The Real Roots of Universalism

For gaining a deep insight into the minds of cross-sections of the populace, you can’t beat blogging. People will say in the comments section of a blog what they really think about certain topics (sometimes on topics only minimally related to the actual content of the blog piece), and often what they lack in civility they more than make up for in candour. Providing one’s skin is thick enough, reading the comments section of one’s blog can reveal a lot about people’s hearts.

This is especially true when it comes to “hot button” topics, of which Universalism is one. (By “universalism” I mean the theological view that all will eventually be saved and no one will finally be damned.) And here I must be specific: by “Universalism” I do not here mean the hope that everyone will be saved or the view that perhaps everyone will be saved. One can hope for the eventual salvation of all and entertain this is a possibility or even a probability without being a Universalist. As I use the term, for example, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware is not a Universalist, for he simply believes that we are allowed to hope for the salvation all. He retains a certain degree of reverent agnosticism about the issue and admits that we cannot be sure that all will be saved. By the term “Universalist” I mean someone who asserts that it is a certainty that all will eventually be saved, either because each person will enter into bliss immediately after death or because they will enter into bliss after a period of purgative suffering. By this definition, Metropolitan Kallistos is not a Universalist. Dr. David Bentley Hart certainly is—and a combative one at that.

A while ago I wrote a few blog pieces on the topic of Universalism (access here, here, here, here, and here), and later an entire book on the subject. The blog pieces provoked a very large number of comments. By perusing those comments, I came to certain conclusions about the real roots of Universalism, and also that there are two ways of reading Holy Scripture.

One way of reading Scripture is the patristic way—that is, the reader tries to situate the Scriptural text within its cultural context and then to understand what it meant to its original audience. That exegetical task accomplished, the theologian and pastor will go on to apply the text to the current situation today. Sometimes a certain amount of change will be required in the current application, such as in Paul’s words about head-coverings. Sometimes no such change will be required at all, such as in Paul’s words about fleeing fornication. The necessity or otherwise for change in application depends upon the amount of cultural specificity underlying the original counsel and whether that culture differs from ours—(and no, I have intention of debating head-covering here). One’s personal feelings are left entirely to one side, and rigorously excluded from exegesis and application.

For example, I may not understand why St. Paul is so emphatic when he tells his readers to flee fornication. I might feel that he is too uptight in his denunciation and that the friends in The Big Bang Theory are just fine in their fornication, thank you very much. Or I might not understand why St. Paul would say that the sacrifices offered by nice pagans to their gods were actually offered to demons, and I might feel that Paul and the Fathers after him were being too unkind to well-intentioned paganism such as was once found in Rome and is now still found in India. But a patristic phronema will prefer the wisdom of Scripture to one’s own wisdom, and conclude that if I don’t “get” how Scripture’s assertions can be true and moral, the problem lies with me, not with Scripture.

The assertions of Scripture trump our own feelings of what is morally right. If we feel that the Scriptural assertions are immoral or absurd, we might return to the exegetical drawing board and check our math again. But if we conclude that Scripture actually teaches something we feel can’t be right, we must conclude that it is our feelings or conclusions that are in need of correction, not Scripture. Our feeling might need correcting because we are misunderstanding Scripture, or drawing unwarranted conclusions from Scripture, or because we are too much the children of our age and have swallowed lies which set us up to find Scriptural truth problematic. But at the end of the exegetical day, we must give our assent to what Scripture teaches. Otherwise one falls into the condemnation found in an aphorism ascribed to St. Augustine: “If you only believe in the Gospel the parts you like, it is not the Gospel you believe in, but yourself”.

There is however another way of reading Scripture, and that is the way opted for by Universalists. It is to let one’s emotions, feelings, and judgments have the final say and act as the interpretive lens through which Scripture is read. The main arguments given for advancing Universalism are almost never rooted in a minute exegesis of the Scriptural texts, or in a survey of the Fathers or of the consensus of church interpretation throughout the centuries (i.e. in Holy Tradition). They are almost always philosophical.

For example, we find the philosophical argument that, since God created everything, He is ultimately morally responsible for the final outcome of everything His creatures do, including the evil impenitence of the damned when they reject Him. Since God cannot do evil, (so the argument goes) eventually everyone must repent and be saved, for the continued existence of evil in the damned would be God’s fault. Of course the argument that God is morally responsible for everything His creatures do because He created them also includes all the evil actions that His creatures do in this age as well, so that it is difficult to see how this argument evades the charge that it still makes God the author of evil. One notes a glossing over of this conclusion in the haste to assert that everyone will repent in the end. Nonetheless, the argument says that God would be ultimately responsible for the misery of the damned. It is felt to be intolerable that God would make creatures knowing that even one of them would be damned and so, since He did make creatures, no one will be damned.

