Grasping at Straws in the Tower of Academia

In the ongoing debate about universalism or the assertion that eventually everyone will be saved, proponents of universalism have often referred with an almost kind of hushed reverence to a volume written by Dr. Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena. Ms. Ramelli’s work runs to 912 pages, and I was anxious to read it for myself. Given that the hardcover is available through Amazon for $346 US, I decided to order it through my nearby university library, using their inter-library loan. When it finally arrived and I opened its pages, I was surprised. As it turns out, it is not so much a survey of church history as it is a look at Origen and his supporters. “Origen’s First Followers” runs from page 223 to page 277, which is followed by “Origen’s Apologists and Followers”, which runs from page 279 to page 658. The final chapter takes one “From Augustine to Eriugena”. Perhaps a better title for the book would have been “Origen and His Friends”. It is less a survey than an apologia, a tour de force, a vigorous attempt to rehabilitate someone who for all his gifts had been condemned by name at an Ecumenical Council. The title scarcely matters, I suppose, and I should be the last person in the world to object to a misleading book title. My surprise did not concern the title, but the contents. Allow me to quote several examples.

In her discussion on the lake of fire in Revelation 20:10, she notes that the lake is said to burn with “fire and sulphur” (or in more traditional language, “fire and brimstone”). She correctly notes that the reference to “fire and sulphur” brings us back to the fire sent from God upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:24. She writes, “Sulphur is joined to fire both in the Sodom episode and in Revelation’s lake of fire. Like fire, and even more clearly than fire itself, this element points to purification. Given its purifying and healing properties, sulphur is used in medicine still nowadays, for instance as antiseptic, a fungicide and in mucolytics. This is a clue suggesting that the lake of fire will purify those who are cast into it, at least as for human sinners”.

Let us here note several things. The Book of Revelation does not distinguish between the devil and “human sinners”, dooming the former in the lake of fire while purifying the latter. Mention of human sinners here in 20:15 and previously in 14:9-11 threatened doom for those who “worship the beast and his image and receives a mark on his forehead or upon his hand” (14:9). It does not even hint that the lake of fire will purify them and then allow their release. Rather, “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest day and night” (14:11). Also, sulphur was clearly combined with fire not because it is handy for use as an antiseptic or a fungicide, but because it burns. The ancients thought it represented the essence of combustion, because it so easily burst into flame. Neither in the Genesis text regarding Sodom nor in the Revelation text is the thought of purification even hinted at. God did not mean to purify the Sodomites, but to destroy them. As 2 Peter 2:6 observed, [God] condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly thereafter”. Note: exemplary destruction, not purification. Ms. Ramelli here is grasping at straws.

Another example: in her lengthy discussion of Irenaeus, she does her best to present him as a man at least sympathetic to apokatastasis. She begins her discussion of him by quoting him as saying, “Christ will come at the end of the times in order to annul everything evil, and to reconcile again all beings, that there may be an end of all impurities”, which she pronounces as “one of the main tenets of the doctrine of apokatastasis”. She acknowledges that Irenaeus affirms that “Christ will send the wicked ‘into the fire of the world to come [αιωνιον]”, but then calls attention to the fact that Irenaeus did say the fire was αιδιος or unending, but only αιωνιον, age-long. Never mind that it is doubtful that Irenaeus would have seen much difference here between the two words. Here it is clear that he described the fire as αιωνιον not because he preferred it and chose it over the word αιδιος, but because the Greek text of the Gospel he was citing had the word αιωνιον. In the Gospel Irenaeus was quoting Christ spoke of “eternal/ αιωνιον fire”, and Irenaeus simply reproduced the wording. It is methodologically flawed to import into Irenaeus’ verbal distinctions he may not even have recognized.

But one may ask, “Then who did Irenaeus think was cast into the fire?” Ramelli opines, “Not human sinners, but only demons”. In her words: “Irenaeus speaks of the condemnation of those who do not believe and do not do God’s will, but he does not say that it is eternal; he seems to conceive only demons as enemies”. One must again return to the text and look again at what Irenaeus actually said. In his Against Heresies, Book 4,27,4, he writes, “As formerly the unrighteous, the idolaters, and fornicators perished, so also it is now; for both the Lord declares that such persons are sent into eternal fire, and the apostle says, ‘Do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the Kingdom of God?’” There is no use evading Irenaeus’ plain meaning just because it is deemed uncongenial. Irenaeus believed and taught that the “enemies” cast into the fire included idolaters and fornicators—i.e. not demons, but men, “human sinners”.

