Is the Universe Tragic?

Harrowing_of_hell_Christ_leads_Adam_by_the_hand._On_scroll_in_border,_the_motto_'Entre_tenir_Dieu_le_viuelle'_(f._125)_CroppedTragedy is among the older forms of story-telling. The ancient Greeks can be said to have perfected it, and theorized about it with great care. One need only read the plays of Aeschylus or Sophocles to come away with a deep appreciation of the very nature of tragedy. I will not offer anything like the sophisticated analysis of Aristotle. However, I will make a single observation that seems apt in thinking about the Christian gospel. Tragedy seems to turn on a situation that admits of no satisfactory solution. Once the problem is introduced, the contradiction and insolvable problem are bound to arise. The play simply need let things transpire and the tragedy occurs.

In Sophocles’ Antigone, the curse of a wicked king has set a tragedy in motion. Antigone’s brother, Polynices, has been killed while leading an attack on the city of Thebes (seeking to take the throne from his brother). The next king, Creon, decrees that no honors may be given to Polynices’ body. It is to lay exposed to the sun and the animals. To do otherwise, it is decreed, will carry the penalty of stoning.

This is the tragedy: the duty to a brother is in conflict with a duty to the state. Antigone fulfills her obligation to her brother, and the tragedy ensues.

Another tragedy can be found in the book of Judges. Jephtha makes a rash oath before God, saying that if God will grant him victory over the people of Ammon, he will sacrifice the first thing he sees coming through the door of his house when he returns. It creates the requirements for tragedy. The first thing he sees is his only child, his daughter. She is made a sacrifice.

Similar to this is the rash promise of King Herod to give his step-daughter, Salome, anything she asks if she will “dance” for him. She requests the head of John the Baptist. Herod is forced into a tragic decision by the stupidity of his promise.

Such situations, Antigone’s duty to her brother versus the lawful decree of the King, Jephthah’s rash oath before God, Herod’s wicked promise to Salome, are all predicated on contradictions. In popular parlance we say that we are “stuck between a rock and a hard place,” or “between the devil and the deep, blue sea.” If you will, the setting of tragedy is created by some impossibility. In a tragic play, or movie, so soon as we hear or perceive the impossibility, we begin to anticipate the inevitable, tragic moment. It not only can happen – it must happen.

This is a troubling meditation for me when I consider an eternal condemnation to hell. (Please do not misunderstand me and accuse me of a universalism that is not intended.) However, it is appropriate to ask that if one outcome for some creatures is eternal suffering that can never possibly end, is this not an inherently tragic quality to the Christian account of creation?

I am well familiar with the problems of free-will. But think with me. In the beginning of the movie, I warn the children about the danger of the pond on the farm, and even relate stories of terrible things that have happened there. It seems inevitable (cue the scary music) that someone is eventually going to drown, or worse. And someone in the theater is shouting, “Drain the pond!”

Does the universe and its inhabitants, as created, have an irretrievably dangerous spot, which, however avoidable, will not be avoided by all? For those unfortunate individuals, is creation not simply tragic?

This, I think, is, in large part, the thought behind most historical treatments of the apokatastasis, the “restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21). That passage is itself worth quoting:

Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration [apokatastasis] of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began. (Act 3:19-21)

Such statements are, of course, balanced by those referring to hell. But does an “eternal” hell fit with the apokatastasis of all things? Or is it an asterisk of tragedy that must be carried on forever?

I have been very keenly aware of internet controversy surrounding the topic of universalism. Several of my dear friends have written very well on the topic. Several other friends have also offered rebuttals. I regret that those rebuttals have been marked with ad hominem assertions about liberalism and other such things – which, at least in the case of those known to me – are simply not true. I have also been told by others that I myself am a universalist heretic because I allow the conversation to take place. God forgives us all.

But there are certain aspects of the conversation that are worth having. For one, it is beyond doubt that a number of major fathers held to a final apokatastasis that admitted of no tragedy (therefore, a true apokatastasis). While it is also true that a form of apokatastasis was condemned either by the 5th Council or by a letter appended to it.

Over my years of writing, I have noted a persistence to the notion of apokatastasis within Orthodoxy despite any condemnations to the contrary and have tried to account for it. St. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, cannot be accused of some modern liberalism, and yet he famously holds to an apokatastasis of all things. What is the source of this persistence?

I think the source is an instinct regarding the tragic, particularly in the light of Christ’s Pascha. It is also worth noting, I think, that the strongest adherents to a full apokatastasis were monastics. It was primarily in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine that pockets of “Origenism” persisted for a long time. How is it that those most keenly aware of their own sins, were often the most keenly hopeful for the restoration of all? And if their hope were some blithe, liberalization, why did they persist in the most difficult of ascetical practices?

I think one answer is found in the union of a believer with those in hell. The more fully one is united to the death of Christ (and His descent into hell), the more comes the awareness that no one will be saved unless Christ saves them. Additionally, there will be no solace in the thought, “But I have freely chosen Christ!” because true self-emptying and humility will confess that we have not “chosen” Him at all. It is the confession that “if I can be saved, then so can all.”

This tends to be where the conversation breaks down. I do not know how, having reached the depths of kenosis and unity with the whole of Adam, anyone could stand back and point to anything within them that somehow makes them to be numbered among the sheep rather than the goats. The weakness of considering oneself among the sheep is the tendency to somehow minimize one’s own sin. “Yes, I sinned, but not enough to be condemned to hell (i.e. I repented enough).” But how is this at all consonant with the confession that one is the worst of all sinners? Do you really mean it?

I give way to those who argue the 5th Council as well as the statements regarding hell in the Scriptures. However, the Elder Sophrony has a different take. He describes Christ as having turned the “pyramid” of this world upside-down. Its peak is now its base, and thus Christ takes the lowest point. Fr. Zacharias of Essex says that this is inspired by Christ’s words:

‘The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto but to minister, and to give His life as a ransom for many’ [Matt. 20: 28]. He took upon Himself all the weight of the pyramid and as the Apostle says, ‘became a curse for our sake’ [cf. Gal. 3: 13]. God ‘for our sake made Him to be sin who knew no sin’ [2 Cor. 5: 21], and ‘spared not His own Son but gave Him up for us all’ [Rom. 8: 32]. The motivation for all this is of course that ‘Jesus […] having loved His own who were in the world, loved them unto the end’ [John 13: 1].

From Christ, Our Way and Our Life.

It is said that Olivier Clement once asked Elder Sophrony what would happen if a person does not agree to open his or her heart and accept the love of God. Sophrony replied, “You may be certain that as long as someone is in hell, Christ will remain there with him.”

The hope for the salvation of all is, in this understanding, nothing more than a hope for my own salvation. And though we may somehow seek to distance ourselves into some sort of spiritual objectivity and pronounce on the salvation of some and the condemnation of others, the clear teaching of the spiritual fathers would always lead us to number ourselves among the latter and never among the former.

Thus, we may ask, “Will there be some who are lost?” The answer is, “Yes. Me.”

109 comments:

  1. Well this may be the my new favorite Fr. Freeman article. In light of recent conversations surrounding apokatastasis, I especially appreciate this point:

    “It was primarily in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine that pockets of “Origenism” persisted for a long time. How is it that those most keenly aware of their own sins, were often the most keenly hopeful for the restoration of all? And if their hope were some blithe, liberalization, why did they persist in the most difficult of ascetical practices?”

    Thank you, again, for all the time and effort you dedicate to these articles, Father.

  2. This should prove an interesting discussion Father. All I can add is my firm conviction that whatever the Lord decides for any or all of us will be the perfect decision.

  3. O, great mystery! This is so unsatisfying, but, like Robert, that is as far as I can get.

    If a loving God created a situation where some will spend eternity in hell, how can
    that be a “loving” God? Why does He need a creation where most of his creatures
    will be separated from Him due to ignorance or the nature with which it was created? Why bother? Why does God need “free will” creatures to love Him? He has the Trinity; why create persons who may never know Him or never be able to jump the required hoops to get “in.” Why the need for all the drama, for a “savior” that we may or may not get to know (unless predestined?)? It seems like cosmic entertainment — watching the silly creatures trying to figure it all out, writing thousands of books, arguing relentlessly about Him and how to get to be with Him eternally — a vast comedy where God laughs at all our puny attempts to understand what is going on. I just don’t get the point of such a creation. “Mystery” seems to be the best spin I can put on it.

  4. Father: Thank you! This reflection is a source of peace, if a sobering one.

    Was this inspired in part by the recent feast day of St. Macarius? I’m thinking in particular of this dialogue:

    Once, St Macarius was walking and saw a skull lying upon the ground. He asked, “Who are you?” The skull answered, “I was a chief priest of the pagans. When you, Abba, pray for those in hell, we receive some mitigation.”

    The monk asked, “What are these torments?” “We are sitting in a great fire,” replied the skull, “and we do not see one another. When you pray, we begin to see each other somewhat, and this affords us some comfort.” Having heard such words, the saint began to weep and asked, “Are there still more fiercesome torments?” The skull answered, “Down below us are those who knew the Name of God, but spurned Him and did not keep His commandments. They endure even more grievous torments.”

    Mike: “Why does God need “free will” creatures to love Him? He has the Trinity” implies need, rather than gift. Is it worse to live (exist) forever in torment, or to have never lived (existed)? Can better/worse even make any logical sense in the context of that which never had any existence?

    I’m sympathetic with the idea that existence/freedom/life somehow entail, on a deep ontological level that is not ours to entirely intellectually comprehend, some kind of suffering. The “life is suffering, God is life, God is suffering” idea has been considered in many other places, in varying degrees of cynicism and despair and nihilism and hope. The crucified Christ, the Christ who silently kisses the grand inquisitor who would burn him at the stake for his blasphemy, strikes me as the truest, most authentic expression of that idea.

    Also, in response to what seems to be another assumption I’m getting from your words (or I might just be reading in something that’s troubled me for a long time), consider the following who, as far as I know, were never baptized nor did they partake of the body of our Lord: the magi; Joseph; the innocents at Bethlehem; the various philosophers and poets quoted by Paul, Justin Martyr, etc.; the thief on the cross.

  5. Mike,
    I think the mystery is found in God Himself. The mystery is not there to keep us from knowing, but that we might know. The who hides is the God who reveals. I also think that this is a mystery that cannot be known outside the confines of Hades, or at least without going to its very depths.

  6. This article well articulates one of the conundrums that has been plaguing me for some time: simply that Christianity, as commonly stated, is bad news. Buddhism holds that we all have chance after chance for enlightenment, until the world is empty. This seems just a happier vision of the world then Christianity. Now, what would be nice if it were true is not necessarily what happens to be true. But it seem off, somehow, that the universe be anything better than the best version of itself that it could be. And if it is the best, then how odd that this world that we see before us is the best of all worlds.