Closely allied to this argument is the one that says that God made the human will in such a way that it could never finally hold out against God’s love, but must eventually submit to Him. God made man with free will and since no sinful will is really free, eventually all human beings will eventually repent of their sin. This seems to be an attempt to win the debate by settling definitions in advance in favour of one side, a kind of philosophical cooking the books. The idea that a human choice could be once freely and sinfully chosen and then become self-destructive to the point of the permanent erosion of freedom is not so much refuted as ruled out of court in advance by definition.

A third argument made by Universalists rests upon the solidarity of mankind. Its slogan is (along with that of the Marines) “no man left behind”, so that all must be saved. So, either all human beings must be saved, or none can be saved. We will all stick together of necessity by being part of creation, and we will all be saved together or will all go down together. The idea of some will be saved and some will be lost is ruled a moral impossibility at the outset.

It is this last argument that contains the most emotional resonance and pulls at the heart-strings. It is too horrible for us to feel that our dear old Uncle Walt will not be saved. C.S. Lewis alluded to this emotional difficulty in his The Great Divorce as the assertion that “the final loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved”—the idea that the saved in heaven would be tormented by the thought that some were suffering in hell. This notion is countered by the realization that heaven and hell are not parallel states or places. It is not as if the saved are relaxing in the penthouse while the damned are suffering in the basement. It is also countered by the notion that our experience of self-aware suffering here will be the same as that found in the damned—that Uncle Walt, if damned, will bear any resemblance to anything we had known as Uncle Walt here on earth.

My point here is not that these arguments are all fatally flawed (though I think they are). My point is that all of these arguments are based upon philosophy and reason, not upon minute Scriptural exegesis, and they draw their strength from the intensity of our own emotions. It is emotionally intolerable to think that anyone will be finally damned. One therefore casts about to find philosophical arguments to support the assertion that eventually everyone will be saved.

It is the same with the Biblical exegesis of the Universalists, which is driven by the same determined desire to interpret the Scriptures in a way that will allow for Universalism. Concerning this, the words of Dr. David Bentley Hart in his new book That All May Be Saved are perhaps instructive. Regarding the New Testament’s teaching on the final state, he writes that none of “the New Testament’s eschatological language . . . should be received as anything other than an intentionally heterogenous phantasmagory, meant as much to disorient as to instruct…the more closely one looks at the wild mélange of images . . . the more the picture dissolves into evocation, atmosphere, and poetry”. The Book of Revelation in particular is essentially set aside as “a religious and political fable”.

Behind the multi-syllables, it is almost as if Hart is throwing in the exegetical towel and admitting that Scripture is not clear or authoritative on this topic. One sees why Universalists are determined to deny that aionios can ever mean everlasting, but must always mean merely “age-long”, and why they are driven to such exegetical desperation as sharply distinguishing between the phrase “to the ages of the ages” (as indicating eternity) and “to ages of ages” (as indicating merely a long time). Such moves reveal that the engine driving their interpretation is powered by a previous determination to find Universalism in the Bible at all costs.

We see this prior commitment to a desired conclusion in their church history as well. The massive consensus of the Fathers, the teaching of the ecumenical councils, the iconography and hymns of the Church counts for nothing, and is simply set aside. If the Church has always believed that some will be damned, so much the worse for the Church. Thankfully we now have the Universalists, led by such men as Dr. Hart, to straighten us all out. I will here only note that this position makes nonsense of the Orthodox belief that the Holy Spirit guides the Church into all truth. It is incompatible with the received self-understanding of Orthodoxy and Tradition. It is quite compatible, however, with the historical approach of such groups as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who assert that the entire Church erred grievously about basic Biblical truths throughout most of its history, only to get itself straightened out in the twentieth century at the hands of a select few.

At the end of the day, I do sympathize with the Universalists. No one takes delight in the thought that anyone will finally be damned, and the Universalist ad hominem assertion sometimes heard that those denying Universalism must somehow want sinners to the damned is simply untrue and perhaps a bit slanderous. God desires that all men be saved. It is with sorrow that we must confess from our reading of Scripture and Tradition that not all men will be. Universalists are motivated not so much by a minute and objective exegesis of Scripture and a reading of Tradition as by their own emotionally-driven philosophical conclusions. This latter is a precarious basis upon which to challenge and set aside two millennia of Scriptural exegesis.