At the end of her discussion of Irenaeus, Ramelli admits “Irenaeus does not formulate a doctrine of universal salvation, nor a theory of universal apokatastasis”. That is a little bit like saying, “Martin Luther did not formulate a doctrine of papal supremacy.” The fact is that Irenaeus taught the opposite of what that theory holds, and he taught it emphatically. Here again for Ramelli ideology dictates how ancient texts are read.

Again, in her handling of Clement of Alexandria, she cites his words where after inveighing at great length about the lethal danger of heresy, he says, “Would that these heretics would learn and be set right by these notes and turn to the sovereign God! But if, like the deaf serpents, they do not listen to the song called “new” may they be chastised by God and undergo paternal admonitions previous to the Judgment, until they become ashamed and repent and not rush through headlong unbelief and precipitate themselves into judgment” (from his Miscellanies, Book 7, chapter 16). It is apparent that Clement is thinking of chastisements occurring in this life, “previous to the Judgment”, before it is too late and they die in unbelief and so “precipitate themselves into judgment”. Yet in referring to this passage, Ramelli says, “Clement hopes that “the heretics” 1 will be converted by God, even after death”. Clement says no such thing, but clearly refers to a punishment leading to conversion before death, “previous to the Judgment”. Ramelli however insists on reading apokatasis into Clement’s text even when it is not there.

Another example: Ramelli offers St. Anthony the Great as an example of another ancient father holding to the doctrine of apokatastasis. Her evidence?   “Origen’s thought had a large diffusion in the Egyptian desert”, and Anthony, in his extant letters, used philosophical language, and “theorised a ‘resurrection of the heart from the earth’ which is a spiritual resurrection and entails an allegorical exegesis of the resurrection that Origen applied”—and this, despite the fact that Anthony speaks explicitly of the eternal punishment of the wicked, and never even remotely suggests that they will be finally saved. In his Letter 2, for example, he writes: “Let this word be manifest in you, beloved; whosoever has not prepared his own amendment, nor toiled with all his strength, let such a one know that for him the coming of the Saviour will be unto judgment”. Or again, in Letter 3: “As for those who have prepared themselves to be set free through the coming of Jesus, over them I rejoice. But those who do business in the name of Jesus and do the will of their heart and their flesh—over such I lament…Know therefore that for such men the coming of Jesus becomes a great judgment.” These do not sound like the words of a man who believes in the ultimate restoration of everyone. Here again, in the absence of any real evidence Ramelli simply reads her favourite doctrine into a place that it is simply not there.

One final example: Bardaisan of Edessa (d. 222) is cited as an early example of one holding the doctrine of apokatastasis, heading a list of worthies which include Anthony, Gregory of Nyssa, Jerome, Cassian, and many others. It seems that she wants us to respect the thought of Bardaisan and regard him as, if not exactly a church father, as certainly frequenting the same club.

This is rather surprising, and is perhaps the reason why she begins her discussion of this controversial figure with the heading “Bardaisan of Edessan, Not a ‘Gnostic’”. She is driven to make this case because there were and are many who believe that he was a gnostic. In ancient times the Christian historian Sozomen regarded him as a heretic (Ecclesiastical History, 3.16). It is of course difficult now to sort out the precise details of someone that long dead. But from his extant writings, we can even now find things that look rather “off”. He thought for example that the sun, moon, and planets were living beings, under whose partial control God had placed the world. In this Book of the Laws of Countries Bardaisan wrote, God “gave the Guiding Signs their fixed order and gave all things the power due to each”. As one scholar comments, “By ‘Guiding Signs’ Barsaisan means the planets and the stars. Bardaisan’s own view of the relation of divine power to the that of the heavenly bodies and to human free will involves a nuanced delimitation of their respective domains…Bardaisan’s affirmation of fate…is the most striking element in his Christian system of thought” (Tim Hegedus, in his Necessity and Free Will in the Thought of Bardaisan of Edessa”).

