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.”


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