was even doctrinally shaky according to St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul had to “withstand” Peter to his face in Antioch to bring him back to his doctrinal senses (and Peter had been the first disciple to have a revelation about the Gentiles being acceptable to God).
We are in the hands of the “Great Physician,” a God who is the doctor of souls – He knows how to heal us. And He knows His patients so well, He’s even aware of how silly (and so many other things) we can be as patients and takes it into account in the course of our healing.
Basically, we should trust that God so wants to save us and to heal us, that it will takes us resisting Him with all of our might, relentlessly and without wavering in order to be lost. To be lost is contrary to the will of God. Which is very difficult to resist.
I’ll write more. May God grant you peace!
Part of the drift into delusion and towards un-existence would seem to include losing a sense of identity and concocting all kinds of fictions about ourselves that had nothing to do with our true selves. There is a great talk by Peter Kreeft related to the Lord of the Rings in which he discusses the loss of identity (through the lens of Gollum) as one of the signs or conditions of damnation. The great horde of demons were only “legion” because they no longer remembered their names. It has been my observation that as people go deeper into sin the lies they tell about themselves become manifold. And the scary thing is not that they tell lies to cover their shame and hope that others will see them in a better light (we all do this or have the temptation to do this)but when they are saying things about themselves that are clearly lies yet they believe them.
The movement towards theosis would then mean the movement towards life and light and also a true identity based not on the accumulated collection of stories we tell about ourselves to form the ego, but based precisely on how God sees us. So it is an identity based in reality. It is the white stone (Revelations 2:17) upon which our true name is written.
Walker Percy was brilliant at pointing out the malaise of modern people, who know more about the outside world than any generation before, but seemingly far less about the nature of who we are. If a general movement of history leads to people having an increasing sense of losing identity then existentially it has to be a movement towards un-existence.
forget Chrysostom and contemplate Elder Sophrony for a bit. You never experienced such love from your parents or your children, such respect that made you respect yourself in his presence, and yet you saw his words quoted above on the matter!
Did you ever meet the Elder Sophrony? I’ve been to his monastery, and met the community there. The sense of “presence” was so strong whenever I was with any of the community. There was a “largeness” that I cannot describe – but it seemed that each person in the community was wholly there for you – in a manner I’ve never encountered before. It was so palpable. I prayed at the Elder’s tomb and blessed a hand cross there (with an icon of St. Silouan carved on its obverse).
It’s a case of what I just described above Father, “The strange thing is that my father’s father, whom I have never ever met, becomes someone I know unbelievably intimately – the “vessel communication” extends further back”
Connie (et al.),
I have come to realise after intense adventures on the subject, that the key issue, the real crux of the problem, far more often than not, is this:
Our trouble with universal salvation or not is not the same as that of Saints such as St Silouan. What I say is admittedly mainly based on Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra (who notably happens to have been Elder Sophrony’s and Elder Ephraim’s –of Katounakia- last confessor as far as I know).
Our love or our pity towards those who might never be able to be captivated by God’s inexorable Love contains within it a measure of unconscious attachment . That is the issue!
The ‘harsh’ (and very monastic sounding) renunciation of all my ‘loves’ is (scandalously for secular understanding) the sine qua non of ever hoping to arrive at true Love… If I love another person, or even all of humanity “directly”, I am in great danger of separation from God. (I call it ‘tower of Babel love’ – which is almost callously severe a description of course, especially if I think of my love towards my children)
Nevertheless, true love of others escapes delusion only if it is through God’s love. If I love those I love because God loves them, NOT because my heart warms towards them, then I am in the ‘land of safety’ – safety from accusing God of something… (Our adversary will never tire of trying to make God-accusers of us using the subtlest of ways.)
In fact, I would then not be able to love any one person more than any other person, since 100% of the motivation to love my neighbour (which is of course the “2nd commandment”) would come from the “1st commandment”!
100% of my heart would be given over to God then – given to nothing or nobody else whatsoever- and it would then be His Grace that would overflow as effortless oneness with all…
Dino, there may be some (or many) out there who have those attachment issues and who also may subscribe to the cheap grace version of universalism. But I can adamantly say that from my experience, and I assume from the experience of others here on this blog, you are wrong as to “attachment” being an issue. It is BECAUSE we have experienced God’s love for others and can enter into that love for them that we know He could not maintain someone in torturous misery eternally when there is no hope for redemption. It could not be in His nature, His love, to do so.
