Unquenchable Fire

One can often tell how far a heresy has spread and how much it needs the antidote of refutation by the amount of ink it gets in blog columns. I remember one young priest writing in a church magazine a piece summarizing the Church’s traditional teaching on gender and opining that the heresy of theological feminism had become widespread. As if to prove his point, the editor was immediately deluged with indignant letters threatening to withdraw their support of the magazine and writing angry responses protesting that the proffered traditional teaching and its author were misogynist and fit only to be raked over live coals. When the priest requested the opportunity to respond to the criticisms he was refused, for the editor said that if he printed anything further from the author the magazine would face financial ruination. Since the priest wrote the piece upon an explicit request from the editor, the situation had its own share of irony.

My own recent blogging experience offers the same kind of lesson. One can often gauge the strength of a heresy by reading and counting the number of times a traditional statement of the Church’s teaching draws indignant fire. In my own blog, many if not most of my blog posts draw hardly a whisper of response. Thus I wrote a piece entitled, “All Kinds of Everything” about the Benedicite hymn and how everything in the world was a gift from God. I wrote a piece entitled, “That’s an Outrageous Thing to Accept”, about the legitimacy of mission work. I wrote a piece entitled, “A Lethal Legacy” about the importance of church-going in the raising of children. I wrote pieces about the Feast of the Entrance, Palm Sunday, Pascha. None of these pieces drew a single comment.

Compare this with a piece on Deaconesses, which pointed out that the “revived” office now being considered bears faint resemblance to the ancient one. This drew 16 comments. And compare several pieces I wrote on Universalism, the teaching (popular today) that everyone will be saved. The piece “Christian Universalism” denouncing the heresy drew 26 comments. An examination of Dr. Ramelli’s book pushing universalism drew 21. A piece discussing the meaning of the Greek word “aionion” (usually translated “eternal”) drew 34 comments. A piece entitled “The Morality of Gehenna” drew 91 comments. It is clear that in discussing the issue of the eternity of Gehenna I had struck a nerve. Universalism was not long-dead heresy, surviving only among the “Unitarian-Universalist” churches. It was apparently a going concern even among the Orthodox. It could be found promoted among such books as Rob Bell’s Love Wins, such blogs as “Eclectic Orthodoxy”, and such scholarly writings as those of David Bentley Hart.

Some of the comments to my blog pieces were very insightful and thoughtful. (Some of course were simply rude, but one expects this in the blogosphere.) To respond to them even partially meant doing a lot of research, which I dutifully did before drafting my responses. It soon occurred to me however that the topic required much more research and writing than could fit into a blog post or a blog’s comment section. It would mean writing a book.

So, that is what I did. The book is now available from Ancient Faith Publishing and is entitled Unquenchable Fire. It aims at being both popular and thorough, and so contains chapters on Christ’s teaching on the subject of hell in the Synoptic Gospels, views of divine judgment in the time of Christ, the witness of St. John and that of the Acts of the Apostles, the apostolic teaching in the Epistles and in the Apocalypse, an examination of the Fathers’ words on the subject, a look at Origen and his legacy (including a look at St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Gregory the Theologian), an examination of the Fifth Ecumenical Council and its significance, a look at the Church’s cultural understanding of the subject through its hymns and icons, an apologia for the morality of the doctrine, and a chapter examining the teaching sometimes called “Conditionalism”—i.e. the view that the damned will cease to exist after the Last Judgment, a view comprehensively championed by Edward Fudge. The work comes in at 240 pages, and is available for $18.95. And yes, this is a shameless plug.

But the point here is that I did not write the book for the modest royalties it might garner or to alleviate boredom, as if a parish priest has nothing to do but sit around and pound a keyboard. I really do believe that Universalism (or the doctrine of the apokatastasis—everything sounds better in Greek) is heretical, and if taken completely seriously and lived out represents another Gospel. The book was written to provide people like my own flock with an antidote. No doubt people more scholarly than I could do better. But until their works are offered through Ancient Faith Publishing or some other English language publisher, this will have to do for now. Please allow me to commend it for your consideration.

20 comments:

  1. Does it deal with annihilationism? I got into a debate with some annihilationists a little bit ago and I was having trouble refuting their arguments. They were even able to bring up Church Fathers such as St. Athanasius and St. Ireneaus in their defense.

  2. Yes, there is a chapter devoted to it under the name of “Conditionalism” (which seems to be the preferred label, at least among some of its proponents, such as Edward Fudge). The views of Sts. Athanasius and Irenaeus are cited in the chapter on the Fathers. St. Irenaeus in particular discounts a conditionalist view when he writes,“Since there are real men, so must there also be a real establishment that they do not vanish away among non-existent things, but progress among those which have an actual existence. For neither is the substance nor the essence of the creation annihilated, for faithful and true is He who has established it” (Against Heresies, book 5, chapter 36).

  3. Fr, i would love to buy the book, but living in Canada with the dollar difference and shipping it comes to about $50. Is it available through a Canadian distributor? Anyway i have all your bible commentaries and love your articles and podcasts. May God continue to bless your work.