  7. From Orthodoxy, by GK Chesterton:

    “Again, the same is true of that difficult matter of the danger of the soul, which has unsettled so many just minds. To hope for all souls is imperative; and it is quite tenable that their salvation is inevitable. It is tenable, but it is not specially favourable to activity or progress. Our fighting and creative society ought rather to insist on the danger of everybody, on the fact that every man is hanging by a thread or clinging to a precipice. To say that all will be well anyhow is a comprehensible remark: but it cannot be called the blast of a trumpet. Europe ought rather to emphasize possible perdition; and Europe always has emphasized it. Here its highest religion is at one with all its cheapest romances. To the Buddhist or the eastern fatalist existence is a science or a plan, which must end up in a certain way. But to a Christian existence is a STORY, which may end up in any way. In a thrilling novel (that purely Christian product) the hero is not eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he MIGHT be eaten by cannibals. The hero must (so to speak) be an eatable hero. So Christian morals have always said to the man, not that he would lose his soul, but that he must take care that he didn’t. In Christian morals, in short, it is wicked to call a man “damned”: but it is strictly religious and philosophic to call him damnable.”

  8. As with most divine mysteries, the most difficult part is trying NOT to see it from our own point of view, but from a divine point of view. As for me, I cannot even fathom how God “thinks”. I can only think in a human way and that way is distorted by sin. I simply have faith that Christ came to save me, you, and everyone else. How he will judge us in the end, I cannot even begin to understand. I will, however, continue to pray for us all.

  9. Maybe we must all go to the depths of hell before we realize Christ and it takes some of us longer to realize where we are? The first shall be last and the last first?

    It was this conundrum that Nietzche hated most about Christisnity.

    I know that I am capable of every vile sin imaginable. If I have not committed them it is a matter of circumstance. God has been exceedingly gracious to me in keeping me largely away from temptation.

    Still the depth of my repentance must be the same I think….and it will never be enough. Even in repentance God alone gives the increase.

    “I believe, help thou mine unbelief.”

  10. “Hope for the salvation of all is, in this understanding, nothing more than a hope for my own salvation” – a most didactic way of framing the topic…

  11. I have read this blog post and I am happy that you are addressing the subject, Fr. Stephen. It is difficult for me to think upon and therefore I will leave that with Our Lord and pray that if I am to ponder these things deeply, He will help me. Glory to God for All Things!

  12. Chris,
    Do remember that the Fathers were largely Greek. 🙂 But have I asked anything here that is not in the Fathers?

    I think you are being extremely simplistic viz. the suffering of the unrighteous. The suffering of the unrighteous can only be understood if you number themselves among them. Christ was “numbered among the unrighteous.” I have stated that answers that try to do otherwise are deeply unsatisfactory. And, for that matter, deeply unbiblical. Following the spiritual fathers is the surest path to biblical understanding.

    Your comment is very like others that I see on this topic. You avoid what has been said, but instead impugn the one who has said anything. Did I say anything that was wrong or in error?

  13. Dino,
    It is the abstraction that enters into the conversation that is so destructive, I think. When we consider “them” and “us,” the “unrighteous” and the “righteous” we are already in delusion, I think. If we think about hell, we should consider it from the inside. Christ did not die to save the righteous, only the unrighteous.

    It is perhaps true that only those in hell will be saved.

    This language is so strange to so many, and yet it is replete in the spiritual fathers and others. St. Gregory the Theologian says, “If Christ descends into hell, go with Him.”

    The Christian faith is profoundly not tragic. The icon of Christ in Hades is the end and destruction of all tragedy.

  14. “However, it is appropriate to ask that if one outcome for some creatures is eternal suffering that can never possibly end, is this not an inherently tragic quality to the Christian account of creation?”

    No sense in dancing around it. Of course it’s tragic. Ultimate loss, ultimate suffering, the ultimate triumph of hopelessness. If this ain’t tragic I don’t know what is.

    Yes, there is mystery. These things cannot be mapped out like an architectural blueprint. But the mystery doesn’t lessen the tragedy. Words have meanings, and we might as well stop conversing if language is so equivocal that this avoids being “tragic”.

  15. Mike H,
    Thank you for that. And it is with the fullness of that tragedy that we should sit when this topic is discussed. Many simply choose to attack anyone who brings it up, or to distance themselves and speak in abstractions. I believe the icon of Christ’s descent into hell is the most eloquent statement in the matter. If there is tragedy, then Christ has united Himself to it. He has come to save the unrighteous, and hell is where He finds them.

  16. Excellent article and thank you Michael and Dino for your comments and for your keen follow up on Dino’s insight.

    All of these excellent comments are driving to the centrality of the absolute depths of our experience of being and the experience, I would hope, of deep honest repentance. Until we understand our state and this is a distinction of the saints, that they do understand. We simply have a shallow repentance. I have, many times been guilty of that very thing. I usually am.

    This topic is difficult to understand intellectually; but it is much more difficult to experience, but it is the path.

    We are met by Christ in the depths of our existence – in our graves. Isn’t this what the Lenten journey is? Through lent and all of our struggles we culminate with Holy Week. At the end of Holy Week we encounter Christ in our graves. The way of the cross is the way of the grave. Hell is the centrality of our life. What a shock! This is where our life lies. How is hell life?

    As we grow more and more into our faith, we realize that we are futile. We don’t realize a victory by any means. I am certainly better than no one and that is the point. We have to come to know this. We make attempts. We fail over and over. We come to Know by experience that we Are the chief of all sinners. Victory comes, but not in Any Way we would Ever expect. My life is found in my grave. This is so, so stunning; that truly all Can be saved. (Surely they can’t be experiencing a hell this bad !)

    It would seem, you can only come to an experiential understanding of the restoration of all things by a real experience of our own personal hell – and that Does Not Feel like any kind of victory.

    On Lazarus Saturday, Christ raises him of the 4th day. This is not an accident. This is after the third day, the connotation being of the Jewish custom of the day, that the spirit lingered around the body for three days. After the third day, man was irretrievably lost. He rose what was irretrievably lost. If he can raise me (only one person in the grave) he can raise everyone and that is the link between Lazarus Saturday and Holy Saturday it would seem, though the Church has never dogmatized the link for obvious reasons.

    A week later, Christ rises in only three days, openly displaying his dominion over death. Only Christ can save what is irretrievably lost. Am I a sheep or goat?

    We know the Christian hope.

    The Church’s hope applies equally to the specific and the general. We draw no distinction. That’s a bit scary too if we’re honest. The question real is, is it possible for me to be saved?

  17. All I can add is my firm conviction that whatever the Lord decides for any or all of us will be the perfect decision.

    Nicholas, perhaps this humility and focus is all we need.

    I also think that this is a mystery that cannot be known outside the confines of Hades, or at least without going to its very depths.

    Father, would you say that we cannot even go there without Christ’s assistance? If He will not give us more than we can bear (and the depths of Hades would seem to be quite a lot to bear) how far can we fall without his allowance? Is this our hope for redemption even in the very depths of Hell–that He is always there with us?

  18. It seems to me that there are ditches on both sides of the road here. It may be wrong to have confidence in one’s own righteousness, but is it wrong to have confidence in the Gospel, in Christ’s work, in God’s love? The Calvinist’s eternal security is as wrong as the Puritan’s eternal insecurity I think.

    It will take better minds than mine to sort the universal salvation issue out, but I do find a reasonableness and comfort in both Chesterton’s words (cited above by Aric) and C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.’

  19. Steve,
    I have hope in God’s saving work in Christ. Of course we should. But it is problematic that some have confidence and hope for themselves and not for others. This, I think, is the mind that crucified Christ. Their hope was in “having Abraham as their Father,” and that’s very, very Scriptural. But that’s not how it played out. I am simply saying, that as we have hope, we should more and more reckon the truth of our situation – which is that of unrighteousness.

  20. Byron,
    Yes, it is only union with Christ that makes it possible for us to “go there.” Some seek union with Christ in order not to go there, and then wonder why their spiritual life is as weak as it is. The way down is the way up. The way of shame is the way of the Lord. We can only bear “a little” at a time. But we should remember that “if we suffer with Him, we shall also reign with Him.”

    So, my challenge in this conversation is to ask others, “Will you unite yourself with Christ and pray for the most unrighteous? or will you sit on the sidelines and predict the winners and losers?”

  21. I’m reminded of St. Silouan’s comments on those in hell, “Love could not bear that.” Is the joy of those in paradise affected by those suffering in hell? If not, then do they love those in hell? If so, is it perfect paradise?

  22. Father: “Many simply choose to attack anyone who brings it up, or to distance themselves and speak in abstractions.”

    Well, in the shadow of the terror and tragedy of such ultimate loss and hopelessness; in light of the violence it does to both the human psyche and to theological language, what balm is there other than attack, abstraction or distancing oneself?

    If hell is the ultimate and final manifestation of “justice”, or “the love of God eternally experienced as wrath” or a safeguard against an existence that would otherwise be “without consequences”, then attack, abstraction, or distance actually make a hell of a lot of sense, pun intended.

    Ultimately, if Christ didn’t descend into it (whatever it is) then there is nothing. Nada. In the end it is an infinitely tragic creation. “Free will” a curse more like an irredeemable madness. Meaningless. Meaningless.

  23. I have a couple of minor thoughts to add…

    1) There is the strong belief among most Protestants (which I was one) and almost as strong among Catholics (which I was also one), that when people die, they become fixed in their wills. Therefore, those who are ‘saved’ can longer become ‘unsaved’ and those who are ‘damned’ have lost their opportunity to be ‘saved’. In Dante’s “Divine Comedy” (in the Inferno), the damned go to their final place of residence in whatever level of hell they’ve attained, and those in purgatory begin the trek of cleansing, healing, and movement towards heaven. In one of the more chilling snippets in “Inferno”, he says that the boatman is taking his collection of poor souls to the place that they always really desired in their bent state.

    Now, I’m not interested in debating the merits of Dante’s work here (though I love epic poetry personally think his “Divine Comedy” to be perhaps the greatest western literary work ever). I am saying, rather, that if we are indeed fixed in our nature after physical death – towards God or away from Him – then that would seem to eliminate any type of restoration without God violating a lot of fixed wills bent in the wrong direction. And I think this is where “The Great Divorce” mentioned by someone earlier had such an impact on my thinking, as it was the first time I allowed myself to consider about whether the ‘fixed will’ idea was really true at all.

    2) To be blunt, I think a good deal of resistance to the idea of a person’s possible salvation after death (which is what we’re really talking about here) is simply rooted in a kind of theological Schadenfreude. I’ve run across way too many people who believe this that take way too much enjoyment in the possibilities, and further, argue that the justice of God demands it to be so, while believing that they have their ticket punched to the right place.

    My priest is Fr Barnabas Powell, and I really like how he tells folks about eternity. He says, “You are going to live forever. The only question is whether you’re going to enjoy it or not.” And I think it’s solid Orthodox teaching that you will experience the presence of God as either heaven or hell, but you’re not going to be separated from Him in any state. So the question in how I think about it is, can someone who has died and is experiencing Him as hell become able to experience Him as heaven?