George MacDonald has said (as I also strongly felt as a child): “I well remember feeling as a child that I did not care for God to love me if He did not love everybody: the kind of love I needed was the love that all men needed, the love that belonged to their nature as the children of the Father, a love He could not give me except He gave it to all men.” A Christian universalist knows that God loves all men, that He does not pick and choose whom He will love, that every person is precious beyond measure in His sight. Is it so hard to see other people, the vilest, most sinful people, in this light? St. Silouan implied it was quite easy. Well, I concur. When we love seemingly hopeless people are we not participating in the love that God has for them? Is that love going to be futile? For me, if I can accept its futility, then that love becomes both shallow and unreal — and not from God. From the depths of my being, I believe that God’s love does not fail. Nobody can take that away from me without taking meaning itself away.
I know there are many saintly people who say yes, sometimes our love for others is futile. I can deeply respect them and be in awe of many things about them, but on this particular point I will disagree to my dying day.
If we want universal salvation it implies we want communion with everyone. I’m not sure we really want that. To paraphrase Augustine: Lord give me communion with Everyone! Just not right now.
Leonard, I know people who cannot tough out the unpleasantness of being “out of sorts” with fellow parishioners. I daresay they’re not ready for communion with those in hell. It’s important that no one be too abstract about all of this – and I think many are. It makes more sense to begin to practice communion with the enemy that is closest at hand. Thus, in your case, it would be more important to be in true communion with other Roman Catholics who annoy you than with the Orthodox whom you might visit. Indeed, we can be drawn to certain issues, people, etc. and miss the communion that is most demanded of us. Communion, particularly the communion in the Blood of Christ, is not mine to give, not even as a priest. At my ordination I was told to “guard” the gifts (as are all Orthodox priests). I guard them from every effort of false communion – for a false communion is not life and light, but death and darkness. There are many forms of communion extended by some that are just such death (though this is truly, I think, unintentional). All the more reason to guard it.
Dear to God Connie;
speaking as one who agrees strongly that in the end Love Wins, I have followed your comments and agree with all the reasoning you have provided.
What seems to give me more pause in this, is the same that holds me back from following Perry’s reasoning to its cogent end: I am still passion-ridden.
My holy spiritual father also holds to the hope for the salvation of all- indeed he has said it is the only thing that “makes sense” to him. Unlike myself, he speaks as a hermit and ascetic the likes of which I have never met. In his presence I feel the Spirit of this love and peace. Until I myself and communicating such love and peace by my very presence, I will struggle to hold my own reasoning lightly.
Perry has his own emotional, psychological, historical makeup. I have mine and you have yours– all very different.
Perry is a deeply committed, faithful, studious, perhaps brilliant Orthodox Christian. For him, universalism is unreasonable and even dangerous. He will “prove” this to you and me. But we are unmoved, because of our different “makeup”; some things more weighty to him are less for us, whereas we feel other things more firmly than Perry. But I do not think any one of us three would claim to have acquired the Spirit of Peace- the whole goal of the Orthodox spiritual life. This purity, illumination, and deification is won through the most arduous and enduring struggle. It does indeed purify our hearts and make us capable of true vision. Until that time I think it is imprudent to *insist* on universalism.
Do we trust in God? Do we believe His love is sufficient to overcome all? Yes.
Well then let us trust that his Holy Spirit is indeed at work in all of this, and let us focus on the “one thing needful”- establishing the Kingdom of Heaven in the soil of our own hearts.
Like you, I was disturbed (deeply) by some of St John’s words on Hell. It even brought me some cynicism about the Fathers- something I sense in your words too. But I dont think this sort of cynicism is from the Spirit of Peace, all gentleness, humility, and meekness.
As I wept away some of my cynicism, I was grateful to see more and more how St John’s words could have a place- it was a different time, culture, and audience. They knew him and his love in ways we do not. I think I do more damage to my own spiritual life to write him off, than to say, “Lord have mercy, I dont know,” and to recognize there is more to holiness than I can yet dream.
As St Siloun teaches, only humility and love of enemies are the markings of truly Christian life.
In peace, friendship, and the irresistible love of Jesus our Christ;
Father your advice is excellent and that is where all true communion begins, with the people closest to you and then it moves out from there! Thanks!