  1. Simple question, do you believe St Paul believed in and taught that “unrepentant sinners” are damned to eternal hellfire?

    It seems to me the answer is obviously no. I don’t know how to square up the Christian idea of God that most of us profess (particularly Orthodox) with the moral monstrosities that so many seem to conjoin freely to Him. I doubt St Paul would either.

    1. It seems clear that St. Paul believed precisely that unrepentant sinners would be doomed: “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things [i.e. fornication, impurity, and idolatrous covetousness] that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 5:6). Your comment illustrates precisely my point that the universalist position is based not upon exegesis but upon what is acceptable to our emotional sensibilities.

      1. When Paul spoke of “the wrath of God” there, he was almost certainly speaking of the impending tribulation that he seemed to believe was imminent, although it could perhaps instead refer to the Great White Throne Judgement. Considering the fact that Paul never once spoke of “eternal torment” or “hell” (the one time he did use one of the words “translated” as hell in some Bibles, even the KJV rendered it as “grave” in that instance), however, makes it unlikely that he was referring to eternal hellfire there.

        Reading over your blog post, while the so-called “Universalist” arguments you knock down are still valid arguments, they’re not the primary arguments, as I wrote about in my own book on the topic (I also discuss Paul’s supposed exhortation to “flee fornication” in there as well):

        1. It is quite unlikely that by the phrase “the wrath of God” Paul was referring to an imminent social criss or tribulation, since he specifies that it will come to those who are fornicators, impure, and idolatrous. Concerning this wrath, Paul elsewhere teaches that God has not destined the repentant Christians for wrath, but for salvation (1 Thess. 5:9). Regarding the eternal nature of the wrath, one could refer to his teaching in 2 Thess. 1:8-9, which says that at His coming Christ will “inflict vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who disobey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might”. But is such proof-texting really necessary? Paul’s teaching, like that of Christ before Him, is consistent with the culture of inter-testamental Judaism, which regarded the punishment of sinners as eternal. Universalism (and, come to that, annihilationism) wrenches the clear teaching of the NT from its cultural context. No one reading Paul’s words in the first century would have understand anything other than that Paul was teaching the eternal punishment of sinners.

          1. I (obviously) disagree that anyone would have read Paul’s writings and thought he was talking about eternal punishment anymore than one would have thought that after listening to Jesus speak. They were both talking about eonian life and eonian extermination, and I doubt anyone from the time period would have thought anything differently either.

      2. No doubt Paul believes in judgement. We will be saved as by fire, so to speak. But come on, I think you made my point: there is zero reason to believe Paul believed in Hell as the idea developed over time.

        1. Paul clearly believed that the unrighteous would be excluded from God’s presence, as is clear from 2 Thessalonians 1. What is that if not hell?

  2. From The Great Divorce:

    “What some people say on earth is that the final loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved.”

    “Ye see it does not.”

    C.S. Lewis’ fictional Scottish Gentleman who said above, “Ye see it does not.” was based on the actual Scottish Gentleman George MacDonald who wrote instead:

    “And what shall we say of the man Christ Jesus? Who, that loves his brother, would not, upheld by the love of Christ, and with a diminished hope that in the far-off time there might be some help for him, arise from the company of the blessed, and walk down into the dismal regions of despair, to sit with the last, the only unredeemed, the Judas of his race, and be himself more blessed in the pains of hell, than in the glories of heaven?”

    Which you counter by saying the above argument assumes that, “Uncle Walt, if damned, will bear any resemblance to anything we had known as Uncle Walt here on earth.” That’s a case for a curious kind of annihilationism, also found in The Great Divorce, where Lewis refers to a damned soul turning from a grumbler to a grumble. In other words, the damned may be changed from a noumenon to a phenomenon, or from a person to a thing. Are you an advocate of that view?

    I lean toward Universalism, but playing Devil’s Advocate, I think the best argument against Universalism is Judas Iscariot. Judas betrayed Jesus, which would not have been possible if Judas hadn’t been chosen as an apostle. Judas didn’t choose himself. Jesus knew what Judas was going to do, and instead of Jesus turning Himself in, or dissuading Judas or asking him to repent, Jesus told Judas to “do it quickly”. Jesus also said it would have been better if Judas had never been born. God knit Judas in the womb anyway.

    This is scarier than any Stephen King story, seeing as it’s likely that Judas was reprobated in the Calvinist sense of double predestination. You then have to ask yourself, “Am I a Judas too? Has God made me as a mere means in some lesser chain of cause and effect, and will throw me on His burning trash heap of Gehenna when my job is done?”

