Hell, Justice and the Heart of Prayer – Thinking Like a Slave

In the third kneeling prayer of Pentecost, there is a boldness in which the Church pleads for the souls in Hell (Hades). It is a boldness that can stun the one who prays, easily wondering, “Are we allowed to ask for these things?” In general, all my life I have heard a rehearsal of the boundaries of hell. I have heard about who goes there, why they must stay there, why it is testimony to God’s justice that they be tormented there. The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man will be retold, with special care to note that “there is a gulf fixed between them and us, and they cannot come here and we cannot go there.” And then there are the kneeling prayers of Pentecost.

I am deeply aware that many minds are troubled by voices of universalism (I hear these things tossed about regularly). I am told that people are not taking sin seriously, or that they are ignoring the tradition, and many such things. I have no arguments in that debate and cannot stake out a position on something I do not know. However, I am troubled that a conversation that is very much worth having gets swept aside by the almost knee-jerk reaction to the topic (frankly, from almost every side). That conversation is an examination of our hearts in the light of hell. For what is tested there is not God’s justice, but our mercy.

In Genesis 18, we read the story of the Hospitality of Abraham. “Three angels” come to visit him as they make their way to Sodom and Gomorrah to make a personal inspection regarding the reported sins of those wicked cities. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is clearly on the agenda. That destruction (fire and brimstone) should be seen as an icon of the Judgment. What we see manifest in Abraham, however, is an argument with the justice of God. God proposes to destroy the cities, and Abraham questions Him. “Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?” he asks. And then begins the amazingly bold argument of Abraham, increasingly importuning God with his pleas for mercy.

As it is, Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed for the lack of six. God agreed to spare the city if but ten righteous could be found there. As it was, only Lot, his wife, and his two daughters escaped.

I will play the role of Abraham for a moment. What if, instead of Lot and his family, Christ Himself dwelt in Sodom and Gomorrah? Would the presence of that single example of righteousness cause the cities to be spared?

I believe that the role of Abraham is the only right role for a Christian believer. He is the example of a righteous heart in the matter of God’s judgment. There are many other roles that can be played. We can be (and often are) the Analysts of Judgment (arguing with Abraham that his suggestions bear too little merit and that the demands of justice outweigh them).

I can do nothing about the mechanics or metaphysics of hell (nor can anyone else). All that is variable within that reality is the heart. That said, if you are angry or in despair, or glibly satisfied with the whole thing, then you have likely lost your heart and become a victim of the fantasies that populate and haunt our minds.

Modern social theories have majored in grand explanations for human suffering. Economics, politics, war, historical movements and the like have all been tasked with the role of justifying “things as they are.” Those justifications are frequently used as the building blocks of various modern schemes to build a better world and eliminate the suffering. We have become somewhat numbed by such concepts. More numbing still, is the simple phenomenon of first-world life. Though suffering touches everyone, the mythology of first-world consciousness tends to view itself as somehow exempt, as the fixer rather than the victim. And so, we theorize rather than empathize.

We cannot imagine ourselves as slaves. But let’s try. We have all been taken captive or were born in captivity. We are abused, and, in turn, we abuse others (and ourselves). Some have chosen to work with their masters in a slave’s version of the Stockholm Syndrome. There are good slaves and bad slaves, kind slaves and cruel. But we are slaves. There is certainly free-will, and choices that are made day-by-day. But the general context of slavery is not a choice and no separate action of the will occurs outside the context of that slavery.

Whose fault is the slavery? And what possible use is an answer to that question? Sit and explain to the slave the meaning of his slavery and its causes and you still have a slave. Perhaps he can start a discussion group.

This is not a first-world scenario. However, it is profoundly the scenario of Scripture. The liberation of Israel from Egypt, the great primal story of Passover, is a slave narrative. This same point-of-view is the context of the New Testament as well. Christ came to “set at liberty those who are held captive,” and to “seek and save those who are lost.” St. Paul describes us specifically as “slaves to sin.” The patristic and liturgical treatment of Pascha is almost exclusively that of setting captives free.

Perhaps the greatest sea-change in the Christian mindset has been the shift from slave to management. The contemporary first-world views itself as management, despite the fact that it is as much slave as the world has ever been. It is possible to say that repentance begins by renouncing ourselves as managers and acknowledging ourselves as slaves. Only in that manner can Christ set us free. Managers, as such, cannot be saved.

And this brings us back to hell, justice and the heart of prayer. Only a slave knows how to pray for freedom. Only a slave can show mercy to fellow slaves, no matter how much they have come to resemble their oppressors. For our sake, Christ became a slave that He might free us all.

This is the heart of Abraham, who dared pray for the foolish and wicked slaves of Sodom and Gomorrah. We should enter that same heart whenever we pray. It is only the humble and contrite heart that moves the heart of God (or that moves with it). Think like a slave in order to think as free.



  1. If only Abraham didn’t give up so soon. Couldn’t he have taken one more crack at it?

  2. As it is, Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed for the lack of six.

    Could the number six be a reference to their lack of completeness (in some form; perhaps repentance)? The allegorical element(s) of the story are often difficult to understand (I have avoided trying to do so in any great detail as there are many other things to work on in my own life).

  3. Thank you for the enlightening articles Fr. Stephen.They are useful as ‘Course Correcters’ on our journey.Thank you Fr.

  4. The Christian impulse of mercy, compassion and forgiveness is deeply unjust.
    This injustice it seems to me is what makes Paschal triumph over death a reality.
    The difficulty is in measuring who is worthy of this injustice.

  5. Thank you Fr Stephen,
    Indeed the antidote is to “think like a slave” in order to think as free. What you provide in these words has a lot of depth here in the spiritual endeavor of the heart and in the politics we encounter in the ‘first world’. Both (in the heart and in the political sphere ) are inseparable as you so eloquently illustrate in the story of Abraham.

    I’m grateful for these words and need to live in them, and I know that takes time, attention and prayer. These words and those you wrote in the previous post remind me of St Silouan’s revelation of God’s words to help him attain humbleness: “Keep thy mind in hell and despair not”.

  6. Dear Father Stephen,

    One wonders if perhaps this obstinacy against mercy had not been the reason for which the Lord prophesied that the pious cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum shall have it harder on Judgment Day than the impious Tyre and Sidon and Sodom. And in the paradox of the Judgment Day, indeed they had it harder: from their great piety God received but blows and spittle and nails, where the Woman of Many Sins had given him the caresses of her impious hands. The godly managed the ungodly to murder God.

    One can indeed have sinister motives (as I do) in making such comparisons, and one can judge these hardened of heart just as harshly as they judge the reprobates; but the mercy of that nameless whore, and the kindness of that nameless ruffian on the Cross, stand forever as the models of love that is independent of our fancies, psychological motivations, and emotional states, and we shall not perhaps have grasped it until on Judgment Day we see the wicked of Sodom interceding for us 🙂

    Father, thank you for all you’re doing.



  7. Vuk,
    “…we shall not perhaps have grasped it until on Judgment Day we see the wicked of Sodom interceding for us…” You stunned my heart! I am deeply grateful. Best image I’ve received in a while.

  8. Ah, Father you make me look at the hardness of my own heart. How is one to recognize our essential slave existence when one’s heart seeks to determine the right and perfect way for others?

    I still think Shakespeare got it right in Portia’s plea to Shylock before the court of Venice. “…In the course of justice none of us shall see salvation..
    I beg you Jew, have mercy”. She makes the plea not just for her own love who is on trial, but for Shylock as well.

    Shylock chooses the justice of the law and ends up stripped of everything.

  9. I’m grateful for these words and need to live in them, and I know that takes time, attention and prayer. These words and those you wrote in the previous post remind me of St Silouan’s revelation of God’s words to help him attain humbleness: “Keep thy mind in hell and despair not”.

    I’ve recently become aware that we have to learn humility. All my life I’ve thought of it as something we possess and can use as we will. However, I am more and more convinced that it is a learned trait, spiritually at least. It’s odd to think that a virtue so badly needed is, in a certain sense, “outside” of us and must be sought.

  10. Guilty!
    So I cried out,
    adding my voice
    to those unseen
    who call for your condemnation.

    And what great offense was it
    that turned my eyes
    from my own mercy
    to find a living fault in you?

    I kept unforgiveness alive
    in a secret place,
    fed it with leaves
    though I knew it was
    a carnivore
    that, if freed
    would as easily
    have turned on me.

    Sparks I fanned
    that should have died
    now threaten fair fields
    because I thought
    I was more justified than you-
    all in the courtroom
    of my own pretenses.

  11. Thank you again Father, for an excellent article that opens to us a little more to contemplate. I found your statement that Christianity has moved into management a very poignant and truthful statement. I do not know what the Lord will do with any individual in judgment. I am not on His advisory board or a member of the jury. I can ultimate confidence and trust in the simple idea that whatever He decides for me or anyone else, His decision will be perfect.

  12. Nicholas,
    You can tell this place is run by managers. Only managers would pay a man less than a living wage, deny him healthcare, and then tell him he’s to blame. Children would never be so cruel.

  13. I look forward to all of your articles and consistently find them very rich in spiritual food. I often repost them on my Facebook page and/or share them with specific individuals for whom I suspect the content will be meaningful . This is one is no exception as there is much upon which to consider and reflect. However, as a free-born, Caucasian, American citizen who has never been owned by another human being, I resist the metaphor of “slave-thinking.” While on one level the metaphor is effective in maximizing the extent to which we all need freedom, the freedom offered through Jesus Christ; on another level, however, it feels as if I am co-opting the experiences of those who have endured the degradation of physical and psychological, legal (and sometimes illegal) slavery. I feel arrogant attempting to claim this for myself. Most of us, perhaps all of us reading this article, have never experienced this. I have no doubt that I am ignorant to what slavery is like no matter how empathic I might be. I cannot know, and can only pray to listen carefully to the experiences of others how do know. I understand that the freedom of the “free” is an illusion, and the captivity of one who is merciful and who loves God intimately is but partial captivity. Nonetheless, I can’t help but think there might be a better way of expressing the heart of your article that honors this significant difference.
    Submitted with the utmost respect and appreciation for your work.

  14. Father, it is a simple cost/benefit analysis don’t you know.

    Humanity and our labor have become so devalued that we have to enslave ourselves to debt to “get ahead” as well as to the correct ideas.

    So slavery is not as foreign you state. We are more enslaved than we have ever been in seeking to break the bonds of mercy, duty and selflessness.

  15. Jill,
    I understand your sympathies. I think my ancestors would have refused to own slaves had they rightly understood that they themselves were slaves, per the Holy Scriptures. One of the great ironies, to my mind, is that White Christians enslaved people and gave them a Book to read that clearly taught that God favored slaves over masters.

    I stand by the language and the importance of renouncing our management mindset. Perhaps most especially with a heritage such as my own.

    In our present political climate (using post-modernist thought), being a “slave” means being entitled. That’s not a slave mentality, nor is it being espoused by people who have themselves personally experienced it in that historic sense. I am not in the least interested in ceding any ground to the nonsense of modernity. I speak as a Christian among Christians. If you don’t know you’re a slave, then you’ll have a hard time being saved.

  16. Isn’t the prayer of Kneeling Vespers about the souls awaiting judgment in Hades rather than a prayer for those “in Hell”? I don’t have the Greek (or Slavonic) handy – but it seems to me at a glance that it is speaking in the normative terms of Church’s prayers for the reposed. I don’t mean to be argumentative with respect to the broader point – I am a Christian precisely because I cannot imagine how the Gospel could be anything other than a universal and unconditional redemption – just trying to understand the prayers themselves.

  17. Greg,
    I have heard that interpretation, but I do not see the distinction. I assume that we would think that there are some among those listed who are in danger of being condemned (and so we pray for them). The Hades/Hell distinction is, to some extent, problematic. Certainly the prayers and writings of many spiritual elders and saints, such as St. Silouan and the Elder Sophrony, seem to make no distinction. “Keep your mind in Hades and despair not,” would be pretty much nonsense if the distinction were important.

    These prayers do not set forth a convinced universalism. That is not how the Church speaks in this matter. But it does pray in a very universal manner and teaches us to do so. And that’s my point in the article. We should concern ourselves less with the mechanics and geography (much less the legal arrangements) and simply pray. It is prayer – especially the unbloody sacrifice and the giving of alms – that we should be taking into our hearts.

    I know that when I write on this topic I push towards what some take to be universalism – but they misunderstand me. I am writing about the heart and its state when it prays. Sodom and Gomorrah are going to be destroyed – but Abraham intercedes anyway.

    We would think differently about these things, I suggest, if we had the mind of a slave instead of the managers of the first world. I am certain that the heart of God is only interested in freeing us and healing us – He is not willing that any should perish. It does not mean that none will perish – but it is no use speaking of that. If it were of use speaking about it, then God wouldn’t be willing, He would give up. We should not be willing either, nor give up. I can be told no – but only if I ask.

  18. Whenever the virtue of justice is raised, be it the justice of God or what it means for us to be just, I am reminded of Luke’s description of justice manifested in the heart of a righteous, anguished soul..

    “…and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”

  19. In Orthodox Prison Ministry there is a true story of an inmate confined to a life in solitary confinement who has given his life to Christ and continual prayer. He is an iconographer and uses his food to paint icons. A popular piece of his is of Christ “The All-Merciful Savior” with the saying, “So if the Son Makes you Free, you will be Free Indeed.”

  20. Father Bless!!! Powerful Post!!!

    ‘It is possible to say that repentance begins by renouncing ourselves as managers and acknowledging ourselves as slaves’
    1. We admitted we were powerless over xxx – that our lives had become unmanageable. …
    2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. …
    3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

  21. I thought today’s daily meditation from Henri Nouwen seems very useful to this discussion. Isn’t the Power of God revealed only through the Love of God which is dependent upon our freedom to reject it? God doesn’t manage He Loves. And isn’t it only in the poverty (and powerlessness of our spirit) that we encounter His and allow Him to lead us to where we cannot lead ourselves … the Kingdom of Heaven?
    DAILY MEDITATION – The Power of the Spirit- June 7
    In and through Jesus we come to know God as a powerless God, who becomes dependent on us. But it is precisely in this powerlessness that God’s power reveals itself. This is not the power that controls, dictates, and commands. It is the power that heals, reconciles, and unites. It is the power of the Spirit. When Jesus appeared people wanted to be close to him and touch him because “power came out of him” (Luke 6:19).

    It is this power of the divine Spirit that Jesus wants to give us. The Spirit indeed empowers us and allows us to be healing presences. When we are filled with that Spirit, we cannot be other than healers.
    Henri Nouwen
    For further reflection…

    “You show that you are a letter from Christ… written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts… for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” – 2 Corinthians 3: 3,6 (NIV)

  22. “I can do nothing about the mechanics or metaphysics of hell (nor can anyone else). All that is variable within that reality is the heart. That said, if you are angry or in despair, or glibly satisfied with the whole thing, then you have likely lost your heart and become a victim of the fantasies that populate and haunt our minds.”

    Having been raised protestant and then becoming Episcopal/Anglican before coming to Orthodox Christian worship, I am a former victim of this mindset, as I have been in despair and basically given up on any hope of salvation because I know where I belong after this life. I credit the prayers of the Pentecost vespers service, which I have known about since 2005, as helping me to give up this victim status.

    Thank you for posting this. I hope you will write more about this subject.

  23. Years ago, I had a chance to talk to Chuck Colson about his experiences in prison. He said he came away convinced of two truths that, for many, created a paradox (we might say a mystery).

    First, he was absolutely sure that many were in prison and stayed in prison — in large part — because of crimes that were clearly linked to the horrors of their upbringing and their surrounding culture.

    Second, he also saw that some of these prisoners chose to repent and be freed, while others did not. He was never able predict who would and who would not. Some of the “worst” criminals repented. Some of the “best” did not.

    But some did and some did not. There was no way to understand the spiritual mechanics of that. Facing the same, or very similar decisions, different prisoners made different choices.

    We do know that many who met our Lord face to face embraced Him. Many others did not. Why some and not others? We cannot know. But that is the truth. The rest is up to God.

  24. tmatt,
    There is much that is a paradox. Today I had a brief exchange with a priest who was opining about the “wicked” – and why they will not be saved. I wondered to myself whether we feel superior to the wicked because we have “made a choice” or see ourselves as “cooperating” with God’s grace. And, if that is so, how can we declare ourselves to be the “chief of sinners”? In all of my years of ministry, I’ve met some characters. I have been far more concerned about the salvation of some within the Church than most outside the Church. But I have yet to meet someone who was truly “wicked.” I’m sure there must be some, but I haven’t met them. Again, those who are, by far, the most troubling, appear to have very little wrong with them outwardly. Almost all the warnings Christ offered were to the religious, strangely.

    The men in prison make an interesting slice of life. In far greater danger, I think, are those who have designed and tolerated the American judicial/prison system and still go to sleep at night. It grows worse by the day. I wonder how many prisoners simply identify God with those who have destroyed their lives and their hope.

    What I think is true is that we are largely blind to what constitutes embracing God face to face. Our salvation is hidden, only to be revealed at the End of all things.

  25. We see ourselves as cooperating…
    I think it’s interesting that Jesus compares the heart to soil. Some soil is very receptive, others not so much. The soil is receptive to the seed by degrees. Not to stretch the parable beyond its intent. But, soil doesn’t make a lot of choices. It doesn’t cultivate itself.

    I don’t think are as free as we might imagine.

  26. Father
    Perhaps the “wicked” will be destroyed and perhaps not. The question is which one of us is qualified to name the wicked? Perhaps those that are busy condemning others are really trying to manage instead of submit. In my time in Pro Life I have met many who are so quick to condemn and to proclaim eternal damnation to others and yet cannot see that they are putting themselves in danger by setting themselves in a position of judgment.

  27. But the essential point: Looking at the life and ministry of our Lord, you would agree that some embraced him and some did not? That in the end, some repent and some reject the love of God. But who is who is not for us to judge. We pray for all.

  28. There is in Orthodoxy a topic that is rather popular, it is one of freedom. Are we a slave? A slave to sin is the given, being a slave to Christ is extraordinarily difficult. It is precisely this that we do not want. Due to this we do see it or we aren’t aware of it in the first place. We think we’re somehow OK already, by making a mere decision (after all, we’re in the Church); it’s this determinant that makes it so. But is the key determinant even that?
    Rather, that determinant is found in the profound polarity of seeing our reality, the abject slave to sin first. In St Mary Magdalene this extreme polarity is portrayed – and it is The Model of salvation. This should tell us something about the spiritual path; one that recognizes the need and that it is great. She loved because in spite of herself (and her sin) God loved her so (as with all). Simultaneously with this, what occurs is a deep solidarity wthl all sinners. If there is hope for me there is hope for all. The mind is off itself. There is gratitude and there is mercy. Freedom is found here. This is not flippant statement.
    I have been Orthodox going on a quarter century now, what I have learned is that I am a joke. I do not take myself seriously (that would fly in the face of reason – a joke to be taken seriously?) See yourself without any reputation. That would be an imitator of Christ. When I pray right before receiving communion I say those prayers in very hushed tones. The words are real and I do not yet know the final outcome. Let us pray for the entire world.
    Those that are ‘managing’ all of this may be assured of the outcome. Managing all of this exquisitely they are quite lovable indeed. There is a freedom. What that looks like in path and in truth is not at all what we are expecting.

  29. The polarity of intended consequences really becomes evident when you are opportuned to listen to the life stories of those who are or who have been incarcerated. Its as though they are in some way like the Canary in the mining shaft warning of the poison of our deepest secrets. I have heard many acknowledge that what landed them in prison is somehow far less depricating then being shamed for something they thought to have done right and this the reason, they believe in hindsight, for committing their crime(s) in the first place. They had been deeply shamed (punished) at some point for something they had intended to be good or right, and thus began their spiral into deeper narcisistic covers for which they expected “punishment.” This I think is an aspect of condemnation I have feared at least for myself in view of God’s judgement.