A striking element indeed, and sufficiently striking, I submit, to jeopardize his inclusion in the list of ancient patristic worthies to which Ramelli would have him head the list. It looks as if acceptance or rejection of the doctrine of the apokatastasis functions for her as the canon within the canon for selecting who is a really worthwhile teacher. Perhaps that is why the doubtful Bardaisan is styled a “very learned Syrian Christian philosopher and theologian” while the earliest Apostolic Fathers are described merely as “The So-Called Apostolic Fathers”, since she admits that “In the group of writings stemming from the second century CE and collectively labelled ‘Apostolic Fathers’, the doctrine of apokatastasis as eschatological universal restoration appears to be missing.” I suggest that her praises of the “so-called apostolic fathers” would have been more fulsome had her favourite doctrine not appeared to have been missing.

Ultimately, it is not about the value or otherwise of single volume, even such a large door-stopper of a volume as The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis. It is rather about the value of Tradition for the huge rank of the file of the Church who will never earn a doctorate or attain to Ms. Ramelli’s considerable level of learning. The value of Tradition, as understood by the Orthodox, is that one does not have to be a scholar to know the truth. One does not require academic learning, wonderful as that is, but only humility. We believe that the truth has been given by Christ to His disciples and preserved in the Church, and that we access that truth by attending to the consensus of the Fathers. If anyone has the humility to bow one’s head to that Tradition, one can know the truth, even if one is an illiterate street sweeper incapable of reading or writing hefty tomes. Or, in the Lord’s own words, “I praise You, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to babes. Yes, Father, for thus it was well-pleasing in Your sight” (Luke 10:21).


  1. Well, it is as I feared – the Tradition is being filtered through an external lens that goes by the name of “apokatastasis”. I count at least 3 (there may be more) differing versions of “apokatastasis” being discussed online, and two of them have children. Only one appears to be “delimited” by Scripture and Tradition in any significant sense (the term is scriptural after all), the other two appear to be external presuppositions that then interpret Christianity. Origen looms large in both of the non-Christian versions. They claim support in the Fathers, but only St. Gregory of Nyssa (a disciple of Origen and whose universalism was explicitly rejected by St. Photius the Great) appears to in any real sense support them. They claim St. Isaac of Syria as well but I myself remain agnostic about him as he at times appears to reject an Origenistic apokatastasis.

    How significant is this faddish and growing error? Who knows, perhaps that is for our ancestors (in conjunction with the Spirit of Truth) to decide. What I find curious about it is not that this error exists, but how seemingly tone deft it’s supporters are to how this error changes Christianity in ways that twist it beyond all recognition. It destroys the Judgement, which in turns destroys the Eschaton, Pascha, Christianity as a Personal revelation – it changes everything.

    Lord have mercy!

    p.s. Father, I have a couple of posts held up in moderation in the “Mr. Fudge” thread – just delete them if you find them irrelevant to the conversation…

  2. Christopher,

    Forgive me in advance.

    Let me begin by saying that I cannot help but agree with you that this is something of a fad. Perhaps – just perhaps – it is not entirely without merit, but the seemingly sudden fascination with it all is, I believe, a fad. And like all fads it will pass.

    When I say that perhaps – again just perhaps – it may not be entirely without merit what I mean is this:

    I can remember a time, perhaps 30 or more years ago, when I read the Scriptures through a ‘forensic lens’ in terms of our salvation (i.e., Christ paid the penalty required by a just God, etc.). If someone were to tell me I was wrong I could easily have pointed them to what I understood as clearly ‘forensic’ passages. I could easily have pointed to passages from the Fathers that can certainly sound ‘forensic’ as well (if they are read through that lens). I can now see that my understanding was entirely mistaken. But the eyes of my understanding were not opened primarily through arguments directly against my ‘forensic’ doctrinal understanding. They were opened by gentle expressions of the truth of the love of God that was a reflection of my own actual experience of His mercy.

    I have never read Hart, although I have heard enough passages quoted from his works to find his works both perfectly logical and entirely unconvincing. The central tenant of his argument (and those of others like him) is that if the suffering of hell is eternal, God must be wicked. But there is little difference between this accusation against God and Ivan’s accusation in Dostoevsky (other than perhaps the ‘forever’ part). I can understand such an argument from an unbeliever, but it one that should be entirely foreign to believers. A believer understands that we are in no position to be the judge of God who is love beyond any possible comprehension. As I commented on another forum, quoting God’s answer to Ezra when he questioned Him about such things, “Thou comest far short that thou shouldest be able to love my creature more than I.” I don’t deny, however, that judging God, calling Him wicked, and saying that such suffering would be pointless has a certain philosophical logic. Ezra had precisely the same thought, although he was not quite so bold: “It would be better not to have been created than to suffer…” God’s answer: “Thy heart hath gone too far in this world, and thinkest thou to comprehend the way of the most High?” And in the words of Saint Paul, “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”

    It is this very philosophical logic that I find troubling. It makes God less than personal. It makes of Him a sort of ‘force’ (as it were), a logical and philosophical necessity. Moreover, it makes Him the prisoner of His own love (and love of a sort that we think we can comprehend at that) every bit as much as a forensic view of salvation makes God the prisoner of His own justice (again, as many understand justice). But God is not a prisoner of anything. He is free and can do as He wills.