Am I being “imprudent” to defend my personal belief in universalism? It is a valid question and I don’t know the answer. But iron sharpens iron and I see only goodwill on all sides. I trust God that no harm is done.
Peace to you, Mark, and Amen to St. Silouan’s teaching on the mark of a truly Christian life.
I would never say that ‘our love is futile’! I am not sure what it is you are disagreeing with as I cannot see it here. All that has been said is what you reiterate: God’s love is unfailing. God and his saints of course love all – Satan is loved as much as the Teotokos! (as Saint Nikodemus says)! It is NOTHING to do with the way it gets presented, God is love and love is paradise but – to simplify it again : the prodigal’s edldest brother INTERPRETS paradise as something less than what it is.
This power of personal interpretation cannot be taken away from a human or a demon or an angel. The fact that it can be cemented in good (as the Church says happened with the Angel’s after the ascension ) is a different matter.
So let us not even use these expressions if possible : “we know He could not maintain someone in torturous misery eternally when there is no hope for redemption”
It is not His working, as CS Lewis says, if there is a hell, it is always locked from inside. God forever knocks on that door and the old brother always refuses is annoyed at this very love.
My concern is to not present this in the way secularism presents it – to blame God…
I sometimes think that -in a hopeful way – those truly, eternally in hell, might not experience that hellish misery we experience here, or they would be changed and saved. If they remain, it must be a ‘different’ type of luciferean pride that keeps them there – they would have to want it …
An additional advice I had been given time and again, many years ago on Athos (having struggled with the ‘psychological need’ for universalism – which is worlds apart from the Holy Spirit-moved desire of St Silouan or St Isaac) on this very topic, rather than its other many applications (because this subject always contains a certain element the adversary would exploit for dis-union from God) is the Liturgical (and it really is a “monastic style” struggle to carry this out sometimes…) :
You are right. I see I have only reiterated what has already been said. We are in complete agreement on God’s eternal love. Where we differ is whether it is in man’s make-up to be capable of resisting God for all eternity. And I can’t defend that beyond what I have already said.
You know what is funny, Dino? I think we are both trying to protect the reputation of God. You are saying: If on the off chance that it is really true that some will end up eternally in hell, the door would be locked on the inside, so that no matter how it may revolt our senses, God remains good and loving, since it would be man’s choice, not God’s.
I, on the other hand, am saying that there is a reason our senses revolt at the thought of God creating a human being capable of resisting him forever and suffering for all eternity. I am saying our senses revolt because it really IS revolting and thus it cannot be true. To suggest otherwise, I believe, slanders the character of a Loving Creator. Ironically it is this very slander of God that has prompted me to start this whole conversation in the first place, but I cannot for the life of me explain verbally why I do see it as a slander, because it derives from what I have experienced of the Love of God and Love of neighbor. (You are fond of talking about the experience of the saints, but I cannot deny my own experiences either.)
So, two different perspectives. I am assuming my “take” is not categorically out of bounds for Orthodoxy (given that wide berth we have on non-dogmatic issues). I think maybe we have both said all we can on the subject. But thank you for making me think this through to the end.
If I added an observation in your conversation it would be that opinions (what we may or may not think about something) are, pretty much useless. They say something about us – perhaps only about the false self. There is a way of holding to dogma, to official dogma of the Church, that frees us from opinion. I “accept” dogma and allow myself to be shaped by it. It is a yielding to God. However, in the opinions I hold, I am trying, actively, to make something be true or whatever. And this, of course, is beyond our power. If something is true, as in a dogma, we can accept it like we accept the truth about anything (“the dog is dead” – I feel bad about it – but there’s nothing for it – “the dog is dead”). But “I think the dog is dead,” is something entirely different (“He hasn’t moved for the last half our…I don’t think I can see him breathing…I sure hope he’s dead because he hates me and always tries to bite me”…etc). Opinions can even be fascinating and our culture thrives on marketing and creating them – but they’re useless.
I can recall in my Anglican days, it was typical to be at a cocktail party during Christmastide. Someone would spy my collar, and come up and say, “I think that God”….(and off they’d go into their opinion). After studying with Stanley Hauerwas at Duke, at came to have no regard for opinions. And the cocktail party would happen, and the conversation would begin the same way and I would say, “I don’t care what you think about God.” Which made for a much more interesting conversation! If it didn’t come to a complete stop.