    I have wondered if my “staged events” of failure aren’t covers for the virtues I hide as being who I believe myself to be. In other words, I would rather be condemned for something I know to be wrong then for the things I thought to be right–from which I might delude myself to be the essence of who I am or hope to be. I suppose part of the deep despair is in how warped I can become in managing my own salvation–again out of fear of being shamed for the “good” in me. And none of us can honestly say that we don’t at least crawl along with even the smallest crumb we hold onto as right and correct–even the supposed “wicked” who might be more honest then the “chief sinner” in this respect.

  30. Dear Father Stephen,

    I am happy to return for all the stunning of heart I have had on your blog 🙂

    God grant us frequently to have our hearts stunned, lest we think our righteousness or our wickedness forever greater than His mercy.

    Glory to God for the stunning of heart.



  31. Hi All,
    I still wrestle with the Scriptures and how Abraham (and Moses) had to engage in what seemed like an argument with God over the salvation (in the earthly sense) of sinners. God obviously didn’t need Abraham to pardon the righteous and save them from peril. What’s difficult for me is that God invites us into His work of salvation, but we are often faithless and non-dependable. I suppose my conclusion is that our intercession is intended for our own salvation along with those for whom we pray… that we are being saved (identifying with the unrighteous) as we pray for salvation of all. Am I understanding this correctly?

  32. Chris,
    Dostoevsky relates a tale of an old woman that pertains to what you have asked:

    Once upon a time there was a woman, and she was wicked as wicked could be, and she died. And not one good deed was left behind her. The devils took her and threw her into the lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood thinking: what good deed of hers can I remember to tell God?

    Then he remembered and said to God, “Once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman.”

    And God answered, “Now take that same onion, hold it out to her in the lake, let her take hold of it, and pull, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can go to paradise, but if the onion breaks, she can stay where she is.”

    The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her, “Here, woman,” he said, “take hold of it and I’ll pull!”

    And he began pulling carefully , and had almost pulled her all the way out, when other sinners in the lake saw her being pulled out and all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was wicked as wicked could be, and she began to kick them with her feet: “It’s me who’s getting pulled out, not you; it’s my onion not yours!”

    No sooner did she say it than the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake and is burning there to this day. And the angel wept and went away.

  33. Wow, I haven’t read Dostoevsky yet. Thank you for that poignant story! As Christ has said, pray for your enemies. And I might add with sincerity, as my own sins are not less than those of my enemies.

  34. tmatt,

    Re: the “essential point” of your question, I have a few thoughts.

    It seems to me (based on looking at the place in my own heart from which I tend to ask such questions) needing a definitive distinction between the fate of the “righteous” vs. the “unrighteous” in terms of ultimacy and the afterlife (“in the end”), is based more on a desire for management than one for communion with God. (I don’t mean this is the conscious intent, but does seem to me to realistically reflect something less conscious and more hidden in me that ought perhaps to be exhumed and examined.) What I have noticed in myself is the desire for management (which I would suggest is ultimately the desire to manage God) vs. self abandonment to God (real faith) are mutually exclusive conditions. I have not found insisting on a definitive answer to this question to be effective at all in bringing me into communion with God, which is what I am seeking. Is not Communion with God in this life a Communion of co-suffering love and complete solidarity with “the least of these”? If God is not willing that any should perish, can we be less unwilling?

    On the other hand, there is a real and true difference between good and evil. We call what is evil “good” and what is good “evil” to our own peril! I can affirm completely with the Tradition there is a true and real distinction with real consequences here and hereafter of both good and evil. Matthew 25 gives us a very clear picture of the basis on which all of us will be judged. It apparently doesn’t have much to do with what we believed in the sense of what we professed (even about the nature of the judgement in the afterlife), but rather how we treated “the least of these”, Christ’s brethren, during this life, and whether we cared for them or not–whether or not we recognized these were worthy of the same care we would have given to Christ Himself. What that means for life beyond the grave in any particular person, or class of persons, is not mine to judge. If I were to speculate based on my knowledge of myself, it becomes even more muddy (as to what might occur), because I have discovered as Solzhenitsyn did in the gulag, how true it is that the line between good and evil runs through the midst of every human heart (certainly my own)! By the same token, it is also much more clear what posture before God is appropriate for me here and now–all I may safely do is stand at the rear of the Temple beating my breast imploring the Lord to have mercy on this sinner! I have NO other hope or help than the mercy of God, and my plumbing the depths of that mercy is what gives me hope for even the greatest of sinners (that is me, in terms of what I can truly experientially know about anything of this, if I am praying the Communion prayers with integrity!). Indeed, the development of this conviction was one of the key aspects of the crisis that eventually brought me from Evangelicalism to Orthodoxy.

    Finally, I want to attempt a brief look at the kind of dualism implied in the biblical categories of “good/righteous” and “evil/wicked”. Before me, I am keeping in mind the symbol of Christian faith is not the black and white Taoist circle nor the Yin and Yang of Eastern philosophy–rather, it is the Cross. Can we say then what is denoted by the term “evil” in Christian terms must be equivalent in every way, including in the eternal consequences of our participation in it, to “good”, but merely its opposite? Those who want to answer yes to this question will point to various passages in the Fathers and in the Scriptures. Those who doubt there can be a yes (or a yes that does not require some scrupulous qualifications) will point to other passages in the Scriptures and Fathers. Certainly, both groups affirm the teaching of the Fathers that “evil” does not have the same kind of existence or inherent foundation in God’s own existence as does “good.” How deeply has each group penetrated into the implications of this last teaching for life after Final Judgment? Worth thinking about, perhaps, but I know I’m far from qualified to give an authoritative answer to that question.

    That’s more than enough food for thought for me. To go beyond this seems always to get us into trouble!

  35. Fr Stephen/All,

    ‘I am troubled that a conversation that is very much worth having gets swept aside by the almost knee-jerk reaction to the topic (frankly, from almost every side). That conversation is an examination of our hearts in the light of hell. For what is tested there is not God’s justice, but our mercy.’

    Agreed, lets have that conversation about these important issues touching on salvation and the nature of God.

    If our mercy is what is tested then it is precisely the notion of an unending hell which, knowing no mercy and stretched forth into infinity without end, is an ungodly concept contrary to God’s will.

    The big question lurking in the background seems to me is if anything can ultimately frustrate what God wills. This frustration of God’s will by evil is especially problematic. Can evil which, as Karen points out, has no existence of itself (no true being, substance) remain a permanent, infinite fixture of reality? Can we say that an infinitely enduring dualism of evil vs. Good is a scriptural view? St Gregory of Nyssa points out that ‘the only limit to God’s power is His will’. We also know that He wills that all will be saved. Why then should we presume that our evil frustrates, into infinity no less, the will of God? This appears to me to be a reprehensible and unGodly idea.

  36. Robert,
    Mind you, I’m not in management. However, it is not evil that opposes God, for as you note, it has no existence. It is a free will that opposes Him. That free will is not an evil – but a free will. I cannot suggest that I know how the dance of eternity ends – but it is dance in which the good God who creates in love and wills us only good, in utter condescension engages our freedom (and the freedom of all) as though He were engaging an equal. I suppose I wouldn’t have done it that way. I do believe that He will never renounce the dance. I prefer Nyssa’s ending, or that of St. Isaac, but if they’ve seen an end that I haven’t seen then I can only wish that they’re correct. But I cannot simply push the argument to an end as if the dance were driven by the laws of argument.

    That is, I don’t know the end of it all. I know God and I trust Him with that.

  37. Father,
    I value these brilliantly succinct, and astute answers you give – thank you.

  38. Fr Stephen,

    I am not suggesting our creaturely will as evil in itself, but when our will is misused and set against God’s will, obstinately resisting the Good, then evil is the resulting consequence. What I am suggesting is that this evil perversion of will cannot endure into infinity; or if it does then we have an infinite dualism on our hands, a dualism which renders the love of Pascha unable to overcome the darkness of the world. This would mean then that our will to evil forever has the last say, forever frustrating the will of God. Would it not?

    Now, like you, I don’t claim to know how it all ends, but am thinking through revelation like every other bloke. Of course, when one’s opinion is deemed disagreeable, this can so easily be dismissed as ‘argumentation’ ‘philosophy’, or ‘hellenism’ and other such derogatory labels. This does not further conversation. I do understand of course that people have different opinions about this and come to vastly different conclusions. I offer up my thoughts as a way of conversation to break through the ‘knee jerk’ reactions as you put it. But a dualism with an infinitely persisting evil forever frustrating the will of God IMO doesn’t jive with scripture and everything else we Orthodox believe about the nature of God. What we can agree on is that God is merciful and that we need to be too.

  39. Robert,
    We agree on what we do not know. I dare say we agree on how we hope it ends. However, we cannot posit an “evil will.” It is a free will. I suppose that dance of freedom, will and will, could go on forever, though I’m not certain what that would mean. Pascha is victorious making it possible for will to confront will – without bondage, without interference, etc. But that is all I think we can say.

    For myself, I can hardly imagine an eternal opposition to the love of God. But I cannot fathom a less than free – freewill. I trust in God’s goodness.

    It is the reification of evil that you are suggesting that creates a dualism. Will on will is not a dualism – is what love looks like.

  40. ‘Will on will’ – I like that! In that sort of battle of the wills (a battle of love!), I do think we know who will be victorious in the end.

    So then the next question it would seem is about the nature of freedom, how do we define free will? Is freedom completely arbitrary, without any bearing, any end – shall we say that any choice is as good as any other?

  41. I will be forever grateful to God and to you, Fr. Stephen Freeman for your response above as copied and printed here (In fact, I am copying it and printing it): Robert,
    Mind you, I’m not in management. However, it is not evil that opposes God, for as you note, it has no existence. It is a free will that opposes Him. That free will is not an evil – but a free will. I cannot suggest that I know how the dance of eternity ends – but it is dance in which the good God who creates in love and wills us only good, in utter condescension engages our freedom (and the freedom of all) as though He were engaging an equal. I suppose I wouldn’t have done it that way. I do believe that He will never renounce the dance. I prefer Nyssa’s ending, or that of St. Isaac, but if they’ve seen an end that I haven’t seen then I can only wish that they’re correct. But I cannot simply push the argument to an end as if the dance were driven by the laws of argument.

    That is, I don’t know the end of it all. I know God and I trust Him with that.” — Fr. Stephen Freeman, here in these comments

  42. This discussion has a type of stale-mate underpinning when we consider that, an indispensable condition of love’s “will” is that it has to simultaneously (1) ‘will’ the eventual salvation of all, as well as (at the very same time) (2) ‘willing’ that its beloved ones, eternally retain their ability to resist it in a continuing free self-determination towards it – even when God’s love becomes an irresistible grace. It’s not love without this condition.

  43. Dino, yes, which is why it can become a distraction from communion with God to even try. I say “can become” because I have found for myself there was a point at which my salvation came to depend on my capacity to dare to wrestle with God over the question of the salvation of others (and implicitly also of my own divided self) just as Abraham did over the question of Lot in Sodom and Gomorrah. Like Abraham, I also found it a question imprudent and impious to keep pressing to its limits after a certain point that the direction of God’s will and the indication of the depth of His mercy became sufficiently evident to me by the answers I did receive.

  44. Karen,
    indeed, you remind me that I have read how Christ has appeared before saints who wrestled with Him on the matter of the salvation of all – hung on His Cross and asking them, ‘who is crucified for them you are praying for?’

  45. Thanks, Dino! I can never hear enough of stories like that. 🙂

    This struggle over the question of those lost in hell has been going on for a very long time. I did not discover and read the pseudo epigraphical writing entitled 2 Esdras until well after I became Orthodox, and I was astounded at how it gave voice to the very struggle that led me into Orthodoxy. 2 Esdras (or in some places 3 Esdras or 4 Esdras) is attributed to Ezra the Priest in the OT and set in that period, but actually composed as a piece of Jewish apocalyptic literature, most scholars believe, shortly after the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in AD 70. It is included as part of the appendix in the Slavonic OT and in the Latin Vulgate and a few other places. A very similar text originating around the same time attributed to Baruch is included in the Syriac Orthodox Bible.

  46. P.S. In writing my last post to Dino, I pulled my aunt’s Bible including an English translation of 2 Esdras off a bookshelf to consult for reference. In so doing, the books that were next to it on the shelf fell sideways and knocked one book lying on top of a horizontal stack in front of that space onto the floor in front of me. I just picked up that book and glanced at its title–it is Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s, Christ the Conqueror of Hell…. 🙂

  47. “Will on will” — I’m not happy with this formulation, as it simply states the synergistic problem that makes it impossible to imagine apokatastasis. If it’s my will versus God’s will, and assuming that God graciously avoids all violence, manipulation, and coercion, then the possibility then the possibility that I might hold out forever against the divine will seems logical and necessary (and in my case, inevitable). As a result we often hear people giving half-hearted lip-service to the greater hope (“I suppose it’s possible that God might save all”) but they always conclude with that “but” that evacuates the hope of any real hope. Our logic pushes God to the metaphysical sideline.

    The problem is the way we imagine God as another standing alongside us, as someone and something external to us. But this is clearly wrong. It brings God into our creaturely existence as a being. In this picture divine agency necessarily competes with creaturely agency, and so we end up with everlasting Gehenna. But St Augustine opened up a different way for us to think about the relationship between God and creature: interior intimo meo et superior summo meo (“higher than my highest and more inward than my innermost self”). Suddenly the Creator/creature relationship becomes more mysterious than we had imagined, which means that we are freed from the logical deadlock. Instead of “will on will,” perhaps “will in will” (our will indwelling and grounded in God’s will) might be a better way to begin thinking about this. We may still not be able to imagine apokatastasis, but perhaps we can begin to entertain its genuine possibility.

  48. “We may still not be able to imagine apokatastasis, but perhaps we can begin to entertain its genuine possibility.”

    Just as a clock returns to noon this thread returns to the Platonic – the dialectical tension can not hold as the human mind and *heart* rejects the suspension of an unknowing. Thank you Fr. Aidan for the sum(mation). For me, I would take Fr. Stephen’s anti-metaphysics-of-the-heart over your suggestion (and dialectically inescapable) reduction of life, creation, and time and their meaning to a sum (i.e. apokatasasis) but that does not satisfy either because you and I both know that he does not escape metaphysics with his (anti)metaphysics 😉

    Since we have eaten of the apple, we are confined to what the apple knows – good and evil. Universalism/apokastasis is a dilemma, a dialectic, found within the apple (like a worm). The “answer” is not found on the level of the apple, and is indeed explicitly guarded against the encroachment of the worm (i.e. the fruit of the Tree of Life is separate). As such, the Church has rightly rejected Universalism/apokastasis even though some young clergy of our day preach it (to paraphrase St. Barsanuphius).

    The will, freedom (it’s outline and limitations), are here but terms in the dialectic of good and evil and as such are foot soldiers in this Manichaean war where quite naturally good “wins”, and everything bleeds into one in its “restoration”. Put this struggle aside! Lay down your arms as the Church recommends (with notable exceptions: Origen, Nyssa, possibly Isaac). Practice a bit of asceticism to learn to ignore this and every other “dialogue” our minds get wrapped up in. Nietzsche was right – life is found beyond good and evil and not in some kind of synthesis found within it (or in Fr. Stephen’s case, an anti-synthesis).

    Since I fit into the “religious mood” maintained around here like a square peg in a round hole, I will take my leave – just passing through… 😉

  49. Fr. Aidan,
    I would perhaps suggest a borrowing from Florovsky. He wrote about the “asymmetry” of the incarnation – following the Cappadocians. Perhaps it would also be clarifying to note that in the “will-on-will” we are describing something that is truly asymmetrical. Augustine’s formulation is one way of expressing the same thing. I think that in the “dance” surely it is God who leads (to say the least). The Apokatastasis obviously (to me) is a genuine possibility. Were it not, there would be no need to suggest that there is a hope.

    But, just as our present salvation seems a mystery to me (we seem to have some sort of freedom regardless of how complex it is), so that same mystery remains, no matter. When I look within myself, sometimes I think that I have chosen God, but it seems far more obvious that He has chosen me – and – as often as not – seems to be dragging my sorry soul into His Kingdom. I see nothing salutary in myself that might have made this happen, or anything by which I should judge myself better than the worst. And yet I cannot say that I feel forced in any way. It’s clearly asymmetrical, though.

  50. Yes, I agree, Fr Stephen. I would simply add that the freedom we experience for God is not and cannot be experienced as something forced upon us because God is not a being that exists alongside of us imposing his will upon us. We are made for God and live in God and are nothing but desire for God. Only our passions and disordered desires, which are not who we truly are, prevents us from grasping this fundamental truth of our existence. God is Other but not an other as we are other to each other. As long as we are thinking of our freedom in libertarian terms (a freedom to do otherwise), we really have not grasped the asymmetrical intimacy that makes possible the liberty the Spirit gives. This is the “metaphysical” truth that David B. Hart has helped me to see so clearly. IMHO. 🙂

  51. Fr. Aidan,
    Just to do a little metaphysics…Hart’s suggestion (which is pretty much the same as Nyssa’ approach), seems to me to put nature over person. Our nature surely is “nothing but desire for God.” But there is this mysterious thing we call person – and there – there is a freedom such that the nature is uniquely expressed. It is in the mystery of person qua person that the problems lie. Or so it seems to me. I don’t like it. Maybe I’ve too much Zizioulas or Yannaras.

    But, back to my anti-metaphysics (didn’t know I had one) :), I think that for me the question lies in the heart – because it is there that I feel most estranged from God and everyone else and if there is to be a restoration of union for me, it will have to come there. So, I’m working on thinking like a slave.

    Your buddy, the Blog-slave.

  52. Fr Stephen thank you for this elaboration about person and nature. I find it very helpful.

  53. If we aren’t to think about our freedom in libertarian terms then how are we to think about it?

  54. Dear Fathers Stephen and Aidan:

    I believe that each view expressed supra is both true and incomplete. Metaphysically speaking, the apokatastasis is inevitable because, to paraphrase Hart, To know the Good as such is to desire it absolutely and not to desire it is never to have known it, and therefore, not to be free to reject it. The voluntaristic libertarian notion of freedom is based upon a fundamental misconception that views true freedom as the mere ability to choose randomly and for any reason whatsoever. It is surely a notion that would have been alien to the Church Fathers. Since we agree that God wills the salvation of all and that He also has infinite patience, with time, remedial punishment and instruction, all souls will come to choose the Good which is God Himself.

    Yet, standing alongside this ancient metaphysical optimism, one also finds the deep spirituality of Mount Athos or the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, which meditates upon the reality of “eternal Hell”| and the universal fallen-ness of humanity. Yes, all shall be saved in the end except myself, the worst of all sinners. Keep your mind in Hell and despair not for Christ stands alongside you. Meditate constantly on the last things, especially Hell, for this will bring you to true repentance.

    Allow ne to suggest that both views are correct yet incomplete because this represents yet another paradox of Christian belief. God is both utterly transcendent(as ipsum esse subsistens) and immanent, as the ground of all being who constantly wills the creation of all things. He is both one and three. Jesus Christ is both God and Man. To this we should perhaps add that the apokatastasis is both inevitable, because we are all created in the imago Dei and impossible, because we are also created from nothing and are dust, muck and the greatest of all sinners.

  55. The idea of a choice-making person makes the issue complex. It seems like without the idea of freedom there can be no idea of person. Personhood maximumizes non-reduction. Any decrease in freedom entails a reduction in personhood. And an entirely reduced person is just a system of reflexive behaviors regardless of how complex they may appear.

  56. Perhaps it is impossible because of who we are, but inevitable because of who God is.

  57. David: “If we aren’t to think about our freedom in libertarian terms then how are we to think about it?”

    Are the redeemed in heaven unfree because they are not capable of rejecting God? Or perhaps are they more free, truly free, because they are fully “enslaved” to the God “whose service is perfect freedom”?

  58. Fr. Aidan,

    The scriptures do talk about exchanging slavery to sin for slavery to God. Fine. I can makes sense of that. But, if we have no choice, no freedom of will, then that reduces to Calvinism and it challenges what we mean by person, agency, and culpability.