  24. David,
    But in Orthodox teaching, we hold that the prayers of the Church for the departed are “of benefit.” Even if they can do nothing for themselves – others can do for them. By the way, the whole “free-will” “cannot choose anymore” thing is such a narrow and reductionist understanding of what it means to be human – it rivals, I think, the reductionism of Evangelical Protestants who talk about “making a decision for Christ.” I am a priest, and have the “cure of souls.” In my experience of 35 years, I find human beings to be so complex, and everything surround the will to be so complex, that the simplistic way it is described by others is not only baffling – it simply fails to ring true to any of my experience. And I think that anyone who works with such a simplistic paradigm in their head will be deeply limited in their pastoral work (if they are a priest) and in their human understanding (for all).

    Part of me just wants to say, “Get real!”

    David Bentley Hart, whom I have not previously invoked in this matter, also poses the question of whether there is a notion of a “fixed will” when what is being described is actually the “gnomic will,” and not the natural will (the will that is proper to our nature).

    The “gnomic will,” is a result of the fall and is a distortion in our willing. The Fathers, particularly St. Maximus the Confessor, hold that there is “no gnomic will in Christ.”

    So, I wish that people who speak about “fixed will” would be more specific and accurate in their speech.

  25. I am new to this conversation, but I have heard over and over again that we are glorified or suffer based not on God’s command, but according to our righteousness, or our likeness to Christ. In fact, all will experience the glory of God and his salvation, but some will be found in a state which will render this light of truth as a condemnation, but others as a victory. We don’t make the judgement; God does, but there is a judgement.

    We count ourselves as the worst sinners, not so that we will be saved, but so that we do not fall into the error of judging others in place of God. What we do in this life is strain towards righteousness, not to be saved, but because righteousness is the Truth. We know we are saved, but we don’t know what that will mean for ourselves because we do not know the mind of God.

    I’m rambling, but that’s because I don’t understand. I just remember St. Porphyrios’ prayer: “Lord, put me in hell if it is your will. I know that is what I deserve. Only let me be with you.” So we voluntarily live in hell, so we meet Christ. We crucify ourselves in this life so that we can experience his eternal resurrection – Life as he intended it.

    This life is hell, period. The world is tragic. If you do not recognize that, then you are living the contradiction which may cost you your peace in eternity. For when all things are restored, and God is all in all, there will be no contradictions. Eternity is Not tragic. It is sensical. This world will be revealed for what it is. And those who live for this world will receive the reward this world deserves unless they are united to Christ. We ultimately can’t say for sure where that union is (for ourselves or for others), except that we have peace with Him and one another.

    Do I have it right?

  26. A very apropos point as to the gnomic vs. the natural will, as generally such a distinction is not recognized in western Christianity. According to the typical western take on this, human nature is considered fallen, and the gnomic (deliberate, i.e. fallen) will is thus the natural will proper to the human person – in other words, the gnomic is the natural, no distinction. This is problematic as far as the understanding of the human person, salvation, free will, etc.

  27. Fr. Stephen,

    I fully agree with what you’ve said in response here and thank you for taking the time. I have listened carefully many times to your various podcasts that address the will and choosing, and the problems of even beginning that type of discussion. I tried and apparently failed to point out that we exist here in a dominant religious paradigm (Protestant Evangelical) outside of Orthodoxy that portends to this reductionist simplicity with perhaps two more practical results beyond the Schadenfreude I mentioned earlier:

    1) a person vaguely believes that those who die and they have affection for somehow made it to heaven or God knows whether they said the “sinner’s prayer” or not

    2) they’re simply intellectually dishonest in saying they embrace this belief by supporting it in some legal way but not practically. It is, after all, an abhorrent way of believing about what happens when our lives end. Like a person would casually or even sorrowfully believe, “Poor Fred. He never confessed Christ but he sure was a great husband and father and friend. Too bad he’s burning in hell forever.”

    Get real, indeed.

    I have found great comfort in Orthodoxy that we can pray for those who have fallen asleep and that God has promised to redeem all things to Himself: that these things aren’t ‘cut & dried’ and that we are being saved together as we journey through time and outside of time…that Hope remains.

    I only spoke up on this stuff because I recognized these thoughts and patterns in my own life prior to my reception into the Church and this is a part of the religious culture in the West that we address when talking with folks. And while a part of me wanted to cough them up years before, the Orthodox faith provided the grace and teaching for me to do so. I’m still in theological detox on many levels and topics, and might remain there until death for all I know.

    On another note, I started listening to your podcasts and reading your blog some years before I was received into the Church. They have helped me immeasurably on my journey and continue to do so. Thank you for these.

  28. Anonymous:

    In fact, all will experience the glory of God and his salvation, but some will be found in a state which will render this light of truth as a condemnation, but others as a victory.

    So “salvation” is potentially completely independent of the experience of it as such? Why bother referring to something as “salvation” when the human experience of that “salvation” is indeed the exact opposite of what is generally signified by “salvation”?

    Whether the assertion is true or not, it seems like “salvation” becomes rather ambiguous when used this way. It can mean anything. Perhaps a different word is needed.

  29. Some thoughts which explain the huge gamut of speculation on these matters often pertain to the fact that it is one thing maybe to speak on the temporal plane and another to speculate of the eternal/ time-less dimension.

    What is also quite germane is that there is an inherent type of paradox in love, one which ends up proving that love is the solution of the problem that love herself creates:
    love alone perceives ‘tragedy’ (of which there are two sorts in this peculiar understanding: selfish and selfless) and yet love alone transforms it:
    there can be no Paradise without love and no love without the Mystery of the Cross. This Mystery of love for all includes, even such love for such persons that might exist who would eternally, freely choose no other God than self (the ultimate and most extreme form of Luciferean pride) and therefore interpret all existence that does not worship their ego as hell, (although admittedly, for argumentation’s sake in these discussions, such eternal movement away from God, excludes the most significant element of extreme suffering and its eventual, ultimately and utterly benign effect on even –perhaps– such a hardened ego).
    The Mystery of the Cross, shows us that to be glorified means to be crucified [which is identical to Theosis-Glorification], it means one possess the power of God to transform self-centered and self-seeking love into Godlike love “which does not seek its own” and which is both a ‘hell’ (of love and not a hell of ego) and of course paradise. It has always been this complete reconciliation of man with God, a participation in the Mystery of the Cross, that makes all genuine friends of God not just humble enough, but also bold enough to ‘quarrel’ with God for the sake of the salvation of all.

  30. Mr. Russell, for me there is no such thing as the construct “the Biblical Christ” because I encountered the person of Christ long before the Bible was much of anything to me.

    The questions being raised here are not concerning any worldly critique but questions posed to help us look more deeply into the limitless abyss of love that Jesus Christ offers, unworthy though I am.

    I knew the love, as much as I could bear, before I began to read the Bible. I can say that if Jesus not only loves me but actually came after me in a sense–it only seems reasonable that he extends that love to all especially those whose existential suffering is more tragic than mine. Indeed, I have seen that love at work in many even when they were unaware.

    That is a great mystery. One that cannot be contained by our human thought but only revealed as necessary. Indeed, I grow closer to Jesus as I penetrate the darkness of my own soul in the tears of my shame. Light found only in the darkness. The voice of God heard in the silence. Death trampled by death.

  31. Thank you Father for that post. I do think the gnomic will is crucial here too, but I need to think a little more how this all relates to a apokatastasis.

    For now a small input on gnomic will, mostly from Lars Thunberg (see Microcosm and Mediator (Chicago: Open Court, 1995), 213ff.)

    “gnomi” is not a separate will. It is the “mode of use” of the natural will, “a personal and individual disposition or habitus, acquired through free human acts of decision, though always changeable”. Because of the fall gnomi maintains an ambiguous position, either joining nature, i.e., natural will, or disintegrating it. It is therefore not correct to simply equate “gnomic will” with “fallen will”, it’s just the fact that we never, or very rarely, experience a restored use of the will, i.e. gnomi, and thus it takes on the negative connotations. “Nature as it expresses the divine plan, and awaits fulfillment, is the proper direction of ‘mode of use’ of our will.”

    Maximus denies it in Christ in his later writings, but I would say more because he fights a notion that understands gnomi mostly as fallen will. In Christ the mode of use of the will coincides with the natural will, consequently he states that Christ does not have a gnomic will.

  32. Father, I used to wonder why the photo on your blog heading showed Christ Pantocrator with his head down.
    Now I think it’s an icon of how your writings and your understanding are turning my world, and my worldview, up-side-down, or rather, right-side-up.

  33. Chris,
    No, you misunderstand me. I have no discomfort with Christ. If I have a discomfort, it is with certain directions or positions that some take theologically. I think the problem of an eternal tragedy should be a problem for a believer. The friends of God argue with Him for the salvation of all. I would also say that anyone who does not argue with God for the salvation of all is not the friend of God.

    I think that it’s quite possible that you think you know what the biblical Christ constitutes, but not understand what I believe that to be. For one, it will seem quite strange, I think, to see a phrase like “argue with God” used in a positive way.

    I am writing very, very much as a believer. But a believer whose type you may not know.

  34. Hi Mike H,
    and greetings to all who have dared ‘jump in’ here ‘over our heads’!

    A whole day and numerous contributions have ensued my beginning to compose this tome after reading your two, insistent cries for help, Mike. A computer crash initiating a full Windows auto-restart caused me to question whether divine intervention had been required to prevent my posting utter foolishness. BUT somehow, miraculously (?) my message endured all that and was ‘restored’ when Chrome brought up the page so – for what it’s worth – here’s my 2 cents:

    This subject is indeed an enigma, a quagmire and a stumbling-block.

    Having been born ‘under the pew’, son to a hell-fire and brimstone, Holy Roller preacher in whose early ministry everyone got ‘saved’ again every Sunday, Mike, I can fully embrace your angst! Truly, surviving this ‘aspect of Christianity’ drives toward bellicose cynicism and I have railed even more forcefully (and much less eloquently) than you against the tragic conundrum of the necessity of Law (lest – God forbid – justice, equality & the American Way be mocked) and the certainty of damnation ‘under the Law’ without some principally-contradictory intervention via “Mercy and Grace”.
    To Dad’s credit or, more correctly, to the credit of God’s faithfulness in leading by His Holy Spirit into all Truth, part of his later ministry was spent in a minuscule, independent Bible school teaching God’s rich mercies, particularly, as revealed to him in his study of Romans and the wealth of ‘signs and shadows’ in the wilderness Tabernacle.

    Though it might suffice to say at this point that my purview is obviously that of a ‘recovering charismatic Protestant, nevertheless, the great mystery of God as revealed in these two seemingly, diametrically-opposed expressions of Himself – and of my own father’s ministerial journey through them – remains.
    Hence, our discourse here.