    To some this sounds as though one who believes this thinks of God as unloving, uncaring, and unconcerned about suffering. They will think what they think, but they are mistaken – at least they would be mistaken if they thought so of me.

    But returning to the ‘lens’ through which we interpret what we read. I used to think this was all settled at the Fifth Council, and I read everything through that lens. I was mistaken. And I did not learn that I was mistaken from the popular discussions taking place on line these days. I learned it from a true scholar and Church historian who himself believes the fact that it wasn’t dogmatically ‘settled’ changes nothing. There are many things we accept that are not dogmatically settled.

    I would only say that, while I agree with you and Father Lawrence in general, let us at least admit that there are some things we cannot know. And let us at least understand that it is possible to read the Scriptures and many of the Fathers through a different lens. Father Lawrence (as well as Father Aidan) has made much of the Greek word ‘eternal’. Is the ‘fire’ eternal or the suffering? I know the ‘fire’ is eternal, but I must admit that I do not know about the suffering. Nevertheless it would be the height of foolishness to bet my life on some philosophical argument, and I would think it most unloving to teach such a thing as truth to be relied upon.

    God told the Jews that He would dwell in Jerusalem forever. Did He lie? No. But did they understand His plan or what He meant by this promise? No. I fully understand that Christ is THE revelation of God and that the Church flatly rejects any idea of ‘progressive revelation.’ Nevertheless, there are some things that have not been revealed; foremost among them is the truth of who we are, what we shall be, and what God has prepared for those who love Him. We know what has been revealed and promised to those who love Him and keep His commandments. We can and should leave the rest to God with full confidence in His love, His wisdom, and the fact that “He doeth all things well.”

    Let this fad pass, my friend, and do not overly trouble yourself. White belts and leisure suits are long gone with no help from us. Don’t give it more life by making yet more arguments that those who disagree will either refute or misunderstand.

    “When Thou comest, O God, upon the earth with glory, the whole world will tremble. The river of fire will bring men before Thy judgment seat, the books will be opened and the secrets disclosed. Then deliver me from the unquenchable fire, and count me worthy to stand on Thy right hand, Judge most righteous.”

    Lord, have mercy. And please forgive me, my brother.

  3. “It is this very philosophical logic that I find troubling. It makes God less than personal. It makes of Him a sort of ‘force’ (as it were), a logical and philosophical necessity. Moreover, it makes Him the prisoner of His own love (and love of a sort that we think we can comprehend at that) every bit as much as a forensic view of salvation makes God the prisoner of His own justice (again, as many understand justice). But God is not a prisoner of anything. He is free and can do as He wills.”

    Well stated Brian (indeed I could quote your whole post), and this is essentially what I have been arguing on Fr. Stephen’s forum in my own bumbling way (particularly the *Personal* aspect). It occurred to me yesterday that what Origen, Nyssa, and Hart (and their followers to the extant that they can keep up – which they can’t because philosophy is hard and just when you think you are with the masters you discover you are at least a yard behind) are actually are doing is not ontology in a Christian context, but *metaphysics* in a (largely) Platonic key with a strong Christian choir singing in the background. Origen, Nyssa, and Hart are our very own Eastern Church versions of Aquinas (who did this in with Aristotle).

    Looming large in this discussion is the “forensic” Christian sectarian past of many many people (i.e Calvin, etc.) and how that influences the heart (particularly many of Fr. Stephen’s not so little internet flock, and of course Fr. Aidan’s). I am sensitive to that, and have tried to avoid any intentional disturbing of these wounds – forgive me if I have not been entirely successful in that effort.