  59. David,Fr Alvin,
    I do think that this is where Ziz. and Yannaras are helpful. Our nature is like a given – an unchanging direction and longing for God, always willing (the natural will) its proper end. The “gnomic will” as described in St. Maximus, is that broken or fragmented thing we experience as “choice.” I can understand that what we describe as “freedom” – the libertarian sense of doing anything I want – isn’t really doing “anything I want” because the subject of the “wanting” is so much “me” as this fragmented thing called the “gnomic will.” Indeed, within the Fathers of the councils in which St. Maximus’ theology is supreme, it is said that “there is no gnomic will” in Christ. That makes sense because the gnomic will is solely a product of the fall, not a product of who we are or what we are (person and nature).

    The asceticism of the Church is, to a degree, directed towards the healing of this fundamental fragmentation (the gnomic will vs the natural will) and is thus a return to a fundamental integrity.

    Nyssa (who is writing before Maximus) posits that death in some manner ends the tyranny of the fall over our nature. A sort of death to the “sin that is in me” (as St. Paul says, “It is no longer, I, but the sin that dwells in me”).

    It could also be said that arriving at true personhood, is arriving at the true self, rather than dwelling in the ego of the false self, the pseudo-life created by the delusions of the gnomic will, etc.

    My thoughts in this, in terms of “knowing,” stop at the grave, because I can’t see that far. So that I cannot say what shall be – but I can see what “needs” to be to some extent.

    I know that there is no justice that needs to be satisfied, no “requirement” of an eternal punishment – certainly not within God. The only question is whether and to what extent all of this happens after the grave. I have hope, because God is good. Gnome would seem to stop at the grave, or, in paradise, since if we still had gnome, we would be capable of losing paradise yet again. How that applies to all, is not clear to me. Only hope.

    I hear and understand those who guard the notion of eternal hell, based on a reading of Scripture and other traditional sources. We should all be equally careful to guard the faith from the false God of the Calvinists and their lot (or at least the mean ones), whose infernal reach would seem to pierce into the Godhead itself.

    To Fr. Aidan especially, I would that Yannaras and Ziz. would bother to engage Maximos as well as they’ve engaged modern existentialism. Their account of personhood seems to like precisely that element. We should stand by them, banging a cowbell and chanting, “More Maximus!”

  60. Fr Stephen: ‘I suppose that dance of freedom, will and will, could go on forever, though I’m not certain what that would mean. Pascha is victorious making it possible for will to confront will – without bondage, without interference, etc. But that is all I think we can say. For myself, I can hardly imagine an eternal opposition to the love of God. But I cannot fathom a less than free – freewill.’

    David: ‘But, if we have no choice, no freedom of will, then that reduces to Calvinism and it challenges what we mean by person, agency, and culpability.’

    Fr Stephen: ’Nyssa’s approach… seems to me to put nature over person.’

    I don’t think this can be accounted for as a question of nature vs. person; at the final analysis the subject of discussion is the agency of human persons willing, desiring, choosing, acting. It holds not up to scrutiny to suggest that St Gregory emphasizes the abstract, and discounts the concrete (i.e. human nature in isolation from actual persons) whereas those in disagreement reference concrete persons with a lessened appeal to their human nature. The key difference is rather as to the understanding of the nature of freedom – what do we suppose constitutes freedom to the human, personal agent? If we are to suppose, as do those disagreeing with Gregory, that human intent and desire is purely spontaneous, without rationale and purpose, then indeed any choice is as good as another. For then we cannot speak of the human person as having a prior and God-given orientation towards the Good, or as desire of the human person as inherently purposive and teleological. Freedom on this account is purely whatever is willed, arbitrarily without reference. This fits well with modern notions of freedom, as it is supposed that it doesn’t matter what is desired or chosen, as long as a choice is made – any choice. Freedom, they say, is freedom to do otherwise. On this account how is freedom distinguished from brute impulse, or pure chance, as appeal to transcendental teleology is not in the cards? But this is to conflate the gnomic will with the natural will. The strength of Gregory’s account is his reference to the biblical understanding of humans as personal agents whose freedom is constituted in their desire towards God, precisely on account of being God’s creature. No choice is made and no action is taken without desire of some good, even if evil is mistaken for the good. To will the evil as evil is not to be free but to be enslaved, beholden to the impulse of darkness. The relevance of the Nyssen’s theology of freedom to scope of salvation is that the gnomic ‘freedom to do otherwise,’ the ‘freedom to resist,’ which is supposed to be the ‘dance of freedom’ will come to an end, exposed for the dance with nothingness that it is for God will be all in all.

  61. The perpetual issue of the abuse of freedom and the birth of evil is perhaps best understood by the example of the first fallen Archangel.
    What Lucifer’s ‘person’ [and even his perverted ‘nature’ eventually (since we could say: initially, person and nature are in clear disunion during the “fall”, but finally they acquire a perverse ‘unison’ –as nature has some capacity to be obligatorily led by its personal manifestation, {the person} either “according to its self {nature}”, or “against it”, {its own self})] says to God is simple:
    “I want to be orientated towards you, it’s my nature and my being, but I also want to not be orientated towards you but towards this being of mine and to continue eternally this trajectory towards non-being”.
    Of course human freedom is more complex than angelic, and more externally influenced, but this basis remains.

  62. Just a few thoughts:

    Our identity is “revealed” by God’s call to his creation, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that our identity takes shape over time as our creaturliness encounters God. For example, God says “Abraham!” and Abraham says “Here I am!” There’s a self-awareness and a self-understanding that is implied by Abraham’s response to God. Jacob wrestles with the angel and in the end Jacob becomes Israel. Personhood is strongly linked with the idea of personal identity. Persons are keenly interested in their sense of self, who they are. We are not as free as we think. We are much more easily conditioned and controlled than we want to believe. The freedom to choose either Snickers or Milky Way, Coke or Pepsi, McDonald’s or Burger King, Walmart or Target is not freedom. In our core, what we desire most is the freedom to BE. Miguel De Unamuno discusses what he calls the “furious hunger of being” and he describes it this way: “The universal suffering is the anguish of all in seeking to be all else but without the power to achieve it, the anguish of each in being he that he is, being at the same time all that he is not, and being so forever…It seeks the maximum of individuality also of personality; it aspires to the identification of the universe with itself; it aspires to God.”

    We are a nothing desperately seeking to become a something and someone.

    Philosophically, scientifically and mathematically we can distinguish chaos from a stochastic process. And we can further distinguish between these two and freedom? How is freedom different from chaos or from stochasticity? Fortuin hints at these differences in his comments above. The only reason we consider the freedom to do otherwise–I think–as so important is that we need that to ground our sense of blame. And it makes so much sense to the Western frame of mind that it is hard to shake. The Scriptures, however, suggest that “God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.” In this sense, we are always defined by what we are subject to: Slaves of this or slaves of that. But, rather than think of this dichotomy as a choice in the kind of servitude we prefer. I think that there is an ontological dimension. A bird is free to be a bird and to do bird things. A dog is free to be a dog and to do dog things. I am not free to be either a bird nor a dog. The attempt would be nothing more than imitation. To experience either the freedom of a dog or a bird you must be either a dog or a bird. We are only free to be Sons of God when we are truly Sons of God via the new birth—Then we are free to be Sons of God.

  63. Dino, this may go without saying, but my comments about Orthodox exceptions to your general statistical observations about the Orthodox village experience particularly only pertains to my own experience, which is limited to that of Orthodox in this country, who along with their families are subjected to many of the same influences of modernity as the rest of us. I always appreciate your observations and those of other Orthodox from culturally Orthodox parts of the world. Did I understand correctly that you now reside in England, and if so, how many years have you been an ex patriot citizen?

  64. As I work on learning and understanding your words, Fr’s, I think I might need more (Maximus) cowbell.

    Fr Stephen, are you saying the Ziz *lacks* the Maximus cowbell? I think that was your meaning. I’m in the process of reading Ziz but haven’t read Maximus. Would you recommend going into Maximus first in the reading order?

  65. DBH’s discussion of the eschatological implications for our salvation of the gnomic vs. natural will and the intrinsic nature of God’s will to created will intrigues me and at the same time just makes my brain hurt! I’m ready to go grab one of my husband’s handkerchiefs, tie a knot in each corner to make a Gumby hat (Monty Python style), and pop that on my head and start repeating, “My brain hurts!”

    Still, I’m very grateful for his work because along with the prayers of the Saints, this is what has enabled me to pray with real faith in integrity for the salvation of all (shackled as I have been by the logic of modern rationalism). And I have found it impossible to be saved myself apart from this kind of faith, hope and prayer.

  66. I think it’s worth remembering that God only creates good, yet the creation of a [good] hypostasis, is the creation of a freely affirmable as well as deniable good, and it means that angels and humans retain their self-determination towards their Creator and His will.
    The standard teaching of the Church is that just as the angles yearned for their stabilisation in good – and this was granted them after the Ascension – so did the fallen angels desire their reverse stabilisation in the denial of their hypostasis, a stabilisation in the movement towards non-being. So when the Church speaks of (in its majority) the eternal and irreversible damnation it understands this as a granting of a crazy desire for the damned. A desire that -at least for the spiritual beings of the angelic order- although crazy, contains full awareness – so one cannot say that a Father would never grant their child such a wish no matter how much they want it….


    yes, a Greek whose life’s in England for decades- not much into disclosing details I am afraid though! But it’s time in Athos that qualitatively affects more than the quantitatively longer time anywhere else…

  67. Dino, yes, I understand. The way I think of this is that “salvation” that does not involve the voluntary yielding of the human (or angelic) will to God is a contradiction in terms.

    Not into disclosing details, hmmm . . . I never would have taken you for someone who wanted to be mysterious about his age, Dino! 😉 . . . On the serious side, though, it seems Mt. Athos is transformative for many as a result of a single or only a few visits there. I can well imagine the impact having a saintly spiritual father (or two) there during some of the most formative years of one’s life could have. I can’t imagine coming away from even one encounter with one of the Holy Elders the same person. Reading the lives and words of the contemporary Holy Elders is what has most stunned me with the present living Reality of Jesus Christ in His Church.

  68. By the grace of God, I am making a pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain in late September, early October this year. The two monasteries that I am certain is on our itinerary are Simonapetra and Panteleimon.

  69. …but if God, the Holy Trinity, and His grace are every present filling all things and He is drawing all men to Him how is that not irresistible ultimately?

    Our freedom lies in how and when we respond does it not?

    BTW, libertarians theme song is Red Solo Cup.

  70. I have heard some apologists — including my own spiritual father, the late Father Gordon Walker — and, well, Billy Graham make this observation: Eternity in the bright, all-seeing light of a loving God may not be eternity for someone who rejects that love and refuses to turn from cherished sin.

    From one of my On Religion columns, two decades ago: http://www.tmatt.net/columns/1996/01/hell-and-the-church-of-england

    Asked why he rarely preaches about a fiery hell, anymore, the Rev. Billy Graham once told me that he believes the best image for damnation is that of a soul dwelling in “outer darkness,” far from God’s eternal light. Or perhaps, the evangelist said, hell is like the old joke about a man who going on a boat cruise, complete with wine, women and song. Somehow, he got on the wrong boat.

    “The other boat was for a Sunday school picnic from a Baptist church,” said Graham. Before long, the man was sick of it. “He said, `Man, this is HELL to be in with this crowd. They don’t smoke, they don’t drink, they don’t tell dirty stories. … But the Baptists were having a wonderful time. It was like heaven to them.”

  71. Michael,
    I don’t think bringing the issue of time is something we humans can properly comprehend in our current state, especially regarding the (fallen) angelic beings. I have also often heard that both the Angels and the demons have been granted permanent immovability/security in their respective affirmation/good and denial/evil according to their fully-(eternally if you like)-aware-will.
    (Obviously St Isaac and Nyssa come back to the time-based argument and they argue that God has mercifully gone back on what He had disclosed to the saints as an incontestable permanency before )

  72. Terry,

    Such accounts are helpful (as is the account of hell in the ‘River of Fire’ by Kalimiros) in explaining the phenomenology of hell, but does nothing to account for supposing that it would last into infinity: the absurdly unbiblical ‘good vs evil’ dualism this implies; the monstrous disproportion of temporal offense vs unending punishment, and what this would entail for the moral character of God; the limits of God’s power and presence by the necessity of persisting evil which reveals God’s will is apparently that evil will endure endlessly; infinite damnation is the price paid by some unfortunately souls for God’s self-revelation; and so forth.

    Darkness writ into infinity is all around bad news: we are stuck with a parochial Pascha (hardly a triumph), or else we have to rethink God’s nature and attributes. I am not sure this “God” is worthy of worship.

  73. Robert,
    My comfort in thinking about any of this (within the context of Orthodoxy) is simply to look at Christ Himself. I look steadfastly at His Pascha and trust that all will be well, even if I cannot speak the manner of that reality (the manner is Christ Himself, I suppose).

  74. Dino,

    St Gregory’s argument (and likely St Isaac as well, but I am less familiar with his writings) is quite opposite to that of an appeal to time or of ‘going back on’ or rescinding something previously disclosed. The appeal is to pre-eternal divine intentions – God’s purposes before creation and the existence of time – which on Gregory’s account will ultimately become realized despite our creaturely gnomic detour in time.

  75. Yes, Fr Stephen, me too, this is indeed is a great comfort, a great hope.

    I find that certain accounts of God (and heaven and hell) are more or less in accord with this great hope.

  76. Essentially, I hear you saying — that is, of course, if I am smart enough to understand your language — that when our Lord walked this earth, human beings were free to reject him. However, in eternity the illusion of that freedom will be erased and that the actions and decisions taken in our lives will be revealed as illusions. How one balances this with abortion, nuclear weapons, child abuse, slavery and, of course, the powerful sin of pride really doesn’t matter.

    I am sure that I am simply not smart enough to understand. All I hear is the precise arguments I heard from the left in, oh, the Episcopal Church. But, like I said, I am sure that I am missing the point.

  77. I will try one more time, using imagery from my spiritual father.

    In the story of the Prodigal Son, how long would the Father have grieved, and remained watching that road to the far land, if his son had not come to his senses and returned home with words of repentance on his lips?

    Father Gordon simply said: Eternity.

    Then again, that presumes some degree of human choice and freedom.

  78. tmatt, and that is the real danger of speculation . We cannot even trust an apophatic approach on this matter because even that is dependent on the creaturely suppositions of judgement.

    There will be a judgement, it will be righteous because it is done in the context of God’s kenotic love.

    If we go by Matthew, theology will have nothing to do with it, but the way in which we treat our fellow human beings but even that is a stretch–too many creaturely assumptions built in.

    What guidelines are in the Scripture seem to be heavy burdens for my poor, hard heart: give everything without asking for anything; pray for your enemies even as they are killing you; do it all with joy and thanksgiving to/for God.

    Deeply insane unless Jesus really is the Incarnate God, creator of all, then it simply isn’t enough, is it?

  79. We pray for all to repent, including ourselves. We pray for those in hell, hoping that they accept the mercy of God and repent — especially of the sins we are too blind to see. We pray that the only lock on the door to hell is on the inside.

    Then again, I am sure that I am caught up in that whole absurd good vs. evil thing again.

    My question again, from my spiritual father: How long would the Heavenly Father have grieved if his son had not freely come home?

  80. My question again, from my spiritual father: How long would the Heavenly Father have grieved if his son had not freely come home?

    The question strikes me as a matter of the heart, not of time. God “grieves” for His creation because He loves it. God loves us, regardless of whether we “freely come home” or not.

  81. Yes, he loves us no matter what. You missed or evaded the point of my spiritual father’s image.

    The issue is whether God created humanity with the ability to love him back, freely, or is that all an illusion. I was under the impression that this choice was ultimately real.

  82. Hi Terry,

    I am not suggesting that freedom is an illusion, nor that choices don’t have consequences. On the contrary, the choices we make are very real and important. They do really matter. To speak crudely, there is hell to pay for the things we do and omit to do. There will be gnashing of teeth. I suppose this to be painful and a great loss (1 Cor. 3:15 ‘If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as through fire’). To suggest this to be without end, and punishment to be punitive, God’s intentions powerless, His glory limited – this is the issue.

  83. The following citation from Olivier Clement may be relevant to this discussion:

    “The hell of the fallen condition is abolished in Christ. Everything now depends not on merits, but faith and love, on the relationship of each individual with Christ and with his neighbour. The early Church with its gaze fixed wholly on the Parousia had no conception either of the present existence of souls definitely damned, nor of an already consummated beatitude for the saints (or even for Christ, according to Origen), nor again of a ‘purgatory’ in the strictest sense of the word, meaning penal ‘satisfaction’ of a juridical nature, such as developed in the medieval West. What we find in the Fathers is the idea of a progressive purification and healing. After death the soul crosses either a ‘sea of fire’ or spiritual ‘frontier’, where the powers of evil wrest from it what belongs to them and leave it stripped, ready to embark on a life of peace and silence (the ‘abodes, one above another, of which St Ambrose speaks here suggest a progressive perfecting). Thus the ‘sleep’ of death appears as a contemplative state. Death, undoing the tangles of idolatry and sin, offers the soul that peace, quiet, hesychia, which spiritual persons know already here below, a blissful visitation of Christ who is always present in hell. For since Holy Saturday and the Ascension he is the fulfillment of all things. The Church does not forget that for the dead, fixed on their ignorance or greed or pride, there are states in which the peace, the silence, the light, and the glimpse of the Physician’s presence are experienced as torments. But the Church with all her love and all her power of intercession—that intercession for the damned to which Péguy’s Joan of Arc summoned the saints—prays for all the dead, including those who are in transitory ‘hells’. That is so especially during the ‘prayers of genuflexion’ at the Vespers of Pentecost. The love of God, multiplied by the prayers of the faithful, works from within upon the individual in order that, since no one is alone, each may, with a personal effort, become opened up to the ontological unity of the Body of Christ.”

    This text is included in my just-published article on aerial toll houses: http://wp.me/pZJmO-7F7.

  84. To suggest this to be without end, and punishment to be punitive, God’s intentions powerless, His glory limited – this is the issue.

    My apologies for misunderstanding your inquiry. The issue of universal salvation and/or a limitation of God’s intentions has been discussed here many times. I will let others reply in detail if they so wish but I believe Father’s general counsel is that it is proper for us to hope for such a salvation but God has not revealed to us the knowledge of whether or how it may come to pass.

  85. Dino in my excursions into history I found that time is a deep mystery everything interpenetrating everything else. It is not linear. So I am not sure what you mean. I was not even considering time in my comment, other than its fullness, the fact of the Incarnation and the Scripture: “Behold I make all things new.”

    Time as we tend to think of it is a measure of decay. I was thinking the opposite. Humans have no way to measure or codify transformation and becoming new.

  86. Robert Fortuin ,

    What I meant is that their argumentation against the majority standard position of an eternal damnation (which is something fairly clearly previously disclosed in Scripture) – although understandably grounded on pre-eternal divine intentions (more so than Scripture), was justified [as it clearly needs this justification against many Scriptural passages to the contrary] through the use of the argument that God has previously rescinded of something He has previously disclosed to us…
    St Isaac is the most eloquent on this:

    Just as [God] decreed death, under the appearance of a sentence, for Adam because of sin, and just as he showed by means of the punishment that the sin existed—even so this punishment was not his real aim. He showed it as something Adam would receive as a repayment for his wrong, but he hid its true mystery, and under the guise of something to be feared he concealed his eternal intention concerning death and what his wisdom was aiming at. Even though this matter might be grievous, ignominious, and hard at first, nevertheless in truth it would be the means of transporting us to that wonderful and glorious world. Without it, there would be no way of crossing over from this world and being there.. . . The Creator did not say: ‘This will turn out to be the cause of good things to come for you and a life more glorious than this’. Instead, he showed it as something which would bring about our misfortune and dissolution. Again, when he expelled Adam and Eve from paradise, he expelled them under the outward aspect of anger … as though dwelling in paradise had been taken away from them because they were unworthy. But within all this rested the divine plan, fulfilling and guiding everything towards what had been the Creator’s original intention from the beginning. It was not disobedience which introduced death to the house of Adam, nor did transgression remove them from paradise, for it is clear that God did not create Adam and Eve to be in Paradise, just a small portion of the earth; rather, they were going to subjugate the entire earth. For this reason we do not even say that he removed them because of the commandment which had been transgressed; for it is not the case that, had they not transgressed the commandment, they would have been left in paradise for ever.