It is this utter uselessness of opinion (and opinions are very bad spiritually – they are fantasies that we place value on) that makes it important to say only that we “hope” for all to be saved. Since the Church does not officially say this, we can, at most say that we hope. You might have an opinion in the matter, but your opinion is worthless – just as my opinion is worthless. But your hope, my hope, is of very great value, spiritually and in every manner.
Connie and Dino;
your last two comments to each other warm my heart. Connie I share your ‘angle’ on this question, but as you have commented I think we are all in agreement as far as the things we know to be true about God’s love. Things we do not know are contained in the mystery of personhood- Fr Stephen wisely identified this earlier.
Whether God’s love is so great that He could not create a being that would resist Him in a self harming way eternally, or whether God’s love is so great that He has created beings so capable of self-determination that they can freely resist His Love eternally, is the thing we have not been given to see.
But either way we agree, God’s love cannot fail.
In His love;
Father Stephen, your last comment made me laugh out loud. Before I became Orthodox, I had a lot of theological opinions. I studied it professionally, too, and so thought that entitled me to a great many opinions. In the last year, since being baptized, I have come to the exact realization of what you articulated–opinions are useless. They are also, when in excess e.g on TV, draining and distracting and as you point out, something our culture markets and thrives on. I still have plenty of them, at times, but it really was a shock to me to realize that none of my opinions mattered to the Church…until it became a very great relief. And even more so when you underscore that while my opinions do not matter, my hope and love, and even my sorrow and grief, very much do. It seems I matter. Not everything I think does. What a shift from thinking that I don’t matter unless I think the right thing. And what beauty to go from having to have the ‘right’ opinion on everything to being able to just dwell with what is….in faith and hope and love. I’m very grateful for this blog!
it is fummy that the other day my brother read this conversation and I exclaimed, “what! the whole thing?”, He said to me: “Yep! but I wish someone would step in -Father Stephen ideally- and say something about obedience” And went on to mention Elder Ephraim of Katounakia, and his famous “obedience is life, disobedinece is death” moto.
I enquired, “what exactly do you mean?”. And he explained that he basically meant what you just explained about opinion…
May we be freed of opinion (too) and behold Christ the Tuth through your prayers…!
A little off topic here but concerning St John Chrysostom whom Connie brought up earlier, I have heard many times that this ‘classic’ (for many great Fathers) discrepancy (a lovely discrepancy I might add) is at work.
This is it: although his ‘general speech’ can be somewhat ‘harsh’, (this is also true of most Abbot Saints speaking to their monastery as a whole), his ‘personal speech’ is honey sweet accommodating and forgiving.
Where Saint Basil for instance would have seemed a little more austere St John was so soft that once, when a sinner asked for Holy Communion he said to him: Yes, I will give you Holy Communion if you promise me not to sin again…
Your words on opinions baffle me. I hear people voicing strong opinions that border on or are indistinguishable from actual belief all the time in Orthodoxy, you and Fr. Thomas Hopko among them (and I’m so glad they do!). In Orthodoxy, to say that it is okay to hope for the salvation of all is only an opinion. There are many who say it is not okay to even hope. Neither position, apparently, has been dogmatized. But there are many on both sides who hold to their opinion as a firm belief.
The “door is locked from the inside” model of hell is also only an opinion — certainly not dogmatized. Yet you most people (I included) must believe this because of what it says about God. Is that just a worthless opinion because it is not a dogma? I know, Fr Stephen, you are not really saying this, but I’m trying to figure out what are saying. Orthodoxy is incredibly full of opinions, from the Church Fathers on up to the present day. It would be very nice to be just told which opinions to believe, to follow this elder or that, this Father or that, but in the end we are left to have to navigate on our own, to throw our trust onto God alone even as we participate in the life of the Church.
On a technical point, would the Church consider it a sin to offer a defense of my belief in universal salvation to others (children, grandchildren, friends, etc) if I made it clear it was not the teaching of the Church?
Just one last comment: If it is being disobedient to the Church to believe with all my heart what St. Isaac teaches and to say so publicly, then I am catapulted right out of the Church. I find it unspeakably sad that the Church might try to take away my pure and simple confidence that there will be a final healing of all Creation and a reconciliation of all people.