    I also entirely agree with you that the truth of all this (i.e. the Truth) is only “known” spiritually and not dialectically. We are quite literally “blocked” from approaching this Mystery dialectically while we are in our sins and this of course is intentional. Anything that can be said about it is said “as a word”, that is in a Revealatory way that is without any doubt part of the Story and not “philosophy” as such. My part in this discussion has largely been to try to use the dialectic to deconstruct these metaphysical arguments which I believe are at the core simply ungodly and quite dangerous (e.g. does the Cannon of St. Andrew which we prayed last night make any sense at all in the “key” of Origen, Nyssa, and Hart? No). Of course, can God not use this “fad” to save some and is that not exactly what He is doing? Of course, and so perhaps it is in vain that I oppose it, but part of me still says “gee whiz, how long are you guys going to carry on like this?!?”. And so, when you say:

    “Let this fad pass, my friend, and do not overly trouble yourself. White belts and leisure suits are long gone with no help from us. Don’t give it more life by making yet more arguments that those who disagree will either refute or misunderstand.”

    I hear you my friend, I hear you. I have an overdeveloped sense of the dialectic and I like to wield it, so forgive me as I am quite certain I will fail at this (i.e. I will be drawn into more “arguments”). I will try to make it part of my fasting to abstain. Pray for me!

  4. I have a hard time believing that you (all) have thoroughly read Fr. Aiden’s many pieces on Universalism. Plus, have you read the much venerated St. Isaac’s 2nd Part that explicitly teaches universal reconciliation.

    I understand defending the “traditional” view oif one really believes this is true. But the facts in the matter are there are many modern and ancient theologians who held out for the “blessed hope”. I don’t think either position can dogmatically claim to be The Truth on this issue. What I don’t understand is the rigor (almost enthusiasm) with which eternal separation is defended. As St. Silouan said, “who can bear this thought”.

    Ramelli may have missed it on a few points but I hardly think a cursory reading can declare her years of research bunk. And DB Hart will soon be publishing something in favor of universalism that will be supported with reason and history. Why would anyone take comfort if in fact a large swath of humanity (a majority according to some) will spend eternity in some sort of torment. Did God really come up with a plan before all ages that would exclude vast amounts of his people. Will every knee bow and tongue confess the Jesus is Lord only to be cast away. Can man’s free will ultimately thwart God’s desire that all should be conformed to his image.

    One other thing about “freedom”. Think about it, is a crack addicted baby who grows up with an abusive mom and becomes a criminal really free. Are you really free? The philosophical case for free will is way overrated. And… that is the only real obsticle theologically or philosophically to universalism, unless God is vindictive or bound by necessity to punish sin in which case God isn’t really free. Kalomiras covered that quite nicely in “the River of Fire”. In my opinion he just doesn’t go far enough and exalts free will in this fallen world with too much power. A sinner may fight again God for an eon but eventually God will recover every lost coin until the last farthing is paid. All (I believe) will be saved as yet through the fire (of God’s unrelenting love).

    That’s the only thing that makes any sense to me if God IS Love. And if it’s good enough for St. Isaac, it’s good enough for me.

    1. Stephen: Just a few things by way of response. First, what St. Silouan said love “could not bear” was not the thought that some (like atheists) would be damned and be eternally separated from God, but that one should delight in that. Secondly, I have not given Ramelli just a cursory reading but a careful examination. When (for example) she reads her assertion that “aionios=age long” into every occurrence of the word in the Fathers and suggests that a part of Basil’s works to which she objects must be an interpolation, it is apparent that her scholarship is fundamentally marred by her desperate attempt to find her favourite doctrine in the Fathers at all costs. Finally, traditionalists like myself to not “take comfort” in the thought that the punishment of hell is eternal. Rather we are driven to this view by what we regard as the clear teaching of both Scripture and the Fathers. Hart’s view essentially negates free will and makes the struggles and choices of this age (as well as the warnings of Scripture) ultimately meaningless.

      1. Dear Fr. Lawrence,

        I full affirm with you that the Tradition doesn’t allow us to presume on the salvation of all. Rather, it urges us to take every opportunity in this life to repent in sober and reverent anticipation of the “dread Judgment Seat of Christ,” assuring us that the opportunity of our taking initiative in this regard will certainly have passed after our death. Paradoxically perhaps, it seems equally clear on the basis of the Scriptures, of what our Liturgy says about Pascha, and of the prayer life of contemporary Saints like St. Silouan, St. Porphyrios, and St. Paisios, as well as similar examples from ages past (such as St. Isaac), we are called to not despair of the salvation even of the whole world, but to pray in faith for the salvation of all, living and dead alike! This creates an inevitable tension, to be sure. Yet it seems to me to do less than both of these (and how can we do this except it be in the full confidence of the possibility of both?) is to miss the mark and to be less than a truly faithful and fully traditional Orthodox believer.