  87. Michael, to further amplify what you said, time is not constant, but variable, it is a function of absolute speed. At the speed of light, time stops completely versus time being very speed up at a motion of zero. This is from Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity and has been proved by experiment to vary in-accordance with his formula. Obviously, we cannot measure the extremes of speed but we did sample data points far enough apart and the observed values were as the formula predicts.
    Time is also a created thing and the fourth dimension of the Universe. Eternity with the Lord is timeless because He and the spiritual realm are not part of the physical universe. I haven’t the foggiest how one thinks when there is no chronological stream to work in, but then, His thoughts are higher than our thoughts.

  88. Nicholas, I like what you’ve written.

    I don’t think there is a theory with time as a dimension outside our current theories about the physical universe (i.e. whatever might be previous to the ‘Big Bang ‘) but I might be out of touch as I haven’t read that sort of literature in a while.

    When I speak of the ‘material’ world, I cannot avoid thinking of it as infused with ‘spirit’. Sometimes I am not able to separate what might be considered a hangover from Seminole spirituality from that which we mean when we speak of the “one story universe’. I know that Gods grace is in the world and that “The Spirit of Truth who is in all places and fills all things…”. However there is a way of thinking in the spiritual way of the Seminole to ‘speak’ to animals, plants, and inanimate things. My recollections are likely dim with the years, since I last heard such speech. The Seminoles have had Christianity for sometime and there has been some integration of both traditions. But I don’t think it would be considered the same as what is described as ‘new age’ thinking. Although ‘new age’ thought has attempted to incorporate Native people’s experience and spiritual thought.

    I’m an infant in the faith, and so I’m just stumbling along grateful for the insights of my spiritual elders.

  89. What comes to your mind when a Priest or pastor insists it is essential to “preach the bad news first” in order to effectively present the gospel and that this is the Scriptural pattern? It tends to evoke shades of Jonathan Edwards “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” for me, but I’m not sure that’s fair. It seems to me the insistence we need to think like slaves is another way of getting at the same truth. I have no difficulty understanding repentance from sin and reception of the gospel are two sides of the same coin and perhaps actually describe the exact same movement of the heart.

    There does seem to me to be a paradox, however, that the “bad news first” mentality sometimes seems to overlook–and that is that it is impossible to truly see our own poverty, slavery, and corruption except in the full light and revelation of God’s kenotic love.

    Jesus didn’t have to tell the Righteous Thief being crucified next to Him he was a sinner in need of repentance. All the thief had to do was look at Jesus, and he knew what to do.

  90. I am grateful that the Lord led me to the Faith Once Delivered. The thing I find the most comforting is to know that the Lord loves us and it will all turn out in righteousness and holiness in the end. That leaves so much I need not fret about or try to investigate with my limited brain space. I don;t know the answers to many of the question we raise here, but I know He Who does and I trust Him. It is Mysterion to me and I can be comfortable with that because we have a Lord that works all things for good.

  91. Byron,

    “It is proper for us to hope for such a salvation but God has not revealed to us the knowledge of whether or how it may come to pass.”

    Of course we must hope – but our hope must be based on a theology firmly established, coherent, and it must be consistent with God’s self-revelation. Do we critique Anselm’s juridical theology or Calvin’s theology of predestination on hope alone? Not only would be it be foolish to do so, but it would be tantamount to fideism. Would it not be foolhardy to hope in divine love and mercy while holding a juridical theology of an angry, punitive, capricious God? Hope and faith is based on what is believed about the moral nature of God. If knowledge is the criteria, for you appeal to ‘knowledge’ – how much our faith can indeed be put into that category? What has God revealed that we can claim as ‘knowledge’? It is much less than we may claim. I am not aware of an Orthodox dogma which compels assent to a hell without end, an unending dualism of Good vs. Evil, or the annihilation of the damned. It is a point of ‘pride’ that very little of Orthodox theology is dogma or dogmatic.

  92. Dino,

    Gregory and Isaac then seem to differ substantially as for Gregory death is the enemy, resulting from the perverse misuse of creaturely freedom. All that happens in history is a diversion from God’s original intent which at last in the Eschaton will come to be. An appeal is not made to time, but rather to the original, pre-eternal and original plan of God. There’s nothing in Gregory to indicate that he’s purportedly arguing against plain and clear Scripture in order to establish universalism. I strongly suspect it to be an anachronistic projection to suppose that St Gregory was up against passages in scripture which unquestionably established an infinite hell. There’s absolutely no evidence of this in Gregory’s writing at all. Not a shred. There are after all many passages in Scripture which support universal salvation.

  93. Robert,
    We may hope. We may do theology. I find St. Gregory’s approach interesting – and probably consistent with much of the Alexandrian opinion that shaped the Cappadocians. There is, indeed, a consistent thread within the great fabric of Orthodoxy that tends towards a completely happy apokatastasis. For a variety of reasons, some that are perhaps arguable, the Church has never chosen to speak in a definitive manner about the nature of the apokatastasis (that there will be one is incontrovertible – it’s in the Scriptures). I suspect that there has been wisdom in that fact. I don’t tend to like going down any road of revision.

    On the other hand, anyone who sits with St. Gregory and St. Isaac and others, does not sit alone, nor do they sit outside the Orthodoxy faith. I choose, in the context of my public ministry to adhere to the reticence of the tradition – all the while guarding and protecting St. Gregory, St. Isaac and others.

    What I do not think possible or true is a teaching on hell that carries a necessity of eternity. I find that to be absurd in the light of Christ. Only God is necessary. But that’s pretty much where I stop. The rest remains in silence.

  94. So there is the question that has haunted me my entire life.

    Could God have created souls that are truly free? Of course he could.

    Did a loving God choose to do so? Or did He create souls with only the illusion of choice, when it comes to accepting his love and mercy. All choices are ultimately “illusions?”

  95. Robert,
    Yes, St Gregory’s [and (obviously) Origen’s] notion of apokatastasis is an eschatology, firmly based on protology. They also needn’t battle with specific scriptural refutations in their neo-platonic environments as much as Isaac. However, as they hadn’t been Scripturally challenged so authoritatively just yet, those who authoritatively went on to meticulously refute their ideas later on, like St. Barsanuphius (challenged to this by his spiritual disciples who studied Nyssa), St. Herman of Constantinople, St Mark of Ephesus, Photius the Great and even Maximus the confessor, inadvertently did base their refutations upon scripture to some degree. However, St Barsanuphius in particular is interesting because he answered –after especial prayerful inquiry to God about the matter and a direct revelation to him–, as though he had the statement from above: “do not think that people, though saints, could completely understand all depths of God… Even if a saint speaks about such opinions, you will not find that he confirmed the words as though he had the statement from above, but that they resulted from the doctrine of his former teachers, and he, trusting their knowledge of them, did not inquire of God whether it was true.

  96. Tmatt,
    I think He certainly creates us free and not as an illusion. I do question what the nature of freedom is – whether we have much experience with it – and whether freedom and choice should be the primary pillar of understanding our relationship with God. I understand that what we now experience as “freedom” is not true freedom, but simply the oscillating movements of the “gnomic will.” The gnomic will, discussed especially in St. Maximus, is a distorted result of the fall. It “chooses” between things, but not in a manner that represents freedom.

    True freedom is best defined as “acting in accordance with our nature.” St. Maximus speaks of the “natural will.” And the natural will desires God, always, at all times. Without it, we would never find God or even want to. But we live in a situation where that desire is masked and distorted and we are left with this poor imitation.

    If someone sins, they “are a slave to sin.” How can we describe a “slave to sin” as exercising freedom?

    It’s a bit of a conundrum. But the voluntaristic notion of human freedom, frequently posited in our modern thought is too simplistic. It’s much more complicated. It is, for example, why modern Evangelical/Baptist theology is inadequate.

    I have conflicted thoughts about this myself.

  97. Then is there a difference between loving God and hating God, between returning God’s love and rejecting God’s love, between accepting his Mercy and rejecting it?

    I grew up Protestant, of course, surrounded by many who believed that the soul is free in this life, but that at death the nature of the soul changes and the human person cannot choose to accept or reject God. In Orthodoxy, of course, we accept that there is a mystery there. We hold out hope that repentance is still possible. We pray for the souls in Hell.

    Now it appears that there is a strangely similar position on the other side of the issue, which argues precisely the same thing — only this time the nature of the soul changes at death and there is no need for repentance, no choice to accept or reject God’s eternal love and mercy. Or, it is stated, that God’s love is so overwhelming that each and every soul makes the same choice, which for me resembles no choice. God created man with no ability to freely choose to love Him in return. In the end, the choices were all illusions.

    God’s love is so overwhelming that it cannot be rejected. This certainly does not appear to be what happened when humanity faced our Lord in His ministry, according to Scripture.

  98. I think the “overwhelming, cannot be rejected” approach is incorrect. If it were correct, why not overwhelm us in this life?

    Generally, it is not an overwhelming of the free-will that is posited (by those who posit these things). It is rather a progressive healing, such that the brokenness of the alienation from our nature is healed. If the will were “repaired” and worked correctly, it would always choose God. That is the reasoning.

    I think of an alcoholic. To a certain extent, in the throes of the disease, there is not a “freedom” to drink or not drink. If there is a drink, there is slavery and the will becomes ineffective. Something has to happen to change things. And, strangely, “choice” is not exactly the issue. It’s a very perplexing reality. Sobriety is a paradox – as is salvation.

  99. “Gnomic willing” generally accepts that its agent does not quite know what he truly wants – he has to (more or less) deliberate, incline and choose between an assortment of alternatives. Maximus makes it quite clear that Christ, (simultaneously being God and man) had complete “congruence” between His Divine and human wills and was never in any state of ignorance concerning what He wanted, in other words Christ never willed “gnomically”.
    For the gnomic will of any of us humans to fully comply with our natural will –our logos or calling according to God’s will – we would need no less than omniscience. It is a kind of prerequisite for gnomic willing to hope to coincide with ‘natural willing’ in the complexity of a multifaceted existence such as ours. The paradox however is that any hypostatic being could still go against their ‘fully informed’ will (even with omniscience available to it!): a person would not be a free hypostasis if he, himself is not the one affirming or denying his eternal internal ‘orientation’. Regarding the bodiless, spiritual entities, it is largely accepted that their fall/negation was fully informed and externally unaffected. Human existence, and man’s fall, on the other hand, is quite the opposite, less than fully informed and externally affected. It’s understandable that Gregory’s and Isaac’s apokatastatic views have been especially critiqued for their inclusion of the apokatastasis of Lucifer, since they are based on protology.

  100. Is the choice we make to cede control over our lives to God offering up everything to God in thanksgiving? To care for others as He cares for us or as close as we can?

    More paradox. If that is so, why ornate places of worship, etc. Why does any of us have goods of any kind, houses, cars, cell phones, TV, beds? Should we not all be Fools for Christ?

  101. The question, then, is whether the healing is in any way voluntary. Must one choose to cooperate or is it impossible to reject healing? As in: “When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?”

  102. tmatt, “in any way voluntary”? It would seem to be, but it does not require much ascent if my experience is in any way normative. I had been dealing with a problem of interpersonal conflict at my work which had gotten serious. One Friday I talked to my supervisor about it in frustration saying “Nothing I have tried works, it just makes matters worse”. I also offered a half hearted prayer for help. By the next Tuesday the whole thing that had been going on for years was reversed and the root cause going back to my age 4 was shown to me and a hint that the whole chain was being reordered by God’s grace.

    Something happened on the weekend that I cannot articulate other than to say Jesus changed my heart but even that is not really accurate.

    Have to guard my heart and repent even more but real and permanent healing did occur. God made use of all the unpleasant circumstances.

    Glory to God.

  103. tmatt,
    Yes. That’s a right question, for me. I suspect, though, that Jesus’ question was itself a moment of healing for the man’s will. The word pierced through all the noise.

    A more frightening example would be the Rich Young Man – who, clearly offered the invitation (in love) to follow Jesus, goes away sad. It is obviously possible. I’ve wondered about the end of his story (that we never hear).

  104. Of course we must hope – but our hope must be based on a theology firmly established, coherent, and it must be consistent with God’s self-revelation.

    Robert, I agree it must be consistent with God’s self-revelation, which is His love for us. Our hope is in Him.

  105. “For the gnomic will of any of us humans to fully comply with our natural will –our logos or calling according to God’s will – we would need no less than omniscience. It is a kind of prerequisite for gnomic willing to hope to coincide with ‘natural willing’ in the complexity of a multifaceted existence such as ours. The paradox however is that any hypostatic being could still go against their ‘fully informed’ will (even with omniscience available to it!): a person would not be a free hypostasis if he, himself is not the one affirming or denying his eternal internal ‘orientation’. Regarding the bodiless, spiritual entities, it is largely accepted that their fall/negation was fully informed and externally unaffected. Human existence, and man’s fall, on the other hand, is quite the opposite, less than fully informed and externally affected. It’s understandable that Gregory’s and Isaac’s apokatastatic views have been especially critiqued for their inclusion of the apokatastasis of Lucifer, since they are based on protology.”

    Bingo Dino! The “…paradox however is that any hypostatic being could still go against their ‘fully informed’ will (even with omniscience available to it!)” is the metaphysical grounding (in a dialectical grasping – which is all that can occur in a comment box) for Person – it is the infinite *freedom* that is at the core of God and (being made in His Image) man (anthropos) that is so terrifying to the moralists – that is the neoplatonists who offer us an eschatology based on protology, telos, the “progressive purification and healing” as so well put in that Olivier Clement quote above and is such a good summation of the universalism promoted by some Orthodox. This “Greek” offering is nothing more than an Aristotelian “transformation” that destroys Person and the meaning of time (this middle earth) by turning man’s salvation into a Christian reincarnation – at least Calvin is honest about it when he metaphysically destroys (some) men. Universalists destroy all men (in a metaphysical “new creation” that is justified by a moral judgment of this life and its suffering – and in particular the suffering of freedom) in order to “save” them but what they don’t realize is that there is nothing left to save if you destruct the Image to “save” man/Person. It is just total depravity by another name.

    As Zizioulas recognizes, Maximus argues (though Hierotheos is an easier path to all this) *will* is an attribute of Person – it has no meaning abstracted from Person. Neither does moralism (good vs. evil), or for that matter any-thing (Creation, Time, etc. etc.). Universalism is but a metaphysical process (i.e. a process theology) about the war between Good and Evil with the outcome of course that Good “wins”. Christianity is an affront to Universalism because Good and Evil are but terms (again, dialectically but that is all we have on the level of the comment box) in *eternity*, and Evil personified (Lucifer) has his existence for eternity! Freedom and everything it entails includes the possibility of eternal rejection of God (and thus evil). *person-being* (i.e. ontology) just does not fit into the metaphysics of Universalism where everything is “fixed” in the end…how very Greek. Christianity (through Scripture and Tradition) preserves this eternal freedom and eternal Hell and so Universalism is but a hermeneutic to fix the physic-as-person and return him to a simplicity of a single term of Good vs Evil – which is Good of course. Christianly, this is not the salvation of man but rather his destruction and so it is rejected. It simply is not reality.

    Terry, you are right of course not to allow the word of your spiritual father to be reduced to a process (even one that is called a “healing”), to a metaphysic – eternity “trapped” in a simplistic and Platonic “good” where freedom is no freedom at all and Person’s don’t really exist but are instead “illusions” of some-thing undergoing a purgatorial change. It is far better to be haunted…

    Well shucks, I got sucked back in again…perhaps I am but a cog in the machine 😉

  106. Christopher,
    Do you have any way that accounts for the gnomic will and the natural will? I like Ziz most of the time but wish he would engage the patristic material more thoroughly. These points, in defense of the whole conversation, have been the thorniest and most difficult in all of the tradition. Which calls for respectful and patient disagreement.

    That said, I agree that Dino’s summation is very solid.

  107. Christopher,
    A further wrinkle in my mind (my brain is getting old and wrinkled). Person, particularly in the sense that Ziz. uses it, is an eschatological reality. We’re only moving towards that fullness of existence. So, it becomes problematic, it would seem to me, to posit certain things regarding Personhood before that moment. Do we as persons, only truly realize and fulfill our freedom in the eschaton? As in 1John 3:2?

    I have yet to encounter anybody that I thought was entirely free, myself included. There’s a lot of Romans 7 in us all.

  108. Christopher,
    Please forgive my briefly playing devil’s advocate here, but one reason I mentioned the anti-universalist position only regarding the bodiless creation was because of what Father Stephen just mentioned concerning the time-bound complexity of human/personal ‘actualisation’ (sorry to use a modern-day term).
    Also, to play devil’s advocate even more, the ‘universalist “transformation” that “destroys Person in order to “save” them” that you described above, (which is a solid argument indeed) could still be maintained -one could argue- without “destroying Person in order to “save” them”. This is possible if you argued that God’s initial bringing into being of even-that-Good-Archangel-that-eventually-(in full awareness and seemingly eternally)-denied-Him had only allowed this to come to pass in the beginning in the foresight of his eventual transformation that would occur without any destructive-to-his-person coercion of his will.
    However, once we get into this type of quagmire of (essentially unending) philosophical speculations, we quickly realize why the reticent hope, the mournful repentance and intercession, and the joyous trust in God’s perfect will for everything, all require that we abstain (or at least temper) such philosophical excursions of the mind.

  109. Dino,
    Amen. Indeed. Though the Church has said many things, the sort of definitive treatment of the will and final things do not have such a definitive treatment. If they did, we could just quote them. But we don’t.

    Thus, the question becomes, how do I pray within what I do know? At that was the point of this article.

  110. Christopher,
    By God, amazingly I get what you’re saying…I couldn’t repeat it for the life of me, but I get it. And I appreciate your clear and concise reasoning…metaphysics and all!
    I also am amazed you have the strength to continue to respond to this never ending yet exhausted topic of conversation, as the same things are said in fifty different ways. And I am even more amazed that I am here continuing to read about it. Good God!

  111. I can only conceive a true and final destruction of human personhood (at least for the individuals concerned) in a permanent hell that confirms an unambiguous disordered hell-bound inclination, not in a trust in the mercy and “protology” (thanks, Dino!) of God that conceives a possibility that mercy could open a way out of hell for every human soul, through hell’s suffering rendering it capable of repentance, at the eleventh hour even. Please note, this is not the same thing as saying it *must* happen (I agree with Fr. Stephen, this knowledge has not been given)–only that if it does, and it happens to do so for every human being, it shall mean human personhood has been fully restored and confirmed, not finally destroyed! To insist otherwise seems perverse to me indeed, but perhaps even Christopher would agree here, my caveat having eliminated the element of what is deemed a metaphysical “necessity” driving his concerns.

  112. Dear All,

    To think of the divine- human agency relation as a zero-sum equation (where one will is at the expense of the other’s freedom) is to go the route of some Reformers such as Calvin and end up with the false predestination schemes in which God’s sovereignty is framed as raw power and creaturely freedom is demolished. That sort of arrangement truly reduces freedom to an illusion and destroys personal integrity. But such is not suggested – rather, I suggest that human intentionality is inherently ordered to God. No choice is made without prior orientation such that even a choice towards evil is a choice with an orientation to (what is mistaken for) the good. Eventual salvation of all, as through fire and repentance, is the fulfillment of creaturely will to its prior orientation toward God and the good. Fr Stephen alluded earlier to healing, this is no different from understanding hell’s fire as restorative, as the Paschal love that ‘conquers’ all by shattering the reach of death, bringing life once and for all. Hell comes to end for it cannot forever frustrate God’s intention that all will be saved.

    Saul’s conversion, or the Annunciation – these I believe to be prime examples of voluntary human agency which at the same time are also willed by God and yet completely free and real to all involved. To think of freedom as either our way or God’s way (and never the twain shall meet, or when they do it is at the expense of the freedom of one of the parties) is to think freedom as do moderns. Are we to understand the Damascus road conversion as a divine tour of force leading Saul against his will? The Holy Spirit’s presence forcing His way against the Theotokos? I rather suppose that Paul’s and Mary’s freedom is constituted in their intentional orientation to God, to choose the Good is to be truly free, which is to emphatically deny the modern claim that freedom consists in our will and ability to do otherwise. This is why it is not a zero-sum equation.