Perhaps it is safest to say – and I believe this is all Fr. Stephen is saying – is that the idea of “All will be saved” has not been revealed to us. We dare not teach it, although we certainly are free to hope for it, knowing that God desires all to be saved.
There are many things about which “It is not for you [us] to know the times or the epochs…” Both those things which have been revealed to us and those that have NOT been revealed to us are for our salvation. Knowing that God desires the salvation of all, it is a safe assumption that His refusal to reveal some things to us would neither further our own salvation nor the salvation of the world.
Having said this, I nevertheless appreciate your heart and share your hope.
I do not mean to baffle – and certainly not to rebuke. I think that in general we use the word “opinion” in a much broader manner than I am using it here.
For example, by “opinion,” I do not mean a “considered judgment.” There are, and must be, plenty of considered judgments. Fr. Hopko, for example, tends to be very careful to distinguish whenever he is offer “dogma.” For instance, he will always say something like, “It is the teaching of the Church that…” he also has considered judgments, and not a few opinions.
I’ve got plenty of both as well, and don’t always make a good distinction.
But by an opinion, I would mean “something that I think is true, because I like it more than not…I want it to be true…it makes me feel better if it were true…” but not actually being able to root it somehow.
I would say, for example, that I like St. Isaac’s thoughts on salvation…and I genuinely do. I like his thoughts better than anyone else’s and I want them to be true. And I can muster arguments that increase the likelihood of his being correct – the love and mercy of God for example. But having done that, I still have nothing more to stand on than myself (and St. Isaac). And in matters that are doctrinal – we ultimately stand on the revealed truth.
I was a Protestant (Anglican) for many years and there opinion was everything (more or less). It made for wonderful variety and lively conversations, but not unity of faith, no knowledge of God, only the collective pool of our opinions.
We will have opinions, no doubt. But, my caution (considered judgment), is that it is spiritually bad for any of us to begin down the track of no longer distinguishing between our opinions (however good they may be) and the rock of the revealed truth taught authoritatively in the Church.
Such opinions are the stuff of heresy and schism, no matter how well intentioned. You dance dangerously on that edge in the course of your conversation on this when you suggest things as “being catapulted out of the Church.” I don’t think that believing that St. Isaac is right with all your heart is wrong – or catapults you anywhere. But it’s a spiritually dangerous thing to have such “opinions.” It says that in the end, it is just me. And that really isn’t sufficient.
The salvation of all is a very serious matter – important – I think that it’s not a coincidence that we hear things about it from a contemporary saint like St. Silouan. But, it is nonetheless the case that the Church is relatively silent in the matter. I do not take that silence to be an invitation – it is a silence that I should take into my heart – and there contemplate the mystery of the matter.
St. Paul was caught up to the “third level of heaven,” and heard things “unlawful to be uttered.” I have no idea what such things would be…though I would not be surprised if the present matter was one of them. It wouldn’t make it untrue, but would make it better considered in a place of holy silence.
I find that there are a number of such mysteries. I fear that I may occasionally bring mysteries into the realm of “discussion,” here on the blog when they would be better left unspoken. An example of such things (of which I rarely speak) are the experiences of priests as they celebrate the Divine Mysteries. Interestingly, we almost never have such conversations among ourselves – almost never! The few times I have had such (on less than the fingers of one hand), they have left me staggered and overwhelmed, but also understanding why they are often considered only in silence.
There are examples of the intimate things between a man and a woman – things which should generally never be discussed with other human beings (and all too often are in our present shameless society). I would shudder to hear anyone offer an opinion (or even a wonderful insight) about such matters in my life. It’s too sacred.
We live in a culture in which everybody has opinions about everything – no matter their level of ignorance. Theology, economics, social policy, morality, etc., everybody has an opinion about everything – and the internet drowns in our sharing. It is a massive outpouring of ego!
The tragedy is that in this outpouring, no one is edified. Nothing is learned. I hear someone’s opinion, but it means nothing to me…it just means that someone else thinks something. There’s not even informational value in that.
When Fr. Hopko offers a considered judgment on something, I listen. Heck, I’d probably be interested in his “opinions,” though some opinions of his that I’ve heard, I found no more interesting or useful than anyone else’s. I can probably guess who he’s voted for in the past four elections, though I’ve never heard him say – it’s just a judgment I would be making based on some opinions that I’ve heard.