  4. Blessings, Father Lawrence.
    I’ve often wondered about the variation in the number of comments a blog site receives. No comments, or maybe one or two, are disappointing. Neither is it coincidental that a controversial subject will result in a flood of responses. I’m glad you made that distinction about “hot” topics. I would rather believe a “no response” post is more indicative of your reader’s desire obtain helpful information and edification without necessarily feeling the need to respond rather than a reflection of its benefit or worth, or lack thereof. But a moderate amount of dialogue would be nice!
    Wanting to understand the “apology” of the Universalist, I have read somewhat on the subject. But in truth, I approached it with my own presupposition, that being there is such a thing as eternal damnation, hell, Gehenna, for those who willfully reject Jesus Christ. But my presupposition comes from what the Church has taught from the beginning. Nothing spectacular here, only truth! So the Universalists have to convince me otherwise. So far they haven’t. I am always amazed how when I notice words getting redefined…”free choice”= we really don’t have any…”eternity”= not really eternity. Or cite only three Church Fathers out of how many?
    Anyway, Father, I will leave the scholarly debate to you and am looking forward to receiving “Unquenchable Fire”, which I just ordered. Thank you. I appreciate all your efforts. God bless.

  5. Thank you for writing this book. I left the Orthodox church when I discovered this thinking was real and that church leadership allow it to continue. It was never brought up during catechesis and I quite accidentally stumbled upon it. After 8 years as an Orthodox Christian I converted to the Catholic church. Say what you will about Catholicism but they have the catechism and even if some may stray, the magisterium will be there to reel them back in. Thanks be to God.

    1. Thank you for your kind words and your thoughtful comments. My sense of the situation regarding our RC friends is that there is not much difference between them and Orthodoxy regarding the objectivity of its teaching and people’s freedom to ignore it. A catechism (with its concise and analytical responses) was a western tool that never was much used in the east, but the Tradition of the Orthodox Church is clear nonetheless, even if it is diffused throughout many sources. Some of our people reject its teaching about hell, much as many RCs reject the teaching of their catechism about (for example) birth control. How many defiant RCs are reeled back in and change their habits regarding birth control simply because the teaching regarding it is clear is another question. Clarity of expression seems not to result in greater obedience.

    2. As a former Roman Catholic, now Orthodox, I can promise you universalism is alive and well in Catholicism. Something less certain, the idea that it is at least possible that all men will be saved, is an even more common view. You can check out “Dare We Hope All Men Be Saved”? by von Balthasar. Published by a conservative Catholic publishing house, written by a well respected Catholic theologian. It’s frankly a good book, although you may or may not agree with it.

  6. Fr Lawrence,

    Thank you for your work on this. I will be sure to buy a copy of your book in the future.

    I would like to consider myself a universalist, but while I very much would like to be convinced of it I have not found myself won over entirely by the universalist arguments. Sadly, I have come to think that I must believe in an eternal hell of some sort, whether it be the traditionalist view or the annihilationist (conditionalist) model. However, I hope that it is acceptable to wish – and even view optimistically as a likelihood – that all may be reconciled to God. I find that I struggle with the idea of an eternal punishment not just because of the obvious pain of such a thing, but because I doubt that anyone can have true full agency. We will always be slaves to some sinful desire, achieving full freedom only in union with God – which of course happens only very rarely, if at all, while we are in our mortal bodies. I have also read that some Church Fathers have proposed that it may be possible for at least certain sins to be forgiven posthumously, and I hope that they are correct.

    One other note: as a Protestant exploring Orthodoxy, I have realized that eternal hell makes far more sense under the Orthodox view than under the Western one. The Orthodox view pivots the discussion of hell into how we reject God’s grace and thus consign *ourselves* to hell (a view not too dissimilar to that of CS Lewis and John Wesley). The typical Western view makes the issue out to be more judicial, and it’s hard to see such a thing as fair. I think that this view has probably contributed significantly to the rise of universalism – hell is an easier thing to understand with Orthodox insights.

    God bless,
    Matthew

    1. Thank you for your comments (and your purchase of the book!). You are correct about how Orthodoxy avoids the views of a more juridical Protestantism. Irenaeus talks about the lost damning themselves when he says, “As many as according to their own choice depart from good, He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord. But separation from God is death and separation from light is darkness and separation from God consists in the loss of all the benefits which He has in store. “

    2. Hello Matthew,
      You express yourself well. I can appreciate your thoughts. If I may, I’d like to express mine for your sake, that it may in some way help.
      As Father Lawrence says, Orthodoxy does indeed offer a more “palatable” view of judgment. I too am new to Orthodoxy and have had many of my questions answered, if not clarified. As for the concept of “hell” and our final judgment, I believe what is taught in the Church, that there is indeed a place for the condemned. But exactly how this transpires and what it “looks like”, we are not given to know. How can we know the mind of God? How can we know as He knows? He has blessed us in revealing Himself and we grow in knowledge of Him, but we do not know “all things” as He does. So this is how I look at it, Matthew….I trust Him. I trust that He will judge rightly. He knows our many questions and limited minds. I believe, with trust, faith, and submission to Him, as you seek after Him, that He sees your heart and knows your desires, He will “speak” to you concerning this, or any matter, and give you what you need to know. And you will be at peace with it. Trust in Him is the key.
      Keep on pressing forward, Matthew. God bless.