    As a point of clarification – there is no suggestion that restoration is the same for all – for some freedom is a barely noticeable step (Theotokos), for one persecutor of the Church it is a blinding jolt of lightning. For others still it will entail repentance which will take much sorrow and gnashing of teeth. This is far from a blind ‘dialectic process’ as Christopher suggests.

    BTW – Why the belief in an infinite hell is any less a ‘philosophical excursion of the mind’ or any more or less neo-platonic than the belief in universal salvation, this is anyone’s guess. It is better to make a case for one’s position based on the issues– it does not further good will and discussion to bandy about labels.

  113. Robert,
    I assume that the default position from which philosophical excursions deviate clearly exists in the Church. Despite opposition, it’s incontestably the majority position and one with fairly clear Conciliar signature isn’t it?

  114. Despite a fairly substantial opposition to their validity nowadays,, the anathemas of the fifth ecumenical council are read in Church. What is adopted thus, is perhaps not quite dogma though…? But it is certainly the most prevalent position isn’t it?

  115. Dino,


    “….This is possible if you argued that God’s initial bringing into being of even-that-Good-Archangel-that-eventually-(in full awareness and seemingly eternally)-denied-Him had only allowed this to come to pass in the beginning in the foresight of his eventual transformation that would occur without any destructive-to-his-person coercion of his will….”

    is but a continuation of the same dialectic. As you point out, philosophically we can go on infinitely like this. I could place in opposition to “foresight” another term, one that would be equally weighty and moral (such as God’s will, or His Goodness, etc.) as the Universalists do when they oppose freedom to goodness. If God foresees it, but allows it to happen, then why? Then we are back to some kind of process/transformation from one kind of thing into another – which is dialectics, Greek, philosophy, etc. Christianly the problem of good and evil is not a problem of solved on the level of knowledge (in Genesis the we “know” good and evil). Universalism (at least the kind most talked about around here) pulls the problem down to nature, and then it is nature that is transformed through Christianity-as-a-grand-purgation story.

    As Maximus (and Zizioulas) recognizes, it is not nature that undergirds Persons (an thus Father Stephen, man is not a nature that is “nothing but desire for God”) but Persons that “have” natures. So our healing is not a metaphysical process on the level of nature and natural becoming (as you Fr. Stephen pointed out upstream). To push beyond this culdesac, as Fr. Stephen does with the question:

    “Do you have any way that accounts for the gnomic will and the natural will?” one can take Zizioulas’ relational Person-as-eschatological-reality as a possible way of thinking. However, doesn’t this just move the dialectic (i.e. the dialectic of becoming) from nature to the “relational” and pull in a speculative Trinitarian conceptualization as well? That I take to be the essence of Hierotheos’s criticism and I side with him that Zizioulas does not have the Revelatory “content” to do what he does. On the other hand, I am sympathetic to the idea of Zizioulas’ (and others) that Maximus/others were in the end subverting the metaphysics and neoplatonic categories that were the context of Christianity during their time and thus it is their example and not the details that we should emulate (i.e. on the whole ours is not a neoplatonic milieu as such and so Zizioulas focuses on modern categories {existentialism, Heidegger, etc.} and he believe this is what “theologians” should be doing).

    Fr. Stephen, as far as 1st John, Rom 7 (all of Romans in particular) I don’t see them in terms of moral conflict or in any other way that lends support to a nature in the process of becoming – if this is what you meant. Yes, our freedom (and everything else about us) is only fully realized “then”, but this on the level of knowledge – the level of the apple. On the ontological level freedom *is* (as an attribute of Him who “I Am” and anthropos in His Image) and thus it is not “fixed” on the metaphysical level because it is not “broke” on that this or any level. The reality of the gnomic will & natural will does not invert the Person/nature relationship (Yannaras, if I understand him would disagree). Thus, freedom (or any other attribute of God) can not be injected as a term in a dialectic of becoming – on the contrary, freedom, Persons, etc. is the what makes becoming (and everything else) possible. In this, I see (and assert the Church proclaims) more “dogma” on the will and final things than you do in that what She has said precludes universalism as such – monothelitism is a heresy after all. Is not universalism but the metaphysical triumph of His Good will over all other wills that He has created?

  116. Paula,

    Does this mean I am off the hook for your (very good) question over on Fr. Lawrence’s blog that I just noticed today? 🙂

    It all does have the character of an infinite vanity, does it not? Knowledge is like that…;)

  117. Christopher,
    Your presentation is “tight” – I would probably like to see a much larger treatment in that vein. I’m also leery, for a variety of reasons, of anything that makes all of this too “air tight” and syllogistic.

    For one, down here on the ground where I live and do my ministry, I do not see near the freedom that you’re positing, or, if it’s there, I would sure like someone to point it out to me. I do not myself posit a triumph of the will of God – only the triumph of the Cross – which has a strange way of subverting the “will” in the manner you’re describing.

    I obviously need a lot more reading and pondering in the topic. It is easy to say, “Who then can be saved?” – because I’m not seeing all these great examples of freedom. I hear an answer, “With men it is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.” And then I wonder how…though apparently it is true. All things are possible…except…

    Perhaps it is the case that I’m the cynic at least one of my children says I am. But I’ve done ministry for a lot of years. The longer I serve, and the more I understand, the more brokenness I see. Of course, the greatest brokenness seems in the lives that speak the least about it or acknowledge it – they’re very hard to save.

    It seems to me that except for the saints, everybody’s talking about some sort of salvation/damnation out there somewhere – beyond death – where, frankly, we start getting into more and more theory and ground none of us has trod. I’m glad for what some saints have shared. I know and believe that our prayers are of benefit beyond death – but I see very few who seem to have any great reasoning (vis. person/nature/freedom, etc.) on how that’s happening.

    I have very few things to go on. I have Pascha. I start with Pascha. For that matter, I think I end with Pascha. The further the conversation moves away from that point, the less secure I am in what I hear. I am less secure in it because the hearts that share it are often far from the hearts of saints, and I stand wondering if they’ve missed something or not.

    I grew up under an airtight system of heaven and hell where every preacher was certain of how the mechanics of it all worked. And I think they were wrong in so many ways. I do not think I will understand it, much less be convinced, without a heart much purer than mine is now, and a much clearer understanding of the heart of the Church’s teaching – which is not nearly so straightforward as it would seem in this matter.

    I am patient about it. I do not number myself among universalists – and repeat this endlessly. But I have a great patience in listening to them because they keep good company – good enough company that I do not and cannot write them off.

    For myself, I’m not capable of speaking with assurance. So I speak in hope. Occasionally something seems clear. For example, the point of this post (lost so long ago) that we should learn to pray as slaves rather than thinking like management. I believe that is true.

    I will make a caution as you push Orthodox who hold to a universalist position towards the abyss of heresy – I notice in your arguments that you not only outline your own reasoning, but seem to outline theirs as well. And it is not at all the case that their reasoning is as you imagine it to be. Monotheletism, for example. You’re too eager to silence something and condemn it without having a conversation about it.

    For myself, I want to know why St. Gregory thought as he did (and not just write him off as a “Greek”). Same for St. Isaac. These were men who knew the same Scriptures as you and I and yet seemed untroubled by their positions. I ponder that. I don’t draw conclusions – but I ponder it. Perhaps they’re just in error. That would be interesting and I’d like to know why.

    The truth is that the 5th Council condemnations are not as clear as they are made out to be and their use over the past is worth examination as well.

    I will also note that the use of freedom as the primary category by Ziz and Yannaras is not a great theme in the Fathers. It is a great theme in modern existentialism – and for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons, for my money, have to do with certain elements of the Modern Project that I think need careful examination. So.

    Those are my puzzlements.

  118. Father, my puzzlement are not so deep perhaps because my brain begins to hurt early on. I am certain of only a few things: 1. Our Lord God and Savior became man and still is man body and soul out of an unfathomable mercy; 2. He died and was raised from the dead and ascended.

    I know these things not as general philosophical propositions but because of specific intersections with my own life. They have become bedrock, undeniable certainties.

    His mercy is radical and something I can only dimly comprehend if is even dimly.

    It is not my faith, it is the faith that established the universe. How can I do anything other than to stand in awe or rather prostrate myself in awe and wonder hoping for His mercy?

  119. If you ask me, (the infant in this family) this was kinda like a breath-taking roller coaster.

    Albeit perhaps a theologically serious one. Though I honestly appreciate the elaborations on the topics in the Tradition, and will study this conversation for awhile. Yet, when it seems to get close to the point of argument, it also seems the conversation might catch on the hubris that has engulfed this culture. I am grateful for the presence of etiquette shown here.

    I am particularly grateful for the pastoral viewpoint Fr Stephen presents. Most of us may experience the grace of God but might not be able to converse/argue with those who abide by different traditions (speaking of the Protestant perspective and PSA specifically). Rather than engage in such conversations/arguments, I would just bow out. Argument doesn’t seem to be helpful. Though some of us might not be able to avoid it, I suppose.

    I first learned about apokatastasis here in this blog more than a year ago, and have been grateful for this conversation, but I would not attempt to embark on a conversation like this with my family or others who consider themselves outside the Christian stream. But then, if asked directly about it, my intention would be to present an outlook of hope, rather than a statement based on a knowledge I don’t have.

    Again, thank you all for this conversation. I will certainly study this thread and these view points.

  120. I am in real sympathy with an opposition to the preaching of a Universalist hope that arises from seeing it do real damage to an openness to the gospel as the preaching of the Incarnation of God for our salvation in those who have yet to receive that. I am also in great sympathy with an opposition to a preaching or confession of a Universalist hope that arises from the fear those immature in faith would see no need to struggle against the passions and lose their opportunity for salvation in this life (and the next) if they thought this was the truth. To my knowledge, I haven’t met anyone like that, but I have observed the damage to a motivation to struggle against sin that results for some from the heresy of “once saved, always saved” even in my own life, so I suspect it exists also in the case of Universalist teachings. Though I will also observe that the emptiness of that “salvation” is exactly what has driven many of us into the Church–salvation without real transformation is meaningless! The objection I have to the kind of philosophical argument I am hearing from Christopher is along the lines of Robert Fortuin’s June 16 comment at 5:38 pm above. It does seem to me when a philosophical apology such as Christopher offers, rather than simple defense of obedience to what is perceived to be the revealed Tradition of the Church (something I can completely respect), is offered as the rationale for the preaching of a necessarily infinite Hell, it’s a bit of the pot calling the kettle black only with a much poorer and less fully biblical definition of what constitutes personal “freedom.”

  121. In truth, generally, when these conversations wind down, I feel sad. Little is gained by way of light for the soul. I’m grateful when they stay civil.

    My mind wanders back to my late Father-in-law (mentioned earlier today in a comment). Over the years I learned not to enter any contentious conversations with him. If there were anything of that nature, he would quickly demur and say, “I don’t know about that.” He saw nothing to be gained (for either of us) in such conversations. Instead, I learned to discuss the goodness of God with him. Those conversations could go on for hours, and would sometimes bring a great laugh from him with an “Amen!”

    There are things that I do wonder about (including in this topic). But it is the goodness of God that I’m seeking – not the mechanics of heaven and hell. When Dino writes about God’s treatment of freedom, I can see His goodness, even if it is a “terrible” goodness.

    I remain convinced that there is more to the mystery than we know. But, I don’t know about that.

  122. Do not despair Father, think like a slave – not just a slave of sin (and all the sadness that entails) but also as a slave of Righteousness. As I get older, I too am struck just what a little thing this righteousness is, as ethereal as faith and as terrifying as the Cross. Who *willingly* takes up his cross out of faith? I don’t know these people either.

    Our experiences are quite different, perhaps maybe even incommunicable. Sure, we can write about them but can we commune in-being? I grew up under universalism and yes, everyone was certain of the mechanics of it as well. The company I now keep is usually of the infernalist variety, and the thing that strikes me about the universalists I run across is their lack of Joy about who and what they are, which ironically leads to a sentimentality about nature – human and Divine. I attribute this joylessness to what I (not flippantly – through long experience) take to be their mistaking their very self, their *being* for a cross. We take it up for the Joy in us, We don’t become a cross because that is how we were created or are being created (no matter how sophisticated we are in the conceptualization of this). The cross as process, as birth pangs, as gateway to new creation, as “restoration” – these parable(esque’s) have their limits and are not Life in-of-itself just as the parable of the Sheep and the Goats is not Hell itself.

    As a matter of the heart, there is a desperation “in the air” around universalism that is itself a lack of trust and as such, I simply don’t trust it. Can the God of the long and grand story of purgation and p-r-o-t-o-l-o-g-y really be God? A God that risks everything, even eternal hell and death of His Son (all his sons and daughters) because what is gained is infinitely *more* (the word fails utterly), now that is a God worth having a conversation about.

    Is all the above vanity and a misapprehension of the Mystery? Well, just before I sat down at this distraction device I had just sent my adolescent dog (she is no longer just a puppy, and possibly the last I will ever train) to hell – her cage. She had sinned boldly and pulled some food off the kitchen counter (yet again). It is in the end, just her part of her nature. My wife had left the food out on the counter (yet again). This sin is not in my wife’s nature, but rather is her habit. I grumbled to myself and blamed everyone else as I reluctantly cleaned up, as is my habit. God has given all this to me, and I now see it all under Joy – and at the very same time I am aware in my heart that this grumpiness is an abyss that as an abyss never ever (unto the ages of ages) ends and this is not natural at all but is nevertheless real… 😉

  123. Perhaps a thing to keep in mind when discussing ‘becoming’, universalism, the will and freedom eschatologically is that both angels and humans, in their freedom, pray for theit security (I only know the correct term in Greek I am afraid: “άτρεπτο”), their stabilisation, what we profess was bestowed upon the angelic order with our Lord’s Ascension .

  124. Christopher,
    Our experiences are certainly different…coming from very different places. But, unlike you, I find no particular vice in the people whom you describe as universalists – certainly not a lack a joy, etc. Nor do I find any particular virtue in “infernalists” (I do not like the term). I find solace only in the God who dies on the Cross to save us, enters hell to save us, is raised again to save us. And there we probably have enough common ground for joy.

    I think a great deal of my sadness simply comes in the interchange and the sin it seems to entail. The triumph and such – the points so well made – as often as not tinged with a flavor of mockery – even if not intended. And frequently from either side – and it echoes in me – and I’m sad as we draw ourselves further into a little hell – or, at least – not further into Christ (which is the same thing).

    I do not see the need to posit sins (sentimentality and the like) to those with whom you disagree in this. I think there is no virtue in it and much occasion for sin and for missteps. If some in this life and time, are wrestling to make sense of God – perhaps make sense of the existence of the wretched sinners around them (who may be their most beloved ones) – I cannot despise it.

    There are some who read St. Isaac, for example, and their heart leaps for joy – sometimes with that very same ecstatic joy that suffuses all of his writing. And even if they do not rush to some universalist conclusion (as I do not) – they find that the hope they dare (to use Met. Kallistos’ phrase) – is not without merit nor a matter of shame. And then, they are quickly dashed by those who seem to need to insist that they renounce St. Isaac or the thoughts he suggests, etc.

    I write as I do, and I write carefully when I approach this topic. I have been as careful to suggest to Robert that his utterly assured universalism should be tempered, as I am careful to suggest that “infernalism” not hold itself in such firmness as well. There is a conversation that is worth having – that is important to have for the sake of the heart and the knowledge of God.

    What makes me sad is that the conversation is always overwhelmed by one assurance or the other – and those (like myself) who are probably asking a different question are left in a middle that is treated only as someone needing persuading – or worse – whose very questions make their faith questionable.

    It is invariably the case that the subject of hell draws great attention (and always well over 100 comments). The larger part of the conversation is ultimately dominated and subsumed by those who have no questions. I have beloved friends on both “sides” of that conversation – people who are worth engaging and hearing – but the give and take from assurance is, for me, beside the point.

    Of course, sadder still, is that my dogged refusal to denounce and oppose those whose assurance is in a universal apokatastasis – I get trolled and labeled elsewhere as something I am not. It is deeply painful, for example, to show up as a speaker for a conference, and in the time of “meet and greet” to be welcomed with, “I am told you’re a heretic!”

    I’ll bear it (it’s only a little shame). But it’s still saddening.

  125. Dino,
    I’ve never encountered the lore concerning the stabilization of the angels. That such an idea is out there is not surprising. It has not, to my mind, ever undergone a critical examination in the life of the Church. I am loathe to state as fact with assurance something that can only be known by a certain private revelation. Forgive me, but it’s a lot like the Catholic private revelations of various saints. I see only the certainty of a claimed revelation, but no grounding in the theology of the Church.

    The place of the various revelations of great elders is a matter for a different discussion, I think. I am at a disadvantage. We have no great elders here.

  126. Without being specific about this as an effect of the Glorification of Man in the Ascension, (as i have heard through Elders like Fr Aimilianos) St John Damascene’s “Exposition” is probably the most well known instance:

    With difficulty they are moved to evil [angels], yet they are not absolutely immoveable: but now they are altogether immoveable, not by nature but by grace and by their nearness to the Only Good

  127. In conclusion: “I have yet to encounter anybody that I thought was entirely free, myself included.”

    For me, the question that matters the most — to state it again — is whether a loving God created humanity with the freedom to choose, in the end, to return God’s love or to reject it.

    To say that our choices in life are real, not an illusion, but that we face no true choice to repent and choose or reject God in the afterlife, strikes me as nihilism.

    I say that looking at world containing slavery (of many kinds), nuclear weapons, starvation, abortion, child abuse, the myriad forms of human pride that warp so many lives, including — as Chesterton stressed — my own countless sins that contribute to the brokenness of our world. “What is wrong with our world? I am.”

    As so often happens online, we have come full circle. Let me repeat an earlier illustration, even though it is from a Protestant.

    “Years ago, I had a chance to talk to Chuck Colson about his experiences in prison. He said he came away convinced of two truths that, for many, created a paradox (we might say a mystery).

    “First, he was absolutely sure that many were in prison and stayed in prison — in large part — because of crimes that were clearly linked to the horrors of their upbringing and their surrounding culture.

    “Second, he also saw that some of these prisoners chose to repent and be freed, while others did not. He was never able predict who would and who would not. Some of the ‘worst’ criminals repented. Some of the ‘best’ did not.

    “But some did and some did not. There was no way to understand the spiritual mechanics of that. Facing the same, or very similar decisions, different prisoners made different choices.”

    I have heard this precise question — the mystery of why some choose life and others reject it — repeated by ministers I have met in many circumstances in my four decades as a journalist. Because of Father’s earlier illustration, I will say that I have heard this mystery discussed by many who work with those struggling with addictions and alcohol.

    Again: We know that many who met our Lord in his earthly ministry face to face embraced Him. Many others did not, even though the met a loving God Incarnate.

    I believe God created us with the freedom to return his love or to reject it. The choices we make in this life have something to do with that reality, but how that works is known only to God. But the choice is real. Why do we pray for those who have died? Because somehow our prayers help them in this struggle.

    I know, that for many, it is a sign of intellectual shallowness to quote CS Lewis, but I am a mere journalist, as well as a shallow convert from Protestantism, so I will do so (quoting the book I read every year during Great Lent):

    “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find.”

    — The Great Divorce

  128. Thank you, Father, for your willingness to bear this shame and your courage and honesty. I believe you understand how salutary that has been for some of us. As I think you well know, with differences only in minor details, my experience and disposition in these things is the same as yours. I shudder to think where I might have ended up had I not discovered a communion where there are Saints who pray as St. Silouan does. As has been observed, he could not have prayed the way he did had he not well understood the reality and nature of hell and of human freedom. Neither, I believe, could he have prayed the way he did, had he not genuinely believed in the possibility through the mercy of God such prayer would be answered in full. I have never had a problem believing in hell, and the older I get the truer that is (and for better reasons). What I struggle to comprehend and embrace–where I feel the Spirit of Christ gently chiding and goading me as He often had to do with His disciples (“O ye of little faith!”)–is how utterly good, generous, and powerful in His love God is. It shames me to admit this in light of the Cross, but it also has helped tremendously that the full Orthodox message of that Cross has been restored for me in the Church and preached in its fullness in the Liturgy of Pascha. I am still healing from the darkness within me, and I still get wounded by the suffering and evil I experience and see in the world. I’m like the father of the demonized epileptic boy in the Gospel, who cried out, “I believe–Lord, help my unbelief!” I do not believe the Lord is at all perturbed (if the Genesis narrative of Abraham’s intercession is any indication) that we engage him for the world in the way that Abraham did for Lot in the matter of Sodom and Gomorrah. In this life, I will never be reconciled to settling for less.