        Forgive me, but it also seems to me that many of those like yourself who (certainly understandably) are eager to affirm the first as “the traditional” view frequently go beyond this in their arguments in ways that easily lead to inferences (and even statements) about the nature of hell and eternal torment (and, please let me emphasize, especially God’s attitude toward such) that are contrary to the Spirit of what the Tradition actually says when we are holding firmly in place *all* its inherent tensions. Your assertion to Stephen that St. Silouan’s teaching “love could not bear that” referred not to the damnation of the lost, but rather to the hermit’s delight in that damnation falls into this category for me in that even if you were correct in your assessment here, this is a distinction without a true difference. Here is Met. Kallistos’ recounting the Elder Sophrony’s witness:

        “‘It was particularly characteristic of Staretz Silouan to pray for the dead suffering in the hell of separation from God’, writes Fr Sophrony, and he goes on to recall an exchange that he overheard between the Starets and a somewhat dour hermit:

        I remember a conversation between him and a certain hermit, who declared with evident satisfaction, ‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.’

        Obviously upset, The Staretz said:

        ‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire – would you feel happy?’

        ‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,’ said the hermit.

        The Staretz answered him with a sorrowful countenance:

        ‘Love could not bear that,’ he said. ‘We must pray for all’.”

        Certainly, the hermit’s inappropriate delight was the occasion that elicited St. Silouan’s expression of his heart and prayer in reference to this whole subject, but it seems clear in the whole context of St. Silouan’s prayer life as recounted by Elder Sophrony in his work on the Saint’s life, and the Saint’s conclusion, “we must pray for all,” that love equally “doesn’t bear” that any soul remain in the torment of hell (even while it fully acknowledges the reality and existence of hell), otherwise why would love be moved to such urgent prayer?

        As St. Basil’s preparatory prayer for Communion states, “For you do not wish, O Master, that the work of your hands should perish, neither do you take pleasure in the destruction of men, but you desire that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.”

        1. Karen, thank you for your thoughtful response. I especially appreciate your full citing of St. Silouan’s dialogue, which confirms in my view that what provoked his sorrowful response was precisely the hermit’s delight. Muddying the waters somewhat is the question of whether or not the person in torment was in Hades prior to the final judgment or in Gehenna after that judgment. The Church does pray for those in Hades, especially at Pentecost Vespers, “that relief may be sent down from the grief that binds them”. It could be that the prayer encouraged was this, especially since no one yet has been sent to Gehenna and needs our prayers there. I don’t know St. Silouan well enough to know whether or not he was a Universalist, and would be happy to read more about him. Thank you again for writing.

          1. Thank you, Father. My understanding is this is pretty much the definitive statement by St. Silouan on the subject (so, no to any dogmatic or deterministic universalism, to be sure). He is a true son of the Church, meaning he upheld fully both ends of the tensions produced in the Tradition by its affirmation of Divine Goodness and both Divine and creaturely freedom with all the implications of these. My understanding is St. Silouan is upheld as an extraordinary example of the Spirit of the Tradition precisely based on this sort of prayer for the whole world. His teaching is preserved in aphorisms and prayers (poetry), not in theological treatises (he was a humble monk, not a Priest or preacher), and I’m fairly certain he didn’t discourse at any length in a speculative manner on the stages and nature of the afterlife, as did St. Isaac (who was ordained to the Priesthood and for a brief time was a Bishop), though Met. Kallistos affirms St. Silouan would have been very familiar with St. Isaac’s work.

            I remember reading from one Saint (I don’t now remember where, though I will have to try to find it) that for the person passing from this life, their “particular judgment” and “Final Judgment” are the same thing! This sort of paradox, or even sometimes apparent conflict, between a certain kind of conclusion based on human logical extrapolism from the literal level of the statements of the Scriptures, and the more spiritual reading of their deeper meaning on the part of many of the Saints makes me leery of speculating about the progression of events in the afterlife. (As one example, I offer that of St. John Chrysostem’s view of the Theotokos of her having sinned “in a small way” in her approach to the Savior at the wedding of Cana, and contrast it with that of St. Gregory Palamas, whose view of the complete preservation by Grace of the Theotokos from personal sin throughout her life I see followed in the Liturgical Tradition of the Church and affirmed by other Saints.) It seems to me, we really can know nothing about this beyond the two poles of the tensions I articulate in my original comment to you (i.e., no presumption, no despair), except perhaps in a mystical or noetic manner, and I’m certainly not qualified to comment in any authoritative manner in that respect! All that is to say, it seems to me the narratives of Scripture and their exposition in the Liturgy of the Church are there for the purpose of aiding us to work out our salvation in this life, not for giving a blue print of the chronology or geography of the next.