  7. Well Father, I am late to this thread but thank you for your work – just downloaded the Kindle version with “one click” consumerism…see, not even consumerism is black and white! 😉

    Universalism is certainly topical, and it is evident to me just how central it is to some Orthodox. Witness Fr. Stephen Freeman’s post 3 days after this. In it, he argues for universalism in his own usual powerful and slightly eccentric way – a kind of universalism of the heart and of prayer. His attempt to escape the metaphysics of the Eschaton (and thus make Hell simply a fact of this middle earth) does not withstand scrutiny – anti-metaphysics is still metaphysics 😉 He is right to point to humility of the heart and prayer, but wrong to ignore what the Body has said about universalism since Pentecost and before.

    I look forward to reading your book Father Lawrence.

    1. I always appreciate what Fr. Stephen writes. But it seems to me that at the end of the day we are still left confronting what the Scriptures actually say, and have the choice of either trembling and accepting it, or finding ways to blunt or reject it. I remember recently reading a polite but ultimately dismissive book review of Unquenchable Fire on Amazon. The long review rejected my book in favour of universalism, but never once dealt with my exegesis of the Scriptures, which comprised long sections of the book. Regarding my citations from many of the Fathers, he would only say that no Father was infallible, and especially took aim at St. Augustine (of course) as “the father of all heresies”. We seem incapable oftentimes of dealing with the data which is fundamental to our Faith, and avoid interacting with it by going off on tangents–even tangents as profitable as those offered by Fr. Stephen–which are profitable indeed. In all these interesting arguments and tangents, I would counsel a devotion to the data: before we Orthodox debate a matter, can we first ascertain and agree on what the Scriptures actually say?

      1. Just took a gander at that Amazon review – he (mis)uses “fundamentalist “, always indicative (of what, I will keep silent 😉 )

        As far as ascertaining what the Scriptures says first, I agree…but…but…but…it is ultimately a hermeneutical chicken or egg problem. Universalism as is now found in Orthodoxy (I count three different flavors) has it’s own hermeneutics. For me, the Scriptural question around universalism boils down to St. Paul – do you keep him in context? This is very difficult to do given that he almost never completes a thought, is always talking about several things at once, and of course is dealing with Mystery. His style clearly reveals his mind is faster than his pen. It is no accident that DB Hart opens his universalist “God, Creation, and Evil” with 6 Scriptural quotes – all Pauline…

        1. Of course Hart opens with Scriptural quotes. I imagine Arius did too. But the teaching of the Scriptures on this topic is too plain to be twisted out of shape as our universalist friends attempt to do–especially if the Scriptures are read through the lens of the patristic consensus. One indeed needs to read St. Paul (and everything else) in context, and not insist upon reading him as if he were simply another voice in our present discussion and shared our current squeamish mindset.

        2. Yep, me too…just read the Amazon review. I’m going to steal the reviewer’s line about Father’s book as “another tired explanation” and apply it to the “same ole same ole” of their argument. But like it or not, that’s what we do…state our case and stick to it!
          Now I have a question, Father or Chris, about the word “metaphysics”. When I entered into Orthodoxy that I noticed this term used… a lot! If I didn’t look it up once, I looked it up a hundred times. A hundred and two now, as I went to read it again (Wiki) for a “refresher” after reading Chris’s post! I do understand it meaning “the science of the immaterial” (being, mind, the will, time …); that the term is used broadly and includes a number of sub-catagories. But I still need clarification where Chris says “metaphysics of the Eschaton”. Just a little re-wording without using the term would help. It is not so much that abstractions are challenging, but that the word “metaphysics” used so frequently is fairly new to me. I want to understand when there is reference to that word. I suppose after some time it will begin to gel. Thank you…very much.

  8. Father, bless!
    I appreciate your attack on Universalism. Perhaps you have a view on the opinion that souls can be prayed out of Hell? This is not a widely touted one, but it is current on Mt. Athos as far as I can tell.
    Thanks.
    Faithfully,
    Daniel Monroe

    1. Part of the difficulty is that the word “hell” is used differently in English, sometimes to denote Hades, the land of the dead even now, and sometimes to denote Gehenna, the lake of fire which will be the final abode of the wicked after the Last Day. The Fathers seem clear enough that the time for repentance and for determining one’s final destiny is now in this life, so I am reluctant to affirm that anyone can be restored and moved from Hades to paradise through our prayers. I am open to the idea that through our prayers something can be done to ease the lot of those in Hades awaiting the final judgment. I don’t believe that all of those in Hades will be lost; what determines our salvation or damnation, I believe, is our fundamental orientation, and whether we are fundamentally oriented to the light or to the darkness. This will be determined, for those awaiting in Hades, at the Last Judgment. We are told so little of the final details, it is hard to dogmatize. I think that the New Testament teaching offers us all we need to know to be saved, but not necessarily all we would like to know. We are so curious…and sometimes perhaps to our distraction. Anyway, thank you for your excellent question.

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