  129. Christopher, your story about your puppy reminded me of the plump yellow lab, Libby, of a little league teammate of my son’s years ago. She was as fond of stealing food off the counter as your pup. In exasperation, finally the dad sprinkled cayenne pepper over the counter tops she loved to raid. She tried it once again. That was all it took, and that’s how she learned not to raid the counter!

  130. Tmatt,
    Yes, on some level we are free to choose God or reject Him. However, I simply think that this is often much less clear than is assumed – particularly when we move from the theoretical (“I believe that God has created us with the freedom to return his love or to reject it”) to life as we actually encounter it. Despite Colson’s witness – I could line up plenty of others (including myself) who could describe people whose lives have been so traumatized (particularly those whose injuries are by people in the name of God) that “choosing” God is pretty much impossible. There are no theoretical people.

    I think that you are right – maybe even most people have this choosing ability – but some do not – as far as I can see. I can only posit, because God is good, that if choosing Him is essential, then something between this world and eternity must make that choice a possibility. It is also quite possibly the case that there are some who have chosen God – but only God can see it because it does not appear in a way that any human being could fathom. That, I suspect, might very well be the case. That is the case, perhaps, of “the onion,” the one deed done that was, in fact, a choice for God that only God and a guardian angel could know. Affirming that, I would agree completely. Is that a possible construal for you?

    Human beings are fearfully and wonderfully made – a mystery second only to God Himself.

  131. tmatt,

    For what it’s worth, I have never understood the convinced Orthodox universalist (in the sense that an end to hell is envisioned–not that hell does not exist) position to eliminate the reality or importance of human freedom. While the end of that freedom by God’s mercy may finally and after great suffering be blessed, that doesn’t mean the route taken to get there didn’t and doesn’t matter and that there weren’t real choices to be made in the process. It doesn’t at all negate the observations of Chuck Colson. Anybody who sees the suffering one can cause another in this life knows all our choices (limited though they may be) matter a great deal. The only difference in the horror I experience at the evil perpetrated in this life and that of the character of Ivan in Dostoyevsky’s novel is I am willing to concede by faith, though I cannot comprehend it, that it is better for God to have created, though it involved the possibility of even this kind of suffering of a child (whom He will heal in the final resurrection), than for there to have been no creation in the first place. Since many of those who cause the worst evils in this life are those most damaged by the evil doing of others, it is difficult for me to concede it is better for God to have created and allowed evil, than never to have created at all, if I do not also believe He is capable of healing even the one most damaged by evil and the farthest from Him. I remember reading a saying of one of the Fathers, that no sin we commit is as great as that of Adam, and since Adam can be saved, none of us need despair of our salvation and repentance because of how great our sin is (and it seems to me part of weighing the greatness of our sin entails how long we have delayed our repentance).

  132. Dino,
    In an earlier comment posted supra, you indicated that both Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa tended towards universalism because of the protology of their theology. I am aware of Origen’s protology being the notorious preexistence of souls, which was purportedly condemned by the 5th ecumenical council. However, the only true protology that I could find in Nyssa is his firm and unshakeable belief in the Goodness and Love of God expressed as His unqualified desire that all be saved. Why do you have an issue with such a “protology” if one may even call it that? Isn’t Gregory’s conviction regarding the universal salvific will of God thoroughly Scriptural; after all one finds that same unqualified conviction in St. Paul.

    And. speaking of Scripture, one must be cautious when asserting that the Bible provides irrefutable proof for the existence of an eternal hell. Let us take Matthew 25 as an example. Most Bibles translate the Greek phrase “aionios kolasis” as eternal punishment. However, as Ilaria Ramelli has shown, that phrase would be better translated as “age enduring corrective punishment.” If the author of the Gospel of Mathew really intended to indicate that the goats would suffer eternal retributive punishment, wouldn’t he have used the phrase “aiodios timoria” instead ?

    I merely raise these objections in the spirit of Father Stephen’s earlier comment regarding the propriety of being utterly convinced of the correctness of the existence of eternal and retributive punishment. BTW. despite the fact that I happen to believe along with Robert that universalism is true, I can only bring myself to hope and pray for the salvation of all. And the reason for that is because in this life we really do only see through a glass darkly. Sometimes in my case the glass is so clouded that I even wonder about the existence of God. So, hope is often the best that I can do.
    I apologize for any misspellings of Greek words and for not using the Greek alphabet; unfortunately I am not a Greek scholar and have relied heavily upon Ramelli’s interpretation as found in “The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis.”

  133. Karen
    Since I mentioned the Damascene earlier on, what you just wrote he also states. He claims the opposite of the philosophy of some universalists: that evil would have triumphed not with the eventual damn at ion of some but if He hadnt created freedoms (that could go either way) because of this at all… its not unlike Christians point. His understanding (St John’s) is very similar to CS Lewis’ position that thete are only two kinds of people: those who eventually say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done’. The key difference is that he and others (eg Dorotheos comes to mind) have a simple explanation to Heaven and Hell -or rather the gradations of a creature’s communion with their Creator [or not]. It is not a matter of ‘choice’ so much -which gets us into all sorts of confusion. Rather it’s a matter of inner desire.
    Persons internally incline and desire God to various degrees (and this becomes immoveable for them according to him when they leave this Earth/body and the possibility of turning “towards creation instead of the Creator” -wrong worship- becomes
    frustrated with their death, as it does instantly for the bodyless beings). ‘Wanting God’ therefore, makes His exclusive presence after death, a paradise to some, and not wanting Him or wanting sin makes it hades for others.

  134. Dino,
    Some years back, I sat in St. John’s cell at Mar Saba (it’s just a cave). I considered everything he accomplished in that environment. I don’t think I could have read a book there, much less written one. Maybe after you get acclimated. 🙂 Of course, in that desert environment, any cave is better than none.

  135. Father,
    Staying for a time in some of those caves makes one think that these anchorites must have wanted nothing less than to ‘bring forth the time after death’, as if to almost ‘test’ the genuineness of their internal inclination and desire for God alone, while still in the body, to live the life of the bodiless beings while still still in the body.

  136. “Despite Colson’s witness – I could line up plenty of others (including myself) who could describe people whose lives have been so traumatized (particularly those whose injuries are by people in the name of God) that “choosing” God is pretty much impossible. There are no theoretical people.”

    I understand. That reality is built into Colson’s observation.

    In his own prison experience, and in decades of work in prisons (and, this is just as important, in post-prison rehabilitation work), he saw men and women who had lived through unspeakable horrors as well as having committed horrible crimes. He is saying that he saw murderers who seemed, from all possible observation, to have had the same upbringings and sufferings — yet made totally different decisions about what to do in terms of faith. And note that he also said he saw criminals whose backgrounds were not bad, who even had great advantages in life, yet they rejected help, they rejected repentance. Then there would be criminals who had been raised in hellish circumstances, generations of abuse and crime, yet they were able to face their crimes and accept mercy and help.

    Why would some accept the mercy of God and others did not? That is the question and he called it a mystery that he could not understand. That was up to God. The point was that the choices were still there and they were real. All he could do was proclaim God’s mercy and hope that they were able to accept it and then try to live it, again and again and again.

    Some make one decision and in God’s Mercy that is the little word that saves them. Others face agonizing decisions over and over. There is never any doubt that the prodigal’s Father waits with mercy. There is never any doubt that His arms are spread wide, because He loves mankind. The question is whether the prodigal, seeing the error of his ways, chooses to come home and embrace that Love.

    One of my favorite images of this is, of course, from Father Gordon Walker. When he died, I began my tribute with one of his images for this precise mystery:

    It was a typical evangelistic crusade in rural Alabama and, as he ended his sermon, the Rev. Gordon Walker called sinners down to the altar to be born again.

    Most Southern towns have a few notorious folks who frequent the back pews during revival meetings, trying to get right with God. On this night, one such scalawag came forward and fell to his knees.

    “Preacher! I’ve broken all the Ten Commandments except one,” he cried, “and the only reason I didn’t break that one was that the man I shot didn’t die!”

    It didn’t matter that this man repeated this ritual several times during his troubled life, said Walker, telling the story decades later at Holy Cross Orthodox Church outside Baltimore. Now wearing the golden robes of an Eastern Orthodox priest, Walker smiled and spread his arms wide. The church, he said, has always known that some people need to go to confession more than others. The goal was to keep walking toward the altar.

  137. Nicholas, thought is not linear either. Our thoughts will be free of time and passion
    No fear, no planning, full of joy and thanksgiving.

  138. John H,
    Universalism based on protology is not really a criticism, it’s just pointing out that it has a philosophical basis and a kind of necessity notion to it. One can find all sorts of explanations for that in the father’s as we have been examining. But Matthew 25 however uses the same word aionios for both heaven and hell which would discredit that particular argumentation. The protology argument is far stronger.

  139. Michael,
    While I don’t disagree with you in the slightest, I know all thought in this life is linear and chronological. We know time as a ticking clock with our thought stream as a sequence of ideas one built upon the other but how does it work to think when there is only now? As an example, I am building a small project for my wife. It involves erecting some siding to partly enclose an ornate bench of hers. I think in a sequence of actions starting with digging post holes, mixing concrete which requires a sequence of adding water until the proper slump (wetness) is achieved. You get the picture, events leads to event. This cannot be the case without time, which was my point, I do not know how to think without time. I am not bothered by the concept and it will be amusing to experience a new way of thinking

  140. tmatt,
    Another thought occurred to me in this vein: thinking of Christ’s parable in Matt. 25 – “the least of these…” (and I’m conflating it with the story of the old woman and the onion)… is there, within a life, any action, even a single action, that would count as doing it “unto the least of these…”? or a “cup of cold water?” Any purely gratuitous act of kindness. Where in the heart (and the place where choices are made) does that reside, and is that point, that smallest point of light, sufficient for the work of salvation?

    For, though Christ warns sternly about hell, He also speaks gently about even the smallest thing done rightly. I think about the grumbling woman in the Great Divorce (perhaps our common most favorite book). The question being if there is anything left other than a grumble. But if there is any tiny coal of the person remaining, they will fan it and nurture it…

    I cannot bring myself (in this life) to assume that there is within anyone I’ve ever met, no small act, no tiny onion of generosity, no cup of cold water. It is not that those acts earn us anything. But they are evidence of some fragment of goodness in the heart. I am confident, based on Christ’s words, that such a fragment, no matter how small, is of great value to God. And, like a guardian angel, I will plead that fragment before the Father of all mercy, through the sacrifice of His Son who promised such a great reward for even a very small thing.

    And, as in the original purpose of this article (which was never about universalism), it is my own heart that concerns me (for I’ll to give an account for it). And I fear that I be less generous than Christ’s own promise. And that I must learn to plead even on the thinnest and flimsiest sort of evidence. If indeed all are given a choice, perhaps that choice exists in a depth and a form that sometimes remains quite hidden from all but the eyes of God.

    I wonder.

  141. Dino/John,

    I don’t see how the notion of God as the sole origin of the good (creatio ex nihilo, the protological foundation for universalism ) is more a philosophical necessity than an unending dualism of good vs. evil necessitated by a hell projected into infinity for the purposes of supposing a monstrous disproportion between temporal transgression and never-ending punishment. The latter necessity in my estimation is wholly incongruous with the self-revelation of God in Christ’s Paschal triumph over death. Death is no more, Hades is empty. Love has conquered. God will be all in all. This is the Evangel, the Good News. The end of dualism.

  142. Tmatt/Father Stephen;

    Choice truly is a mystery, especially for those who are caught in the web of emotional disorders and substance abuse. Perhaps a bit of my own story may illustrate this point.

    I am a recovering alcoholic, with nearly four years of sobriety but the “choice” to stop drinking felt anything but free at the time . In fact, it was dependent upon a host of extraneous variables way beyond my control. The following points are worth noting about the process.

    First, other people played an irreplaceable role in my choice. But for the steadfast support of both my friends and lovely wife of almost thirty years, the “choice” probably would never have occurred. And the choice was surely occasioned by sometimes forceful persuasion on their part, which I continually thank God for to this day.

    Second, “free choices” can often be aided and abetted by seemingly random and fortuitous events. One such event in my case was definitely the good fortune to meet with a wonderful psychiatrist who effectively prescribed both medication and cognitive therapy to treat my underlying depression, a lifelong scourge which surely contributed to my dependence upon alcohol. Sometimes the correct medication is key to the effective treatment of depression because one’s neurochemistry is basically out of alignment and must be adjusted by the proper pharmacological intervention. Perhaps some of the inmates who refused to accept God and Christ in Colson’s ministry were suffering from untreated mental disorders. Effective mental health treatment is practically nonexistent in most US prisons today.

    Third, the entire process of recovery is, as Father noted, a great spiritual mystery. It is truly analogous to the Paschal mystery of Christ, a dying to a false self and rising to new life. It is also a continuous process which requires the assistance of spiritual groups such as twelve step programs.

    To me, the model of libertarian freedom which is championed by so many analytic philosophers and existentialists is totally inadequate to describe what is actually occurring in such life altering choices,

    Just my thoughts. This was a difficult comment to write. I am much more comfortable talking about theology and philosophy.

  143. John H.,

    As one in a family with what seem to be neurologically-based tendencies to addiction, anxiety, depression, and full-blown mental illness (schizophrenia), where, in most cases, proper medical treatment and medication have been key to recovery and maintenance of some semblance of normality in life, I really value testimonies like yours. Thank you, and may God continue to grant you His grace in recovery. Happy Father’s Day, too!

  144. “For, though Christ warns sternly about hell, He also speaks gently about even the smallest thing done rightly. I think about the grumbling woman in the Great Divorce (perhaps our common most favorite book). The question being if there is anything left other than a grumble. But if there is any tiny coal of the person remaining, they will fan it and nurture it…

    “I cannot bring myself (in this life) to assume that there is within anyone I’ve ever met, no small act, no tiny onion of generosity, no cup of cold water. It is not that those acts earn us anything. But they are evidence of some fragment of goodness in the heart. I am confident, based on Christ’s words, that such a fragment, no matter how small, is of great value to God. And, like a guardian angel, I will plead that fragment before the Father of all mercy, through the sacrifice of His Son who promised such a great reward for even a very small thing.”

    We already know that God waits with open arms, His mercy overflowing. Alas, the woman with the grumble could not repent and choose to return to Hell.

    I think the key, as my last statement (I keep saying this) is that the question at the heart of my life-long concern about this issue is linked to theodicy.

    Again: Did God create us with the ability to freely love him or not? If we have no choice, then I want to know why God allowed us the freedom to hate and torture each other (in ways large and small) in this life? I want to understand a loving God allowing genocide, abortion, nuclear weapons, child abuse, slavery, etc., when that choice will vanish in the end, with no need for all of us as prodigals to — somehow, at some time — to repent and come home home to accept that Mercy.

    It is when we come home that the Father is able to fan those tiny flames of hope , love and faith into fires. He does not force us.

    I would never hold this man out as a theological expert, but I did think this exchange on the old Colbert Report was interesting and surprisingly on point, as the liberal Catholic host wrestled with a Stanford U professor — Philip Zimbardo, author of “The Lucifer Effect.” Video here: http://www.cc.com/video-clips/8sjpoa/the-colbert-report-philip-zimbardo

    ZIMBARDO: “If God was into reconciliation, he would have said ‘I made a mistake.’ God created hell. Paradoxically, it was God who created Hell as a place to put Lucifer and the fallen angels, and had he not created Hell, then evil would not exist.”

    COLBERT: “Evil exists because of the disobedience of Satan. God gave Satan, the angels, and man, free will; Satan used his free will and abused it by not obeying authority; hell was created by Satan’s disobedience to God and his purposeful removal from God’s love, which is what Hell is: removing yourself from God’s love.”

    ZIMBARDO: “Wow.”

    COLBERT: “You send yourself there, God does not send you there.”

    ZIMBARDO: “Obviously you learned well in Sunday School.”

    COLBERT: “I teach Sunday School, motherf****r.”

    Like I said, it’s not high theology — but that is a blunt statement of the core issue.

  145. tmatt,

    I, too, cannot make sense out of the existence of evil apart from the freedom in rational creation to will vs. God.

    On the other hand, I do not understand any theological or philosophical scheme of speculation as to how it is that God may save all proposed within an Orthodox framework to suggest it can be otherwise than by a freely willed repentance. As I’ve written many times I would understand such a “salvation” to be a contradiction in terms. I don’t know whether it is correct, but I suppose that means, as Fr. Stephen’s comment about the onion describes, a sinner in which absolutely nothing but sin remains (like the woman who has become her grumbling) is not in view in these speculations. It assumes there is at least one righteous person left in Sodom.

  146. Thank you, Karen. And a Happy Father’s Day to all of the other dads out there!!

  147. John H,
    As I stated earlier, I think that the focus on ‘choice’ rather than ‘inclination’ is clouding.
    It makes us bemoan the lack of truly free choice etc. However, one’s inner inclination “towards or away form God”, remains, –sometimes even when immersed in an addiction that makes the opposite short-term desire easily overwhelm this Godwards long-term desire. It’s not quite the ‘natural will’, I guess, but one’s inclination to turn towards it. It’s the Patristic term, instead of ‘choice’.

  148. “I think the key, as my last statement (I keep saying this) is that the question at the heart of my life-long concern about this issue is linked to theodicy.

    Again: Did God create us with the ability to freely love him or not? If we have no choice, then I want to know why God allowed us the freedom to hate and torture each other (in ways large and small) in this life? I want to understand a loving God allowing genocide, abortion, nuclear weapons, child abuse, slavery, etc., when that choice will vanish in the end, with no need for all of us as prodigals to — somehow, at some time — to repent and come home home to accept that Mercy.”

    tmatt – your right to ask this. What you are doing is pushing against a *moral* evaluation of creation, man, death, and the Eschaton. That is what universalism is – a moral evaluation of God, time, man, everything. This is something DB Hart makes clear from the very beginning of his “God, Creation, and Evil” essay. This, however, is exactly backwards. God is the *source* of good, evil and everything {this is a simplification but I am trying to avoid the heavy lifting in a comment box}. God comes before good and evil metaphysically/ontologicaly, so He is not judged by it but rather the opposite. He can not be a term in a dialectic between good and evil. Heck, good and evil (i.e. the apple) is not even the summit of human thought – the contemplation of God and his energies is!

    What Universalism is doing is subsuming a Person to a nature. Person’s can not be “good” or “evil” (or to on of Fr. Stephens points, “free” or in large part determined by circumstantial limits – even spiritual ones) because this is to subsume Person under nature. This is what Maximus/Ziz call natures producing or having Persons. What Maximus/Ziz say is that reality is different, in that it is Persons who “have” natures, or knowledge, or freedom, or the lack thereof of any of those attributes. An unborn child (even if he is just two cells old), a slave, a person suffering from the most suffocating illness (mental or physical), addiction, or sin, is of *infinite* real-ness (and thus of infinite value) not because of the his or her *natural* circumstances but rather because they are a Person in His Image. This is a spiritual reality, thus it is a spiritual reality when a two cell person is aborted, or an addiction is laid aside or returned to, or a man is brave in the face of death. Nature does not and can not *limit* Persons in ways such that his or her ultimate value and destiny is subsumed. Rather the opposite, it is Persons that judge and give value to nature, circumstances, and destiny. This is true on the Divine and human level (with differences but in this context not the point).