          2. I absolutely take your point, and especially about working out our salvation here in this life. I am reminded of the saying ascribed to Mark Twain: “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that worry me; it’s the parts I do understand”. I too am leery of anything purporting to give a detailed roadmap about what happens after this life. I was just saying this exact thing to our catechumen class last Sunday; we are given all we need to know, not necessarily everything we would like to know. And a good thing: the temptation to be distracted from the one thing needful to strong enough as it is.

          3. Father Lawrence,

            There is a wonderful book on the life of Saint Silouan entitled The Monk of Mount Athos, written by the Elder Sophrony, his disciple It is a thoroughly edifying read that I highly recommend completely apart from the subject of this thread. You will find that he is the humblest of simple, basically uneducated souls in complete submission to Christ in the Tradition of His Church. His is among the icons that grace my home altar. I would urge anyone to read his life. You will never be the same (again, completely apart from the subject at hand).

        2. “Forgive me, but it also seems to me that many of those like yourself who (certainly understandably) are eager to affirm the first as “the traditional” view frequently go beyond this in their arguments in ways that easily lead to inferences (and even statements) about the nature of hell and eternal torment (and, please let me emphasize, especially God’s attitude toward such) that are contrary to the Spirit of what the Tradition actually says when we are holding firmly in place *all* its inherent tensions.”

          I don’t see this – and when I ask for evidence I only get screeds against “Calvin”, “forensic understandings”, etc. I simply affirm what the Church prays on the Sunday of the Last Judgement for example. Indeed, I would counter and say it is the universalists who very clearly “go beyond” what the Tradition teaches (including St. Isaac as I have read him, perhaps not Nyssa) and affirm a metaphysical understanding of the Judgement in terms of a “purgatorial fire” and the resultant theology of “Last Judgementlessness” – you yourself explicitly affirm this. I don’t see where you are holding a “tension” at all – you have resolved the tension in the direction of universalism. I am wondering out loud why you don’t “own” this position? It seems dishonest not to…

          1. oops, the sentence “including St. Isaac as I have read him, perhaps not Nyssa” reads exactly backwards. I meant to say it is Nyssa who seems to go clearly beyond (and whom St. Photius the Great explicitly corrected) and it is St. Isaac who might be misinterpreted by the universalists…

    2. I will say that I have lingered over at Fr. Aidan’s site for several years now. I have posted twice (if memory serves) regretfully however, as it is one of the more “ideological” Orthodox sites on the interweb (though to Fr. Aidan’s credit he is always gracious). I realized a couple of years ago when Fr. Aidan reviewed Fr. Dumitru Staniloae works that he is simply doing what Dr. Ilaria Ramelli is doing, which is filtering everything (and I do mean everything) through a prior commitment, a presupposition of “strong” universalism (with everything that means) and if the object of his focus is not “reformed” enough, well Fr. Aidan will do it for him and tell us all how his object (in this case Fr Dumitru Staniloae) really means to be reformed (what Fr. Aidan mistakenly calls “Orthodox”) but just can’t get himself to say it, or something. With just a little bit of perspective it all looks like what it really is: a “reform” movement driven with all energy and passion (besides being sort of ridiculous – the things Fr. Dumitru and others including numerous Saints are being made to say are absurd) .

      Looming large (very large) is the reaction (strong strong reaction) to any and all “forensic” emphasis, particularly in “western” Christendom and in the personal past of each and everyone of these folks (Fr. Aidan in particular). This comes out explicitly in the emotional “why would any one take comfort” accusations and the like, but the principles of this reform movement (Aidan, Hart, etc.) are no less gripped by this, they just use more sophisticated language (usually). I understand the reason to give a generous and patient “pastoral” response to this but I am now openly questioning if this has been effective at all, and if not real damage is being done by allowing these folks to carry on like this. Then, perhaps it is just a fad and no more damaging than white belts and the leisure suits…

      Yes, you are right Stephen, what is essentially a metaphysical (in a Platonic/Origenistic key) view of God and his “desire”, “goodness”, and man’s “freewill” and the relationship between these can only lead to one conclusion: strong universalism. Yes, Personhood (both God and mans) in such a scheme does not mean what it means in Christianity. The neo-platonists do all this better by the way, without all the messy Christian story and tangents.