    It’s possible Judas was the only person in history to know for sure he stood outside the possibility of God’s mercy. Maybe Judas connected the dots. He was chosen to be damned as the ultimate bad example, the Thanatokos. He chose to hang himself, confirming God’s damnation, saying yes to God’s plan. Maybe Judas chose to glorify God’s justice and burn just as lesser men choose to glorify God’s mercy to save their own skins. Every knee will bow either in thanks or in terror.

    1. I do love Lewis’ The Great Divorce, and think it is rather under-rated. Interestingly (as Lewis himself pointed out), McDonald was a Universalist in life. In The Great Divorce, Lewis portrays him as advocating something different.

  3. Thank you Father, the emotionalism of the Universalists echos, IMO, the atheist belief that if there were a God, there would be no pain nor suffering on Earth. Interestingly enough many of the non-believers have accepted the Calvinist idea of a punishing God and concluded that they would rather have no God.

    Strangely, many Universalists miss the point that through the Incarnation and the Crucifixion, God suffers with us and that brings us to repentance. If I were a universalist, that would be my starting point. Why would God continue to suffer? Ah, but they also minimize the essential and necessary reality of repentance.

    There is also the statement by Jesus that hell is prepared for Satan and his minions, not specifically human beings so there does seem to be a clear separation possible. The implication to me is that my sin can erode my humanity to such a point that I have no likeness of God left in me with which He can unite. Only repentance can begin to restore that.

    Given my sinfulness and incomplete repentance I find great hope in I Cor 3:15. I have never seen a discussion of that passage in the universalist discussions I have read, but I do not stay long as they quickly become repetitive and boring.

    Ultimately, as you point to, universalists invert the natural order of things that Jesus expressed in the Gestheminie. They say, my will, not thine be done–at least the combative ones.

  4. “Universalists are motivated not so much by a minute and objective exegesis of Scripture and a reading of Tradition as by their own emotionally-driven philosophical conclusions.”

    This is more armchair psychological speculation than a claim substantiated by the historical evidence. There are several example spanning the Christianity’s history that offer robust exegetical arguments for their universalist inclinations or testimonials regarding that their reluctant embrace of universalism resulted precisely from a scrupulous engagement with biblical texts.

    The reality is that it has been the universalists since the early Alexandrians who have offered exhaustive, persuasive arguments for universal reconciliation whereas those defending the view that came to dominate following the Fifth Ecumenical Council have only fallacious appeals to a debatable reading of scripture and tradition to make their case.

    The reason that so many of Christianity’s greatest minds, both past and present, have been so receptive to universal reconciliation is precisely because it makes the overarching narrative of the Christian faith more coherent than the infernalist or annihilationist alternatives.

    You will undoubtedly maintain your adherence to the infernalist position, but I hope you are able to recognize its ultimate absurdity – an eschatological realm in which the souls of the reprobate are sustained for no other purpose than to suffer ad infinitum. All things are not made new, victory forever eludes God’s salvific mission and death remains unconquered.

    1. Two brief comments by way of reply. First, my assertions were not so much based on arm psychological speculation as on a careful reading of the comments section of my blogs, as I mentioned in my third paragraph. In those comments sections, almost of all the objections to the Church’s historical consensus (often derisively written off as “the infernalist position”) are based on philosophical and emotional arguments, not on exegesis. Secondly, by way of the history of universalism I recommend The Devil’s Redemption: a New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism, by Michael McClymond.

      1. McClymond’s book is valuable only where it is simply representing the historical record. His attempts to formulate original theses are clumsy and unbecoming of any tenured historian. His claims, for instance, that early universalism was rooted in gnostic ideology is baseless, as is his assertion that Jakob Boehme is the father of modern universalism. Additionally, the brief rebuttals McClymond has presented to universalism, found on Youtube, are quite superficial and reveal only that he has either failed to substantively engage with universalist thought, or that he is incapable of understanding what is actually argued within the strongest cases for universal reconciliation. For instance, he claims that the gift of God’s salvific grace is cheapened if it is widespread, which seems to fly in the face of St. Paul’s arguments.

        That modern opponents of universalism must depend on spurious champions like McClymond speaks a great deal about just how weak their case is. Fortunately, many thinkers in Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox circles are well aware of this.

        1. The modern opposition to universalism depends not upon any modern champions, but upon Scripture and the historical consensus of the Church. The Church has long since decided that universalism is heretical and wrong. Those arguing for it are like modern unitarians arguing that the Church was wrong in its final decision about the divinity of Christ. They are rather too late arriving at the party.