In the conversation on the blog, it’s very easy for us to sink into just sharing our opinions. It’s momentarily interesting, but mostly interesting to the person who is writing about their own opinion. What I notice is that the conversation does not move forward. Nothing is actually changed or even shared.
Oddly, it’s far more productive when people share their doubts than when they share their opinions. There’s not much to say to an opinion other than to agree or disagree – which ultimately falls into “who cares?” But there is much to say to a doubt, or even to listen to in a doubt. That’s why I think that the non-Orthodox on the blog, even the non-Christians who bravely share their doubts, questions, problems, etc. give far more to the conversation than one would at first think.
I hope that is helpful viz. my thoughts on opinions, or at least what I mean by opinions.
I think it can be very helpful to share your thoughts with family members and close friends. They know you and can consider such thoughts in the context of your life. When my kids ask me what I think about something (two of them are married to Orthodox priests), I assume they really want to know what I think and why (including my doubts and uncertainties). Now that they’re adults (and over 30), we are learning each other anew. I am not always the man they thought I was when they were young…
Thank you, Father Stephen, for this careful and gracious response. I want to address just two points you have made before I leave this conversation. (I’ve run it to the ground, I know.)
“I don’t think that believing that St. Isaac is right with all your heart is wrong.” Thank you for saying this. There are actually many that concur with this, including my own Church community. But I think that the general response here online has been that the “with all your heart” part is a failure in humility and/or a failure to acquiesce to the teaching of the Church. I could not have joined the Orthodox Church if I were told beforehand that I would have to give up my universalism, because it would have put the Church in such a negative light for me that I wouldn’t be able to even have considered looking into it. And it pains me that others who share my conviction might be misled here and turned away.
“But it’s a spiritually dangerous thing to have such ‘opinions.’ It says that in the end, it is just me.” I concur completely. All opinions (and beliefs and considered judgments) having to do with matters outside of the clear dogma of the Church have to be held loosely. If I am wrong I certainly trust God to reveal it to me, but the Church cannot tell me so. (As you say, it has not spoken on this.) I can only leave it to God. He alone knows that when I hear St. Silouan say, “Love could not bear that,” it resonates so deeply within that I don’t even have the choice not to believe.
It is clearly time for me to drop this and move on. I appreciate your patience with me.
Do not ignore your heart, ever. Even when we embrace and accept the dogma of the Church, it is rightly done from the heart and never simply as an act of the will or intellect. It is in the lives of the saints, the embodiment of the Church, that the truth of dogma is made known. We can love St. Silouan in a manner that we can never love an idea. And, somehow, if I can say it rightly, this is the dogma that we love. It is not in reading St. Isaac abstractly, as though there were some words I stumbled on but whose author remains unknown, but in reading St. Isaac as St. Isaac that I know the truth of what he says.
May God ever fill your heart with His love.
Please forgive me for entering into your conversation with Fr. Stephen, but in light of it I just wanted to clarify my own earlier comment where I said that Fr. Stephen’s comment about opinions being useless made me laugh out loud. The reason was because, when I think of the word ‘opinion’, and especially when applied to myself, I think of a kind of ‘autonomous thinking’ process that goes on inside me all day, judging and deciding about all kinds of things about which I actually know very little. It has nothing to do with an encounter of the heart. I’ve been told that I was a real pain the in, well you know, with all the opinions I had about the world, people, theology, God. etc etc. And allegiance to some of those, without grounding in the lived life of faith, also cost me some really stupid arguments with people I love. So I laughed in a kind of self-chagrinned way because I recognized myself.
I absolutely was not laughing at anybody’s heartfelt conviction. The encounter you describe with the teaching of a saint (I haven’t read it so I don’t know it, but it sounds beautiful) is precious for me to learn from, as are Fr. Stephen’s remarks about it above. Thank you both. And please forgive me if my comment came across as insensitive in the middle of something meaningful–I was only reflecting on my own chagrin, but also joy, at having been shown the difference between mind and heart.
“May God ever fill your heart with His love.” Thank you.
It’s funny that I keep on wanting to have clarifications on things you say, even on this last comment, but I fear I am hogging this thread.
It is sweet of you to be concerned. There truly is nothing to forgive. Topics are always quickly moving and separating from preceding comments and the topic of opinions is definitely a valuable one in and of itself.
I appreciate the good will from which all comments directed to me on this post have been made.