    It was near the completion of my 3-year journey through the St. Stephen’s course when writing one of the exams which occasioned and somewhat justified ‘thinking of myself more highly than I ought’ that the impact of that classic Protestant quotation of John 3:16 began to sink into my consciousness in a ‘universal’ way; echoing the quotation of St. Silouan above regarding those in hell:
    “Love could not bear that.”
    As you said, Fr. Freeman, “I am well familiar with the problems of free-will. But think with me.”
    My realization in re: Jn 3:16 is that God, the Creator and Sustainer of all that exists – exists only in and through Him, in fact – is UNWILLING that any should perish!
    One does not have to have an IQ approaching 160 to deduce that quite literally no thing (“neither height, nor depth….”) can ultimately withstand His Will, separate us from Him nor circumvent His Love.
    Further (here, indulging my weak intellect though I may well be ‘slapped down’ by better educated or more capable thinkers) – IF the definition of God as all-encompassing expressed above is ‘given’ – then one might conclude that even those abhorrent places (i.e. Hades, Sheol, etc) continue only in and through Him Who is “unwilling that any should perish”.
    This adds deeply-ironic substance to the Pharisee’s mockery of Christ on the cross: “He saved others but cannot save Himself!”
    I would dare to suggest that, in very fact, He DID save Himself and all that is encompassed within His existence; leading to the ultimate conjecture that a complete and True – what did you call it, Fr. ? – apokatastasis has already taken place at the Hands of the “Lamb slain before the foundations of the world” and will be revealed “in the fullness of time.”

  35. So helpful, Father, thank you.

    What I love most about your articles is that they prepare me to answer my children and their beautiful questions. So many of the “answers” we were given as children were unsatisfying, and sometimes deeply troubling. The Orthodox Way really is the Way of truth and beauty, and I never find myself ashamed or uncomfortable or mincing words when talking about it with little ones.

  36. “Orthodox” “unbeliever.” Tragic oxymoron. No, Chris, if you are not a believer you cannot know where Father is coming from. You have not yet been there, though you may wear (or have once worn) the label “Orthodox.” Have I misunderstood something you wrote?

  37. I’d like to address this primarily to Fr. Stephen, but obviously anyone can help me out here. I asked my question because the first question was, “Is the universe tragic?” In the article and with Mike H, it seems, Father, that the answer was yes, but then with Dino, you said the Christian faith is profoundly not tragic. So I figured this life is tragic, but the next is not. God’s kingdom is real, but our falleness is not real in the same sense. Dino actually said better what I think I wanted to say, but to be blunt, Fr. Stephen, though we pray, earnestly, for the salvation of all, do the fathers collectively believe that is the end we’re headed to? I am lost, as Dino put it, on the temporal plane.

    I’m wondering if my idea of eternal torment is tied to that plane, and if I could leave it, I would see that all are in the state of their choosing, i.e. saved. I have not read One Storey Universe, but I am picturing a many storied universe laid out in a sphere with a single light source at the top, which illumines one half but casts shadow on the other. Within the light half, there is eternally mobility, freedom, and blessedness, but in the shaded half, there is eternally blindness and isolation – torment and paralysis. Those in the light are tethered to Christ and one another in the Holy Spirit, according to the will of the Father. Those in the shadow are not thus properly tethered, though they live also according to their desire, that is, unillumined. In this structure, this temporal life is the shadow line/plane. Within that plane are all kinds of deceptions, and the only way to avoid them is through humility and love, by the grace of God.

    Somebody help me, I’m drowning.

  38. Anonymous,

    For my part, I’m just suggesting that the eschatological conceptions of existence that result in billions of people eternally suffering do qualify as “tragic”. They just do. It’s staggering. And I honestly don’t get arguments that make it seem other than that. I actually don’t think “tragic” does it justice.

    Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning too. But I think that there are better and truer ways of thinking about these things. If there aren’t, then tragedy is the last word.

  39. Sorry, Fr. Stephen. I got lost in the theology which is more than slightly over my head, and had to re-read your article. It is quite good and I have nothing to add, but I still wish for correction/direction where I need it. What have I gotten wrong and where might I look to be straightened out?

  40. Mike H, in all deference to Fr. Stephen, I do hope there are better ways of thinking about these things. In my unlettered mind, and to some degree, as Father has presented it, the anatomy of a tragedy is a closed loop – an inevitability based on a tragic flaw. But there is no flaw in our God. Our destiny is not a closed loop. What it is, we don’t actually know for sure. We’re not there yet. For myself, if I end up in hell for all eternity, I would know that that is where I belong. How could I complain? How could anyone truly deny what they are in the light of Christ’s Judgement? I might be weeping and gnashing my teeth, but that’s because I am a terrible thing, not because I’m in the wrong place. In a way, I experience this already sometimes, so I am getting comfortable in my hell, which is disappointing and nonsensical, maybe even sad or deranged, but I think not tragic. From the story of Lazarus and the rich man, we see the same thing. He wants physical comfort, not a way out of his perdition. I apologize if I’m speaking out of turn. I already know I’m late to class on this stuff.

  41. Don’t worry too much Anonymous. The theology “is more than slightly over” the heads of simple folks and, especially, children. Remember, our Lord didn’t say “suffer the intellectuals to come unto me” or “unless you become as an intellectual you can not enter the kingdom of Heaven”. Doing “the will of my Father” is a lot easier to grasp and more than enough to keep you busy until He requires your soul of you. From what I’ve read there is no witness or testimony that there will be questions about eschatology on the final exam. If you feel like you’re drowning you have wandered into unsafe territory, and without a guide well…..

  42. The Mystery of Grace is also the abolition of all tragedy: an utter transformation of all death and suffering.
    It matters not whether you are basking in the Light or burning in the flame when you are unified through Grace with God: never-ending wonder and gratefulness becomes the overwhelming prism through which you interpret being. The reverse is also true, and whether “in flames” or “in Light”, if I continue to remain in separation, it is my ‘interpretation’ that changes from paradisial to hellish.
    The ‘tragedy’ of creating self-determining, god-like beings out of love, is perhaps perceived by us as such since we are not like the Lamb, slain from the foundation of all time, bestowing free will with such scandalous respect of freedom that it makes us want to exclaim: how can you do that Father? Why do you allow the Prodigal to go his way and say nothing? You know he is walking to perdition and you just ‘remain there in hell with him’ waiting for ever for his return, yet do not impinge on his god-like freedom to go against the very logos of his being? Why don’t you enforce an illumination of his own delusion upon him and wait for it to happen if that ever comes to transpire? Your respectfulness is scandalous to me!
    We don’t want the Cross – just the Pascha.
    Of course, we cannot speak with certainty about whether, as St Isaac the Syrian strongly suggested in his later, formerly lesser known, writings, whether this pain of freely chosen hell is the only way to perhaps one day have a chance of a return ( a free return ) of the said prodigal. [St Isaac even includes the fallen angels in his speculations.]
    God is truly all powerful but our minds are not like His and our love is millions of miles away from His…
    But it is God’s grace, His life, imparted upon us that makes us like God, lovingly offering ourselves in a paradisial love towards all, yet not experiencing ‘the tragedy’ [of the ego-hell] due to our respect of their otherness (ie: their resistance). I wouldn’t call the ‘hell of love’ tragedy in the same way at all…
    Maybe the greatest and most scandalous mystery of our being is this self-determining capability that manages to escape and transcend many of the common notions of philosophy, freedom, natural/gnomic will, hell/paradise experience, etc It is a ‘mystery’ in the sense that it cannot be explained in its continuing independence, remaining the most dangerous and noble and godlike thing given us.
    The Fathers speak of this in many places and for different reasons, eg: they speak of the angels having been granted what they always asked for after the Lord’s ascension – immutability in good – while others tried to claim the same of the devil but have always had the greatest of hesychasts claiming in their own way that we cannot say such a thing ever, but it all remains something we ponder and wonder at nonetheless.
    We must trust in God and His love first and foremost before ever entering these waters

  43. There’s a scene in C. S.Lewis’s children’s novel ‘The Last Battle’ in which a group of dwarves, having gone through the door of a stable into Heaven, refuse to believe that they are anywhere but inside a stable. When fed fruit by others, they spit it out and insist that it is dirty straw from the stable’s floor.

    Surely, Christ is with all who are in Hell -and the refusal to see him is in the purview of the person in Hell? Which is why they are in Hell? Or is that heretical? A loving God embraces all; which is a hellish thought if you don’t like God.

  44. I may be completely wrong in this, and please DO correct my thinking here if indeed so, but I am basically of the idea that we (humans) will simply not get offered a “new” or altered vision/revelation of Christ in the afterlife.

    Therefore, those who despised Christ here and now (for what ever reason) will continue to do so — there will be nothing new to change their minds; those who loved another god/prophet/philosophy more than Christ will similarly continue to do so, there will be no new appeals or proofs; and those who simply loved the created universe, their jobs, possessions, friends, hobbies will continue to feel drawn to those things rather to God. Even those who stubbornly deny the existence of God will not suddenly be convinced otherwise. The only difference will be, that the created world and the works of man will cease to be — a bit like being in church, where really all there is is God, the saints, and our communion with Him and one another in Him. Being in Church for ever and ever and there is nowhere else where you can be — for some it will be excruciating boredom, for some it will be completely empty, some may forever feel that surely there must be a way out of here and something else to do or see… Will some then change their minds, come to the love of God? Certainly it may be possible, but what will compel them then, if not now? After all, God does not change.

  45. The image of being in the Church has always been apt Beth.
    The common patristic image of the Light/Fire (and their various gradations of interpretation -truly known only by each individual person) is retained in that image.

    The image of the one person who possibly, freely would rather remain outside of a heaven that contains his younger prodigal brother is also apt for some however. (Luke 15:28)

  46. Chris, St. Silouan said about the atheist suffering in hell, “Love could not bear that.” Was St. Silouan corrupted by the world’s humanism, too? He seems to find the thought of a person suffering in hell deeply tragic.

    I find nothing like the suggestion in your comment to Mike H. (January 22 at 1:32 AM) in the Fathers or the gospel. At least these don’t go beyond the Scriptures and call what is evil (because of fallen gnomic will) “good” and what is good, evil (a believer’s fervent desire/hope that all be saved that is a result of his loving solidarity with all Adam and his understanding of his own unrighteousness undeservedness of grace). Rather, the Scriptures state God is NOT willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” I challenge you to find a Father of the Church who teaches or even hints that what God pronounced “good” and even “very good” of what He had created in the beginning can include what we are told in both OT and NT He does not will not take pleasure in. I suspect he closest you may come is Calvin (or some of Calvin’s more logically and philosophically rigorous followers). It seems to me it is your thought has been infected by the philosophies of men, no less than those (if there truly are such–none here), who casually dismiss the threat of hell as unworthy of a God who is love.

  47. Oh my! I suppose there are reasons for avoiding this topic. But I can see by responses that it is a place where souls wrestle with God, and where some even dash themselves upon the rocks.

    I will try to write as clearly as I can…

    I think we are vexed because we cannot see the end of things, or have doubts about the whole matter. For some, the very doubts of others is troubling, throwing them into a sort of confusion.

    There are things I do not doubt: The goodness of God. The mercy of God. The presence of Christ in Hell. The triumph of Pascha.

    The Crucifixion and Pascha of Christ are the center and meaning of all things. We cannot separate anything from the Cross and Pascha and discuss it with true cogency. There is no “post-Pascha.” I cannot look at anything and say, “Well, Christ’s Pascha has done all it can do here.”

    I believe there are reasons that we have not been given what we would perceive as a definitive word on the end of things. There is also clear reason why the Fathers who hold to a true apokatastasis have not fallen under a condemnation (which is still short of an endorsement). The reason we do not perceive a definitive word on the end of things is because we want to see beyond Christ and His Pascha. Christ and His Pascha is the end of things. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.