  5. Please disregard this if it is heretical or simply stupid.
    The Last Judgement is where we find ourselves in front of the Lord whenever or wherever we have happened to die, with preparation or not
    This Judgement seat would seem to be in Eternity.
    I have the apprehension that Eternity is outside Time,
    Therefore Eternity would not be long duration of time
    So I think that maybe Hell and Heaven are not in the long duration of time but in Eternity,
    after all Eternity in English has two meanings one of which is time going on and on and the other being outside time and space.
    We can’t know what Eternity is like with our brains which are limited to the first meaning,and this causes much confusion in discussion.
    We can hope for a new earth when this one made in time has passed away on the Last Day.

    We have a gift which was given at our creation or before to chose what we will do when presented with problems in daily life and our choices add up to who we really are at the Last Judgement. which would be outside of Time and Space when we are assessed. We also hope for Mercy at this point because no one measures up.

  6. “My point is that all of these arguments are based upon philosophy and reason, not upon minute Scriptural exegesis, and they draw their strength from the intensity of our own emotions. It is emotionally intolerable to think that anyone will be finally damned.”

    Do you personally find it emotionally intolerable? Do you think the gospel as written is terrible news? Or is it good news in the relative sense that it’s less terrible than if all creatures were damned? It seems whether the gospel is good news or not depends on one’s prior baseline expectation.

    1. Yes, I do find it emotionally intolerable, but I choose to believe Christ and His apostles regardless of my emotional response. And I think the Gospel is good news in that all who wish to return to God before they die may do so and be assured of forgiveness and the promise of eternal joy.

      1. “Yes, I do find it emotionally intolerable”

        Since it would be strange to say this intolerable emotional state would abide with eternal joy, would you say that either your emotions and/or “Uncle Walt” will be changed in such a way that things become tolerable? You seem to have said above that “Uncle Walt” won’t really be himself any more. Can you elaborate?

        1. I could elaborate, but it would involve repeating at length what I have already said in previous blogs. Perhaps best thing would be to read Lewis’ The Great Divorce, where he portrays the states of the saved and the damned more eloquently than I could.

          1. NT Wright has an interesting take on hell if you ever get around to it. It’s pure speculation with some definite influence from Lewis…

  7. Hmm, I think that the universalist position makes a mockery of several pillars of the faith.

    A first one is free will. If we are all saved into a life of bliss in the end – whether we want it or not – then there is no free will. That in turn sheds quite a bad light on all the suffering humans have had to endure through time – and it makes God into a sadist, Who watches passively from afar as His creation is pained.

    Which leads to a second one, namely the suffering of the martyrs. Obviously they have suffered for nothing, for what is there to suffer for, if all are saved? Then there is no logical need for martyrdom, and we don’t have to worry about morals either – hey, we are all saved anyhow. The martyrs are then the greatest fools of all.

    1. Your first point depends upon a modern, libertarian notion of free will that wasn’t actually held by many of the Church Fathers, who would have claimed that to be truly free is to desire and do what is Good. After all, is not Jesus free? Is his freedom limited by the fact that he could not rebel against the Father?

      I think your second point betrays your lack of imagination. If the only value you can find in a person dying for a good cause is that it acts as a deterrent against the most hideous of consequences you are slapping in the face every single person in history who has put their lives on the line for a good cause. You also overlook the fact that most universalists, particularly the patristic universalists, believed in hell and its torments; they merely rejected its permanence.

      Here is what I believe is a much stronger appeal of the martyrs. Their suffering shows the love, devotion, meaning and conviction that is available to those who follow Jesus.

        1. In what sense?

          Use your brain. A fundamental truism of Orthodoxy is God is perfectly free because he can do no evil – ie he exists entirely in accord with his nature. The idea that somehow human freedom means that we may choose eternal suffering is utterly illogical view of freedom. I mean it is a staggeringly obvious problem.

  8. Commenters,

    I have said this elsewhere on Fr. Farley’s blogs, but I believe Universalism is propped up by Divine Impassibility, and how it relates to anthropomorphic, well, what is considered to be anthropomorphic language by the espousers of a certain view on Impassibility, and a faulty view of the will which has more in common with Augustine and Calvin than the Orthodox synergism we claim to believe in.