      You see Brian, I told you… 🙂

  5. Point well taken. I just assumed you skimmed Ramelli because that’s what I would do with a 900 page tome! I would simply disagree that the scriptures clearly teach that view. And I don’t think you have to neglect free will to come to the universalist position- especially fallen free will. St. Isaac view clearly stated that the age long chastisement of sinner will be horribly unpleasant, but needed to burn the wicked out of them while saving the person. Perhaps when a person dies and finally sees Christ as He is, he/she will finally break through all of the crap of this life and true repentance actually becomes possible. Our free will now is so clouded by our fallen ness that seeing Gods unconditional love becomes nearly impossible for some and they seek desperately in their passions to find solace that cannot be found outside of Christ.

    Think about the hundreds (thousands?) that were molested by their catholic priests and rejected God and flew headfirst into homosexuality and many other passions. Is their will really free. Sure in a sort, but their nous is clouded by massive delusion, pain and confusion that surely effects their free will. God has to be more merciful. Again I side with St. Isaac and Fathet of Fathers St. Gregory who was named that my the same council that supposedly condemned apakatastasis– if I have my facts correct. I know I won’t convince you but I think this is more than a passing fad and is a viable and acceptable position within the tradition. As Augustine said in his time, “the majority hold to the universalist view”.

    1. Actually, Augustine did not say, if memory serves, that “the majority” held to the universalist view. He said “some, indeed very many, make moan over the eternal punishment”. That is hardly a majority. (From his “Enchiridion” chapter 112.) Have you another quote from him? I do take your point about the molested children and others who suffer. But all that means, I submit, is that God will judge justly and not expect the same degree of response from the sick as He does from the healthy. All of our wills are hobbled, even the healthy. But at the end of the day, our choices still matter.

  6. Stephen,

    Some of us are wary not because we think we are right or even because we think the Scriptures or the all of the Fathers are entirely clear about the matter (although some Fathers, such as some of those those you mentioned, are much clearer about their view of apokatastasis than others).

    What is clear is that the Church in her wisdom never saw fit to settle the matter once and for all even when presented with the opportunity to do so. Did she refrain because she simply did not know (there being no clear consensus)? Or did she refrain because if true, she understood such knowledge to be something of which an extreme few are worthy (i.e., able to bear responsibly without danger to their own salvation or those around them)? These were bishops with grave pastoral responsibilities, after all.

    What troubles some of us is neither the possibility, nor the hope. It is the teaching of a hope as though it were revealed, nearly dogmatic truth and the use of philosophy to ‘prove’ what our gracious God has not seen fit to reveal out of His love for us. Philosophy has its uses, but it if it is to be profitable it must be disciplined by the limits of revelation (Saint Basil has a wonderful work on this topic).

    I know that I who believe(!) am not worthy of such knowledge, even if true. And so I cannot help but wonder about the wisdom of those who not only feel themselves worthy of having attained to such knowledge but of teaching openly to all something about which the Church has chosen to remain silent in a dogmatic sense (I am not speaking here of you).

    I do not deny the possibility. God is certainly good enough, and it is possible to read the many (if not all) of the Scriptures through that ‘lens.’ I would also never say that it is wrong to hope for what God has made very clear He desires. Such a hope, however, is no different than my hope of being made worthy to stand at the right hand of Christ in the judgment. It is a hope, not a certainty. It has not yet been revealed.

    I want everyone to be saved. I do not want anyone – even my worst enemies – to be deprived of the eternal life of God. But God has not revealed to us precisely what will become of the ungodly after the judgment; and we do well, along with the Church, to be careful of what we think we can know, much less teach.

    1. Fair enough that both sides should not be too dogmatic. But consider for a moment which side has been more dogmatic over the last 1,500 years. Everywhere we look, we see self proclaimed “orthodox” teachers (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant) all proclaiming the never-ending torment in Hell of those who died without faith. Don’t just complain about those with a wider hope in the wideness in God’s mercy. God bless us all!

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