    It’s for this reason that I have written as I have. I asked is the universe tragic? Christ is the answer to that question. Christ present with the last soul in hell is the answer to that question. If we have not been given an answer that goes beyond that, it is because such an answer only creates something in our mind that is not Christ and His Pascha.

    Those who confidently speak of the eternal suffering of the damned, speak without reference to Christ and His Pascha (or certainly sound like it). It is as though they were saying, “Well, He tried. And now there’s nothing to be done.” We are not given anything to make us think that Christ and His Pascha are “nothing to be done.”

    Those who speak of a final apokatastasis beyond the Cross and Pascha, also fall into the danger of speaking without reference to Christ and His Pascha. In Acts 1:6, the disciples specifically ask about the apokatastasis (it’s a verb and it’s translated “restore”). Christ tells them “It’s not for you to know…”

    Christ in His crucifixion and His Pascha have been given to us to know. Those whose hearts are burdened for the lost (which means they have united their hearts to Christ) should unite themselves to His Cross and His Pascha. Those who dismiss the unrighteous as beyond hope and help transgress the life of the Church that has taught us to pray.

    I believe that in the depths of Christ’s Cross and Pascha, there is no tragedy. But I cannot speak or say anything beyond His Cross and His Pascha. I know that union with Christ in His Cross and His Pascha includes even a union with His descent into hell. For now, that is the only place from which we can speak definitively. I can say with confidence that from there, there is no tragedy.

  48. Wonderfully put, Father! And further thanks to others who have struggled with this topic and commented here.

    There’s a scene in C. S.Lewis’s children’s novel ‘The Last Battle’ in which a group of dwarves, having gone through the door of a stable into Heaven, refuse to believe that they are anywhere but inside a stable. When fed fruit by others, they spit it out and insist that it is dirty straw from the stable’s floor.

    Surely, Christ is with all who are in Hell -and the refusal to see him is in the purview of the person in Hell? Which is why they are in Hell? Or is that heretical? A loving God embraces all; which is a hellish thought if you don’t like God.

    Grant, this is the scene my Father used to discuss “Hell” with me. I believe that how we react to God is indeed what we experience. Lost Love is the greatest pain of all.

  49. Father,

    I really have nothing to add to the conversation here. What I would like to say is that I admire your strength and courage which enabled you to wade into this topic (and so many others!) for our benefit. I know it comes at a cost to you. What you do here theologically is little different than what a policeman/fireman does physically. I sometimes marvel at your ability to keep this blog going. I love theological & philosophical thought, but I would have found the end of my energy to go on LONG ago.

    Bless you.

  50. Father,

    Like Steve, I admire your patience and perseverance in answering these questions. Your willingness to keep going is inspirational (as I look on things in my life that require much smaller portion of such love and generosity towards others).

    A discussion such as this one (who will be saved?) always reminds me of the words of the Lord when the disciples were asking Him about St. John, will he live forever or not (I don’t have the right quote here). But His answer is what I try to keep in mind always:

    “What’s it to you (about such and such)? *You* follow Me!”

    Seems like we always want to worry about fixing others but never ourselves. As Beth said, if we don’t know Him now (don’t want to know Him), what will change after we die?

  51. Jesus teaches us about the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” in encounter with the centurion. Here is a good place to start when considering eternal hell for some.

    First, in Luke 7, others come to Christ and tell him that the centurion deserves this favor of healing his servant because of his love for the nation and for building a synagogue. In other words the centurion is a righteous man, and thus deserves Christ’s gift. But when Christ encounters the centurion he is met with a man full of humility, exclaiming that he is not worthy of Christ even to step foot into his home, much less deserve any gifts of healing from Him. In other words, the centurion “bears a little shame,” understanding his own unrighteousness in the face of God. And for this Christ proclaims that the centurion has more faith than the sons of Abraham.

    In Matt 8, after this encounter, Jesus says “And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” These are the “righteous” who are certain that they will not be found in hell in the end. These will be the ones surprised to see all of the “unrighteous” sitting down to the feast, while they are cast out.

    Chris seems to be saying that the Scriptures do not reveal any sense of tragedy over these prideful, “righteous” men ending up in hell for eternity. But if we search the Scriptures further we will begin to see the paradox.

    It is these prideful, “righteous” men who stone St. Stephen to death, certain of his condemnation, as well as there own freedom from such condemnation. But St. Stephen sees things differently; he prays for these men, that God would not hold this sin against them, standing in solidarity with these men (and all of Adam) by means of a great humility that informs him of being the “chief of all sinners.” He is like the centurion, certain of his unworthiness, which reveals to him his being the chief of all sinners, less worthy than these men who are stoning him. Thus he prays for them; if these men are unforgiven how can one such as himself be forgiven?

    This lesson of humility is taught over and over again by the Saints of the Church. And in our liturgy we proclaim ourselves to be the chief of all sinners. This is not supposed to be proclaimed with a false humility, but, rather, spoken with sincere humility.

    And that is the paradox of hell; that it is eternal condemnation of the unrighteous, and it is the unrighteous (chief of all sinners) that will see Christ coming in the clouds, surrounding them in glorious Light.

  52. Thank you for this father.

    For me, you’re absolutely right. This is indeed a place where I wrestle with God. There are many, many reasons for it, but a large part of it is that it’s a place where language about God often becomes so ambiguous as to approach meaninglessness.

    There are many who would affirm the same things that you do: “The goodness of God. The mercy of God. The presence of Christ in Hell. The triumph of Pascha.” I could add more….”the justice of God, the love of God, the holiness of God.”

    And yet believers across traditions and within traditions come to such staggeringly different places (at times) as to what these terms (and others) actually mean, what the limitations are, etc. And this ambiguity is never so obvious as it is with eschatology.

    DB Hart in “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creation ex nihilo” said: ”…paradoxically perhaps, this means that the moral destiny of creation and the moral nature of God are absolutely inseparable. For, as the transcendent Good beyond all beings, he is the transcendent end of any action of any rational nature; and then, obviously, the end toward which God acts must be his goodness; he who is the beginning and end of all things.”

    I believe this.

    So, for me at least, it is not so much wanting to go “beyond Pascha” – Christ is alpha and omega. It’s, as we probe it’s depths, “what does Pascha mean”? What can we say about creation in relation to Christ? Or are we left with a mess of ambiguous religious words with undefined (and at times completely contradictory) meanings that, in the end, we helplessly offer up to an abyss of “mystery”? And indeed there is mystery. I have very little interest in the mechanics and am pretty uninterested in any of the supposed blueprints of how it all plays out. This wrestling isn’t an interrogation, a puny human telling God what He can or cannot do. It’s “who is God?”

    So I don’t think it’s a conversation about nailing down details or going beyond Pascha, it’s about the meaning of/I> Christ, creation, and Pascha.

    Back to my day job. I’ve enjoyed all the comments here. Blessings to all.

  53. Father,

    You said, ‘So, my challenge in this conversation is to ask others, “Will you unite yourself with Christ and pray for the most unrighteous? or will you sit on the sidelines and predict the winners and losers?” ‘

    It’s a lot easier to pray for the most unrighteous when you find yourself among them. I guess when I found myself in that spot and recognized that it’s God’s grace that saves me, not all the “Orthodox” things I did, like fasting, praying, confession… it was a glorious day!

    Thank you so much for your writing.

  54. Whenever a news reader (or most politicians) comment on some horrific event they refer to it as a “tragedy.” And that almost never seems right to me……Is that because the victims play no part in causing the horrific event…? Your post is excellent as always and, as usual, better than my understanding of it.

  55. Dear All,

    The question about tragedy is ultimately a mystery, a paradox of sorts that is not to be reduced to one or another outcome. It is much like, and likely not unrelated to, the mystery of the passibility of the impassible God.

    Hard to understand. Yes, extremely. But our confession as Christians is to affirm the tension, a refusal to ‘explain away’ the depths and heights of our existence.

  56. A couple of comments: Jesus Christ is not defined by Scripture or even identified by Scripture–other way around.

    Same with theology and soteriology.

    Ultimately all will be revealed to those with eyes to see and ears to hear. It is the grace of Jesus Christ’s incarnation and victory over death that opens eyes and ears.

    Only by entering into the Bridal chamber and the ongoing marriage that takes place there can one begin to apprehend. The entrance to the Bridal chamber is the Cross.

    Unless I am drastically wrong that is central to the Lenten journey.

    I only know one thing: Jesus Christ is real. Anything I know of Him has come during times of pain and loss.

    Not yet humiliation but that is certainly a possibility.

  57. Thank you Fr. Stephen for entering this topic and fielding our responses.

    My closest family are not ‘believers’ and having been (and still am) a scientist, I also find it difficult to call myself a ‘believer’ even while praying every day and going to my parish regularly and while sincerely praying to “unite myself to Christ” as a catechumen. My family calls my path a religious path and say that I’ve now “got religion”. These are difficult words for me to take as a description of my path. Thanks to God I know better than to argue about it.

    Because of this disequilibrium I’ve experienced I’ve spoken to my spiritual father about it and he says my difficulty relates to my pride as a scientist. He may be right, but the struggle goes on. I say to myself that it was the facts in the data that led me to the Orthodox Church. This undoubtedly sounds like a “believer” but in my limited understanding at the time, seemed to be more a function of and a revelation within science that drew me into Orthodox theology and then into the Church.

    In one discussion with my family came up the question that is part of the topic in this article. Specifically the question posed to me was “Are the clergy who conducted the Inquisition in heaven or in hell?” Without compunction I answered hell. “…and what about their victims they asked, and I answered “heaven”. I might have sounded sure of myself to them but admittedly I kept thinking about the question. Then I read in Matthew 25: 31-46. It seems that the ones who didn’t think they were righteous but served God (regardless of their ‘beliefs’ about themselves perhaps?) were invited into the Kingdom and those who thought themselves righteous, (…ie:”when did we miss serving You?”) do not enter the Kingdom.

    In addition to this scriptural reference, there is the Love of God and I take comfort in the willingness of God to come to me in hell if that is where I am and where I’m heading. Apokatastasis is new to me and I’m very grateful for this discussion and reference to the Fathers on this subject.

  58. Karen, the first requirement is intellectual honesty. The professing believer is not privileged in a theological debate.

    I would rephrase this to say that the first requirement is experiential honesty. The incarnation is not about intellectual subject matter but about encounter. This is one reason why debate of any kind is of only a limited use. The intellectual debate can be a distraction from the relationship that is needed.

    Michael’s comment is profound in this respect: Jesus Christ is not defined by Scripture or even identified by Scripture–other way around. We remember in whom we trust, not in any information we have gleaned or understood.

    Dee, please continue in your journey and remember, as Father has pointed out so well, that we are not here to determine who is “in heaven” or “in hell”. A proper answer is “Why do you ask me this, when I myself am perishing?” Pray and practice humility in all things; trust God.

  59. Chris, Robert has answered what is also my understanding regarding your asserting that “intellectual honesty” supplants belief as a prerequisite to a “theological debate.” “Theological debate” of this nature has no value to me. Theological discussion is useful to clarify whether we really understand what the other is trying to say. If we were discussing the relative merit of merely human theological concepts and logical constructions from the words of Scripture or of a particular faith tradition, you might have a point. As it is, this is not the Church’s understanding of how we come to understand the intent of her Scriptures or how it is we come to know God and His ways.