    Divine Impassibility, if taken in an ugly direction that makes God very deistic, leads people to believe that all wrath, hell language to be anthropomorphic. I don’t know how we could believe that what Christ experienced in His humanity was not communicated in any way to His divinity – He really would be two persons in this case – and also, that Christ’s experience as human was not communicated in any way to His Father and Spirit – this makes Christ unique to them in a way that undermines the relationship of the Trinity. In short, it’s very dangerous to me concerning Trinitarian theology, to ascribe anthropomorphism to Christ’s language concerning wrath, and by extension to the OT and NT usage. Divine Impassibility is possible without this unnecessary conclusion.

    Second, Universalism seems to me to be based upon a view of the will where it is not functional enough to be culpable, responsible. This sets up the need, as in Calvinism, for monergism. God must either wear down the will, over-power the will, consider the will helpless and forgive by fiat, bringing in an unchanged heart/will to glory without them having undergone any therapy in this life, or purgatory, etc. But all these are based on a functionality issue assumed without Scripture. The person is reduced to machine. Synergy is impossible because the will is never capable of synergy. God must act against the desire of the machine in love. By either changing it here, or in the age to come. He literally makes the will, to will in His favor, either here or there. Either by purging the will, changing it instantaneously, changing it over time – which sounds more like dialectical behavioral therapy, but never by synergy. And if someone was to claim, no, it is by synergy, then how? If the will does not have the capacity to be useful it does not have the capacity for blame. If the will does not meet God somewhere, definitely not “in the middle”, God’s grace is always primary but the will acts through the grace given man in the creation, then God must, out of necessity, for man, save man against his will. Now, if this is the only way to save man, so be it – but at this point I don’t know why someone would claim to be Orthodox – Catholic, Protestant surely, but not Orthodox.

    If someone paid attention to the language of Scripture, as more than anthropomorphism to “protect” God from lacking philosophical respectability, which the Scripture denounces anyway, the foolishness of God and so on, then we might be instructed that choices matter, choices determine destiny, choices determine character, choices hardwire individuals into situations where repentance is impossible. Esau lost his chance to repent, to get back his inheritance, and by extension and analogy, we have the capacity to do the same with our souls that can be traded for life in this age.

    This is why I find Annihilationism, if it is a heresy, to be a much more Biblically conscious heresy, at least it takes seriously, as does Scripture, that choices matter.

    Theosis is impossible in Universalism because the will never functions at a degree in which it is even possible. Orthodox soteriology is not present in Universalism, but Protestant/Catholic soteriology are running the show it seems to me.


  9. Again,

    I noticed one of the comments insinuating that the Gospel would be bad news if Universalism were not true. I just want to point out that if you, or anyone, equate the Gospel with the eternal salvation of someone, again, this is not Orthodoxy, it is Calvinism. The Gospel is that those living in the shadow of death, the Gentiles, are once again, following Babel, full heirs of the promises with those who have the faith of Abraham, their ignorance being forgiven, their repentance required, Christ having defeated death on their behalf – the behalf of the one family, Satan being robbed of Hades, and now incorporated in love into the New Covenant – they must work, synergize, with fear and trembling, out their salvation.

    It’s only Protestants who teach that the Gospel is equal to going to heaven.

    I don’t relish in hell, or for any need in God to exact vengeance, but if I find in an idea something so contrary to what we believe about the Image of God, which is fully connected to our Christology, which is fully connected to our belief in The Holy Trinity, that a fatal error occurs, I reject it out of hand. Universalism is a Christological heresy.

    1. I highly recommend that you spend time reading up on the various perspectives in the free will/determinism debate. Your comments suggest that you accept a false dichotomy open only to either strong libertarian notions of free will or sovereign determinism. There are various perspectives between these two poles, some of which were central to certain patristic adumbrations of universalism, as found in St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Isaac the Syrian. Both believed in free will but held that free will, in its highest form, does and desires the good, as is represented in Jesus’ exercise of free will. To argue for contra causal free will as the only option available is to deny that Jesus, or God for that matter, can be free.

      In our modern era we are quick to defend the absurd notion that someone of sound mind can freely and eternally will their own detriment. This epitomizes absurdity.

      1. You may be correct, I’m happy to dive into their writings. But the debates on free will/determinism aren’t exactly new. I’ve gone the gamut from Pelagius to Augustine to Arminian to Edwardsian to Calvin to Open Theism to Process Theology to atheistic determinism – I may be ignorant of additional input from a few Fathers, but you see a thread developing.

        “In our modern era we are quick to defend the absurd notion that someone of sound mind can freely and eternally will their own detriment. This epitomizes absurdity.”

        If you rephrase that last sentence to eternally will towards their own detriment – I don’t think it’s absurd at all. In our modern era we are actually incredibly reluctant to believe that the will is anything more than robotic, mechanical, neuro/physically determined. Free will is on the outs.