    What you tmatt are doing with your question is asking what is the meaning of *time*, evil, and suffering in the context of universalism? If we are not Persons but rather persons-in-becoming, and all pain, suffering, and evil is meaningful in the context of a grand purgation process – one in particular that affirms the Goodness of God and His Creation and man such that we all *necessarily* end with nothing but Goodness and Heaven – well, then what is the point of time? What is the point of the process? If God limits freedom (or any other attribute of Person or nature) such that it is really only meaningful in the “box” of universalism’s necessary end, well then what does the process add to the Good end? God is God, he does not have to “allow” a process – he can skip to the end. If Evil is nothing ontologically, then why does man experience it (as Moses says, “these days in which we see evil”) and what is the justification within the dialectic of good and evil (let alone outside of it) for the whole process/time? Notice that last sentence – when you judge and justify God *first* from Good and Evil (as DB Hart does), you have to keep on going – you have to then judge Man, Creation, Time, the Fall, His coming, and the Last Judgement/Eschaton/Eternal Heaven/Hell from the same moral presupposition. Universalism is not Christianity, it is ethics.

    Not only that, it is a failed ethics. As tmatt’s line of questioning shows, by pushing the Good of creation/man to the end, it pushes the evil (that is the thing about the dialectic – you can never escape the other term) into the process as a *necessary* element of it. Time becomes the charnal house of our becoming such that what we become can *be*, metaphysically, only by “experiencing” the other term (i.e. death, sin, evil) What we are now can be purged from its sinful tendencies (“as though through fire” the universalist says) and molded into “sons” of the Good that are really but natures that are themselves essentially good (i.e. the non-gnomic will not being merely natural, but “a” nature expressed).

    As tmatt notes, by *being* necessary prodigals, we are not really prodigals at all. If we can not choose eternal Hell, then we can not choose eternal Heaven and we are not Persons at all but rather “natures” that have attributes (of sin and death, as well as hope, love, and mercy – none of us is without all these attributes to some degree or another currently) that are in a process of becoming something other than what we are because nothing less than Love, the Good and God has created us to be this very process (i.e. protology, telos, and eschatology). Such a people do not need Christ at all – the Law would have done just fine and that is what process theology is really all about – the metaphysical process and becoming of the Law, and repentance is but a nature expressed as-an-end, as a resting simplicity – a “stabilization” as Dino pointed out.

    You keep turning the ethics of universalism back unto itself tmatt! If Christianity is not moral enough and needs help with the ending, then why? What does it mean for time to be but the mechanics of a Good and Blissful end for all “persons” (such as they are) even though time manifests death and sin (some on this thread have described the “what” of time, but not the “why”)? If real Personal freedom is terrifying in it’s ultimate implication, is not universalism’s attenuation of the Person not more terrifying?

    Morality works both ways – all the way to Heaven and all the way back through Time to the beginning. A good end is not good if it rests on a process of sin, suffering, and death – as every child knows “a wrong does not make a right” (was there ever a more succinct statement of the dilemma for all philosophical moral theology ever written?).

    Oh, and happy Father’s Day!

  149. Fr Freeman,

    As I see it, the problem with the ‘hell is locked from the inside’ position (the free-will theodicy of infinite hell) is a coherent account of freedom to explain the possibility of someone freely embracing an objective horror forever. Can we speak of true freedom in that case? It seems questionable to me. What does accord with my experience is that a failure to desire the good is not to have known it. No one freely rejects the good for the good, that is to say in other words that no one can freely will evil as evil. Unless of course one supposes a purely voluntarist, spontaneous, arbitrary notion of freedom.

    In any case, to suggest that universalism involves ‘philosophical necessity’ whereas a free-will defense of hell does not, simply does not bear closer scrutiny.

  150. Christian and Robert,
    I have to admit that I find it most noteworthy that both of you – both positions– do recognize an inherent stale-mate with admirable honesty:


    “If real Personal freedom is terrifying in it’s ultimate implication, is not universalism’s attenuation of the Person not more terrifying?”


    “to suggest that universalism involves ‘philosophical necessity’ whereas a free-will defense of hell does not, simply does not bear closer scrutiny.”

  151. Robert,
    There are a variety of weaknesses everywhere – in both accounts – things that, for me, really do not satisfy. It is why, at the end of the day, I rest in hope, my assurance in the goodness of God, but not in having figured it out.

  152. Given the fact that the impossible antinomy of the Theanthropos is the basis of the Christian life and that He is the Alpha and Omega. It would seem that that justice and mercy (both of which He embodies perfectly) are also an impossible antinomy.

    It is not either-or. Somehow it is both-and. Like everything else in the faith.

    Amtinomies are not logically resolvable. The “solution” is revealed.

    There is no justice without mercy, there is no mercy without justice.

    Rest in that riddle.

  153. Amen Father Stephen! We rest in hope. Hope’s like ‘leaven’ in the ‘loaf’ of temporal existence. It spreads and even inebriates our easily-despairing-souls with the joyous trust in God’s perfect providence, a trust which is an in-breaking of the everlasting Kingdom. Your late Father-in-law’s words convey that beautifully, ‘I don’t know about that but what I know is that God is good’.

  154. I have been following this dialogue fighting the desire to jump into the fray.

    For what they’re worth, here are a few thoughts I would like to share:

    1) Making sense of the absurdity of the human dilemma doesn’t mean we are making any sense. Sense-making is what we do to escape the thorniness of it all. In some ways, rationalization is like an opiate of the mind.

    2) When it comes to the human condition and all its complexity it is an icon of the cruciform Christ. And there is only one response that is suitable: Silent prostration. Or, “Lord, have mercy.” This is the response of Father Zossima to the icon he finds in Mitya.

  155. Thank you Fr Stephen for these challenging comments. I deeply appreciate your posts. I’ve likely not read all the comments as carefully as I should, so forgive my repeating or omitting anything that’s been discussed.

    I don’t think admitting a (carefully defined) free exercise of the will as necessary to our final perfection in God results in a “stalemate” between universalism and hell viewed as irrevocable torment. One can, in fact, have good reason to think that irrevocable foreclosure (of the will) upon all possibility of Godward movement is impossible without having to adopt a kind of universalism that posits a ‘terminus ad quem’, a kind of ‘line in the sand’, where God decides that he’s had enough of our freely rejecting him. My own feeling is that if it is the gnomic will that strays, it is the gnomic will which must come home. But this doesn’t place me in a stalemate with the possibility of irrevocable loss. One can agree universalism in this ‘terminus ad quem’ sense isn’t true without having to admit that irrevocable foreclosure is possible.

    It may be that our ‘openness’ to Godward movement is itself irrevocable (because given by God as the very possibility of choice and the inalienable orientation of all things to God, in which case irrevocable foreclosure upon the possibility of Godward movement is impossible) but that the perfection of this openness ‘as final rest’ (as an irrevocable resting of the will in God as its final end) must involve a gnomic movement of the will. Hence, we wander and suffer “so long as” we persist in our rejecting God, but God always remains a possibility. Since our essential openness to God is the act by which God sustains and gives us being, that openness is always antecedent to any choice we make. It never lies within our power to decide whether or not God is in our future.

    I don’t think Hart subjects person to nature at all (by arguing the moral nonsense of the predominant view), but I’ll leave that to the professionals.


  156. Tmatt/Christopher

    Frankly, I do not understand how a perfect voluntarist libertarian freedom is even conceivable. After all don’t we all choose with goals in mind which are largely products of the rational thought proceesses of the mind? Random choice, literally choosing just for the hell of it seems to be a contradiction .

    But, let us assume for the sake of argument that such libertarian freedom is indeed possible. Assume that God created human beings with perfect voluntarist freedom . Assume further that God does indeed desire that all be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth. Finally, assume that this Divine Desire is so strong that He continues to pursue souls after death, indeed for as long as it takes. As John Kronen and Eric Reitan have shown in their book, God’s Final Victory, under such circumstances the odds that all will be saved is roughly equivalent to the probability that a fair coin tossed a trillion times will land heads up at least once. Put another way, the odds that even a single actor with perfect libertarian freedom shall persist in eternally saying no to the relentless pursuit of an all loving merciful God approaches zero. In fact, the probability is about as close to zero as one can get. The odds of winning the next mega millions jackpot are a lot better!!

  157. Before this fascinating thread dies down, I wanted to make a couple brief comments.

    Christopher writes: “God is the *source* of good, evil and everything {this is a simplification but I am trying to avoid the heavy lifting in a comment box}. God comes before good and evil metaphysically/ontologicaly, so He is not judged by it but rather the opposite. He can not be a term in a dialectic between good and evil. Heck, good and evil (i.e. the apple) is not even the summit of human thought – the contemplation of God and his energies is!”

    I certainly agree, as all Christians do, that God is the source of everything that exists, but I disagree emphatically with the claim that “God comes before good and evil metaphysically/ontologically.” God is the Good, as he is also the Beautiful. As St Dionysius writes: “Every being is from the Beautiful and Good and in the Beautiful and Good and is reverted to the Beautiful and Good” (Divine Names IV.10). If Christopher is simply saying that the Creator transcends all creaturely manifestations of goodness, then I agree; but if he is also implying a voluntarism construal of divinity, as if God’s willing is unconstrained by his nature as the Good, as if God might will anything and his willing then makes it good, then I must dissent. What would this be but might makes right?

    I also disagree with the dualistic opposition between person and nature that has been invoked by Fr Stephen, Christopher and others in this thread. Met John Zizioulas has made this opposition popular. Person=freedom; nature=necessity. He claims that he finds this opposition in both the Cappadocians and St Maximus the Confessor. On both counts he has been severely challenged by patristic scholarship. The influence of continental existentialism upon Zizioulas is fairly clear on this point. That doesn’t in itself mean that he is wrong; but it does mean that we should not import this modern understanding back into the Fathers. If I had the philosophical chops (which I don’t), I would want, I think, to argue that human personhood is directly related to humanity’s divinely granted ordering or orientation to the Good (see St Maximus’s Amb. 7). This means that humanity is not created in an ontologically neutral stance before God. We are created for God, for communion with God, for fulfillment in God. Personhood is intrinsically teleological. Human sin is our incomprehensible resistance to our divinely-ordained End. Or to put it differently, the Good that God wills for us is identical to the Good that we ultimately desire for ourselves but which we, in our epistemic distance and sinful blindness, so desperately seek to avoid. We do not choose evil for the sake of evil. We choose lesser goods and apparent goods over greater goods and ultimately the ultimate Good. Damnation is the impossible attempt to thrive apart from and without the Good, who is Jesus Christ. Hence I agree with Robert Fortuin above (echoing D. B. Hart) that the “failure to desire the good is not to have known it.” How that is possible (the impossible possibility) I do not know. Evil does not make sense. How could it, as evil, qua evil, is sheer privation of the Good.

    Are universalists subsuming persons to nature.? This charge only makes sense if we may think of creaturely persons apart from nature, as if theosis is a triumphing over, rather than a transfiguration of, nature. Contrary to what Zizioulas believes, the latter has stronger patristic support. Let me make this counter-proposal: the Zizioulian opposition of person and nature was invented as a way to explain and justify the unquestioned dogma of eternal damnation. If one believes that hell will be eternally populated, then here’s a way to explain this unfortunate reality: our personhood depends on our absolute freedom to definitively and irrevocably reject our Good. The damned thus become acceptable collateral damage of God’s creation of a world peopled by free agents.

  158. Dino,

    In an important way I am “taking a position”. I am engaging in the dialectical, philosophical theology, with two practical outcomes (for some). The first is that Universalism is exposed for what it is: dialectical philosophy. The one aspect of Universalism that really stands out to me is this philosophical aspect. All the way back to Origen and Nyssa (I find Isaac more nuanced) to present day proponents (Bulgakov, Hart,modern clergy/hierarchs who shall remain nameless because of the rules of Fr. Stephen, etc.) this aspects sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb for me. I don’t even find it very good philosophy and I am only an average philosopher. A Socrates (or Kierkegaard) would open it up all too easily. As just one example more than one historian/scholar (who are not even philosophers as such) has noted that in Nyssa’s “Dialogue on the Soul and Resurrection” he only refers to Christ once, and the rest of the treatise he references God as the impersonal “the one who governs all”. Gregory’s process theology (Neoplatonic to the core because of his time and place) does not need Christ, as Christ is at best an anomaly to this project – in truth Christ stands as a Cross to such a philosophizing “theology”.

    The second result (that I hope is grasped by some) is that on the level of the dialectic, truth is not “found”. Philosophy can only be a picture of the truth (as it were) that goes some way to satisfying (but never fully) the rational mind. The nous is more (much more) than mere discursive reasoning and can not rest on it – the opposite is true in that the mind rests in the heart. Someone upstream mentioned fideism. We are all fideists as Christians in that we all start with revelation and the content of Faith (and hope as has been mentioned the last few posts) and start reasoning upon “first principles” that go from there. We had a discussion on this blog maybe 2 years ago about this referencing Fr. John Behr’s statement of this in that video “Radical Orthodoxy” on YouTube (going from memory here).

    So I come back to “what does Holy Orthodoxy say, what does God reveal, what is the Church’s Holy Dogma on this”. Since I don’t subscribe to the theological minimalism of the Parisian/Oxford/Yonkers Orthodoxy of the last 90 years and which dominates the English speaking Orthodox person’s mind (it is all they really know most of the time), I am certainly an outlier on this subject. I do not read or pray Scripture, Tradition, or Liturgy such that I find a Universalist “position” even reasonable, let alone “truth” as a matter of our Faith. Instead, I find it erroneous philosophizing that also reveals of other matters of the heart which Fr. Stephen has admonished me as judgment – but again, I disagree in that yes I see these things but I am not anyone’s judge.

    Fr. Stephen calls all this “assurance” and he is correct – I am “assured” of this as much as I am assured of Pascha, of “Christ is Risen”. There is a veil, an unknowing, a limit to our understanding of the Eschaton and it does not and can not lead to Universalism. Pascha is not a reality that can lead to it – not the Pascha I know through Faith and Tradition, and my own experience of God and man (as burdened by sin as it is). I also find “the middle” of Fr. Stephen as much of an “assurance” as what you call the majority position or of Universalism and universalists themselves – we all stand on Faith. This is why I find Fr. Lawrence’s approach (starting with the content of Scripture/Faith and admitting that such questions rests largely on hermeneutics) productive and probably the only kind of “reasoning” that gets us anywhere worth going.

    Something actually interesting (as the details of philosophical theology are so much vanity) to me about all this is something that comes back to your posts of the last few months Fr. Stephen around community, con-sensus and reality. Your frustration with your efforts around this particular topic you explicitly admit, and is due I suggest to the fact that unlike most of your writing there is a “devil in the details” here. When pushing Christianity out against secularism (and it’s “christian” precedents) and the two story universe, or when tackling shame, or the ascetical life communal and personal, the hidden things of God and our relatedness to it – in all this you are standing on the shoulders of giants. The giants of faith, the Church and her Saints, and most importantly the Word. Universalism is not like this as it rests on a minority of men whose shoulders are not all that strong. It is a doubt and an uncertainty (for those who entertain it – who accept it as first principle) that goes to the heart of anthropology, and thus Christology (even though it starts out as a “debate” about Eschatology – tmatt and everyone like him reveals this). I goes to the heart, but then finds itself not a part. I wonder what this means for community, for communion…

    p.s. Thanks Fr. Stephen for those community posts! They were very helpful to our parish’s Ben Op class

  159. Fr Aidan,
    You make a very strong case –you always have done- but, while keeping a distance, I cannot eliminate the sense that there’s a philosophical counterargument to everything of this sort. I can do no more than rest in hope while subscribing to the ‘majority position’ as a default. For instance: the presentation of an eternal rejection of God by some of his creatures as ‘acceptable collateral damage of God’s creation of a world peopled by free agents’, has been already somewhat countered very long ago (before it was ever worded so menacingly) by St John the Damascene. I think he does this in a way when he claims that evil would have actually triumphed far more in the case that this possibility had dissuaded Him for creating other free agents in the first place.

  160. Fr. Aiden says:

    “…What would this be but might makes right”

    Only if God is the subject of metaphysics, which He is not 😉

    ” …Met John Zizioulas has made this opposition popular. Person=freedom; nature=necessity. He claims that he finds this opposition in both the Cappadocians and St Maximus the Confessor….”

    Hum, I recall Met. John’s position being more subtle – that it is just such an opposition that is problematic and it is it is the result of when Person and nature are considered in the abstract from “Person/Nature”. I have been speaking of “Persons *having* nature” as Met John does in an effort to counter the more common nature “expressing” person (one that historically has led to the most erroneous anthropological/Christological threads) but this imprecision is my choice based on the limits of a comment box. I am going from memory however and it has been long enough that I could be in error…

    As far as your description of the gnomic will problematic, as long as it does not degenerate into a *mere* epistme problematic then I think Maximus would be with you, but when it becomes the sole leg for “well being” to stand on then are back to the metaphysical dilema of process and becoming and salvation becomes a kind of gnosis. Salvation (and sin) have a strong episteme element (i.e. the “knowledge” of good and evil) but is our salvation accomplished on this level? This is related to Fr. Stephen’s reluctance to grant knowledge/will/choice a seat at the head of the hierarchical table description of our salvation.

    As far as Person, freedom and Hell, you right – it will never ever ever make sense on a moral level. This is why the content of Christian Revelation and Faith is not subject to a moral judge/philosopher/dialectician such as yourself. Sure, you can do it (and do) but it leads to…Universalism. Fr. Stephen’s suggestion to imitate Abraham is better because it at least admits that Sodom was destroyed and that Judgement and Time have meaning outside a description of a process (rather of knowledge, or anything else). We need him to write the “unmoral Eschaton” essay that is bubbling in the back of his mind 😉

    In any case, this is all “academic” as they say. What I *believe*, how I *live*, and what I *experience* when I rise to see His power and glory is what matters…

  161. Human beings are not as free as you assume Christopher.

    Regardless of how you slice it the tone of your argument has a strong penal component. Which I assume would be beneath God.

    The biggest fiction I have ever read is that there are people who in their defiance of all that is Good choose Evil. Those people DO NOT exist. But, that fiction must be assumed for a penalizing God to make sense.

  162. Much of what I have read in this thread seems VERY divorced from reality. True justice restores what is lost. We have all lost something and that loss affects each of us differently. Why? For reasons that we can control? No. There are genetic and environmental factors that condition the human response–we are not as free as we think we are. Then to a greater or lesser degree we exacerbate that loss as the years pass. It would seem to be the height of the Pharisaical spirit to think it is just to take humans in these conditions and say “You will now suffer the consequences of your poor choices for eternity with no hope of reprieve.”

    Doesn’t make sense.

  163. “The biggest fiction I have ever read is that there are people who in their defiance of all that is Good choose Evil. Those people DO NOT exist. But, that fiction must be assumed for a penalizing God to make sense.”

    Strange David, not only do these people exist, it is the only sort of people I have ever met. Is that not who the Son of Man is, He who in defiance of all Evil chooses only the Good?

  164. Once we say that “revelation and faith” are not subject to moral scrutiny then you have made the most dangerous statement a human being can make. All kinds of nonsense and butchery has claimed exemption from moral scrutiny on the grounds of “revelation and faith”. It’s the weakest of all arguments.

  165. Christopher,
    Several brief things:
    I do not subscribe to a Paris/Oxford/Yonkers axis of (something-or-other). Certainly not as something in opposition to pure Orthodoxy or a purer Orthodoxy. The persons (I’ll exclude Bulgakov – who was himself strongly opposed by those primarily in that very so-called axis) you imply in this stand well within Orthodox tradition. Ware specifically says no more than I say – he says we dare “hope.” He is among the least philosophical theologians that I know. Nor is Zizioulas exempt from philosophy. Indeed, I think it is only because you find your understanding of him useful to defend the point you want to make that you shield him from that criticism.

    Philosophy is not to be despised. If it is, then the greatest of the fathers all stand condemned. The right use of philosophy is always a good question. Even the use of neo-Platonist terms is not an outright condemnation. I find it outlandish that you brand Nyssa as you do when the 7th Council named him the “fathers of fathers.”

    You posit a form of “fideism” for the Orthodox (or yourself). The data of revelation are the starting point, etc. I agree somewhat. I see them, however, in some cases as forming the “grammar” of our faith – establishing the patterns of how we reason. I might add that St. Athanasius’ defense of Christ’s divinity, as well as the entire Nicene faith would have been impossible apart from the use of philosophy.