    I just recently skimmed this article as a reference for a completely different question I was looking to answer, but I realize it has special relevance to this particular turn of the discussion on this thread (so in case anyone is interested here is the link):
    http://www.bio-orthodoxy.com/2016/01/faith-and-science-in-orthodox.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Bio-Orthodoxy+%28BIO-ORTHODOXY%29

    See especially Section C on the two types of knowledge.

  60. Chris,
    I describe the comments as “jousting” not to disparage what you might be getting at, only that they seem confusing – unbeliever on the one hand, while seeking to lecture on what is or is not Orthodox on the other, etc. If you are asserting that you fully understand Orthodox theology, but do not believe it, well and good. I’ll not argue that point. But I will say that I find it highly doubtful that you understand as much as you think you do.

    I seriously have my reasons for pushing the envelope in the conversation viz. hell, etc. And it’s not to joust or play games with Orthodox theology or to tease with hints of things beyond our knowing. I’m working on an article that might be of help. But at present, I simply find your conversation to be somehow without a point, or something like that. You “poke” at this thing and that, give a little information, then seem to take it back. It’s simply not a helpful contribution so far.

  61. Wonderful article, father. I am only a little bit offended though, being someone who wears both the Universalist and the Liberal labels gladly, right next to my Orthodox and Sinner labels. I would hope that I could take part with you in this discussion and others, without those former labels being “accused” right off the bat as you make them, especially if the content contemplates Universalism even as it cautiously casts off that label.
    All that said, thank you still for the article.

  62. Gee, Peter. Sorry you’re offended. I am simply Orthodox and don’t want any other labels. I speak with a caution regarding a universal hope for the very reason that the Tradition does as well. If that caution weren’t there we would not be having this conversation. I cannot put myself above the Tradition. I cannot comprehend what “Liberal” means in an Orthodox context.

    However, as you will read in a follow-up article I’m working on at present, that reluctance here and surrounding many things has a purpose that merely professing universalism will not serve – or might even short-circuit. Stay tuned.

  63. It is not caution that I am offended by, father, it’s just that basic condemnation of labels (and us who take them? Maybe it’s just me). Anyway, labels are after all mere descriptions, they don’t change what a thing is.
    Looking forward to the follow-up article, truly.

  64. Fr Stephen, having read with dismay some of the blogs by respected Orthodox priests attempting to squelch the hope in a final restoration of all things, I deeply appreciate that you understand the heart (and angst) of that hope.

    I want to respond to just one paragraph of a recent comment of yours on this thread. You say, “Those who speak of a final apokatastasis beyond the Cross and Pascha, also fall into the danger of speaking without reference to Christ and His Pascha. In Acts 1:6, the disciples specifically ask about the apokatastasis (it’s a verb and it’s translated “restore”). Christ tells them “It’s not for you to know…”

    I understand and appreciate that any talk of apokatastasis is dangerous without reference to the Cross and the nature and consequences of sin. But in the verse you cited (Acts 1:6) when Christ said “It’s not for you to know” wasn’t He answering the question only about the timing of the restoration? “Lord, will you AT THIS TIME restore the kingdom to Israel?” It seems to me that the knowledge of it happening some day was assumed by the disciples and made crystal clear by Peter in Acts 3:21.

    Of course, I could be wrong about this verse. But when I think of the “elect,” being those through whom the entire world will be saved, it adds a glorious (and to me a necessary) dimension to everything else in the Bible, especially to I Corinthians 13. It is all about love, and love does not fail. The world does not have a tragic end.

  65. Connie,
    When I think of the “time” of the restoration of all things, or the “season” of the restoration of all things, it is indeed rich, or “packed.” In the Greek, it is “chronos” and “kairos” (though in the plural). Very rich indeed.

  66. Gregory Manning, thank you for your post, especially this stormy Jonas night. I sit with a dying friend, a fervent lover of Christ, the Word. A moment ago, in the middle of her labored breathing, half-asleep, she hurled an epithet to the ether. I want to wring out the lessons of this tragic-beautiful life. But I’m a spectator watching but not grasping her inward preparation for the next step.

  67. Fr. Freeman, I would like to have your input on something, possibly related to the issue at hand. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

    If delusion about what we do constitutes grounds for forgiveness, it seems pertinent to ask how much any of us actually understand what it is we do.

    I recently read St. Gregory of Nyssa “On the Early Deaths of Infants”. Throughout the entire piece you can feel his deep tension. On the one hand, he doesn’t want to say that such infants are sent to perdition, but rather partake of paradise. But he also can’t bring himself to say that dying is infancy is preferable (because it would preclude even the possibility of perdition). I’m not convinced even he really believed his final conclusions on the matter.

  68. Corey,
    I have also had that question and it is very valid. I have been given fairly harsh answers to it whenever I have asked those whom I trust to know far more: If I may attempt to bring those answers to that very significant question regarding this matter, I would start by clarifying that all sin is not necessarily deluded in exactly the same way. There is even sin that is performed in illumination according to the example of the fall of Lucifer.
    D.B.Hart’s argument on the natural vs gnomic will somewhat forgets that there must be a possibility to “go against what one cannot go against” [according to their nature] or else they do not have the ‘risky’ yet greatest gift of all, the possibility to freely become sons and daughters of the most High or not…
    Delusion about what we do constituting grounds for forgiveness is far heavily endorsed by Abba Dorotheus in one instance, (St Dorotheus’ example of two twins more or less abducted at birth and the one growing up in a monastery while the other in a whore-house is in line with Christ’s warning that those who know and sin have a far greater responsibility than those who don’t), but he specifies it with an example, rather than extending an umbrella for all who miss the mark. He still desires all to be saved but grades ‘delusion’ nonetheless… The road to sin is full of small choices where we clearly can or cannot choose according to the ego or God.
    This obviously implies that far more people would be saved –on such grounds- than many of the strictest Fathers seem to, at first, think.

  69. Sorry, that was a little unclear at the end: this understanding of context and delusion according to St Dorotheus’ example of an outwardly sinful twin sister being saved and an outwardly sinnless one not being saved (possibly), implies that far more people would be saved –on such grounds- than many of the strictest Fathers seem to, at first, think.

  70. Of course, from the vantage point of the paschal eschatological encounter with Christ, all our history and the smallest details of choices we made might be transformed in His unfathomable economy in ways that we cannot now describe.

  71. My dear, dear in Christ, JCL
    Unless it is God’s will that she survive and is able to reveal to you what she was experiencing, it is not for you to know. What transpires there is between her soul and her Redeemer. Do not attempt to go there. It is forbidden to spectators.

    Do not attempt to “wring out the lessons”. All I can do is to ask you to trust the Savior. He will reveal what He wills accordingly. Do not make demands on Him. Wait on Him. Patient endurance is very hard but will be rewarded in His time. The answer will almost certainly not be what you expected but I guarantee you will be glad you waited. Then you will be able to say, from your heart, “Glory to God for all things!”

    She is in God’s hands my friend, but then, so are you.

  72. Dino,

    I always so appreciate your comments. They reflect a deep appreciation for the mystical without descending into the chaos of exceeding what has been revealed to the Church in Christ. They are a balm to my soul.

  73. Dino and Corey,

    “Of course, from the vantage point of the paschal eschatological encounter with Christ, all our history and the smallest details of choices we made might be transformed in His unfathomable economy in ways that we cannot now describe.”

    My greatest hope is that with Christ, when we finally meet Him, this encounter will be perfect at least one aspect, that He will know our content better than we know ourselves and will help us… That if I live my life following Him as authentically and sincerely as I know how to, that He will give me some credit for it… enough to “get to heaven by the skin of my teeth” (as Fr. Meletios Webber puts it).
    And that He will do the same for everybody else, I don’t need to worry about others then, other than to pray for them…

    I love this quote from Fr. Stephen a while back (around mid Dec last year):

    “I do not “negate” morality. I just don’t think it goes to the heart of the problem (pun intended). There will be no legal defense before God. There can be none. What takes place between us and God is entirely a matter of our being, our existence. No words or explanations, no reasoning. Just who and what you are. That’s all there is.”

  74. Surely what Father Freeman calls ‘the Modern Project’ gives us some clues to all this?

    The Modern Project is a turning-away from God and is a hinterland of Hell. Hell is when we turn away and close our eyes (and ears and all our senses) to God. Thus the ‘problem’ of Hell is a direct consequence of free will. The only way that souls could be ‘rescued’ from Hell is for their free will to keep their eyes closed to be removed. In the end, the denizens of Hell must be the ones who unremittingly, unrelentingly, in the face of every possible appeal and every feasible approach, keep their eyes clenched shut.

    Ot is that too simple?

  75. Father, I’ve long agreed with those saying that taking the fruit NOT given caused our forebearers to lose their life-giving communion with God because they could not thank Him for something they had stolen. Ironically, everything else was freely given to them and a cause of thanksgiving. I believe that Christ’s cross and death somehow allow us to thank God even for what we’ve stolen, and through hell He turns even that somehow into life. I also believe that His reversal of the curse of death is universal but this too, like all His gifts, must be received in love with thanks. When we see Him face to face these mysteries for us will be fulfilled. Who can say what that day will bring for another? That said, there is no limit to the depth or extent of His endurance waiting for us and time is on His side because it too is His creature.

  76. Brian,
    I second and third your comment about Dino’s words. He always makes it sound like a relationship with Christ is so possible, so available to all who desire it. Very comforting and hopeful.

  77. Can I still hope that others outside of the faith be saved without giving into doubt? You’ve been discussing a subject that is really at the core of my problem with Orthodoxy and why I havent gone any farther in joining. The lutheran reformers called it the ” The monster of uncertainty”. This is what synergism creates. You must always be wondering whether or not you have done enough. But you can never do enough to be saved. A Christian can be certain he is saved by looking outside of himself to Christ’s promises and the means of grace. Do you wonder if you are saved? Trust Christ’s words , trust your baptism, trust the priests absolution, and trust the body and blood that you eat every Sunday.

  78. Brian and Agata, if that’s the case it’s entirely because of copying / pasting what I have heard from others, most especially Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra. Really is.

  79. Paul,

    I think the problem is the definition of what you mean by the expression “to be saved”. Is it just escaping some bad punishment for all I have done? What good is this escape if you are without Christ?

    For the Orthodox, the meaning of Paradise is to be with Christ. So when you are with Christ, you are saved, no matter the location. The Orthodox Church offers us an encounter with Christ here and now, before we step through the door of death. If we don’t desire to know Christ and be with Him in this life, what would change after we die (I asked that question already, didn’t I?). We do trust Christ’s promises and words, without that trust, nothing makes sense anyways, so why bother?

    Forgive me, I guess I have never asked myself this question “Am I saved?” (I don’t come from a protestant background). It seems like a wrong question. Do I love Christ and strive to know Him and obey His commandments, do I try to be a person He would be attracted to, want to “come and make His abode in me”? That’s the question we should be asking, that’s the example we get from the lives of the Saints…. That’s how I look at it…

  80. Dino,

    Such faithful copying/pasting (in the heart) is among the most noble of efforts. What do any of us have that we have not received?

    Thank you nevertheless for passing on what you have received, and glory to God for all things.

  81. It is all about love, and love does not fail.

    A concerning thought that has been on my mind for a while now. I realize that you speak of God’s Love, but too often I hear love used as a general excuse for self-centered desire. It is worthwhile to remember that love not rooted and focused in God’s Will and Design is simply another form of idolatry. I only mention this as a warning to not make too generic a statement about love, although I know that was not your intent here.

    Forgive me, I guess I have never asked myself this question “Am I saved?” (I don’t come from a protestant background). It seems like a wrong question.

    I believe you are correct, Agata. Such a question is entirely self-focused and casts salvation in a legalistic light. It is the wrong question to ask. It is better to humbly trust Christ in His mercy and to give thanks for His making all things work for our salvation. Just my thoughts.

  82. I believe our world is not tragic. It is sick. We are sick. Well, in a way, it’s tragic. But a tragedy is when we don’t have hope for a recovery, i.e. salvation. The world with hope has a chance. And our hope is in Jesus Christ, our Great Physician. The Feast of Christ’s Resurrection is a foretaste of eternal Pascha. And we “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

    Can I copy and paste some quotes from different sources? I am sorry, English is not my native language, so it’s easier for me just to copy and paste.

    In Orthodoxy, salvation is a process, not a once-and-done event. Orthodox Christianity understands that we are “being saved,” not “already saved.” This process begins with baptism, and it continues throughout our lives by working out our salvation (Philippians 2:12) until we have come so close to God that we shine with his glory and holiness. In other words, salvation is the restoration of the wholeness of God’s image in us, of the possibility of our union with God. It is the restoration of our original essence.

    This is what salvation is for Orthodox Christians: becoming so wrapped up in the grace of God, that we become just like him. Not only do we reclaim the innocence and God-likeness mankind lost though Adam and Eve, we will continually become more like God for all of eternity. We will become by grace what God is by nature.

    We are saved by God’s grace alone—we are not capable of saving ourselves, no matter how good we are. This salvation is a process, worked out by participating in and cooperating with the grace of God. It is an ongoing, everlasting process of moving from glory to glory, becoming more and more holy and God-like…forever. This is called theosis.

    And so, as Orthodox Christians, we are being saved. The decision to accept him as our Savior is an important first step, but it is only the beginning of a long, and yes, difficult journey. Salvation is choosing to follow Christ, not once, but every minute of every day. Yet the rewards of a faithful lifelong struggle within the Church of Jesus Christ—the divine hospital—are quite literally infinite.

    Salvation is not for the “elect”, or “chosen people”. God “will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). Furthermore, “in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him” (Acts 10:35). Christ said: “I… will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32). He “died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again…” (2 Corinthians 5:15). From Christ the Apostles “have received grace and apostleship, for obedience to the faith among all nations…” (Romans 1:5). With the Apostles “we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, specially of those that believe” (1 Timothy 4:10).

    Salvation, for Orthodox Christians, is seen as deliverance from the curse of sin and death, which makes it possible for us to enter into union with God through Christ the Savior. Salvation includes a process of growth of the whole person whereby the sinner is transformed into the image and likeness of God. One is saved by faith through grace, although saving faith involves more than belief. Faith must be active and living, manifested by works of righteousness, whereby we cooperate with God to do His will. Hence, if one is “being saved,” one is on the way to one’s ultimate goal: eternal union with God and participation in the divine nature, as Saint Paul writes.

    As a side note, the notion that one is already saved—and that one can know this absolutely and positively without taking into consideration where one’s life may lead one in the future—has always struck Orthodox Christianity as a bit odd. If one is already saved, then what need does one still have for a Savior? Is this not like saying that one who has been completely cured of cancer is still in need of chemo-therapy? Or is this not like saying that one who has been cured of cancer will never find the disease surfacing again, perhaps years hence? In the Gospels Christ says, “I come not to save the righteous, but the sinner,” and He goes on to make this very comparison with the individual who is physically ill as the one who needs a physician, rather than the one who is in perfect physical health. The essential question is, “If I have already been saved, then what more can the Savior do for me?” Another question that comes out of these considerations is, “If ‘once saved, always saved’ is the maxim, would this imply that if I go on to lead an extremely evil life it ultimately does not matter since I have already been saved?” When one acknowledges, as the Orthodox Faith teaches, that we are “being saved,” such considerations do not arise.

    Sources:

    What We Believe About Salvation
    http://stgeorgegr.com/orthodoxy/beliefs/salvation/

    Hebrews 6:4-6 – Falling Away from the Faith
    https://oca.org/questions/scripture/hebrews-64-6-falling-away-from-the-faith

    THE ORTHODOX TEACHING ON PERSONAL SALVATION
    http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/46463.htm

  83. Thank you, Byron. You are right. I should have made myself clearer. I actually had in mind that it is only God’s love that ultimately does not fail. CS Lewis begins his chapter on Charity in his book The Four Loves with this: “William Morris wrote a poem called ‘Love Is Enough’ and someone is said to have reviewed it briefly in the words ‘It isn’t.’ ” As Lewis notes throughout the book, our natural loves are not enough. I believe it is only as we participate in the kind of love that God has for all His creatures that we can have the confidence that His love cannot fail.

  84. Father, I echo what others are saying, “this is now my favorite post.”

    I strung a series of your responses together (too long for this response) and I heartily rejoice in the flow of thought in which it resulted and the wonderful “place” I ended up – the embrace of hell with hope. The true meaning of unceasing repentance.

    I have been reading “His Life is Mine,” and it has served to “clarify” and confirm some of the closely held beliefs of a small group of faithful folks with whom I fellowship. We have come to the same kind of conviction as a result of our ongoing conversation. It is the essential nature of salvation that the way to heaven is through hell. That is to say, the inverted pyramid. The way up is down. Nouwen calls it “downward mobility.”

    I am, at any one even moment in my discipleship, filled with hell and filled with heaven – dwelling in hell and dwelling in heaven. I am living out the moment of baptism over the course of my entire life in Christ Jesus if I profess to be “in” Christ Jesus.

    It is true, I believe, that only when we take our place at the base of the pyramid that Elder Sophrony describes with/in Christ Jesus and dare to open our eyes of faith “in hell,” that will we “see” the resolution (not answer) to the question of tragedy and enter into it.

    The place where we do that is the place where we embrace all of who we are and are not as who we are in this moment (false self AND true self is my current state of being) in faith and still dare to hope. The reality of the possible irresolvable tragedy of “all things” must exist and be embraced in hope, for the tragedy to be resolved.
    If I cannot embrace hell, I cannot embrace heaven.

    Lord, have mercy… Lord, grant me Your life to do this for apart from Your doing it I can never do it… Your doing of it is my doing of it by grace.

  85. I have often been advised by our priest to “embrace the Cross.” When this was first expressed, I thought it was an impossible prescription. I have spent a lot of time trying to avoid suffering for myself and my children. To “embrace” that suffering? It was a new idea. I’m not sure I understand “embracing hell” (above), but it may be the same prescription. Christ’s embrace of the Cross–his willing acceptance of that path and the degree of Love that it required of Him is ultimately our path, too. It is a Love that often requires a kind of dying. Extreme Humility.

  86. Agata,
    I always like Frederica Matthews-Green’s response to the question “Are you saved?”

    “I have been saved; I am being saved; and I hope to be saved.”

  87. GF and Fr. Thomas,
    The “self-condemnation to hell” is extremely strong meat – perhaps confusing to some. Others might take it to be deeply morbid (when it is the opposite). But when the subject of hell, or the ultimate end of things is raised, I think that it can only be considered from inside hell. All of the other perspectives lead us to false conclusions. I will post an article tomorrow that explains more the thrust of what I’ve been about in this article and its comments. And I hope it will prove useful to all.

  88. Gregory,

    Thank you. I think Fr. Thomas Hopko also says it similarly. As far as God is concerned, Jesus saved everyone and everything “whether you know it or not, want it or not, or like it or not”. However, if we don’t accept and believe that … want that… “hunger and thirst for it” how can we “presume” to be saved? It is a life long process that “ain’t over till it’s over”… In Lord’s words, only one who perseveres to the end will be saved…..

  89. If we speak of tragedy in the classic sense, we should understand the notion of hubris: that tragedy is a result of a “flaw” within the individual. That’s the seed of the tragedy. I think Christianity essentially changes tragedy because it gives us the opportunity to transcend the flaw. Maybe the real question about hell is all about how strongly we hang onto the flaw. I don’t see that as calling for perfection or some sort of “perfect” repentance. I see that as a road we’re on. Maybe the choice is always for the road or not. That’s really why we can’t say what is true for anyone or even for ourselves, it seems to me. After all, “in your weakness My strength is made perfect.”

  90. Corey:
    You are in DEEP error. Human delusion is in no way “grounds” for Divine Forgiveness.
    There is only one Ground of Divine forgiveness, as St. John the Divine reminds us in one of his epistles: “God IS Forgiveness.” (read, “God is Love.”)
    Nothing human – including delusion – can ever be “grounds” for God’s existence, God’s life.
    Forgiveness is not something God does, but rather Who He is.
    Christ exhaled this breath to give His Love to us, not to give the Father “grounds” to bestow some object called “forgiveness.”

  91. Thank you, Father. I will kneel before Christ’s icon and ask that He makes me an Orthodox just like you did. I was baptised aged 40 days’ old and still to this day I have struggled with faith, with the depth and wealth of Orthodoxy.

    My thoughts are that the tragic elements of the earthly life are not so tragic when put in perspective: do I choose to live with humility, fasting, refusing my own will, serving and seeking forgiveness, with thankfulness for all things? Pain will be inevitable, but in this sense, it will be voluntary.

    The involuntary pain of all of these examples you so eloquently presented and those offered by the co-readers of this blog is also a gift. There is nothing tragic about the pain that leads to salvation if you consider it from an eternal standpoint.

    With permission, I will use the anecdote/parable in your introduction; it makes for a wonderful metaphor or everyday struggle! Your blessing.

  92. Paul,
    It is to Christ Himself that I look for salvation and every certainty. The sacraments are a means of grace, but I see and understand the character of that grace only in the face of Christ. The grace of Baptism is given to us to save us, not in order to destroy the unbaptized. Everyone who is saved is saved by grace – the Divine Energies of God. The normative means of grace is given to us in the Church. Is there grace that works outside the Church? Absolutely. “In Him we live and move and have our being.” He sustains everything. Everything that exists, exists by grace.

    But my assurance of salvation is that God wants it. He is not trying to set up obstacles in our way nor make this impossible. We may be certain, as well, that we have never “done enough.” One of the false understandings of synergy is that we somehow contribute something to our salvation. Our synergy is our “cooperation” with grace, but not something in addition to grace. We can add nothing to the work of God. “At the end of the day” we should say, “I am, at most, an unprofitable servant.”

    If someone can be saved apart from the Orthodox Church (some will say), why bother? It’s not true that we are saved apart from the Church. The Church is what salvation looks like. But is grace at work moving all things towards the union with God that is the Church? yes. Will that happen in ways that we don’t see here and now or in this lifetime? Apparently so, but we don’t have a lot of information about that. What we know is the Church. This, Christ has given to us.

  93. Been quite busy lately and just now reading this – it is good to catch up a bit with your writings Father!

    “ For one, it is beyond doubt that a number of major fathers held to a final apokatastasis that admitted of no tragedy (therefore, a true apokatastasis) “

    I think this is an important point – but not in the way you set up here: Why is the tragic character of this creation in it’s “fallen” state necessarily (and dialectically) opposed to “restoration”? Why do you have to negate hell (or define it in a way that the Church does not because the Church explicitly speaks of the eternity of hell, it’s insufferable character, etc.) in order to have a “true” (as opposed to a “false” one I assume) apokatastasis? Seems to me the terms and the assumptions behind them are driving the conclusion in a certain direction, and one can not be “dialectical” and “ontological” at the same time 😉 An “ontology” that wants to negate suffering, death, and hell (as opposed to affirming it’s “ultimate” or “ontological” meaning in it’s very lack of meaning) misses something – namely our experience of suffering, death, and hell, and of course the most Holy Tragedy of them all, the Cross.

    “Over my years of writing, I have noted a persistence to the notion of apokatastasis within Orthodoxy despite any condemnations to the contrary and have tried to account for it….What is the source of this persistence? “

    As far as I can tell, this has more to do with a strain of Orginistic foundation/tendencies that have never been fully dealt with, mostly it seems due to historical circumstances: since the collapse of the Roman Empire only the most pressing of dogmatic controversies have been dealt with, and even then not in the “robust” manner of earlier controversies, etc.

    “ It was primarily in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine that pockets of “Origenism” persisted for a long time. How is it that those most keenly aware of their own sins, were often the most keenly hopeful for the restoration of all? And if their hope were some blithe, liberalization, why did they persist in the most difficult of ascetical practices? “

    Actually, describing this in this way with “liberalism” is not correct –Origenism is in fact a “conservatism” of an older cultural/philosophical “environment”. It is difficult for us to overestimate the influence of Neoplatonism and it’s historical cultural impact – sort of like how modern man does not really see the ground he stands on because he is walking around looking at other things. Modern man has no idea who Descartes and Kant were, even though they are at the root of every thought he has (about anything significant). In a similar manner, you are right to point out that these were left over “pockets” of a long lasting and influential “root” of something that other parts of the Church (and even the wider world) had visited and eventually left because it found it wanting/unsatisfactory.

    I count this particular unchecked strain of Orginistic thought (even if it is a novel variation on the theme – as modern Universalism like to point out) on Heaven/Hell (the very opposition itself just fits too neatly into a Neoplatonic “intuition” does it not?) of the Nyssa/Isaac/modern Orthodox “universalists” as simply an artifact of the tragedy of the Church “in the world” where sin is what it is, the historical circumstances of the Church and her hierarchy are what they are, etc. In a properly function hierarchy (or at least one with a real “catholic” Empire behind her) would have censored this long ago.

    Trying to obscure all this into “mystery” does not hide the underlying philosophy (of the Nyssa/Isaac/universalist Orgenistic strain). Part of the tragic character of Origenism (which shows it is philosophy and not Christianity) is it’s “backward looking” character – a “back to the garden” (and of course the very word “restoration” has this meaning) where even our very bodies are created (paradoxically by God) in the image of the fall/hell (see Nyssa’s idiosyncratic and non-sacramental views on sex and marriage). Christianities “return” is to God, and thus is “new” (always new), whereas Neoplatonism is return from the chaos of personhood to the negation of a philosophical simplicity.

    Someone once said that the RC want to reduce Catholicism to Augustine and Aquinas. Orthodox universalists want to reduce Orthodoxy to Nyssa and Isaac. Of course God and the mystery of our Salvation, Heaven, and yes even Hell are larger than even these Fathers.

  94. Oh dear, I did not see what all the fuss was until after I posted the above as I have been away from the blog scene for about a month. Bravo to Fr. Lawrence for attempting to articulate the now out of style “infernalist” Tradition.

    I also read D.B. Hart’s “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilho”. Hart is a faithful disciple of Origen if there ever was one. I now have to openly question if Nyssa (and Isaac) is anything near what Hart and other modern “Orthodox universalists” make him out to be (although I suspect they may be at least in part right based on my direct reading of him). When you start out with philosophical necessities such as “Yet, paradoxically perhaps, this means that the moral destiny of creation and the moral nature of God are absolutely inseparable…” well, you end up in yet another “ism”. Here, Hart has privileged “moral destiny/nature” above Personhood (of both God and man). I will have to get that stamp that reads “For Research Purposes Only” for certain books now in my library 🙂

    Then there is this Dr. Moore, who clearly enjoys being abstruse, though I almost enjoy reading him as he helps flush out the philosophical foundations of both Hart and the “universalist” position (though this is not his intent of course). It’s all a darn shame as they say, and as usual we are left asking “where are the bishops?” (answer: still recovering from the fall of the Empire 😉 )

  95. Christopher,
    Good and salient points…things I think about myself, believe it or not. I do not agree viz. Hart being an Origenist. He is a careful thinker. But the point of privileging “nature” over “person” is worth some long pondering. I thought Fr. Lawrence’s response to be weak and unreflective and including some ad hominem assumptions that are simply untrue and uncharitable.

    Where I come down is not on the Isaac/Nyssa question – though they are not unimportant. Rather, it is the persistence within the mind of the spiritual fathers (such as St. Silouan and the Elder Sophrony) of God addressing hell (or something like that). Neither of them speak in an abstract manner but in the manner of actually engaging the question within the compass of their spiritual experience – where it is the stuff that produces saints. This latest article of mine is an invitation to trod the path of St. Silouan and the Elder Sophrony, rather than simply engaging in the debate (on one side or the other).

    When the day is over, and all I have done is have a conversation or two on the matter, there is an emptiness, even the emptiness of hypocrisy – if the day has not included serious engagement in prayer at the level of the heart and an actual union with Christ in His trampling down death by death. This is the meaning of my word “swine discussing the meaning of pearls.”

    In the case of at least one major writer who advocates a patristic understanding of the apokatastasis, I have stood with him in hell and prayed. And I know that is the point from which he writes. I respect that more than any opinion that is offered from elsewhere. At least he’s in the fire.

    My suggestion, certainly the intent of this article, is to follow the word of St. Gregory the Theologian (not Nyssa): If Christ descends into hell, go with Him. That is the place, through intercession and love, to engage this question. If there is not to be a final restoration and healing of all, then I do not want it to be because I didn’t pray for it. We have to stand with Abraham and pray for the unrighteous in Sodom. That is where the love of Christ should put us. There are dangers to be found both in dismissing the hope as uncanonical and in so proclaiming the hope that you feel no need to pray. And that is my point. Perhaps if I had said it that succinctly, we wouldn’t be having this dialog.

  96. There are dangers to be found both in dismissing the hope as uncanonical and in so proclaiming the hope that you feel no need to pray.

    Forgive me, Father, but I think you are spot on here. It is the nature of our modern world/society to require an extreme point of view one way or another (I think of James Carville’s book, “We’re Right; They’re Wrong”). If one does not do so then they are often considered “wishy-washy” or weak or told they don’t know of what they are speaking. Battle lines have to be drawn in the sand for the modern mind.

    Finding a middle ground, especially one that involves tension between two views, is a surprisingly effective way to communicate with others. I have found that, in various discussions on “hot” topics such as abortion, etc., I can enter into a dialogue by recognizing the tension between the two extremes and discussing the topic from there. It is really a recognition of the other party’s viewpoint and a way to impart grace to another person. This inclines them to listen, even if they do not agree. Love opens doors, as it were. Just my thoughts.

  97. My suggestion, certainly the intent of this article, is to follow the word of St. Gregory the Theologian (not Nyssa): If Christ descends into hell, go with Him. That is the place, through intercession and love, to engage this question. If there is not to be a final restoration and healing of all, then I do not want it to be because I didn’t pray for it. We have to stand with Abraham and pray for the unrighteous in Sodom. That is where the love of Christ should put us. There are dangers to be found both in dismissing the hope as uncanonical and in so proclaiming the hope that you feel no need to pray. And that is my point. Perhaps if I had said it that succinctly, we wouldn’t be having this dialog.

    Amen.

    A couple weeks ago another Orthodox podcaster and writer entered the fray to condemn even a “hope” for universal salvation. She made an equation of “hoping” for the restoration of all and “assuming” it (without supporting this). I’m probably one of the poster children among commenters for championing this *hope,* precisely because what I *assume* is the Final Judgment and my own condemnation therein (just as the Tradition teaches). But I would find it impossible and even sinfully presumptuous to pray as St. Silouan and many other Athonite fathers have prayed were there no possibility whatsoever through the prayers of the Church and the grace of God that such a prayer be answered.

  98. ‘When the day is over, and all I have done is have a conversation or two on the matter, there is an emptiness, even the emptiness of hypocrisy…This is the meaning of my word “swine discussing the meaning of pearls…My suggestion, certainly the intent of this article, is to follow the word of St. Gregory the Theologian (not Nyssa): If Christ descends into hell, go with Him. That is the place, through intercession and love, to engage this question….Perhaps if I had said it that succinctly, we wouldn’t be having this dialog.”

    I hear you Father, and I appreciate your take on this. I might disagree with you one or two points as to who (and how) is doing the squealing, but you provide a perspective (actual Christian acesis) for a way up and over the stumbling block. To add my own side of bacon, I think it is incumbent upon us to go with Him into hell – and He is a Person – we don’t go into hell with a “restoration” or some set of principles/understandings that sum the equation and get us out. You talked about Dostoevsky’s Ivan and facing Theodicy, the problem of evil, etc. It occurs to me that when we face good and evil only on their own terms, we end up in a reduction where we pull down Love and Life into a dialectic of good and evil. Like Ivan (and Hart), you then have to find a way to out (sum the philosophic equation) or reject God altogether.

    Thankfully, we have the Tree of Life (in the form of a Cross) that transcends the implacable paradox of good AND evil existing beside a Good God, God creating a creation where in evil is real, etc. So when the “…the philosopher smacks up against the exegete…” (as Fr. Lawrence puts it) I put aside these philosophical necessities that are so important to the philosopher (for as Dr. Moore rightly points out the equation must be summed or a “monstrous” God is the result – Ivan perhaps says it best).

    p.s. I am using “philosophy” here to point to a particular fleshed out assumptions/system that are behind the working hypothesis of the current players (Hart, etc.). I believe it to be a variation of the old Origenistic theme obviously. I don’t use the term philosophy to mean “inquiry” or “asking questions in cogent manner”, etc.

  99. Thank you for this. A friend forwarded your blog to me recently.

    I stumbled upon apokatastisis in 2015. Then I spent the rest of 2015 studying the subject and am now a believer. Thank God.

    This unveiling will continue to spread throughout the Christian world because it is truly the Gospel. We are all being recovered to Him!

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