      2. I meant to add this, sovereign determinism isn’t a part of my thinking in this matter – it’s part of yours. I happily leave that topic alone. The issue is about what it will take to save man, making him Christian by fiat, or is there a becoming necessary – and will this becoming have anything to do with willing? If no, willing is of no importance and we can all be hyper-Calvinists. If yes, that would be a totally different story.

        This will raise the question of the non-evangelized and children and so forth. This is where to my knowledge our Tradition is for the most part silent. And for good reason, dogmatic speculation is bad form. Can God save someone apart from their will? Well, in the case of infants and the ignorant, we don’t know what God can do with them and their will. It is the opinion of some Fathers that infants have nothing but a good will towards God. If this is the case they are preserved in this state.

        Regardless, the will of all will be transformed either by preservation or by extenuating the already present state of the will into ever-deepening degrees. What God may do in the interim for the dead is for Him, but why else would we pray for them? All the “what-if’s”, just not bothered when I know God is love.

    2. ”It’s only Protestants who teach that the Gospel is equal to going to heaven.”

      Isn’t a partial rescue a queer form of salvation? It means that for many, Jesus saves from death for a fate worse than death. If that happened to me, I would ask, “Please put me back under.”

      1. Our destiny, whatever that may be, is going to be driven by our anthropology and our eschatology – both of which are concerned with our Christology since Christ is the End, the telos of what man should be, and He determines our anthropology because He shows the potentiality of man driven by the Spirit, as a god by grace so to speak. I assume you understand my comment, Christ of course shows us more than this. If man’s fall, was a fall from a potentiality, instead of a breach of contract as is believed in Protestant and Catholic theology, then man as Orthodox teach was to grow in the likeness of God having been made in the Image of God. Adam did not fall from perfection. If Adam had fallen from perfection, it would make sense that our salvation consist in righting the wrong of Adam in terms of punishment. It would make sense that our nature having been perfect would need to become perfect again through a monergistic act of grace – wherever you want it – heaven/here/purgatory. But our fall is from potentiality. Our anthropology is Christocentric. He is True Man. Man’s destiny is growth into who Christ is. This is why we can be said to have the mind of Christ, to be His Body, it is the actualization of His eternal purpose – the telos – when we are glorified and we become like Him – seeing Him face to face, transformed from one degree of glory to the next. This all assumes the action of the will, and some, if not many, as Christ has told us, few there be who find the way of life, will properly will, them being incapable through sin and hardening.

        Queer form of salvation??? Only if you need monergism. If your telos is perpetual relaxation in paradise, then yes, queer indeed. If your telos is a god, member of the Divine Council, judge of angels, inheritor of the earth, a Holy One among Holy Ones (saint means Holy One) – then we have a different story, maybe you just haven’t heard it and I can’t blame you for that.

      2. Of course. It’s a mutilation of any moral sensibility and the entirety of the Gospel. Frankly if the Church is what we claim it is, her duty is to condemn infernalism as not just heresy but blasphemy. This half hearted “it may be ok to hope” remains a statement of belief that the Christian deity may be evil. How can that stand?

  10. What happens to those who have never had the opportunity to hear about Jesus? For example people groups in the Americas prior to the first settlers coming from Europe? Did they all go to hell?
    Also, in one of your beginning paragraphs, you mention that “sometimes a certain amount of change will be required in the current application such as in Paul’s words about head-coverings”.
    In 1st Corinthians 11:4-15, scripture is very specific, with clear distinctions, about men and women wearing something on their heads.
    For years I belonged to a Mennonite Church. Women were required to wear something on their heads…at the very least during church services. Many Old Order Mennonites and Amish require their women to wear a prayer cap all of the time. Men, on the other hand, never wear hats in church, but only wear hats to keep their heads warm when doing work in inclement weather outside or in the hot sun. This is all based on that scripture.
    On the other hand, I’ve seen many videos and pictures of Orthodox clergy wearing hats(some look like golden lightbulbs) on their heads while doing their duties in their churches. And, pardon my phrasing, with long hair like a woman(which is a dishonor/disgrace to him…1st Corinthians 11:14.
    What justifies a “certain amount of change” when scripture clearly states this directive about head-coverings and long hair penned by Paul himself?
    I ask these questions because I have begun to have an interest in Orthodoxy.. I mean no disrespect, and anticipate your response so I may share your wisdom with others.