    But in other cases, the data of revelation, I think, serve as a kind of “fence” or “boundary.” That fence and boundary are reasons why I would not declare a flat universalism. I consider it a circumspect form of speech – observing a grammatical rule governing our eschatology. “Here, we may say no more.”

    But, you have turned eternal damnation into the sort of hard datum that I think it has never held in the work of the fathers – in which you seek to weave it so firmly into the grammar of the faith that we can only reach a conclusion pretty much in agreement with the Reform. I simply do not find that grammar in the primary life of the Church. It is not in the language of Pascha – indeed Pascha tends to be so universalist in its language that afterwards we tend to blush and apologize, or quickly add caveats.

    Hell as a necessity of human freedom seems to me to be poor reasoning somehow. Hell as a fact, is just that. Hell as a necessity is something quite different. I think this latter position is not part of the Orthodox faith, forgive me.

    But perhaps I have misunderstood.

    I will, however, boldly claim a spiritual affinity for Silouan, Sophrony, Ware, Florovsky, Lossky, Verhovskoy, Schmemann, Hopko, Meyendorff (the elder), and Behr. I am not a graduate of St. Vladimir’s – but I was certainly schooled and formed in that flow and make no apology for it. I think, though, that you’ll find that within that illustrious group, there is a range of thought and writing on this topic. Hopko, as far as I can tell, was never a universalist – nor was Florovsky or Lossky. Sophrony and Silouan – seem to pray for it but not to suggest more than that (and God only knows they are neither the product of Oxford).

    DBHart was a student of none of them. He’s far more philosophical than any Orthodox writer that I know – but it’s his field. I myself would never want to argue with him simply because my mind is not nearly so sharp.

    I appreciate you observation viz. the reluctance that surrounds my work on this topic. It would be ever so much easier to write it one way or another. But, I think that I could not do either with full honesty. That my hope and heart lie with Silouan and Sophrony, I readily acknowledge. What I find deeply objectionable are attempts to write hell as necessity into the faith where it has not existed in that manner – and thus rebuke innumerable saints and others for the hope they have in Christ.

    It is impossible to err by ignoring the fence. It is also possible to err by defending the fence so strongly that we make a fence of the whole life in Christ.

  166. David,
    The romantic idealization of man’s goodness is not always good, not perhaps very much better than even the dogmatic claim of man’s total depravity.
    Just as we humans sometimes choose evil while delusionally perceiving it as something good, we also, at other times, even in very minor thoughts, have a fairly vibrant awareness, (which often we conceal from ourselves), of deliberately wanting to not be with God, because our self-god’s ‘requests’ are what we would want to rather heed… Isn’t this true?
    I have recurrently clarified that “choice” is a poor choice (sorry about the pun) of word for the exercising of our will in the context of this discussion. ‘Inclination’ is a far more accurate patristic term and it is what leads us internally, despite our environmental factors and our less-than-free milieus. It can be also a relatively stable thing, despite its infamous wavering. Even when most good choices are not available to somebody, there’s a will that “yearns” God-wards or self-wards to some degree or another. It’s why a still un-purified, un-illuminated and un-deified thief or harlot can die in repentance (and glory) and be sanctified while a previously purified and illuminated beholder of God might still be in danger of becoming a lucifer and then needing the prayers of the Church after his departure from this life.

  167. Dino,
    I never romantically idealized man’s goodness. If you think that is what I did then you missed the point entirely. Don’t import too much from other conversations you have had.

  168. At the end of the day the penal-centric theologians must attribute more deliberation and willfulness than humans are even capable of in order to stand beside their eternal hell.

    It may be the theological boundary. Fine, but it seems like a worthless mindset to me. I can’t say ‘amen’ to that and I’m not interested in contorting myself and doing the mental gymnastics that a person would have to put themselves through in order to be okay with such a mindset.

    People just aren’t capable of grasping the scope of the consequences of their actions like you insist. Your view is divorced from reality and proceeds strictly from an arm chair’s perspective.

  169. Father Stephen,
    It’s ‘πρόθεση’.
    The Fathers don’t use ‘κλίση’ which is what would be normally translated as inclination in common speech nowadays, but ‘πρόθεση’ which is rather closer to intent in usual language. …Also, ‘βούληση’ and ‘θέλημα’ are rather related to willing and are later ‘stages’.

  170. Dino,

    “Just as we humans sometimes choose evil while delusionally perceiving it as something good, we also, at other times, even in very minor thoughts, have a fairly vibrant awareness, (which often we conceal from ourselves), of deliberately wanting to not be with God, because our self-god’s ‘requests’ are what we would want to rather heed… Isn’t this true?”

    That is not obviously true to me. I see people doing the best they can with what they have got which in MOST situations is not much. Again, it is an assumption that you make that provides the justification for an unrelenting and eternal punishment.

    Where are people getting this idea that humanity is just shaking their fists in defiance of God every spare chance they get?? Most people would really love a little help. If anything, most people have a sense of being abandoned by God. And to that fear the people of God usually reply, “No, God did not abandon you…YOU abandoned him.” Which is utterly ignorant.

  171. David,
    The truth of the matter is that once we look into ourselves properly, the way a saint does I mean, only then we see that it is continuously myself that abandons God. God’s subjectively perceived abandonment is far more rare and extremely advanced spiritually than what most of us who pick up Elder Sophrony’s books initially conjecture. Our concern for others and our understanding of their ‘being abandoned’ is not like St Silouan’s understanding I am afraid, but –at our still secularly /rationalized stage of existence, even after years of ascesis sometimes- it is little more than a crutch of collective self-justification of our unwillingness to accept culpability for our quickness to feel abandoned in our entitlement towards a scandalously respectful God. My pride is extremely well hidden from me. St Silouan’s solidarity with all, came not through a (Babelic) humanistic empathy for others (as I often feel in my internal revolt) but through the Grace of the One who was crucified for the life of the world and also for the eternal freedom of all His creatures’ self-determination towards Him (not as you label it their “unrelenting and eternal punishment” Father Stephen corrected this already upstream).

  172. Christopher, there are definitely people who (on some level knowingly) make sinful decisions. Indeed, this is all our experience. In context of this whole discussion, though, I suspect what David means is that there is no human being who fully knowingly and willingly chooses evil as evil. We typically decide to do evil for some other end not evil in itself, i.e., in order to gain pleasure or avoid pain, usually in short-sighted ways. As he mentions, we are also unquestionably already conditioned (unlike Adam) each to a greater or lesser extent by wounds from the inheritance we have. This does not mean we cannot in Christ be set free for repentance, but it’s hardly a possibility outside of that, and the work of grace is frequently a very slow and hidden process, easily hindered by a hasty rush to judgment on the part of fellow sinners unqualified for the job. I’m reminded of the parable of wheat and weeds. We are enormously outgunned by angelic forces of evil, and can only be delivered through Christ. Apart from Christ’s Spirit at work within, we can neither will/desire nor work for God’s pleasure. This is not a voluntarist account of human freedom.

    The Genesis account of the Fall is instructive. It doesn’t represent Adam and Eve coming up with the plan to disobey God all by themselves nor imagining that doing so would separate them from God, after all. They certainly willingly disobeyed, but no longer fully knowingly, “being deceived” about the full nature of what they were doing. As I understand it, this (and the mercy of God made accessible to all through the Incarnation), is the basis on which the Tradition holds out hope for repentance for any of our race.

  173. Thank you for clarifying, Karen.
    I would even argue that God has made outright rejection of Him impossible.

  174. I would suggest to all that we let this discussion rest. When the topic moves from the topic to the commenters themselves, it ceases to be useful or instructive.

    Years ago, before I began my blog (when I actually was only an occasional guest on (now) Fr. Aidan’s blog (Pontifications), I was credited with creating the maxim: Anytime comments exceed 100, the discussion ceases to be useful. We are now approaching 200. ‘Nuff said.

    CS Lewis imagined theological discussion groups in hell. That was before blogging existed…

  175. Father,

    It is true, I am only mentioning Ziz because I do believe he understands some important things around Maximus and can explain them to our modern minds (or should I say, modern Orthodox minds 😉 ) . I certainly don’t side with him on modern ecclesiastical questions for example and would even lament that he and his cadre are as dangerous in this area as David thinks I am to a moral universe! 🙂

    As far as philosophy, well sure many of the Father (such as Maximus) were the best of the best. My point is that philosophy is a tool and can be used for good or ill like every other. As Behr notes in that video, the first millennium heretics used philosophy as much and well as the Orthodox. My goal (no matter how much I fail) is to drive the question of Universalism out of the philosophical and into presuppositions and first principles that philosophy takes as its starting point and into which the dialectic can not peer. You note that the Fathers “used” neoplatonic terms and grammar – very true but were they then neoplatonists (a charge common among reformed and western RC alike)? No, they “transfigured” the grammar for the service of Christianity. Some did this better than others, and some failed in certain areas. In this I stand with St. Photius the Great as far as a explicit, no-apologies-offered rejection of Nyssa’s neoplatonic anthropology/Eschatology goes.

    My point about the Orthodox theology of the last 90 years as done in Western Civ (most of the names you mentioned) is that it can be characterized – it has a pattern, methodology, and sense that leads to certain consequences, one of which I (and others – I did not make this up as you no doubt already know) call “minimalism” and that Orthodox theology is not and does not have to be done this way. It is not all bad, but it is not all good either. It thinks of itself as a kind of “flowering” comparable to the late Byzantine medieval period for example. Of course this is partly correct, in that the Ottoman and communist yokes have been largely cast off…sort of…. A more humble assessment however sees a kind of modern, “secularist” yoke has replaced them to a large extant. Certain goings on around certain recent council reveals the deep and real divisions that are in part due to certain way of doing theology and the “grammar” to which you refer. I however concede your correction – my generalization is just that and there is a wide spectrum of thought on many subjects.

    As far as Hell and Tradition goes, we really are far apart on this. I don’t posit that an embrace of what we sing on the Sunday of the Last Judgement every year in church is an embrace of Reform theology. Indeed, this is a problem (possibly THE problem) with this whole conversation, a kind of universalist vs Calvin default assumption. Hart is symptomatic of this: how much of his essay is spent deconstructing Reform and medieval RC theology? Almost all of it. How much of it is spent addressing the majority position *Orthodox* theology? Almost none (though he does acknowledge it – to lament it). As far as winning an argument with D.B. Hart, has anyone actually ever done that? ; ) DB Hart (and those like him) are Black Belt 10th degree Grand Masters at the dialectic. I would however (unlike most probably) love to wrestle with him directly if only for the experience – but I am like that. When I followed Fr. Aidan’s blog (I don’t any longer) he did a better job of actually wrestling with actual Orthodox sources than Hart (even if his conclusions were indicative of his Universalist commitment).

    On the other hand, perhaps we are closer than we think. Hell as a fact, we can agree on. Hell as a necessity, well that has something to do with something about us that is very very important (like St. John Cassian, I am a “semi-Pelagian” ; ) ). Heaven as a necessity, well that is just as problematic as Hell as a necessity and so the all the rather tedious philosophical back and forth. I take all the data (Scripture, Tradition, my own experience) and I don’t come to a “boundary” conceptualization as you do – that does not work for me. I see rather that all this in a very very *human* and internal context and in that I probably come uncomfortably close to the “existential” thinking you are weary of. I am actually more interested in how Hierotheos/Romanides approach these questions than Ziz however…

    David, Karen (or anyone else):

    “One need not therefore marvel that while all will live in immortality, it is not all who will live in blessedness. All equally enjoy God’s providence for our nature, but it is only those who are devout towards God who enjoy the gifts which adorn their willingness…such is the gift of the resurrection” Nicholas Cabasilas.

    Question: was he too a (closet?) Reformed theologian? A “libertarian”, a “volunteerist”?

  176. Christopher,
    On the “axis.” Hart fits nowhere within that group and has almost nothing in common with them, by way of background, style of argument or training. I would not lump him there in any way.

    They are, however, together with some folks such as Stanilouae in Romania and a number of others, to be credited with a renaissance (in the best sense of the word) within Orthodoxy. St. Maximus was virtually forgotten before they brought him back – as was the case with Palamas. They represent the first breaking with the “Captivity” that is well-documented by Florovsky. Orthodoxy today – regardless of where you look in the world – has benefitted enormously and irrevocably from their work – even when they are being critiqued. Ziz. studied under Florovsky as did Romanides (who got a bit strange eventually). Read the “modern” Orthodox stuff (stuff in the 1800-1900’s that came before them). It is dry, generally following either Protestant or Catholic patterns with a decided tendency towards Scholasticism (generally described as the “manuals” of theology).

    I consider a wholesale critique of these giants to be a sign of a narrow reading, without context. Their work has doubtless been of utterly essential value for the reality of converts entering the Church – of whom I am one – and more than willing to express my gratitude.

    Indeed, the now several generations of scholars whose work is directly indebted to these men and the programs they created permeate contemporary Orthodoxy – and not just in the English-speaking world. There is hardly a single noteworthy book in patristics over the past 40 years that isn’t tied in some manner to their work. That is to say, even when someone is critiquing them, they have to use them in order to do so.

    There is some other work out there – much of it lacking in serious scholarship – and therefore destined to remain in something of a backwater.

    I have my own list of folks whom I would critique – (both to the left and the right) – but I do not see either of those groups truly grounding themselves in the best scholarship. Orthodoxy rightly needs to do great scholarship – it is part of the tradition. It does not need to be captured by the culture of the popular academic world – which is largely subservient to postmodern politics rather than scholarship.

  177. Quoting Saints doesn’t settle issues for me. For that reason maybe I will always be an outsider to Orthodoxy. Fine. At the end of the day, I don’t care what sophisticated rationalization we use, if we are going to say that people are going to suffer for eternity you have to show that how that makes sense.

    Will someone explain to me, please, how it is that they think that anyone on earth right now could ever reject God. Please, I am asking sincerely. I am firmly convinced that that is a ridiculous fiction. I am willing to be wrong, but I am not willing to quell my conscience to be right. I am asking for an answer that doesn’t offend my conscience or appeal to authority. Please, explain. Would someone explain to me how in the world someone could suffer eternally for the choices they have made now when none of our choices are 100% our own. If everyone on the planet had some amazing vision of the splendor and love of God and then said “NOPE!” and then a voice from God said “Are you sure about that?” And the person said “Yes.” And then God proceeded to spell out the consequences to the person perhaps even giving them a vision of hell…then maybe…MAYBE…you could argue…they chose evil. But, that doesn’t describe the human condition AT ALL. We live our short lives in pain and desperation. We trudge our way through the world recovering from one loss after another burying the people we love along the way. The whole while comfortable people sit around and debate the fate of the people that Jesus felt compassion for because they were “skinned and thrown about like sheep without a shepherd.”

    The fundamental error I see is the perception of people as marbles in a box. Penal theology posits that humans are disconnected and only loosely associated with each other by proximity. But, that doesn’t describe the human condition at all. We are deeply interconnected. To see a single individual person apart from the rest, as one might see a marble picked out of a collection of marbles from a box, one would have to cut the deep ligaments and connecting tissue that joins that person to all the rest. The theology I have seen presented here treats human beings as easily distinguishable and solitary entities: Marbles! Until we see the guilt of ALL as MY guilt and the fate of ALL as MY fate–which is what Christ did–then we will find very comfortably take consolation that the very easily avoidable suffering that others will experience in the presence of God is “All their fault. That was their choice. ALL they had to do was…”

    Not me. The fate of those who suffer will be my fate. Until that time comes, I will beg God almighty to “have mercy on US and save US.”

  178. David,
    This is indeed the right way to pray. I appreciated as well your citing of Dostoevsky’s Elder Zossima’s bowing down before suffering. That is the right path. Peace.

  179. David,

    I hope you’re right, but I also freely concede the Casabilus quote Christopher offers reflects the conventional Orthodox inference from Christ’s teaching in Matthew 25 and John 5:28-29. I don’t believe I’ve ever suggested otherwise or that the Church should teach otherwise. Still, Christopher, I’m a long way from convinced reading Casabilus would set off quite the “Calvinist” resonance for me as does reading parts of your arguments. Certainly reading that quote doesn’t even come close.

    This can be taken as fodder for either side of the debate (if we wanted to have one, which I don’t), but if summaries of issues and events I have read at Orthodoxwiki are correct, Bulgakov’s sophiology was condemned by his colleagues, but not his universalism.

    But, yes, I think this horse has been flogged to death many times, and the discussion here long past its usefulness.

  180. If anyone cares to answer my question I presented above I am willing to give my email just so that we aren’t diverting attention from the topic or taking up space here.

    Hmmm…Fr., is that appropriate??

  181. I come back and forth to the blog every couple of days and see that everyone is still discussing hell. I admittedly haven’t read all of the comments but have reviewed quite a few.

    Rather than jumping in the middle of this, allow me to tell a little story. I once knew a truly Christian woman. She had one of the most horrific childhoods I have ever heard (and I’ve heard some bad ones). Her mother was not just a bad mother but she was evil. It took some telling before I really grasped, yes, EVIL. She attempted to kill this Christian woman a number of times, beginning in childhood. She was not only violent and neglectful of her children, but she raised some of them to commit crimes – sometimes against each other. She appeared to bring about mysterious, deadly diseases in the lives of people the woman loved – and rejoiced when they died.

    The Christian woman, from the time she was a child, knew there was a God, despite this nightmarish existence. She grew in faith and used the spiritual gifts she received to unobtrusively heal others. She was humble. One of her biggest dilemmas was whether she was doing enough to try to bring this mother of hers to repentance and salvation so that she would not face an eternity of suffering. Though she never saw her mother change, she always wanted her to be saved.

    One day the mother died. And I asked the Christian woman how she felt about this. Was she worried that her mother was now in hell? Her response was: “I figure she is wherever God wants her to be.” And that was all she had to say about it.

    If only I could learn to be as obedient to the Gospel as she was…

  182. Mary,

    I appreciate the story of your friend and her humility.
    What she went through sounds…unspeakable.
    People who pass through unmentionable darkness with their faith intact usually possess a grace and depth that you cannot get through any other way. Perhaps that is because it is in those times a person is closest to communing the Cross with Christ. I pray for such depth.
    I’m not sure that anyone can be or become evil. I think that Tolkien’s Gollum comes as close to describing what happens to us as we turn away from Life to death. It isn’t that we become evil. But, we become an impoverished, confused dis-integrated being: A wretched creature that one might otherwise pity.

  183. Frodo: It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill him when he had the chance.
    Gandalf: Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.

    This to me is some of the best dialogue in literature. It really captures the complexity of the human condition. When, if ever, is it misguided to show pity? Should it ever be so obvious to us that someone should not be pitied? What if we show pity and it results in ill? Should the pity be regretted? Is Gollum evil? If so, then should evil be pitied? Personally, I find the words “good and evil” unhelpful. They make me feel judgmental.

  184. David,
    I think your question regarding fully aware choice of evil has already been answered further upstream as a choice that the tradition accepts for the devil alone. It’s why traditionally the Church would say that there’s no repentance for him.
    Man’s extremely more nuanced inclination towards his own-self-as-a-god, his forgetfulness and ignorance, his turning towards creaturely adoration instead of the Creator (Romans 1:25) is, as you rightly say, so complexly influenced that he was given repentance from the first second (Genesis 3:9). His having a body in space and time is also a very big part of this multifaceted complexity. He is constantly and easily deceived and therefore continuously offered repentance. We cannot speak with such authority on the afterlife though. A ‘trajectory’ after death -that is without the body–, that is towards non-being, according to the majority position, is one, we must pray for the most, (since we are interconnected).

  185. Father,
    I seem to remember a time we reached 400 comments with TLO, maybe I am imagining things now…

  186. David,
    There’s also a sense of “any more blatant-ness, coercion, less hideness from God ” (luke 16:31: ‘more than Moses and the prophets’) would actually not bring about what we imagine or have any freedom left inside of it. Of course, the pain for those who wouldn’t listen to warnings of hell or the evangel of heaven can and does drive a believer to the cross. But we must be most careful that our reference for this is Christ-centered and not anything-else-centered as the adversary’s favourite area is this type is God slandering.

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