    1. The question of the salvation or otherwise of those who have never heard of Christ is a separate one from the question of universalism, and believing in hell does not entail also believing that those who have never heard of Christ are damned. My own view of the fate of such people can be found in my piece at:
      The issue of head-coverings would require a blog piece in itself. Some of your questions are addressed in my commentary on 1 Corinthians (available through Amazon at: I deal with the issue somewhat in my blog piece responding to someone objecting to head-coverings, at: Hope this helps somewhat. May God bless and direct you in your search for Orthodoxy!

  11. ‘In answer to these statements, we follow the holy elders and Fathers who tell us that “there is a direct relationship between what you believe and how you behave.” We must open ourselves to the wisdom of the God-bearing men of the past – the Holy Fathers who are our key to understanding – whatever we encounter – for in the Holy Fathers we find the “mind of the Church” – the living understanding of God’s revelation.
    They are our link between the ancient texts which contain God’s revelation and today’s reality. Without such a link it is every man for himself – and the result is a myriad of interpretations and sects.
    Let us then try to enter the world of the Holy Fathers and their understanding of the Divinely inspired texts – let us love and respect their writings, which in our confused times are a beacon of clarity which shines most clearly on the inspired texts itself…
    Let us not be quick to think “we know better” than they, and if we think we have some understanding they did not see, let us be humble and hesitant about offering it, knowing the poverty and fallibility of our own minds. Let them open our minds to understand God’s revelation to mankind.’ – Blessed Fr. Seraphim Rose; Genesis, Creation, and Early Man

  12. I just came from the funeral of a local Khouria, she 36, 4 children. It made me wonder if universalists have ever read or listened to the service at all. I suggest a look.

  13. I was reading this collection of opinions again in June 2020.
    Much of what defenders of this opinion that All Will be Saved seem to me to be stringing philosophical concepts together with many fine words and phrases. I hope not just sound and fury which signify nothing!
    My simple minded opinion is that God made Man in his own image and gave him the dignity of choosing to follow Him or going his own way. It is not a final choice so men can return to God’s way as He asks them to all through the Old Testament but it is the choice of the individual human. I say it is simple minded so don’t attack me for its simplicity 🙂

  14. Fr John Romanides of blessed memory wrote :”The basic key is the fact that, according to Orthodox theology, everyone throughout the world will finish their earthly course in the same way, regardless of whether they are Orthodox, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic, atheist, or anything else. Everyone on earth is destined to see the glory of God. At the Second Coming of Christ, with which all human history ends, everyone will see the glory of God. And since all people will see God’s glory, they will all meet the same end. Truly, all will see the glory of God, but not in the same way – for some, the glory of God will be an exceedingly sweet Light that never sets; for others, the same glory of God will be like “a devouring fire” that will consume them. We expect this vision of God’s glory to occur as a real event. This vision of God – of His Glory and His Light – is something that will take place whether we want it to happen or not. But the experience of that Light will be different for both groups.

    The Church does not send anyone to Paradise or to Hell, but it prepares the faithful for the vision of Christ in glory, which everyone will have. God loves the damned as much as the Saints. He wants all to be cured, but not all accept the cure that He offers.” Fr John Romanides
    From Patristic Theology.
    If you don’t accept the cure that God offers , that must be hell . Why is this so difficult to undrstand?

  15. Thank you Fr Lawrence for your book The Unquenchable Fire , it taught me a lot , for example how to go to the root of the text .

  16. Question to Fr Lawrence Farley.
    When I read the comments on this subject I get deeply troubled . Because is that the way the common Orthodox look at the scripture and the tradition of the Church ?
    That you can pick what you want and turn away from what you don’t like!
    St John Chrysostom said “If we live well but will be negligent over right dogmas, we can acquire nothing for our salvation. If we wish to be delivered from Gehenna and receive the Kingdom, we must be adorned both with the one and the other–both with rightness of dogmas and strictness of life.” (Homilies of Genesis 13:4).

    1. I assume the question is rhetorical. If all was well, blog pieces such as this would not be necessary.

      1. I did meant to ask rethorical . But I get your point Father . Let me ask this way : do you know how far the universalist teaching is spread ( I know that Origen’s teaching was condemned and i have heard about David Bentley Hart ), but I have not read discussions like these ( maybe because I’m not on Facebook ) . So I was really surprised to read the type of comments which you mentioned in your blog ( I thought one should realize the absence of logic and lack of trust in the Church’s teaching ). Maybe I was lacking in logic ….

        1. Figures are hard to come by, but universalism is sufficiently popular that a number of books have been published promoting it, so obviously there is a receptive market for it. That is why I wrote my own refutation Unquenchable Fire.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *