Hell (Unfortunately) Yes: Why I Can’t Be a Universalist

Fresco of the Last Judgment (Voroneț Monastery, Romania)
Fresco of the Last Judgment (Voroneț Monastery, Romania)

I would very much like to be a Universalist. In terms of my Christian hope, in terms of my emotional attachments, I would love to believe that in the end, no one would harden their heart against the Love of our Lord Jesus Christ, all would repent and believe, and all would find salvation in the age to come. I believe that this is at least a logical possibility, as there is no person who ever lived who could not repent, to whom God does not extend the offer of salvation.

In recent years, Universalism has become a popular option in the Protestant world. This is true not only of larger mainline denominations in which the idea of any condemnation coming from God has been rejected for going on two centuries, but also increasingly in evangelical circles through popular books like Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Of late, it has begun making inroads into the beliefs of some Orthodox Christians, at least in the United States, albeit in a version carefully tailored to circumvent conciliar condemnation.

It is readily apparent that the sort of naked Universalism popular in the Protestant world, the simple denial of any real judgment or condemnation of anyone in the world in any age by Christ, is incompatible with the teachings of the Orthodox Faith. (Even in this, there is occasional push-back offered by some Orthodox Christians in the form of casting doubt upon the Fifth Ecumenical Council and/or attempting to rehabilitate Origen, but I leave it to another author to address the patristic witness on this issue). Rather, therefore, the particular form of Universalism making its appeal to the Orthodox faithful is a modified one, which does not deny judgment or the existence of a hell outright, but which renders these as purgative, such that everyone is eventually saved after a time of punishment. This seems appealing to many because it seems to preserve God’s Justice in punishing sin while also reflecting great compassion. Many converts to the Orthodox Faith were attracted by the teaching of a God whose Love is more ultimate than His Justice, as opposed to the God of wrath and retribution posited in Western theories of penal substitutionary atonement, and this form of Universalism seems to be the continuation of the move in that direction.

Before proceeding further, it should be noted that the Orthodox Faith does not teach the view of ‘Heaven and Hell’ which is ingrained in popular religion at least in the United States. The idea that when a person dies, their soul goes to heaven or hell for eternity, leaving their body behind is in no wise Christian. To believe in eternal condemnation or exclusion as the teaching of the Apostles and the Fathers is not to deny the universal Resurrection, nor to believe that there is a place called ‘Hell’ of evil which is equally ultimate to the new heavens and the new earth to which we look forward. The question at hand is the nature of the condemnation issued when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead and that condemnation’s duration.

The Testimony of Scripture

When it comes to addressing the witness of Holy Scripture regarding this view, a certain dance begins. Many verses, almost exclusively from the New Testament, are evinced as teaching that salvation comes to every human person. It is then asserted that these verses are ‘clear,’ whereas other passages in the Old and New Testaments that speak of the state of ultimate condemnation are ‘vague’ or ‘shadowy’ or ‘require interpretation’. However, it is important to note that if the excerpted verses are taken out of context and ‘plainly’ as these advocates would suggest, they teach naked Universalism, not any kind of purgatorial punishment; i.e., they teach the view that the proponents claim not to hold, rather than the one which they do hold. These verses, understood correctly in context, point to various realities, such as the extension of salvation to the Gentiles, not only the Jews, or God’s reconciliation of Creation itself to Himself in Christ, etc.

The way forward, however, is not to debate the correct interpretation of each of these verses. In reading and interpreting Holy Scripture, we are compelled by the authority of Jesus Christ, to Whom the Scripture witnesses, to listen for His voice in a positive manner. Anyone can take the Scriptures and through selective quoting and other maneuvering cast enough doubt on this or that issue to make their own view look, at the very least, like an acceptable alternative among several others. There are not, however, a few Christs amongst whom we can choose the one who best suits us. Nor did the Apostles preface any portion of their teaching with “If you prefer…” Therefore the question that must be asked is what, positively, do the Holy Scriptures in their fullness teach regarding the nature of the final condemnation and its duration.

Covenant and Judgment

The controlling narrative for the entire Scriptures regarding God’s interaction with the world is covenant. Covenant implies Kingdom, because the type of covenant discussed in (and which in the case of, for example, Deuteronomy constitutes) Scripture is one issued by a king to his vassals. In such a covenant, the new king introduces himself, lists the deeds he has done on the peoples’ behalf, and then issues to them the laws that they are now to follow. The Ten Commandments are a good, shortened example of this format, while the aforementioned book of Deuteronomy, as well as the better parts of Exodus and Leviticus are taken up by the covenant issued through Moses in its full form. This Old Covenant with Israel from the Torah, also commonly called the Law, was superseded by a New Covenant in Christ, issued after His victory over the powers controlling this world, upon which all authority in heaven and on earth were granted to Him, and He ascended to be enthroned at the right hand of the Father.

Within this structure of covenant, we find in the Old Testament, especially in the Prophets, the idea of the covenant lawsuit, in which one party to the covenant accuses the other of having violated it.  This sort of lawsuit covered things from the everyday (“he stole my goat”) to the severe (cases of murder), but was also used by God to convict His people as a whole, i.e., rhetorically summoning witnesses to the fact that He had kept His end of the covenant while Israel/Judah had not.  Justice in these matters was distributive: one party was found to be in the wrong, the other party was justified, declared to be in the right.  The forensic (legal) imagery here is not that of a criminal trial, in which an individual stands accused of crimes and is found innocent or guilty of those crimes and then sentenced, but rather more akin to a civil trial, in which one party accuses another party of injustice toward them, and the judge mediates between them to establish who is in the right (justified) and who is in the wrong (condemned).

God’s Kingdom, His people, are constituted by these covenants, speaking scripturally, and so in understanding the final fate of those condemned at Christ’s final judgment, there are two questions to be examined, and that is the way in which we see in the Scriptures that God deals with those outside of His covenant, who are not His people, and the way in which He deals with those within the covenant, who are called to be His people, but who are also disobedient, sometimes even disobedient unto death. The Orthodox would-be Universalist position argues that every human person, regardless of their relationship to the New Covenant, is justified after paying a finite price of suffering for their individual sins.

Judgment Outside of the Covenant

First, how does God, in the Scriptures, describe and enact the condemnation of the wicked outside of His covenant? The first picture we have of this is the Flood in the days of Noah. We are told in the genealogies leading up to the story of Noah that God bore with the wickedness of mankind for as long as He could bear it, but then finally had to intervene, and so He judges the earth. In His judgment, He finds Noah and his family, the descendants of Seth, to be righteous. Reading the story, particularly the aftermath of the Flood, we find that this does not mean that Noah, nor his sons, were sinless. Rather, there is a dispute between Noah and his family and the world. The world is at enmity with Noah; it hates him and has oppressed him and his family, and God finds Noah to be the one in the right over against the world. Noah and his family therefore receive life, and the world receives condemnation. We see an anachronistic mention of clean and unclean animals on the ark of Noah just to make clear the point that the ark is here a microcosm of the covenant, through which Noah is saved from the wrath that comes upon the world. In this picture of judgment, we see that there is not a principle of proportionality. Noah isn’t punished lightly for his lesser sins while those in the world are punished more or less severely based on their relative sinfulness. Rather, condemnation means death, over against life, and there is no additional second chance. The second, third, and fiftieth chances were given while God, in His mercy, waited to judge the world.

This picture of Noah and his family in the ark is still the prevailing metaphor for the judgment of Christ on the Last Day in the New Covenant. As, for example, St. Peter says:

Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient, when once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ: who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him. (1 Pet. 3:18–22)

St. Peter makes this statement in the context of encouraging Christians who are suffering persecution for their faith. He has already stated that the reason for the delay in Christ’s return to execute judgment for the oppressed is because of His mercy, to allow as many as possible to repent and find salvation before the judgment comes. Here he also lays out the means of our justification, when God comes to judge between His people and the world as to who is in the right: it is our Baptism, our dying and rising with Christ, that justifies us, that numbers us among His people, the righteous, over against the world.

Christ Himself uses the days of Noah as the image of the judgment to come in Matthew 24:37. In his second epistle, St. Peter returns to the example of Noah, but follows it with a series of references to other Old Testament instances of God’s judgment, lining them up in parallel. This includes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the justification of Lot, who, like Noah, was far from sinless, but was righteous over against the rest of the denizens of those cities. Likewise in the delivery of Israel from Egypt, in which they were justified as oppressed slaves over against the Egyptian oppressor, and likewise also with the Canaanites. In every case, the condemnation issued by God is final, total, and deadly. His mercy takes the form of waiting, in longsuffering fashion, to judge in order to allow for repentance, but once judgment happens, there is no turning back, and there is not some amount or level of suffering prescribed for individual crimes. Condemnation is total for those outside of God’s covenant when the cup of their iniquity has reached its full. This constitutes generations in the life of a nation, but also corresponds to the life on this earth of a person, which is the opportunity which God gives in His Grace for repentance.

From these stories early in the Scriptures, post-Exilic Judea derived its eschatological hope found in the Prophets, that God would return to Zion for judgment and establish His Kingdom on the earth. The Judeans had been, and were being, oppressed by the nations, the Gentiles, the surrounding world, and they longed for the day that their God would judge between those two parties, because they were assured that, as the oppressed, they would be found to be the righteous party. The Kingdom would be centered in a New Jerusalem. The place outside that Kingdom, the place of the condemned, is described with various metaphors, as unburied dead bodies strewn across fields, as torment by a worm that will never die, and other horrors.

This eschatological hope is taken and seen as being fulfilled in Christ in the New Testament, as Jesus conquers and establishes His Kingdom over the entire earth. As prophesied by Psalm 109 (110), there is now an interval, during which we pray for that day when His Kingdom will come and His will will be done on earth, as it is now in heaven. The metaphors of the New Testament regarding the condemned, however, are in no way mitigated. The state of those on the wrong side of His judgment when He returns is described as outer darkness, as weeping and gnashing of teeth, of being shut out of the joys and beauty of God forever. Again, none of these metaphors have any sense of proportionality to particular sins, or of being a temporary state. Indeed, the nature of the judgment itself, that one side is in the right and the other in the wrong, does not admit of such. There is not suffering due to God for each sin. Rather, those who spent this life mourning are blessed, and those who spent it laughing are cursed; those who spent this life poor are blessed, those who spent this life wealthy are cursed; those who spent this life being persecuted and maligned for the sake of Christ will be blessed, and those who spent this life being thought well of and praised will be cursed. Just as there is no sense that the former blessings are ‘for a time’ (quite the opposite), there is no sense that these curses are ‘for a time’.

Judgment Within the Covenant Community

This, then, brings us to the people of God, and how they encounter His judgment. There is a difference in the way in which God deals with His people. As Hebrews says quoting Proverbs, “God disciplines every son whom He loves” (Heb. 12:6, Prov. 3:12) and Israel is His firstborn (Exodus 4:22-23). This means that, unlike the world, God does not merely patiently wait until Israel’s evil reaches the point of judgment where they must be cut off completely. Rather, He steps in immediately to discipline them, both through external means (such as invasion and oppression in the book of Judges) and corrective ones (sending the Prophets to call the people back to the Torah). All of these measures were aimed to bring about the repentance of the people, which would in turn have brought them life rather than death. We see here within the covenant punishment used as discipline for correction.

However, contrary to what especially the Southern Kingdom of Judah thought, being God’s people and the recipients of the covenant, of corrective discipline, and of the Prophets (and thereby the Scriptures) did not mean that they were exempt from judgment. This was, of course, powerfully demonstrated in 586 BC when Judah was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar II (and later again by Titus in 70 AD and Hadrian in 135 AD). And so, incorporated into that post-Exilic eschatological hope of vindication against the nations was also for Judea an awareness that they themselves would be judged, and be judged first of all. Though it had been intended to be remedial, the chastisement of God, His prophets, His Torah, and His call to repentance had, in the end, only left His people under condemnation, and now completely without excuse.

The Law never prescribes torture as a penalty for sin. There is not a certain amount of suffering prescribed for a particular sin, after which a debt to God, or society, or whomever has been paid. Rather sins fall into two categories under the Torah. There are those sins for which simple repentance is required in the form of restitution, re-balancing the scales as it were so that the party judged to be in the wrong remedies his offense against the one who is in the right. There are then those sins which are unto death, the penalty for which is for the sinner to be cut off from among the people. This phrase, being cut off from the people, being put outside the covenant, outside the camp, is used synonymously with death, and should be recognizable as the same sort of image used for those outside the covenant and under condemnation discussed previously. Within the Torah, the recourse of this person was also repentance, but in the form of sacrifice, with livestock of significant value being offered as a ransom for the sinner’s life.

The Law, of course, is not done away with in the New Covenant, but fulfilled and thereby superseded. Christ came, as He said, to give His Life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28, Mark 10:45). The Christian is justified in dying and rising with Christ in Baptism. Repentance continues throughout the Christian life through the mysteries of Confession and participation in Christ’s sacrifice through the Eucharist. The New Covenant is in Christ’s Body and Blood, therefore to be one of God’s people is to be ‘in Christ’, as St. Paul speaks constantly. And there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1). This means that if we are in Christ, then we are already, by virtue of that fact, justified, on the side of right, when the time of judgment happens.

However, the Scriptures are clear that it is still possible, within the New Covenant, to cut oneself off from God’s people through sinfulness and lack of repentance. As Hebrews teaches:

For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. And again, “The LORD will judge His people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But recall the former days in which, after you were illuminated, you endured a great struggle with sufferings: partly while you were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations, and partly while you became companions of those who were so treated; for you had compassion on me in my chains, and joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven. Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise: “For yet a little while, and He who is coming will come and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith; but if anyone draws back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul. (Heb. 10:25–39)

If we reject the Grace of God that comes through Jesus Christ in the New Covenant, there is no other provision for our justification, and we fall under the condemnation that comes upon the world. Christ’s return for judgment is the hope of those who have faced trials and mockery for His sake, because that judgment will be their vindication against those who have persecuted them. To shrink back from trials and separate ourselves from Christ numbers us with those destined for condemnation.

Likewise in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, the final judgment is seen as the separation of two groups, those who have suffered and those who have prospered and thereby wronged the former. Those who have suffered in this life are justified, while those who have prospered are condemned, and this despite the fact that the condemned call out to Christ as Lord (see also Matt. 7:21-23). The analogies here used are just as dire as those used for those condemned outside the covenant, that Christ never knew them, that they are forgotten by God, their names blotted out of the Book of Life. After the Last Judgment, one is either sharing in the Glory of God, living with Christ forevermore, or one is shut out, and under condemnation, in darkness. Just as His Kingdom shall have no end, there is no teaching or reasonable implication that those under condemnation will someday also inherit the Kingdom after they’ve endured some amount of pain and torment that God deems appropriate based on their individual sins.

What, Then, is Hell?

As mentioned previously, when describing the condemnation that lies outside of Jesus Christ after the Judgment, we have only horrifying metaphors, just as we have only beautiful metaphors for the state of those who become partakers of the Divine Nature in the world to come. In understanding what “Hell” is in the teaching of the Scriptures, I think that one metaphor that the Lord uses is particularly helpful—referring to it as Gehenna. “Hell”, of course, is a Germanic word and concept and therefore very much post Biblical. The Fathers, by and large, picked up on the word Gehenna, as distinct from Hades, to refer to that state of final condemnation. Gehenna is a reference to the Valley of Hinnom, where in Christ’s time unclean garbage was disposed of, and the bodies of convicted criminals were burnt. This was because that valley was seen as tainted and unclean, as it was the place of the greatest wickedness in Israel’s history, the evil which brought about the destruction of 586 BC. It was there that the people of Judah had offered their infant children as sacrifices to Molech by fire, offering the precious children God had entrusted to them to demonic powers.

We as Orthodox Christians see the state of the Blessed as becoming fully human by being united to God in the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, Christ’s reference to final condemnation not as a place of suffering and torture, but comparing it to the place and time where His people most abandoned their humanity, most abandoned God, and sank to their most inhuman, is eminently appropriate. The state of final condemnation is a diminution of the human person that can better be described as death than life, because being cut off from God, these people would be cut off from Life itself, from goodness, and from light.

As previously stated, I would dearly love to be a Universalist—of any kind. I would love to believe that, in the end, no human person would suffer that final condemnation. I know from the Scriptures that God Himself desires that no one perish, but that they turn and live. But, simply put, the Apostolic Teaching, which we find in Holy Scripture, is not that all are justified in Christ automatically. Nor, unfortunately, do the Scriptures teach that those who are condemned rather than justified suffer torment for a time and then are justified themselves. This latter view, in fact, is more problematic than the first, in that it requires importing all manner of categories foreign to the Scriptures.

We as Orthodox Christians are called to obedience, not only in the moral sphere but in that of faith as well. We do not choose what we would like to believe, then attempt to rationalize it with the Scriptures, the Councils, and the Fathers arguing that it is a ‘permissible option’. Rather, we are called to, in humility, seek the teaching of those authorities, and then accept and believe that teaching, whatever it is, whether it is pleasing to us or not. In this case, the teaching of Holy Scripture is clear. When Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, that judgment will be to vindicate those who are in Him, who have therefore suffered in this world, and bestow upon them everlasting blessedness, while those who have remained in this world and followed its leaders will, with those demonic powers, face everlasting condemnation. And many of those who are first shall be last, and many of those who are last, first.


  1. Hmmm…if the teaching of Holy Scripture in this particular instance is clear, then why are there so many sources arguing in the contrary?

    1. I don’t think there is a single teaching in Scripture, no matter how clear, that hasn’t been manipulated, distorted, or outright denied at some point in history. Sometimes out of wicked motives, sometimes out of misguided good intentions. The fact that people find some teachings of Scripture unpleasant, as I, and I think most people of good will, find this one to be, and therefore some are wont to minimize or deny it, doesn’t make it less clear.

      Muddying the waters only makes them appear deep.

    2. The question we should ask isn’t whether a verse is clear, but whether it is a reliable and accurate translation and conveyance of the idea. It is possible that one verse could be translated into multiple languages take on a slightly different meaning in each respective language, and still be clear to the person reading it in their native language. Whether or not universalism is true, we take for granted the accuracy of our linguistic and ideological perspectives. We inherit a few hundred years worth of exegetical tradition and assume it is the only game in town.

      Finally, there have been both saints and blesseds in the church pre and post 5th ecumenical council who held to a universalism of some sort, or at least a universalist hope. This by no means indicates there perspective is the right one, but it does disprove the idea that universalism is a novelty in Orthodoxy.

    1. Father, to save you the time of working through the paper Fr. Andrew linked (though that may be worthwhile in and of itself), in quick summary, the Ante-Nicene Fathers spoke of the Biblical covenants a great deal. I would argue that this is because they, like the Apostles themselves, were still in dialogue with the Jewish tradition to a large degree, and so they continued the Biblical language. By the time you get to the Fourth and Fifth centuries, the Fathers of that day are primarily interacting with learned pagans, and so as St. Paul did in Colossians, they reframe their vocabulary to communicate the same Apostolic testimony, but in the language of their audience and time.

      My project here was to discuss the Biblical witness on its own terms, but I do not believe that conceptually is out of line with the mind of the Fathers. If so, by all means correct me.

      1. I don’t doubt that a good search engine turns up uses of covenant. What is missing, however, is the “Apostolic Matrix” (or some such way of translating it), as described in Irenaeus. That is, “How do the Fathers tell the story of salvation?” In general, they do not tell the story with the metaphor of covenant – it is not the structure that we find. It’s not that they never mention it, but it’s more for the purpose of engaging in debate (with the Jews).

        But, for example, when you look to the Liturgies, and other material (Baptism), you do not see the story couched in terms of covenant.

        Instead, you see other things. In particular, the imagery of prison, bondage, death, corruption, with salvation as smashing, setting free, restoring to life, etc. But not covenant language.

        I problem with your article is that you have chosen a controlling metaphor (Covenant) and used it to construct a systematic theory of salvation. That theory, I think, just doesn’t “rhyme” with the received sound of the Liturgical witness.

        It’s certainly possible to argue for hell, even an eternal hell, within those metaphors, but when an Orthodox writer goes outside of the common “grammar” of the Church to make a point, I feel that something is being lost.

        You too quickly dismiss the thoughts of Orthodox universalists. And you dismiss them with a casual effort. The metaphors and images that dominate all of the Pascha liturgical tradition tends to have a universalist flavor. You can argue that hell is still eternal based on Scripture and the 5th Council, but you cannot deny that the flavor is still there and it runs through tons of patristic material (cf. Ilaria Romelli’s work).

        You majored in the Noah story, and then specifically ignored the 1 Peter material, that sounds a deafening Paschal theme in which Christ specifically frees those destroyed in the flood.

        I am not hear declaring universalism to be correct, but it is certainly worthy of some respect. The men that I know involved in this discussion are not liberals, nor do they turn from tough decisions. Some have probably done harder things for God than most of us. There is certainly a level of erudition and scholarship involved there.

        This particular presentation against universalism seems weak to me.

        1. You have asserted that “the entire controlling narrative of Scripture is covenant.” But it’s certainly not the entire controlling narrative in any of the Fathers, much less the liturgical life of the Church. “Controlling narrative” is the right question, but you’re offering the wrong answer.

          I’m not surprised that you had to find a Reform source to suggest passages from the Fathers on Covenant. They read the Fathers as poorly as they read the Scriptures – and they do it because they are not being governed by the controlling narrative of the received liturgical life of the Church. Orthodoxy should “sound” like Orthodoxy when it is stated correctly.

          1. Did you read the text? It’s really little other than a book report.

            Anyway, if the “Orthodoxy” one “hears” does not include the New Covenant, that’s not Orthodoxy. It’s not even Christian.

          2. The Zizioulas quotes are being understood in a backwards manner. “The Kingdom of God” (an Eschatological reality) is what interprets Covenant. It’s a new meaning. The Kingdom reads the Covenant and not the other way around. If you start with the Covenant and read forward you’ll misunderstand the Kingdom. Eschatology always comes first. This is fundamental in Zizioulas.

            I do not mean to set the concept of Covenant aside. It is obviously in the Canon – but its imagery simply doesn’t carry forward. Kingdom supercedes Covenant (to say the least). And isolated occasions of “ark of the covenant” as a title for the Theotokos is not at all the same thing as Covenant being a theme in the liturgical life of the Church.

            I think one of the reasons that Covenant is such a strong word among the Reformed is that they take OT imagery and force the NT to fit it. They make an OT gospel out of the New. But the Fathers do just the opposite. They re-read the OT in terms of the New. The eschaton is the controlling metaphor of everything after the Resurrection. The Reformed guys don’t own Covenant, but they used it to try and hijack Christianity.

          3. “I do not mean to set the concept of Covenant aside. It is obviously in the Canon – but its imagery simply doesn’t carry forward.”

            I’m sorry, but I think this is wrong. It’s true that the New Covenant is not the sane as the Old, but it’s still a covenant. If the Lord had wanted to “supercede” the covenant with the Kingdom, He would have said so. But instead He continues to act and speak in terms of covenant, which is why the whole collection of apostolic writings is called the New Covenant.

            Your error here is in opposing the two. The covenant is the relationship that gets established between the King and His people when His Kingdom is inaugurated. It’s nonsense to say that Kingdom “supercedes” covenant. That would be like saying that, because we have a country, we don’t have laws or responsibilities to one another.

            Father, you’ve made lots of assertions of disagreement, but you’re not actually giving evidence for those assertions, and when evidence is given here, you basically just wave it off.

            I’m willing to be convinced, but you’ve not presented anything actually making your case. We get that you disagree, but that doesn’t really take us anywhere.

        2. I’m not really sure how to respond to a comment that says that my piece ‘feels’ wrong, ‘seems’ weak, and doesn’t ‘rhyme’ with Liturgics.

          What I will say is that this entire piece is a (thinly) veiled exposition of Romans 1-3. I think if you call to mind last Sunday’s epistle reading you’ll immediately see the resonances. Covenant, whatever role it may play in later Fathers (and we could debate that, I think its far more important in, for example, St. Irenaeus than it seems you do), is the constant theme of St. Paul in his epistles. If me aping the language of St. Paul doesn’t sound Apostolic, then either the ear needs tuning or I’m doing a poor job in aping him. The latter, of course, is always a distinct possibility.

          As I said in the piece, I’m leaving it to another author to deal with Patristic material as such (including Romelli’s work which borders on disingenuous in its quoting style).

          The one Biblical issue you raise, concerning I Peter 3:19, somewhat puzzles me, Father, in that you seem to be taking me to task for not hewing close enough to the Fathers, while none of the Fathers share your interpretation that this verse is referring “specifically [to] those destroyed in the flood.” The Fathers interpret this as referring to the spirits of all those who died before the coming of Christ, up to and including not only St. John the Forerunner, but even, in the case of Ammonius of Alexandria, Judas himself.

          If you take this passage in the larger context, it is actually yet another example of justification as vindication as I talk about it in this piece. In 3:13-17, immediately preceding, St. Peter encourages his readers to continue to do good, even in the face of being persecuted, and suffering for it. In v. 18, he points out that they should do this following the example of Christ who, though He was perfectly just, suffered for we who are unjust.

          But more than just sharing in Christ’s sufferings, St. Peter continues that when He died, His Spirit was able to join the spirits of the dead, to whom He proclaimed the Gospel of His victory, thereby vindicating and setting free the righteous from ages past, who, though they had not sinned in the fashion of Adam, were all claimed by death (Romans 5:14). Those righteous dead then came to share in Christ’s own vindication (see St. Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, esp. v. 36), namely His Resurrection from the dead. See also in this context Hebrews 11:39-40 and note how in Matthew 27:52-53 the saints of old rise at the crucifixion, but only come forth from the tombs after the Resurrection. Christ’s vindication in the Resurrection and the vindication of the righteous from death is here compared to the vindication of Noah, the preacher of righteousness, and his family in and through the flood. After the Resurrection, Christ’s vindication is completed as He ascends and is seated at the right hand of God, ruling over all Creation (I Pet. 3:22).

          Immediately in chapter 4, St. Peter applies this to the lives of his readers in a way perfectly consistent with this interpretation, that they ought to refrain from all evil, thereby alienating themselves from all evildoers. Thus when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, they will be vindicated by Christ just as the righteous dead were of times past, while those evildoers will face their condemnation. Of particular importance here are 4:4-5, which explicitly compares the wicked who today persecute the Church to those who perished in the flood of Noah.

          The main reason I didn’t run through that passage from I Peter the way I ran through the other is that its completely consonant with what I was saying the piece, and so would have been redundant in what was already piece greatly lacking in pith. But St. Peter 3:19, at least as the Fathers read it, is in complete agreement with what I say here in the piece.

        3. Even if you want to limit the patristic witness to liturgical services, “This is My Blood of the New Covenant” isn’t exactly a marginal text. Indeed, it is at the very heart of the sacrament of sacraments.

          In fact, covenant kingdom is all over the liturgy. Like the service of baptism, it begins with the declaration “Blessed is the Kingdom.” And we ask again and again that God would remember us in His Kingdom. And right before we receive the Eucharist, we again ask that the Lord would remember us in His Kingdom.

          And the Lord’s Prayer — also no marginally Googled up reference — asks “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is precisely the extension of the covenant Kingdom of God from the lips of the Lord Himself.

          In baptism, what are the prayers of exorcism over the candidate and then the baptismal waters, if they are not a further battle to establish the lordship of Christ over everything? There is a lot of language in baptism about doing battle with demons. This is precisely for the purpose of extending the covenant to include this person, of justifying him into that covenant by means of baptism. And as soon as the chrism has been applied, the baptizing priest declares to the newly-baptized (among other things) “Thou art justified!” This is exactly an invocation of the language of Paul, especially as in Romans 1 and elsewhere. And let’s not forget that baptism is the Christian analog to circumcision, whose purpose was to bring one into the covenant people.

          The main problem with this response to Fr. Stephen De Young’s article is not that it’s not correct about the presence of resurrection language, etc., but that it seeks to put the very covenantal language of Scripture (where covenant is mentioned by name almost 300 times and topically a lot more times than that) outside the “grammar” of the Church. One’s particular impressions of experiences in Orthodoxy are not enough to establish a “grammar.” The everlasting covenant established with the coming of the Kingdom is everywhere in the Orthodox tradition, especially in the Scripture that is indeed the “Apostolic Matrix.” The Lord Jesus Himself is directly prophesied as the “Messenger of the Covenant” in Malachi 3:1, and in Is. 42:6, He is given precisely for the sake of establishing a covenant. One could point to a lot more, of course. The idea that the establishment of the Kingdom of the New Covenant is outside the “grammar” of Orthodoxy is a significant misreading of both the Scriptures and the rest of the witness of Orthodox tradition. Indeed, the second part of the Scripture itself is “The New Covenant” (testament being another word for the same thing).

          The other problem with this response is that it essentially says that Fr. Stephen doesn’t know what he’s talking about without actually engaging with anything that he says (both ad hominem and non sequitur) — it’s just sort of hand-waving about it not sounding Orthodox to the critic and reassurance that those universalists are great guys who have really done their homework. Well, if I may say so, I actually have known Fr. Stephen for years, and I know almost no one else in the Orthodox priesthood who has done as much Biblical homework as he has. There are some, but they are very few.

          Orthodoxy should not be narrowed down into a sort of sacramentalized simulacrum of Protestant individualist soteriology. Ecclesiology is all about covenant. The coming of the King of Kings who destroys His enemies and establishes a new and everlasting covenant is exactly the story of the Scriptures, the good news of the Gospel. Let’s not reduce Orthodoxy to soteriological polemics against Evangelicals.

          1. I did not say you find no references to Covenant. But I do not see it used as a “controlling narrative” as Fr. Stephen suggests. Instead, I would suggest some of the more dramatic imagery of Pascha as the “controlling narrative.” Covenant simply does not serve as the dominant image in the NT (it’s certain not in John). I don’t think it is there in Romans 1-3. Ecclesiology is all about union (koinonia) not Covenant. Covenant could be read in terms of koinonia, but koinonia is the largely, controlling term (as images go and as it is used in the NT and the liturgies). I think that we indeed have to look to the liturgical expression of the Church in our reading of Scripture and the Fathers. That’s not a narrowing.

            For example, if Covenant is the “controlling” narrative of Scripture, why is its language absent from the stories told in the anaphora of the Divine Liturgy. Of course it is present in the words of institution – but their very presence there has to be read in the light of what has been said before, rather than using them as a doorway for a sudden importation of some Covenant Theology.

            When I say that something isn’t part of the “grammar” of the faith, I mean that the inner logic of the image controls how we speak. And I simply do not hear this as a common sound in the writings of the Fathers or in our liturgical life.

            It’s one thing to use Covenant imagery in an argument or illustration, but to make the claim that it is the “controlling narrative” and then use it to dismiss things that are clearly present within the Fathers is incorrect.

            I understand that someone else is treating Ramelli (good luck). But why, we have to ask, do so many early fathers have a sort of penchant for universalism? I think its because there is something inherent about it in the “controlling” narratives of the Orthodox faith. I respect the authority of the Councils and do not teach otherwise, but I have to be honest and say that I understand how someone else sees universalism there. If you take a passage such as Ephesians 1:7- 10

            In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself,
            that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth– in Him. (Eph 1:7-10 NKJ)

            …it’s hard not to see the universal thrust of the statement. It’s echoed in Colossians 1:20 (reconciling all things). I understand that we balance these statements with the statements on hell in the gospels, etc., but it is the many such instances and images that are clearly important in Patristic treatments and are very “Paschal” in their sound.

            Defend the faith, but hear what else is there as well. Not all Fathers who held to a universalist position have been condemned. If we are to profess our Orthodox faith, we have to respect them and hear them as well.

            I thought your treatment of the topic simply left no room for anything else and ignored a great deal of Scripture that has a universalist sound. That is to say, it was too simplistic and inaccurate a treatment of the topic. Forgive me.

          2. For example, if Covenant is the “controlling” narrative of Scripture, why is its language absent from the stories told in the anaphora of the Divine Liturgy. Of course it is present in the words of institution – but their very presence there has to be read in the light of what has been said before, rather than using them as a doorway for a sudden importation of some Covenant Theology.

            Christ’s words aren’t a “sudden importation” of anything. They’re the summary of everything that has been being said. When you say that Christ’s words have to be read in light of everything that went before, it seems to me that you’re actually saying, “I just don’t see how this covenant stuff fits here. Let’s ignore it.”

            I’ve read the same anaphoras, and you’re missing out on a lot if you don’t think that covenant is everywhere in them. Chrysostom’s, for instance, begins with God bringing everything into existence, then when we fall away, He brings us up into heaven and endows us with the Kingdom that is to come. (No universalism here yet. Lots about being brought into a new kingdom.) It continues with thanks being given for what has been bestowed by God, including especially the ministry of the Eucharist — which is the realization of that covenant.

            It continues further to make reference to Christ’s fulfillment of the “all the dispensation” (οἰκονομίαν πληρώσας), another clear reference to the sense of the covenant — the “economy” (“dispensation”) of God’s actions is precisely His work in the covenant. And it is that “dispensation” which leads immediately to the Words of Institution, which are not some outlying patch on this text which is otherwise about anything about the covenant kingdom—no, these words of institution are the very height of what has come before them.

            And then right after the Words of Institution, we call to remembrance the “saving commandment” which we have to obey, along with all the acts of God in His covenant—the cross, the grave, etc.—in short, the full accounting of Christ’s coming to establish His Kingdom. And what follows is a remembering of all those who are being brought into that Kingdom.

            Basil’s anaphora elaborates these things even further, making even more references to mankind needing to follow the commandments of God if we are to enjoy the “paradise of plenty,” and disobedience means banishment. And so on. This is all what it means to live as part of a covenant people.

            I’m sorry, Father, but I just can’t believe you. This stuff is everywhere. And unless you present some actual evidence to the contrary, I don’t see why I ought to believe you.

          3. Covenant (if you do not include Hebrews) occurs only about 4 times in St. Paul, only once in Romans. It’s simply not a “controlling” narrative. It doesn’t occur at all in the Johannine material. It’s occurrence in the institution narrative does not so much establish a “covenant theology” as it “destroys” the old. The point is the new, not the covenant, per se. The narrative of the Scriptures that is dominant in the Fathers and in the liturgical life of the Church is something more like the drama of Pascha. It tends to re-read the OT and even ignore major themes in it.

            There is a “grammar” of Orthodox theology, an inner logic. It doesn’t always govern it, but it is present. Universalism is not foreign to that grammar, which is why it was so extremely common prior to the 5th century. It’s present in places such as Ephesians 1 and Colossians 1. I accept the authority of the Councils and teach accordingly, but I’m free to acknowledge the place that universalism has held within Orthodoxy, and to note that it still holds a place in the teaching of a number of saints, including some only recently canonized.

            “Controlling narrative” is a similar idea to “grammar.” If you assert that something is a controlling narrative, then it has to have a large presence. The absence of covenant in John is striking. He does not need to make reference to the concept in order to proclaim the gospel. If it’s not actually necessary, then how can it be a controlling narrative?

            The simple presence of the word in the institution narrative, despite how important those words are, does not raise the concept to the place of controlling narrative or grammar, when it stands like an isolate in the midst of a story formed by something else. Again, as I noted, the point is the “new” not the whole theory of “covenant.”

          4. Forgive what might seem ad hominem. Not intended. But what you are doing in the analysis of the Baptism service, for example, is not listening to what you’re reading, and then reading the narrative of covenant into it. The word never occurs in the Baptism service as far as I can recall. The battling with demons is not a covenantal idea – it really belongs to quite a different metaphor (cf. Christus Victor).

            There are reasons why Reformed theology doesn’t sound like Orthodox theology, and the language and dominance of covenant in their thought is a primary reason. Covenant has an inner logic to it that I really do not see in the inner logic of Orthodox accounts of salvation. I think that Covenant can be reinterpreted to fit within the more dominant Orthodox treatments of salvation. Indeed, I think the Reformed people have a wrong take on what Covenant means in the first place. But that’s another story…

          5. “Christus Victor” *is exactly* about the covenant — the conquering King coming to establish His Kingdom.

            Forgive me, but you seem to think that the Reformed folks own the Biblical teaching on the covenant. They didn’t write that part of the Bible.

            Do we need to hedge every time Christ’s Kingdom is mentioned? How exactly do you have Orthodoxy without it?

          6. Every time St. Paul uses the term ‘Law’, what is he referring to if not the Torah, the Covenant with Moses?

            When St. Paul says that Abraham believed and it was ‘reckoned to him as righteousness’, he uses a phrase that is used twice in the Septuagint, once in relation to Abraham and once in relation to Phinehas, and in both cases, it was used to introduce God making a covenant with Abraham and Phinehas respectively.

            The Hebrew word that’s used for covenant in the Old Testament, roughly Berith, is actually a technical terms referring to a type of suzerain/vassal treaty borrowed from the ancient Hittites. What a ‘Covenant’ in this case is is a proclamation issued by a conquering king to his new vassals that tells them who the king is, what he has done, and then outlines what he expects from said vassals.

            So for his original hearers, every single time Christ talks about establishing His Kingdom, that would entail to them the issuance of the New Covenant (promised in Isaiah 42 and Jeremiah 31). The ‘Christus Victor’ model (as Lutheran Gustav Aulen named it) is really just the paradigm of Holy Scripture. Christ conquers, Christ is enthroned, and Christ issues His New Covenant. This is why the Great Commission doesn’t stop at ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’, but adds, ‘Baptizing them’ into the new covenant ‘and teaching them all that I have commanded you’. The New Covenant, just like the old, has commandments from the King. These things are all of a piece.

            As far as the Reformers go, the old time I have brought up the Reformed in this comment section was in the following place:

            “To get very specific in terms of why I mentioned [Covenant as controlling narrative] in this context, when we talk about ‘judgment’ and ‘justification’ and verdicts being rendered and punishment being issued, etc. we are using forensic (i.e. legal) language. We as modern readers have a certain understanding of how legal proceeding and trials work, and so it is very easy to import all of that knowledge from our culture into the Scriptures’ discussion of these matters. In fact, I would argue that much of late medieval Western theology, including a lot of the Reformation’s theology proceeds from precisely this type of error (importing then current concepts of justice and forensics into the Scriptural analogies).

            It is important, therefore, in order to understand what the Holy Scriptures themselves are saying that we understand those forensic metaphors within the context of the covenantal concepts of justice and the like within which the New Testament authors were steeped.”

          7. I do not see theory of Covenant in either Kingdom nor in Christus Victor. Again, I think you are extracting Covenant and using it where it need not be. Covenant, as theory, an agreement of performance on both parties establishing a mutually binding relationship, etc. But Christus Victor simply needs no reference to Covenant to stand as a narrative. I’ve never seen a treatment of Christus Victor (including Gustav Aulen’s magisterial work) that bothered much with Covenant at all.

            I hear in the language of Kingdom far more use, certainly throughout the synoptics, of the imagery of the Jubilee, the smashing of debts. I’m sure you’ll rush back to note that Jubilee is established under the Covenant at Sinai, but I think that the imagery (!) of Covenant isn’t what drives things.

            But here, Covenant is being used to drive the entire narrative of salvation (including who gets included and who gets damned). I don’t hear that at all in the synoptics. The word only occurs in the institution narrative – no where else. The verses from the OT and language of Covenant are not part of the string of cited verses from the OT that you see quoted in the gospels. It just doesn’t seem to be important.

            When you cite it as important, I see you using it as a background idea, an overarching thing, by which you interpret and understand the actual words used (kingdom, etc). But I think that over-reaches and does damage to what’s actually there.

            Again, it is being used in a manner in the OP that would not be able to account for the reason why universalism is actually as common in the patristic witness as it is. That doesn’t mean its right – it’s just common. It’s common, I believe, because it fits with some major controlling narratives that are indeed present in the NT.

            The article is making some black and white stuff out of things that are not black and white. As for ad hominem, the article caricatured and belittled anyone holding a universalist position, at the time that some very faithful Orthodox writers are discussing the very thing. They deserve to be read more carefully and engaged better.

          8. You’re going to have to demonstrate that universalism is common in the Fathers, because the patristics scholars I know tell me the opposite.

            That said, what is the actual character of Christ’s Kingdom? He conquers, makes promises and gives commandments. And if we don’t keep them by doing the Law, we’re condemned and don’t love Him. This isn’t exactly hidden in Scripture.

            This doesn’t require “extracting” covenant. It’s so ubiquitous that one couldn’t extract covenant without shredding the Scripture, the liturgical life and the writings of the Fathers.

          9. Pushing the restart button:

            I do not want to say that the Old destroys the New – poor choice of words. And I’ll grant that I’ve overstated my opposition to Covenant. What I hear in Covenant is the forensic imagery of the late Middle Ages that has become a clear distortion. It certainly fueled my reaction.

            If Covenant is understood in terms of Eschatological Kingdom, in the fullness of all that means, well then, yes. But, for example, at the hands of the Reform folks, it’s just one more legal arrangement with God that excludes the inner union that marks both the salvation we have in Christ, and even some of the character of the Old Covenants.

            But I do not think that my issue with the forensic approach drives a universalism. I’m not pushing universalism. I’m noting that it is common prior to the 5th Council (Ramelli has abundant examples) and asking the legitimate question, “What drives that persistent note in the early Church?” It’s not the only note, but it is persistent. And it has never gone away. I don’t think it comes from a poor reading of Scripture. I think it’s a tension within the story itself. The verses in Ephesians 1 and Colossians 1 are simply universal on their face. They can be tempered by the application of other verses, but they are there. The language of St. John’s homily at Pascha is not very temperate and could easily be heard as having a universalist ring to it. But his homily is fairly typical of early Paschal homilies. The triumph is over “spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places” and not over flesh and blood.

            That is an “undercurrent” in Orthodox language and grammar. Origen is an interesting case, and worth lots of study and debate (as is currently going on). But the problem is not neo-Platonism. If it were, universalism would have disappeared long ago. But it persists because of something within the narrative itself. I’m not trying to argue, but to suggest a line of thought.

            That line of thought is what I hear in the discussions within Orthodox writers about the topic. I do not hear liberalism. I do not hear Protestantism. I hear echoes of St. Isaac, St. Silouan, St. Athanasius (at times), Meletios of Sardis, St John and passages in parts of St. Paul.

            As a priest, I insist that we cannot say, “This is the faith” (that is that universalism is the faith) But I stand with St. Silouan who said about the destruction of heretics, “I do not know about this. My trust is in the Orthodox Church.”

            I know that we must pray for all, including all who are in hell. The mystery of why that is so is known only to God. But you cannot condemn someone who harbors some hope on that basis. Or so I think.

            God give us grace.

          10. Fr Andrew says: “what is the actual character of Christ’s Kingdom? He conquers, makes promises and gives commandments. And if we don’t keep them by doing the Law, we’re condemned and don’t love Him.”

            Please forgive me. I realize your statement is made in a polemical context, but it’s nonetheless pretty boorish. Where in “He commands and makes orders … so do it … or you’re condemned” is the freedom emphasized time and again by, say, St Gregory of Nyssa? Did Christ come just to get us to fall in line? As you know, numerous Fathers teach that slavish obedience from fear (the “or else!” approach) is the nadir of salvific motivations. A more calculating obedience (to win benefits) is higher. But love’s motivation surpasses all. Yet love is predicated on freedom, teaches St Gregory: where there is no freedom, he writes, neither can there be any virtue (including love). Obviously he does not possess a modern, volition-centric notion of freedom. Nonetheless, he and the Fathers meant *something* by distinguishing three motivations for salvation.

            Or again, is “He commands … so do it … or you’re condemned” the “actual character” of Christ’s Kingdom? Is not that Kingdom rather characterized foremost by the fruit of the Spirit? Love, joy, peace, patience, long-suffering and so forth: are not these the results, in the members of the Body of Christ, of union with Christ, of the Kingdom come within, and, well, what it’s all about?

            I guess I press the point b/c in my experience, the whole ethos of Reformed Covenant theology lists inexorably toward the least of the Father’s three motivations, and it’s hard to disentangle that from what you’re trying to argue here.

            The Lordship of Jesus Christ is massively inspiring and revolutionary, and one wants to fall down in worship and follow this Man, this God, to the ends of the earth in part because OUR King rode a *donkey* and humbly accepted torture and death out of love for all … for me! There is, I submit, nothing more awesome or profound or motivating in life than this fact, this action of love, and so to characterize His Kingdom as one of orders first, vs. love first (“For God so loved the world that He sent …”) then forgiveness then obedience motivated by love (cf. the taxis of Christ’s engagement w/ the woman at the well), well, it kinda chafes the spirit …

            Also, if I may make one more observation: the topic of universalism is obviously a live one in US Orthodox circles, and on my reading, I’ve found numerous readily intelligible comments from Fr Stephen Freeman, as he tries to articulate, not *entirely* ineptly, why he holds the questions he does. Yet rather than make any effort to demonstrate any understanding of him, to say, “I can see why you see it that way, at least I think I can, and indeed, this is a difficult issue”–that is, rather than demonstrate any pastoral circumspection–several times you summarily critique him for providing no arguments at all (?) and equally summarily dismiss his attempts at communication. I think your approach would be stronger if you could acknowledge that this is indeed a difficult issue, and God help us all to find the truth.

            I try to keep in mind that Arius was St Athanasius’ Archdeacon, and that he was characterized from early on as being super eager and zealous for Truth. So much so, in fact, that he didn’t in the end arrive at it. Which isn’t to say Truth doesn’t matter, or that we shouldn’t fight for it, or that the Church’s teaching is indiscernible. But it is to say that these are deep waters that require much spiritual maturity and sensitivity (St Athanasius was not only stubborn but also subtle!), and that a bare, tit-for-tat style often reveals more about us than about Truth, much less that ever-patient One Who is Truth.

          11. Please forgive me. I realize your statement is made in a polemical context, but it’s nonetheless pretty boorish. Where in “He commands and makes orders … so do it … or you’re condemned” is the freedom emphasized time and again by, say, St Gregory of Nyssa? Did Christ come just to get us to fall in line? As you know, numerous Fathers teach that slavish obedience from fear (the “or else!” approach) is the nadir of salvific motivations. A more calculating obedience (to win benefits) is higher. But love’s motivation surpasses all.

            I don’t disagree with this, but you’re responding to a point I wasn’t making. Loving God and keeping His commandments are linked numerous times in the Scripture. And as we just read this past Sunday, it is the “doers” of the Law who are justified.

            Of course this has to be done in freedom. Where did I say otherwise?

            I guess I press the point b/c in my experience, the whole ethos of Reformed Covenant theology lists inexorably toward the least of the Father’s three motivations, and it’s hard to disentangle that from what you’re trying to argue here.

            Not hard for me. YMMV, though.

            Also, if I may make one more observation: the topic of universalism is obviously a live one in US Orthodox circles, and on my reading, I’ve found numerous readily intelligible comments from Fr Stephen Freeman, as he tries to articulate, not *entirely* ineptly, why he holds the questions he does. Yet rather than make any effort to demonstrate any understanding of him, to say, “I can see why you see it that way, at least I think I can, and indeed, this is a difficult issue”–that is, rather than demonstrate any pastoral circumspection–several times you summarily critique him for providing no arguments at all (?) and equally summarily dismiss his attempts at communication. I think your approach would be stronger if you could acknowledge that this is indeed a difficult issue, and God help us all to find the truth.

            For whatever it’s worth, I think Fr. Stephen Freeman hasn’t really demonstrated why one ought to adopt his views, not just his views on universalism (i.e., that it’s supposedly common among the Fathers), but his views on rejecting the covenant theme of the New Covenant(!). He’s said what he thinks again and again, but he hasn’t demonstrated his assertions with actual evidence from the Scripture and Fathers. I don’t doubt his sincerity. I just wish he’d show us what he’s using. Going on about a “grammar” of Orthodoxy, a “rhyme”, sounds nice, but if that “grammar” doesn’t have specific rules that one can point to, all we’ve got is that he’s feelin’ it and the rest of us are not.

            Of course I acknowledge that this is a difficult issue—but it’s difficult not because Orthodox Tradition is unclear or up for grabs, but because people want universalism to be true even in the face of the clarity of Tradition and Scripture.

            I try to keep in mind that Arius was St Athanasius’ Archdeacon…

            That’s not true. Arius was actually an archpriest when Athanasius was just a deacon. Athanasius didn’t become a bishop until AD 326, which was after Arius’s condemnation the year before.

            …a bare, tit-for-tat style often reveals more about us than about Truth, much less that ever-patient One Who is Truth.

            The Apostles and Fathers often engaged in such debates and dialogues. St. Katherine of Alexandria famously debated 100 philosophers. What did that reveal about them? Look, if you don’t like Internet conversations, just say so. 🙂

          12. Forgive me, you are right about Arius. I meant Apollinaris.

            As for the rest, of course many Fathers engage in polemics. But I do observe more than just that, including a lot of circumspection and magnanimity.

            As for Fr Stephen’s emails lacking substance or argument: I see your point. But I also still see a good number of arguments there–you can take the claim or leave it–including claims re liturgical themes, specific bible verses, and his overall understanding of points of emphasis in the theology of the Church. Not every argument turns on proof-texting, esp. online. He’s trying to say something, and I think you’re wonking back at him vs. listening. A bit like Germany trying to corral Greece? I don’t know. I was just suggesting that it might be helpful to be a bit less aggressive and a bit more, you know, pastoral. 😉 Love your blog! Keep up the good work!

          13. About Arius: you’re right. I meant Apollinaris.

            Re the rest: You’re right again. Fr SF hasn’t provide so many proof texts. Well, I guess I’d say again that I think he provided a good amount of content, esp. since not everything comes down to prooftexting. Does a reference to Aulen’s Christus Victor require that one also detail its argument step by step? Anyway, I think he’s worth engaging sans summary dismissal, and that it’d be more helpful for us readers.

            I dunno, is tit-for-tat the only mode of internet communication? I felt tit-for-tatted a bit by you just now and didn’t really like it, so I suppose you’re right a third time: about me too. 😉

        4. Yes. I can see that you do not get my point(s). Does the point about Kingdom re-reading Covenant, and thus re-interpreting it in a new manner not make sense? Someone mentioned Zizioulas and he certainly treats Kingdom in that manner. Do you understand how Kingdom becomes the New Metaphor in Christ, if not superceding Covenant, then certain transforming it. I think that the article tended to go the other way, and in that sense seemed more Protestant to me. The OT was controlling the New – the New is being read in terms of the Old – and that is backwards. If that doesn’t make sense, then so be it.

          1. I got your points. I don’t agree with them, though, and I don’t think you’ve given any reason for them other than how you feel about what Fr. Stephen wrote.

            In any event, what’s happened is not a supersession, but rather a fulfillment. (We’re not Marcionists.) Now there is a new and everlasting covenant as a result of the establishment of the Kingdom.

            The only way to interpret what Fr. Stephen is saying as imposing the OT onto the NT is either to reject the OT or to deny the clear language of covenant in the NT. You haven’t given any reasons why we should do either of those things other than basically to suggest that you think talk of covenants is Reformed and not Orthodox.

            Sorry, but I’m not ceding the Lord, St. Paul, the liturgy and the Fathers to the likes of them.

          2. After reading all your comments thoroughly, I believe you are making a false dichotomy between Kingdom and Covenant. These are not opposed. To suggest they are is a kind of Marcionism where the King comes to “destroy the old” (your words) things given by God. This is not at all what the apostles say.

            Christ is the predestined, eternal King that was promised of old. The law revealed the fact and nature of His coming. He does not destroy the law, but fulfill it. He inaugurates a new Covenant in his blood, but this Covenant was already being prophesied by the old law of blood sacrifice. Indeed the Covenant of circumcision foreshadowed the circumcision of our hearts in baptism (Colossians 2:11-12). Likewise, the Covenant after the flood foreshadowed the washing of baptism (1 Peter 3:20-21). This means that the two major Covenants of the OT (Noah and Abraham) are both prophesies of the Covenant of baptism. Christ does not destroy Covenant: he establishes the true Covenant of which all previous Covenants were shadows and foretypes.

            Your refusal to see Covenant in the apostolic writings is precisely what forces your hand toward universalism. But this only comes by rearranging the scriptures from the mosaic of the triumphant, eternal King who subjugates all his enemies into a mosaic of a dog who instead destroys the promises of God. Indeed, if Christ comes to destroy Covenant, then He is opposed to the very (evil OT?) God who made those Covenants.

          3. This is not an attempt to pile on Fr. Stephen, but I wanted to interact a little with the interesting idea that Kingdom supersedes Covenant. My initial reaction is that the problem here is not just that there is a New Covenant, but also that there was an Old Kingdom. I-IV Kingdoms in the Old Testament record its history, logically enough. And the Davidic kingship, from which the whole idea of Messiah-ship and thereby the title Christ comes is precisely from the covenant in II Samuel 7:12-16 that God makes with David.

            I think taking a look at what I imagine is one of Fr. Andrew’s favorite passages might be helpful here. In St. Luke’s Gospel, we are told of two disciples leaving Jerusalem after Christ’s death, despite the report of the women that He had Risen, as apparently they did not believe it. They are on the road to Emmaus. Emmaus only appears one other time in Biblical history, and that’s in I Maccabees 4, where the Battle of Emmaus takes place, which is the decisive victory against the Greek Syrians which allows Judas Maccabeus and his brothers to reclaim and rededicate the Temple. So when St. Luke tells us they’re on the road that leads to Emmaus, he’s tipping his hat to us in the same way that if a modern story began with two men on the road to Gettysburg or two men walking along the beach at Normandy would.

            In Luke 24:21 the other shoe drops. When telling Christ (whom they don’t recognize) why they are sad, it is because Jesus had been a mighty prophet in word and deed, and they thought that ‘He would be the one to restore the Kingdom to Israel’. Kingdom was not some new concept. Kingdom was what the Jews were expecting and hoping for from the Messiah. These two now believe that clearly Jesus wasn’t the Christ because, like so many other potential Messiahs of that historical era, He had been executed by the Romans. The Messiah they were expecting was someone like another Judas Maccabeus, who would overthrow the Romans and re-establish the Old Kingdom and the laws and ordinances of the Old Covenant with Moses. This is why they didn’t recognize Jesus, because He was radically redefining what Kingdom means, and His New Covenant was very different than the Old.

            Christ’s response to their misunderstanding is, to be blunt, to insult them and call them fools in v. 25, because as He goes on to explain, if they really understood the writings of the Old Testament, they would see that they were pointing to a new type of Kingdom and a New Covenant and ultimately, to Jesus as the Christ.

            The story reaches its climax in v. 30-31 where they recognize Christ in the Eucharist. Christ’s Kingdom is not like the Kingdoms of this world. It is not spread or enforced with violence. Its rulers are those who serve. It is a Kingdom established in Heaven, but which is coming to earth not only in the eschaton, but just as Christ’s Resurrection intruded back into history before the general Resurrection, so also the Church intrudes back into history as the current establishment of the Kingdom, in which the sacrifice of the New Covenant takes place (rather than the reinstitution, ala Judas Maccabeus, of the old covenant’s blood of bulls and goats). This is why when we pray the prayer of the proskomedia at the beginning of the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great we thank God for making us the ministers of the New Covenant, who offer the bloodless sacrifice.

            So, Kingdom and Covenant go together, the latter being issued by the King when the former is established. The old Kingdom of Judah, one of the kingdoms of this world, is superseded by the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Old Covenant in the blood of animals is superseded by the New Covenant in the blood of Christ Jesus, our Lord.

  2. So Origen couldn’t understand the plain meaning of scripture? St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Isaac the Syrian just didn’t get it? Kallistos Ware and Andrew Louth just aren’t Orthodox enough?

    1. The differences and disputes between the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools in early Christianity illustrates well that it isn’t enough for one to clearly understand whatever text they are working with.

      A point of clarification, though, there is a big difference between the universalism of St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Isaac of Syria, and the universalist hope of individuals like Met. Kallistos, Met. Hilarion Alfeyev, and Fr. Andrew Louth. The author seems concerned only with the former.

      1. It is often asserted that such a difference exists. However, the actual difference is rarely if ever enumerated.

      2. Of course such problems are not solved by counting names on either side. But for what it’s worth, Fr Georges Florovsky, one of the heaviest-weights of Orthodox theology in the past century, was against the idea of universal salvation. In his essay on atonement he mentions this in passing, and cites Pusey’s _What is of faith as to everlasting punishment?_ as a good compendium of orthodox teaching on the subject.

      1. Isaac, at the end of Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, Fr Louth introduces universal hope as a legitimately Orthodox approach to the question.

    2. Even conceding your point–Origen is one of several names on that list. My question regarding them still stands.

      1. It is important to note, though, that the specific condemnation against Origen’s view of apokatastasis took place outside the 5th e.c. in a smaller meeting with the Emperor Justinian. For this reason, scholars point out that it is erroneous to attribute the condemnation of Origen’s apokatastasis to the 5th e.c. itself.

    3. Did Origen miss the clear teaching of scripture regarding no pre-existence of souls? Yes he did as well as other things. He imported Platonism into his theology, as he did elsewhere. The revolving door view of hell is clearly in the Platonic corpus in the Laws. Origen and Nyssa didn’t get it from scripture or the apostolic deposit, which is why none of the apostolic sees teach it.

      Isaac the Syrian’s views are built off a Nestorian conception of divine impassibility. He takes impassibility to be such that it precludes God from participating in human activities or any alteration whatsoever, pace Cyril. It is because Isaac views it this way that only one thing can be true of God, love and not justice. This is why one can only hold to Isaac’s view with such a conception on pain of denying Ephesus, Chalcedon and 2nd Constanintople. Besides, Isaac was canonized on the basis of reworked texts and the sanctity of life, not doctrinal treatises, unlike Cyril of Alexandria or Athanasius.

  3. Thank you for your blog, Fr Stephen. I too wish I could be a universalist, and I was for many years. Even after coming into Orthodoxy, I attempted to lightly hold that belief: “Well, isn’t there a chance, and shouldn’t we hope that everybody will be saved in the end?”

    But when reading the fathers of the Church, who help us to understand and interpret scripture, there’s just no room for ideas of ultimate reconciliation (UR). Sure, one can say that in one or two instances St Gregory of Nyssa or St Isaac the Syrian seemed to hint at such things, but then we must place those two fathers over and above the many thousands that have come before and after them, especially those who have written scriptural commentary (Theophylact, Chrysostom, etc) who specifically teach that the punishment lasts forever.

    This idea of UR is so popular today because we live in a relativistic society in which it’s extremely taboo to say that another person’s truth is inferior to your own. Now, in light of society’s values, we are subconsciously interpreting scripture and theologizing.

    What finally put the nail in the coffin (pun intended) for me, was the following from the Synodikon of Orthodoxy:
    “To them who accept and transmit the vain Greek teachings that there is a pre-existence of souls and teach that all things were not produced and did not come into existence out of non-being, that there is an end to the torment or a restoration again of creation and of human affairs, meaning by such teachings that the Kingdom of Heaven is entirely perishable and fleeting, whereas the Kingdom of Heaven is eternal and indissoluble as Christ our God Himself taught and delivered to us, and as we have ascertained from the entire Old and New Testaments, that the torment is unending and the Kingdom everlasting, to them who by such teachings both destroy themselves and become agents of eternal condemnation to others, Anathema! Anathema! Anathema!”

    I realized that unless I want to be a Protestant for the rest of my life, I needed to lay down my pride and my wishful thinking and embrace the teachings of the Church. It’s not pleasant, but God is good and far more so than me.

    1. “This idea of UR is so popular today because we live in a relativistic society in which it’s extremely taboo to say that another person’s truth is inferior to your own. Now, in light of society’s values, we are subconsciously interpreting scripture and theologizing.”

      But this is a gross overgeneralization. In fact, I would wager you would have difficulty finding one singe Christian universalist whose belief is rooted in their relativism. The convictions that there are objective truths, and furthermore that Christianity is the true faith, are in no way irreconcilable with universalism.

      1. Isaac, I certainly don’t doubt that Christians who hold to UR have truthful beliefs about Jesus being God and absolutely being the “way, the truth, and the life.” My point -that I didn’t make very well- is that our culture’s values have subconsciously shaped us and the way we interpret the Bible. That is why we are seeing such a rise in popularity of universalism… It’s a Christianity that doesn’t offend, that doesn’t attempt to subvert culture’s values. It’s one that is free to say “You have your ‘truth’ and I have mine, but mine is better and I know you’ll come around eventually.”

        So while it doesn’t seem relativistic on the surface, it has a great tolerance for relativism because ultimately it doesn’t matter, we’re all saved anyway. Just not all of us realize that yet. That is why I fear this universalism: it allows anyone to stay in their ‘truth’ with little or no consequence, and that doesn’t seem to be the message of scripture or the fathers.

  4. It seems to me that your characterization of the Orthodox universalist position is unnecessarily restrictive, that you have painted in terms of “paying a price.” For example, you stated, “The Orthodox would-be Universalist position argues that every human person, regardless of their relationship to the New Covenant, is justified after paying a finite price of suffering for their individual sins.”

    In my limited understanding of the Orthodox universalist position, this is not necessarily the case, or one does not have to cast such a notion in such economic terms. Rather, one might use the language of purification (i.e. “purgative,” a term you also used), or even ontological categories where the purpose of Hell is understood to be a full experience of the non-being of separation from the life of God such that one might then experience life in God.

    Without setting out any position of my own in this dispute, I do wish you would have addressed the Orthodox universalist position a bit more comprehensively and fairly. As it stands now, it borders on a straw man.

    1. The main thrust, or at least the intended main thrust of my argument was that condemnation, however we want to choose to articulate it, is never described in temporal terms, or in terms of a ratio between sin and…something else that compensates for sin. So whether we want to say that so much suffering is proportional to this or that sin, or so much purification, or so much time of purification, or so much experience of non-being, or so much general unpleasantness or so much ‘fill-in-the-blank’ is proportional to this or that sin such that after completing whatever is in the blank the sin is taken care of, I find no Biblical support.

      That fundamentally isn’t the way the Scriptures talk about judgment. They speak of the vindicated, who are justified, and who receive eternal blessings, and the condemned, whose condemnation is always spoken of in parity with those blessing, i.e as also being eternal. Remission of sins comes to us through repentance, and this life in this world is the arena for that repentance. God mercifully delays His judgment to allow for maximal repentance from mankind, but eventually that time comes to end for us, just as it came to an end for the people of Noah’s day, and then there is a reckoning, and we receive reward or condemnation for what we have done in this life.

      1. I’m dubious about your conclusion (as I read it) that judgment does not have a measured aspect to it. 1 Cor 3:9-15 seems to limit judgment, at least for believers, to a certain “loss” equivalent to the wood, hay, and stubble they accrue during this life. Matt 7:2, Mark 4:24, and Luke 6:38 present a synoptic statement that equates the measure of judgment to an equal measure as a person deals upon others. I’m not saying this is absolute, but in any case, the argument can be made.

        Also, I would venture to say that you are presenting the notion of covenant in too stark of terms. There are cases in the Old Testament where the community is apparently condemned and cut off only to be saved through a remnant. For example, the Davidic line was all but ended after the exile, though there were feeble attempts to keep it going. It was then subsequently revived in a different manner in Christ. Paul’s lengthy discussion of this issue in a broader sense in Rom 9-11 would seem to leave open the possibility that those who find themselves either outside the covenant or having rejected it through unbelief will receive mercy, that their unbelief served a greater purpose. For this reason, I would be more reticent to apply the notion of covenant too absolutely.

        1. Obviously my word is not the final word on any matter, and so we can have an ongoing discussion. I don’t believe the texts you mention really apply here, as neither relates to condemnation. In I Corinthians, St. Paul is speaking to those who are already justified, they have already had a new foundation laid in Christ, and is urging them on to do good works which will endure into eternity, rather than wasting their lives on this earth on vain pursuits and leisure. He is, for all intents and purposes, telling them to save up treasures in heaven rather than on earth, because everything about us that is of this world will be destroyed with this world. Likewise I don’t believe the synoptic passage you cite is talking about different degrees of condemnation, but rather different degrees of mercy shown by the judge. By the same unit of measure by which you measure others you will be measured is essentially parallel to ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.’ The parallel, though that saying is not in St. Luke’s Gospel, would be something on the order of ‘Woe to you who are merciless, for you shall not be shown mercy’, speaking of condemnation.

          Vis a vis the covenant community, I would say that the remnant, particularly as we see it discussed in Isaiah and which St. Paul sees fulfilled in Romans 9-11 is actually another example of what I spoke about in the piece. Just as in the days of Noah and in those of Lot, God does not punish the righteous with the wicked. And so, when condemnation came upon the people of Judah, there was a remnant for which the suffering of that condemnation became remedial (as I spoke about God using remedial punishment within the covenant). That remnant then became, as Isaiah prophesied, along with the Gentiles who were brought in to worship Israel’s God, the basis of the New Covenant people of God.

          To use another Old Testament example of this remnant idea, look at Rahab. In the case of judgment between the parties of God and the people of Jericho, God is justified, He is in the right, having provided those of Jericho with their lives, and every other good thing. In return, they have done great wickedness on the earth such that the land itself, the Creation itself, is now tainted by their presence and wants to vomit them forth. God has been patient to allow time for repentance, but they have not, and now their cup of iniquity is full. But even as the judgment of God is preparing to come upon the city, Rahab, a prostitute hears of the coming judgment, accepts the Word of the Lord, repents, and sides with God and His people. Because of this, she is justified out of the midst of her condemned people.

          The same is true of the remnant of Judah. Even as their civilization was being destroyed, there were those: Jeremiah, Baruch, those who heard the Word of the Lord through them and followed Him, who still suffered, but rather than being the beginning of eternal condemnation, for as many days as they suffered in this world, they were given the Kingdom.

          Finally, I don’t think anything in Romans 9-11, is about what we might call individual salvation, but that is a huge can of worms probably not best opened here in this context.

  5. Please understand that I am not a universalist. Nevertheless, I take issue with using the flood as an argument against universalism. Yes, Noah and his family lived; and yes, everyone outside the ark died. Universalists would agree with that assessment. The question is eschatological; the question is what happens after we die. Universalists assert the possibility that people may turn to God after they die, in which case the argument from the flood would fail to persuade. At least, without developing the framework with which to interpret it the way the author intended.

    1. Which is why St. Peter’s teaching concerning the interpretation of the story of Noah is so important. He interprets not a historical event, but the narrative as an image of our salvation, hence ‘Baptism now saves you’. Just as entering the Ark (a microcosm of the Kingdom) saved Noah from the judgment that fell upon the rest of the world, so Baptism into the Church, the Ark of our Salvation, saves us from the condemnation that falls upon those outside at the final judgment before Christ.

      1. It seems to me this means we also have to reckon with the meaning and implications of 1 Peter 3:19 as does the book, Christ the Conqueror of Hell, by Bp. Hilarion (Alfeyev) quite thoroughly.

        1. The teaching of the Church regarding the Harrowing of Hades depicted in the Paschal Icon, gives us hope that most, if not all, will come to repentance and find their way into the Church in Heaven. This teaching clearly refutes those who do not believe that the intermediate state of souls is dynamic. It also give great weight to the efficacy of our prayers for the reposed.

        2. Karen, St. Irenaeus answers this question about 1 Peter 3:19 precisely when he says:

          “For hereby the Son of God is proclaimed both as being born and also as eternal King. But they shall wish that they had been burned with fire (is said) of those who believe not on Him, and who have done to Him all that they have done: for they shall say in the judgment, How much better that we had been burned with fire before the Son of God was born, than that, when He was born, we should not have believed on Him. Because for those who died before Christ appeared there is hope that in the judgment of the risen they may obtain salvation, even such as feared God and died in righteousness and had in them the Spirit of God, as the patriarchs and prophets and righteous men. But for those who after Christ’s appearing believed not on Him, there is a vengeance without pardon in the judgment.”

          – On the Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 56

          There is absolutely no problem with Christ preaching to those in Hades who, on believing, receive life in the resurrection. The problem is that after Christ preaches in Hades, who is left to preach to those who do not believe at death?

          1. Nathaniel, have you read Christ the Conqueror of Hell? Bp. Hilarion mentions the quote from St. Irenaeus, but adds that St. Irenaeus stresses the salvation of the OT righteous in this passage because he is refuting Marcion’s heresy (p. 44-45). The passage in 1 Peter 3:19-20 specifically mentions Christ preaching by the Spirit to “the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient.” (My emphasis.) This would seem to extend this ministry of preaching the gospel in hell beyond the OT righteous (particularly because the immediate context is those who were “disobedient” in the days of Noah, not the righteous), but nothing is mentioned in this passage of what effect this preaching has on those who hear it.

          2. Yes, I have read Christ the Conqueror of Hell. I also have a published, peer-reviewed Orthodox rebuttal to it which systematically tears it apart.

            1 Peter 3:19-20 is about Hades, not Gehenna. Big difference.

          3. Nathaniel, I also understand 1 Peter 3:19-20 to be speaking of Hades. This verse just seems to be addressing more than the OT righteous by explicitly mentioning the “formerly disobedient” (in the days of Noah), though I don’t doubt the truth of what St. Ireneaus’ says in this quote. Bp. Hilarion’s explanation of St. Ireneaus’ context being his refutation of Marcion made sense to me in light of what the verse actually says. Is this one of the Bishop’s assertions you would rebut? (I, too, would be interested in knowing if your rebuttal is available to read online.)

            I also have a question about your question where you ask: “The problem is that after Christ preaches in Hades, who is left to preach to those who do not believe at death?”

            My understanding is that post-Ascension, Christ is once again “everywhere present and filling all things” by His Spirit and thus still present in Hades (Psalm 139:8). If that is the case, surely His very presence there still “preaches” to those who reside there? Certainly, for the dead in Christ it makes “Hades” a foretaste of Heaven. Perhaps what you meant by your question is what happens to those in Hades who do not repent at Christ’s (eternal?) preaching there? That would make sense to me. The most likely response would be that Hades is for them is a foretaste of Gehenna.

  6. Forgive me for weighing in; I am an Orthodox layman without formal training in theology. But I like to frame the question regarding Heaven and Hell more in terms of God’s great mercy and our free will. We all will come before the face of God and God’s great mercy extends to all. For as we know God does not desire the death of a sinner but that he should repent and live. Those who do not repent (metanoia… change their nous or “deep mind”) are cut off. But who is doing the cutting off? It is the sinner himself of his own free will who condemns himself to be cutoff. We are called to abide in Christ, to find our dwelling in Him, to repent and live. This our whole reason for being and God has made this possible for all. It is my Universalist hope that we all, myself included, avail ourselves of this great mercy.

  7. Can someone please direct me to an explanation of the issue as per the canons of the 5th and later councils? I am not a universalist and expected to find a clear cut answer to the matter when I read through the canons but found that there is ambiguity since the minutes in question are not extant.

  8. Fr., I wonder if you could explain the bearing on this issue of I Timothy 4:10, where God is “the Savior of all men, especially of those that believe.” I ask this not to be polemical but because I am genuinely puzzled. The A.C.C. volume doesn’t have anything useful and St. Chrysostom skips this passage in his homilies.

    1. The key here is what the term ‘Savior’ here means. How it is being used. When Octavian became Augustus Caesar after the Battle of Actium, one of the first titles he took for himself was ‘Soter’, specifically, ‘Savior of the World’. He had saved the world from Roman civil war and its terrors and established peace and thereby prosperity throughout the Empire. From the Roman perspective this meant not only Roman citizens, but also all of those peoples over whom Caesar had extended his gracious rule.

      Reading I Timothy from the beginning of chapter 4, St. Paul is talking about the goodness of the Creation, over against those who would abominate the material world for being material. Christ’s Kingdom, and therefore the New Creation, are already established for St. Paul at His enthronement following the Ascension. All power in heaven and on earth, both, have already been given to Christ. The New Creation and His Kingdom already exist and are being established and spread in and through the Church. The rule of Jesus Christ obviously benefits those who are citizens of His Kingdom, of the world to come, most of all, but it also benefits the Creation itself, and everyone who lives in it. Even those who reject and hate Christ the most benefit from the fact that it is now He who rules over them rather than the demonic powers whom He defeated at the Cross.

      At a very pragmatic level, we encounter this redemption of the Creation constantly in the Church every time we bless things. By ‘receiving it with thanksgiving’ and sanctifying it ‘with the Word of God and with prayer’ as St. Paul says, we bring it into the Kingdom.

    2. Christ gives immortality to all humans and so saves all from annihilation, but their disposition in that immortality or ever being as St. Maximus indicates depends on their person.

    1. St. Silouan believed their suffering would diminish the joy of the saved. “Love could not bear that. We must pay for all.”

        1. Never said it was. He was, however, responding to the idea that others will suffer in hell. True love can’t bear to see others suffer hell. That doesn’t mean everyone will avoid it.

          1. I think you’re taking his comment out of the context of the conversation. Here’s how it appears in Silouan the Athonite:

            I remember a conversation between [Silouan] and a certain hermit who declared with evident satisfaction,
            ‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.’
            Obviously upset, [Silouan] said,
            ‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and there you looked down and saw someone burning in hell-fire – would you feel happy?’
            ‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,’ said the hermit.
            [Silouan] answered him in a sorrowful countenance:
            ‘Love could not bear that,’ he said. ‘We must pray for all.’

          2. Isaac, The true love of God will not allow eternal torment. The concept of eternal torment stems from the pagan concept of the natural immortality of the soul prevalent in the Greco-Roman world of the the early Church. Before the Imperial period, there were Church Fathers like St. Irenaeus who stated, “The teaching that the human soul is naturally immortal is from the devil.” They believed our Lord’s words recorded in the Gospels (see Matthew 10:28 and John 3:16). To be destroyed and to perish confirms that eternal punishment is eternal death and annihilation, not eternal torment. The Holy Scriptures, and early Church writings like the Didache, make it very clear that the choice for human beings is the way to eternal life, or the way to eternal death; not eternal torment.

          3. One does not have to believe in natural immortality in order to believe that the wicked will exist forever in suffering. One only has to believe in the redemption of human nature effected by the resurrection of Christ.

            Also, “eternal death” in those sources is not defined as non-existence. Death never means that, but rather separation.

          4. Fr. Andrew, I do not want to revisit our discussion about eternal death that we had on another site, but I am curious to know whether you believe that God can annihilate what He has created? I can certainly understand why God would allow a rational creature to continue living if there remained any hope of repentance and purification, but I do not see any indication in what has been revealed to us, that the devil and demons will ever repent. If this is true, then why would God keep them alive?

          5. The question is not what God “can” do, for we can safely say that He can do anything He wishes. The question is what He has actually revealed that He will do, whether it makes sense to us or not.

            In any event, as I mentioned to you elsewhere, to accept annihilationism is basically to buy into some form of the Great Apostasy historiography of most of Protestantism. If the Orthodox Church has gotten something so basic so very wrong for so very long, and has written that error so deeply and thoroughly into its liturgical life, then it’s kind of anyone’s game as to who’s getting it right.

          6. Suffering is eternal because Christ is eternal and all humans are united to Christ via the hypostatic union. All men are united to Christ at the level of human nature. If annihilation were true, either Christ is a contingent being (Arianism) or Christ is not consubstantial with all men. If all men were united to Christ at the level of person, then universalism would be true, at least necessary universalism. In this way universalism turns on a confusion between person and nature in Christology. And we should expect it, particularly in the case of modern universalism since it grew out of Calvinism with a defective Christology.

          7. Perry, I am not sure I understand your point regarding annihilation. If all human beings share the divine attribute of eternal life, would they not also share the divine attributes of omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience? Eternal life is a gift given by God. This is why Adam and Eve were banished from Eden and access to the Tree of Life. Those who followed our Lord into the paradise of the first resurrection, and ascended to the establish the Church in Heaven are experiencing the gift of eternal life. As baptized members of the Church on earth, we strive to share in the first resurrection of the saints in the Church in Heaven, and thus not be subject to the second death (see Revelation 20:6).

          8. I would like to remind Fr. Andrew of the historiography of the leaders of Israel at the time of our Lords First Coming. Nicodemus and Joseph along with a few members of the Sanhedrin recognized the Truth, even though the majority wanted to Crucify our Lord. Yes, the Church has survived on the earth, but like ancient Israel, it has a lot of baggage. Although clerical distance from the laity requiring confession before communion when the clergy do not do the same creates a barrier to sharing the Gospel, and serving the Divine Liturgy in a language not understood by the laity and potential converts creates a barrier to sharing the Gospel, and ethnic clubs who care nothing about the truth, nothing thwarts the sharing of the Gospel more than the concept of eternal torment. This Satanic lie goes back to Eden when the evil one deceived Adam and Eve into believing that they shall not surely die. Satan the devil has convinced most of the Church to believe this lie, and has succeeded in framing God as some sort of monster. It is time for the Church to throw off this demonic distortion of the Apostolic Faith, and to prepare for our Lord’s Second Coming.

          9. With that approach, any piece of heresy can be held up as the secret teaching everyone needs to get on board with.

            Anyway, we won’t be publishing further comments promoting annihilationism, because that’s not what this post is about.

    2. As Fr. Stephen alluded to in his post: the damned are forgotten by God and the righteous. Ezekiel 18 is rather plain that the righteous are remembered by God but the unrighteous are forgotten.

      1. Nathaniel,

        Are you referring to Ezekiel 18:24? Ezekiel 18 doesn’t seem to me to read the way you are interpreting it, at least not in the NKJV. This passage isn’t focussed on addressing the afterlife at all (though, I’m not denying such inferences could be made). Rather, the central point and emphasis of this passage seems to be that God–in His perfect righteousness–deals with each of us according to our actual spiritual state (righteous or unrighteous), and not by our past actions/history or our ancestry (which, I note as an aside, was such a temptation for presumption with “the children of Abraham” even still in Jesus’ time). It seems to be in context of God’s refutation of Ezekiel’s/Israel’s embrace of a false proverb (vs. 2) and, I surmise, perhaps of a consequent fatalistic or despairing attitude on Israel’s part that because of her past sins or the sins of their ancestors, that repentance in the present would do them no good. In short, the point of the passage as a whole seems to be an encouragement to hope and repentance (vss. 23 & 32)!

        This is not to deny many Scriptures (and Fathers) seem to unambiguously teach that the state in which a person dies is the state in which they remain in Eternity. Yet our Orthodox liturgical tradition certainly doesn’t treat this as black and white as it is sometimes stated both in Scripture and in the sayings of the Fathers, given that we pray for the faithful departed regardless of their apparent incomplete sanctity and even, at least once a year, for all departed souls. Why pray if there is no hope? In any event, in Ezekiel 18 the passage is not focussed on answering the question of the nature of the afterlife (or God’s “memory,” or lack thereof, of the unrighteous dead), but rather the basis of God’s judgment in the here and now, which is the same as it will be in the afterlife–i.e., based on the true state of the soul at that moment/time.

        I’m totally for emphasizing the fact of God’s present and future judgment in accordance with truth in the face of presumption and the temptation to not struggle to work out our salvation in the present life and moment. It’s certainly also appropriate to emphasize, as this passage does, the impartiality and true discernment of God. But when these are not in question (no Orthodox holding a form of “Universalist hope” that I know of denies or relativizes either of these realities) and the context, instead, is the question of the implications, extent and power of God in His love, righteousness, mercy, and will to deliver those in bondage to sin and death no matter how far they may have sold themselves into such bondage (which is usually what is in view in my experience with those asking these sorts of questions–especially those coming from conservative Protestant backgrounds where so much of the preaching of Penal Substitution and the nature of God in His “righteous judgment” has bifurcated the singular motivation of God in His dealings with humanity expressed in verses like Ezekiel 18:23 & 32, and pitted Father against the Son and destroyed our sense of the unity of the will and love of God in the economy of our salvation in Christ)–when this is what is in view, I think we owe the world and our brethren a better response than that in this post and what you affirm in your brief comment here.

      2. I remember something that C.S. Lewis said (in the Great Divorce?) about God not allowing eternally unrepentant persons to “blackmail the universe” by robbing the cosmos of joy via their rejection of God.

        St. Ephrem the Syrian also addresses the topic:

        The children of light
        dwell on the heights of Paradise,
        and beyond the Abyss
        they espy the rich man;
        he too, as he raises his eyes,
        beholds Lazarus,
        and calls out to Abraham
        to have pity on him.
        But Abraham, that man so full of pity,
        who even had pity on Sodom,
        has no pity yonder
        for him who showed no pity.
        The Abyss severs any love
        which might act as a mediary,
        thus preventing the love of the just
        from being bound to the wicked,
        so that the good should not be tortured
        by the sight, in Gehenna,
        of their children or brothers
        or family –
        a mother, who denied Christ,
        imploring mercy from her son
        or her maid or her daughter,
        who had all suffered affliction for the sake of
        Christ’s teaching.

        …The children of light reside
        in their lofty abode
        and, as they gaze on the wicked
        they are amazed to what extent these people
        have cut off all hope by committing such iniquity.
        (The Hymns on Paradise 1.12-14)

  9. John 12:31-32

    Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”

    -RSV Bible

    1. Interesting, no “Pro-Hell” person responded. The words of The Word here are my hope, also.

      1. Who exactly is “Pro-Hell”? Just because someone believes that suffering for the wicked is part of the apostolic deposit of faith does not mean one is in favor of it. I believe that it’s true, but I really wish that everyone would decide to repent.

    2. I would encourage you to read the rest of that chapter, which talks about those who do not believe the words of Christ being judged on the last day. Christ certainly did conquer and judge the prince of this world through His death and resurrection, providing salvation for all who believe. Note the parallel here surrounding the Son of Man being lifted up (its the exact same language being used) with John 3: 14-17. When the serpents afflicted Israel in the wilderness, God did not simply heal everyone of the poisonous bite as the answer to prayer. Rather, through Moses He made a provision by which all those who looked to the brazen serpent lifted up in their midst in faith would be healed. So also, the Lord tells us here in St. John’s Gospel, He Himself was lifted up ‘in the midst of the Earth’, such that all who look to Him with faith, from all nations, not only Israel, might be healed of the venom of the serpent of Genesis 3. Note however that in both of these passages, we’re talking about a provision that is offered and accessible to every human person. There is never any statement that no one will perish. In fact, the opposite.

      Since we’re throwing out verses, how about Matthew 7:21-23?

      “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”

      According to Jesus Christ the Word, there will be many, even among those who claim to acknowledge Him as Lord, who not enter the Kingdom. Any form of universalism flagrantly and obviously contradicts Christ Himself.

      The bigger issue, though, is methodological. Anyone can form an opinion on any issue and then selectively quote Holy Scripture to back up your case. It is quite another thing to listen to Scripture, and accept what it teaches whether we like it or not.

    3. It is interesting that when it says ” all men” the word “men” is in italics. Perhaps it is not even taking about persons here . The Latin Vulgate of St Jerome says that if He is lifted up, He will draw all ” THINGS” to himself. That is an entirely different connotation. This rendering fits with the rest of Scripture. The word “men” here in English translations like KJV or RSV is not in the original Greek.
      Christ renews all THINGS (this is fulfilled in the new heavens and new earth), but PERSONS have excluded themselves through the culpable actions of their free will from the blessings of the kingdom. Indeed, “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation…” Hebrews 2:3-4

  10. I didn’t say that the 5th e.c. didn’t condemn Origen. I said that the 5th e.c. didn’t condemn Origen’s apokatastasis. Here is what was actually said about Origen during the 5th e.c. itself:

    “If anyone does not anathematize Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Apollinaris, Nestorius, Eutyches, and Origen, as well as their impious writings, as also all other heretics already condemned and anathematized by the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and by the aforesaid four Holy Synods and [if anyone does not equally anathematize] all those who have held and hold or who in their impiety persist in holding to the end the same opinion as those heretics just mentioned: let him be anathema.”

      1. The implication is that 15 anathemas being agreed to by all Patriarchs has, somehow, less weight than the council itself is a fallacy. There was no council which rejected docetism. Yet all reject it. All the East rejects Pelagianism, but there was no council which did this. Rather, the rejection of Pelagianism was universal because all the Patriarchs signed the papal ratification of the local council of Carthage.

        There are many ways that a dogma can become ecumenically binding. An ecumenical council is not the only way.

      2. Here is how St. Photius describes reading Theodore of Mopsuestia. He first notes that Theodore isn’t always wrong, then he says: “On the other hand, this is not always the case, but he seems to us, in many places, entangled in the Nestorian heresy and echoes that of Origen, at least in that which concerns the end of punishment.”

        1. St. Photios on the universalism of St. Gregory of Nyssa:

          Read a book which has the name of St. Germanus as the author, who was first chosen for Cyzicus and then was Bishop of Constantinople. It has as its title “The Punisher” or “The Legitimate” which are equivalent to “On the Legitimate Retribution to Men According to the Actions of Their Life.”

          The subject that defines this book which is a polemical work is to demonstrate that St. Gregory of Nyssa and his writings are free of any taint of Origenism. In fact those to whom this silly idea of the redemption of demons and men freed from everlasting punishment is dear are those, I say, —- because they know the man by the elevation of his teaching and the abundance of his writings and because they see his distinguished conception of the faith spread among all men, —- who have attempted to mix into his works, full of the light of salvation, informed, troubled and disastrous ideas from the dreams of Origen as part of the design to soil with heresy by a method which overturns the virtue and distinguished wisdom of the great man.

          This is why, sometimes by faked additions, sometimes by their relentless efforts to pervert correct thinking, they have attempted to falsify many of his works which were beyond reproach. It is against these that Germanus, the defender of the true faith, has directed the sword sharpended with truth and leaving his enemies mortally wounded, he makes the victory apparent and his mastery over the legion of heretics who created these pitfalls. (Myriobiblion, 233)

  11. My hope and prayer is Universalism (I can’t comprehend how love could stand annihilationism) but my theology is the consistent message of the Orthodox Church – eternal life and eternal death.

      1. Fr. Andrew, Because we share the same hope, eternal torment or eternal death and annihilation may only be possibilities not realized by any human being. Let us continue to hope and pray that this will be so.

        1. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment but the righteous into everlasting Life. Matthew 25

          Revelation 20:10Modern English Version (MEV)
          10 The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet were. They will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

          1 Thessalonians 4:13Modern English Version (MEV)

          The Lord’s Coming
          13 But I would not have you ignorant, brothers, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as ****others who have no hope.******** 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and arose again, so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. 15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will not precede those who are asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we shall be forever with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.
          Revelation 21:27Modern English Version (MEV)

          27 No unclean thing SHALL EVER enter it ( NEW JERUSALEM), nor shall anyone who commits abomination or falsehood, but ONLY those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.
          Revelation 22:11-15Modern English Version (MEV)
          11 He who is unjust, let him be unjust still. He who is filthy, let him be filthy still. He who is righteous, let him be righteous still. He who is holy, let him be holy still.”

          12 “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with Me to give to each one according to his work. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last.”

          14 Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city. 15 Outside are dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters and everyone who loves and practices a lie.

          The so called universalist hope is loving a lie. It is hoping that God’s word is not actually true.

          The Beast and false prophet are named as humans that will be tormented forever and ever and it says that the unrighteous will NEVER enter but only those in the Lamb’s book of life. Saint Paul says that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God. He never says that they will eventually but not yet. And our Lord said ” Except your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisee you shall IN NO WISE enter the kingdom of heaven.” St. Matthew 5:20

    1. Fr. Barnabas, I agree with what you and Fr. Stephen believe about the distinction between dogma and hope. I share your feelings about annihilation, and feel even stronger about eternal torment. If the lake of fire is indeed the presence of God that can illuminate, purify, or consume; then perhaps only Satan and the demons will be consumed and destroyed. It is very important to remember that the eternal fire of the Last Judgment is prepared for Satan and the demons, not human beings (see Matthew 25:41). Because the devil and demons have never shown remorse or repentance, there is no reason to believe that they can be purified and saved. They will be consumed and experience eternal death and annihilation. Whether there will be human beings who refuse purification remains to be seen.

  12. BTW, on a moderatorial note, from here on out, let’s try to keep our discussion limited to what Fr. Stephen writes in his post about the Scriptural witness, rather than a free-for-all on universalism.

    We actually do have some other post(s) in the works regarding later patristic issues, etc.

    It’s fine to comment here on what the Fathers say, of course, but the focus here is on Scripture, so how they interpret Scripture is what is most germane.


      1. I hope readers will not only read Fr. Irenei’s comment in this link, but also go to near the end of the thread and read the thoughtful critique of Fr. Irenei’s comment by Dn. Brian Patrick Mitchell. There are many thoughtful comments in that thread worth reading, especially the ones by Fr. Aiden Kimel and by Dn. Brian Patrick Mitchell.

    1. In addition to Fr. Andrew’s link, let me offer this, perhaps appropriately on the feast day of Blessed Augustine:

      The Holy Scriptures don’t speak about Heaven and Hell as two sides of one reality, or one reality experienced two different ways, or as anything really because the Scriptures don’t speak about people dying and going to either heaven or hell. Rather, the Scriptures, as also the Creed, speak about two aspects of the visible and the invisible. That invisible aspect is what is often referred to in the Scriptures as ‘Heaven’. This is why Christ’s return is also refereed to as His Glorious ‘Appearing’ in the Scriptures, He is not off somewhere else, He is still in our midst, revealed to we Christians through the Scriptures and the Eucharist (Luke 24:32-35). At His second coming, He will be revealed to everyone on Earth.

      In terms of eternal condemnation then, we aren’t destined for ‘heaven or hell’. We await the new heavens and the new earth, the New Creation in other words, when the Kingdom will come and be established on earth as it is now in heaven. Heaven and earth, the visible and invisible realms of Creation, come together and so we hope to dwell with the Lord forever. When we’re talking about eternal condemnation, we are not talking about another, equally ultimate place in addition to the New Creation. Rather, all the Scriptural language about the state of condemnation is language of negation, i.e. darkness rather than light, death rather than life, being outside of the Kingdom, being forgotten (not remembered), etc. Hell is not something, its a negation of everything.

      1. Well said Fr. Stephen. Your description of eternal condemnation sure sounds to me like nonexistence due to annihilation. Because evil is the lack of love, like darkness is the lack of light, in the New Creation full of Divine light and love, evil and darkness will no longer exist. Only rational creatures who are filled with the love and light of God will continue to live on into eternity.

      2. If Kalomiros’ conclusion is indeed outside of the Orthodox Tradition (as is indicated by Hmk. Irenei Steenberg’s commentary), then how does Orthodoxy understand the “eternal fire” (εἰς τὸ πῦρ τὸ αἰώνιον) of Matthew 25:41 as per Marc above?

        1. The quotes from the Fathers basically reiterate the MT 25:41 passage noting that it is fire prepared for Satan/Demons. How does this mesh with Fr. Stephen De Young’s comment that there will be a new heaven and a new earth (solely?) after the resurrection? In short, where/what is the experience of gehenna/hell? Kalomiros’ explanation is out, as is Arian Annihilation, what option is left for the cut off? “Hell is not something, its a negation of everything.” How can this be articulated to someone?

        2. Keep in mind that we’re working entirely with metaphors here. Just as the Church has been clear that language about the eternal state of the blessed is metaphorical (i.e. it is not a garden of earthly delights, etc.), so also we’re speaking about the metaphors used in Scripture to describe the state of the condemned (i.e. its not a literal place of material fire). Those metaphors, as I said in the response above, are all metaphors of privation, of being cut off, shut out, away from the light, away from life, etc. At a certain point, we humbly accept our human limitations and live with mystery.

          “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” – I John 3:2

          We can’t fathom in this life the fullness of what the new heavens and the new earth will be, and there is even less detail about perdition, other than, as before, that it is a negation of all those good promises which God has given us. In articulating the Gospel, we believe, obey, and proclaim what we have been told, and we leave speculation aside.

        3. So, to summarize the Orthodox mind on what is commonly referred to as hell, the Scriptural witness of lake of fire, gehenna, destroying of soul and body, Tartarus, the nuking Sodom & Gomorra to ashes as an example of what will happen to the ungodly, etc. – these are all purely metaphorical notions and are to be understood as a mysterious negation of being outside the covenant with God but can’t fully be grasped or articulated by the human mind?

        4. I did read them. But what does it actually mean to “join Satan and his demons in that eternal punishment” if hell is not a place/penal experience but rather an existence in negation of truth and light? I’m not trying to be difficult, but rather trying to pin down what Orthodoxy actually believes and teaches on this topic (in light of Kalomiros being wrong).

  13. Speaking as nothing more than a layperson, I would like to offer that the most relevant question here is whether repentance may, in fact, occur after death and before the final judgment. I don’t think anyone who deeply understands the Orthodox teaching on salvation as the healing and full humanization of the human person–only possible in and through communion with the divine nature–could ever posit a universalism involving any such Western understanding as a tit-for-tat payment for sins after death. That does, indeed, seem a straw man. But may we not ask and hope that even after death there remains the possibility for the human person to choose relationship with God and thereby enter, too, onto the path, however painful, of transformation into the likeness of Christ?

    Perhaps I only flaunt my ignorance, but may we not at least hope that, especially for those whose hearts seem to long for and belong to God as deeply as any of ours, death will be that revelation which will convince them to turn finally toward God in Christ?

    As a further thought I would point out that as Orthodox Christians we defend absolutely the gift of free will given to man. And we accept and teach that if any person chooses not to participate in communion with God in Christ he necessarily chooses separation, dehumanization and what we generally call Death. And the longer and more deeply he chooses those things the more absolutely he determines his separation from God. In terms of engagement with unbelievers on this subject, we hardly even have to make use of the language of judgement and condemnation. God would never choose separation, but He will never, ever, force conversion or transformation.

    And, finally, as we speak about Love, we simply must acknowledge that we understand almost nothing. We long for universal salvation because we love each other as human beings do. But, surely, God longs for each of His children with a Love we cannot even begin to fathom, and it is that ineffable Love which has itself allowed the agony of separation. Humanly, we reason from things like the belief that it is kinder to euthanize a suffering animal than to allow it to continue its existence; and thereby, we may arrive at a desire for annihilationism, or, at the very least, at the chatacterization of Death as non-Life or a kind of black nothingness. But to project such beliefs (about euthanasia of animals, for example) on to this discussion of the body, soul and spirit of a human person is simply not allowable. When we speak about the human person who simply will not, ever, choose communion with God, we must simply acknowledge that God alone knows what is Good and what Love prescribes. If that is to allow the human person to continue to exist in separation from Himself, eternally experiencing His Love as suffering, then who are we to conclude that the God Who Is Love is not acting in Love? To think we know what Love is or what Love requires is, ultimately, nothing more than foolish presumption.

    Forgive *my* presumption in speaking. I would very much appreciate your thoughts on my first question.

    May the Lord have mercy on me, the first among sinners.

  14. I was surprised to read in an Orthodox blog “that controlling narrative for the entire Scriptures regarding God’s interaction with the world is covenant.” I haven’t heard that since my Lutheran days. I’ve always understood the controlling biblical narrative from an EO perspective to be that of union and theosis which was/is fullfilled in the Eucharist and the life of the church.

    1. It shouldn’t be so surprising. Covenant is mentioned quite a lot in the Scriptures and in the Fathers as they interpret the Scriptures.

      There is nothing wrong with what you say about how you understand the Orthodox perspective, but I think perhaps that set of images is more tuned to how these things work out for the individual person, especially perhaps in response to Protestant soteriology. There is actually not as much in Scripture about what salvation means to the individual and rather a lot about what it means for the world.

      Indeed, in the Eucharist itself, the Lord says, “This is my Blood of the New Covenant.” The Eucharist itself is a fulfillment and enaction of that covenant.

      1. Yes. True. The theology of protestantism and its perspective does make it confusing for me to see certain terms and phrases in a new light. “Covenant” is certainly one of those words. I do understand that the word covenant is used a lot and certainly a major part of scripture. I think the phrase “controlling narrative” threw me a bit. Maybe it’s just semantics. To make the covenant language “the controlling narrative” seems like too strong a statement for me. But, I certainly am no expert, nor should I pretend to be.

    2. Just a clarification regarding what I meant by ‘controlling narrative’ in terms of this piece, since yours is not the first comment questioning it. As Fr. Andrew mentioned, the Covenant is talked about continuously in Scripture in one form or another, both directly using the word, and, for example, when St. Paul is talking about the Law, he is talking about precisely the Old Covenant. Since Testament is the 17th century synonym of covenant, our Scripture is divided into two parts, the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. As I mentioned briefly in the piece, covenant implies Kingdom, because the type of covenant in the Scriptures is specifically the kind that a new king issues to his new vassals.

      More importantly, by controlling narrative in this context I meant that the covenant between God and His people, either Old or New, is, as it were, the background score continuously playing as the other narratives unfold. The other historical narratives of the Old Testament, for example, are called the Deuteronomic History because the way they are written and structured assumed that the reader will have in mind the commandments of the Old Covenant, specifically the form that takes in the book of Deuteronomy.

      To get very specific in terms of why I mentioned it in this context, when we talk about ‘judgment’ and ‘justification’ and verdicts being rendered and punishment being issued, etc. we are using forensic (i.e. legal) language. We as modern readers have a certain understanding of how legal proceeding and trials work, and so it is very easy to import all of that knowledge from our culture into the Scriptures’ discussion of these matters. In fact, I would argue that much of late medieval Western theology, including a lot of the Reformation’s theology proceeds from precisely this type of error (importing then current concepts of justice and forensics into the Scriptural analogies).

      It is important, therefore, in order to understand what the Holy Scriptures themselves are saying that we understand those forensic metaphors within the context of the covenantal concepts of justice and the like within which the New Testament authors were steeped.

    3. One final comment: I find it a little distressing that any Orthodox Christian might find the use of the Scriptures’ own language to sound Protestant. The Holy Scriptures belong to the Church. Their language is our language. We don’t need to translate things into ‘Orthodox’ terms, or leave them in Greek.

      The Protestants may want to claim the Bible for their own, but I for one am not going to turn it over to them. Its written by the Church, for the Church, and has been preserved through 20 centuries within the Church.

      1. Yes. Thank you for your clarification. Since I come from a protestant background and took bible 101 from a Lutheran school it can be difficult for me to see the nuances of language that are used in an Orthodox lens. There are probably more similarities than differences (it is the same bible), and this is what makes it difficult for me. Since much of the language and theology of Orthodoxy is different enough from a Protestant context, it has helped me understand the differences. So when language is used that “sounds” protestant even though it is clearly “biblical” (and in turn Orthodox), my mind gets a bit jumbled. Sorry for my confusion.

  15. Father,

    With respect for the obvious amount of work you put into this article, I must admit that I found it perplexing on a number of levels.

    Although I know it is a necessary thing when a priest sets out to teach the Faith, I often find it baffling when any among us set out to assert that this is what God means or intends. Do we not know that we are utterly incapable of comprehending Him? We are blessed with the Scriptures, the Fathers, Jesus in the Eucharist and the Holy Spirit, but as individuals trying to figure things out, we are, in the end, clueless about most things. (I intend no insult and I’m sure I am more clueless than most.)

    We simply cannot comprehend the love of God. Attempting to do so is enough to rupture our tiny souls. (It is a joyous rupture, but it is still way beyond us.)

    We also cannot understand the nature of God in His Being. I cannot help but smile when someone makes reference to God “waiting”. How could He who is Being Itself delay in order for time to pass? Is He governed by the earth spinning on its axis or its revolutions around the sun? To give people time to repent – would He allow one person 95 years and another just a few seconds before dying in an accident at age 15?

    I could go on and become even more tedious. However, while I realize that it wouldn’t make for much of a blog post, I believe that the only true answer to the question of hell is that we don’t know.

    We know that there is sin and that we separate ourselves from God who is our life when we commit it. We know by faith that God gave us the Way to be restored to life in Him through the Incarnation, death and Resurrection of Jesus. If we want life and not death, we know the Way, we know Who to follow and what to do.

    We do not need to fear hell because we know this. We may not live it perfectly but we see that Jesus, in the Gospels, has great patience for the imperfect (as He leads them to perfection). We cannot know how God has dealt with anyone else – e.g. someone we love who has died – no matter how much we argue the issue or interpret the Scripture – unless, of course, God grants us a revelation.

    We trust that a God who would empty Himself, accepting suffering and death to save us from our self-imposed death, must be loving beyond anything we can know or comprehend. Thus, we can only believe that He must love those we love even more than we do. How could He love them less?

    Is there really anything more to say than this?

  16. Met. Hilarion of Volokolamsk has a refutation of universalism in the second volume of his Orthodox Christianity series in which he states:

    “[T]he Orthodox Church is far from the excessive optimism of those who maintain that at the end of time God’s mercy will extend to all of unrighteous humanity and all people, including great sinners, and together with them the devil and his demons will be saved in a lofty form by will of the God Who is good. Origen expressed this idea in the third century, Origen whose teaching on apokatastasis (“universal restoration”) was condemned in its entirety by an Ecumenical Council as contrary to the teachings of the Fathers of the Church.

    …The teaching on apokatastasis and universal salvation gained a whole group of supporters in the form of theologians and philosophers of the Russian diaspora in the twentieth century. The consistent and decisive proponents of this teaching were Archpriest Sergius Bulgakov and N.A. Berdiaev. V.N. Lossky was more cautious, yet still spoke out in favor of this teaching. Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh in particular also repeatedly defended it in his compositions… However, the opinions of individual theologians and philosophers defending the teaching of universal salvation do not grant it legitimacy. The Church condemned the concept of apokatastasis.” (Orthodox Christianity Vol. II: Doctrine and Teaching of the Orthodox Church, pp. 557-570)

    1. I think most universalists of the St. Isaac strain can agree with the anathemas of the 5th council, even the most forceful one that is used to crush any version of apocatastasis. “If anyone says or holds that the punishment of demons and impious human beings is temporary and that it will have an end at some time, and that there will be a restoration of demons and impious human beings, let him be anathema.” The “impious” will never and could never make it to heaven, and as long as they remain impious their “punishment” will continue (have no end). The simple and beautiful belief of St Isaac is that the impious will cease to be impious as they experience the full force of the consequences of their sin. In other words when they “pie up” 🙂 they are no longer those whom the anathema addresses.

    1. Jodi, I also tried to nail down an answer to that a few years ago. It was a question full of angst because I didn’t know if I could stay Orthodox if I had to believe that our God who is Love would cut off the possibility of repentance after death. Eventually I concluded simply that it is not a dogma of the Church. I think many on this website would assert that the “teaching” is that there is no repentance after death – or something to that effect. But of course others disagree. As with so many issues that are not dogmatized it all depends on which Fathers and which Scriptures are given primacy.

      1. Well said Connie. The Paschal joy and Resurrection Icon speak well of the Holy Tradition of the Church. That we pray for the reposed also confirms that we believe in the dynamic condition of those in the intermediate state of souls. Church Fathers who teach that there can be no conversion after death, lived in a society and culture that was Orthodox Christian. Obviously there is a great difference between those who experienced the True Faith in the lifetime, and those who lived where the Gospel was not known.

        1. Marc makes an important point here. Ammonius of Alexandria who I mentioned above in relation to Christ’s Harrowing of Hades makes the point that though Judas was there in Hades, he did not get a second chance to embrace Christ, because he, knowing the fullness of the Truth (Christ Himself), chose what he chose. The rest of those in Hades had Christ in His fullness revealed to them.

          So, there is here a great mystery. There are a few things we can say for certain. The Last Judgment will indeed be the Last Judgment, its verdict will be final. As St. Isaac the Syrian tells us, “You were given this life for repentance, do not waste it on vain things.” Meaning, Today is the day of salvation for you and for me, do not put off repentance thinking there will be another chance. At the same time, from our perspective in this world of time and space the Last Judgment has not happened yet, and so we pray for mercy for ourselves and our loved ones.

          In the end, we have to entrust those we love to Christ, in this world, in death, and in the world to come. We know that He will do not only what is right, but also what is merciful and loving and compassionate.

  17. Father De Young: What then does the rainbow in Genesis 9 signify? Will God break his promise and again destroy all the living except for a chosen few?

    1. A little more detail:

      In the original text, its very clear that the ‘bow’ in question is not like a bow on a package, its a bow as in a bow and arrow. God sets down his bow, meaning He unilaterally declares peace with humanity. If you go back to Genesis 5, before most folks start reading the Flood story, when Noah is born, it is prophesied that God is going to save the world through Noah. Mankind has become horribly wicked, and declared war on God. They are so wicked, in fact, that their wickedness has tainted the whole Creation around them. God loves His Creation, and so he embarks to save it from humanity through Noah and His family. Only those who were in the ark came through the Flood to new life on the other side. Ultimately, however, the problem endured, because sin had also infected Noah and his family. We see that almost immediately, humanity went back to its old tricks, as the next story in Genesis is the Tower of Babel. Here God doesn’t wipe out humanity, but rather divides humanity using language, culture, tribe, and nation to slow the spread of evil.

      Just as what we see in the Flood story, salvation in Jesus Christ is cosmic. In fact, I think it is these passages talking about the fact that salvation extends to the whole Creation that are most often misinterpreted in a Universalist fashion, because they are taken to be talking about individual salvation. For St. Paul, for example, the Resurrection is a Resurrection of the whole created order, and Resurrection for St. Paul is not avoiding death, but passing through death and coming out the other side. Not just every human being, but the heavens and the earth will be die and be reborn at the Return of our Lord Jesus Christ. But the Scriptures are quite clear on the fact that just as the ark symbolically showed, it is only those who are in Christ who will successfully pass through death into new life in the Kingdom. For those who are found to be outside Christ, as I’ve said here before, there are only metaphors: darkness, being shut out of that Kingdom, weeping and gnashing of teeth, fire, the degeneration and depletion of the human person.

      But, I think it a gross misinterpretation to think that in Genesis 9 God disarms Himself completely and becomes some kind of pacifist. That’s certainly not how YHWH Sabaoth is presented in the rest of the Old Testament, and its certainly not the way Christ is presented in the Apocalypse, for example. In fact, in Genesis 9:5-6, immediately preceding the covenant sign of the rainbow, God points out that there will be a reckoning for every drop of human blood shed in violence, and that that reckoning will bring the penalty of death.

      1. So, it seems we are back to the conclusion that for the overwhelming majority of humankind, (the second) death has the final word. Have I made the proper logical connection here?

        1. This is where a distinction is important. I don’t know what relative proportion of humanity is going to end up under condemnation. I hope its small. I hope its nobody. If you don’t hope its nobody, if there’s someone you want to see eternally condemned, then I will bluntly say with St. John that you are no Christian.

          To hope that everyone will find salvation is to be a Christian. To teach that as a matter of fact everyone is going to enter the Kingdom is to be a Universalist, and it is that factual assertion that I am arguing goes against the witness of Scripture.

          1. In light of your insistence of the total finality of judgment in the case of the Flood, the Exodus, etc. there seems to be no room left for the kind of hope that you demand we all need to have as Christians. You contradict yourself.

          2. Fr. Stephen,

            I think the distinction you point out is spot on. Your points confirm the hope that is at the core of the good news of the Gospel that remains very much alive in the Orthodox Church. The Paschal joy of the Resurrection and the Harrowing of Hades, along with our prayers for the reposed, had a lot to do with my conversion 15 years ago.

            Being able to rely upon the guidance of Holy Tradition to more fully understand the Holy Scriptures also confirms that an assertion of universal restoration as a fact rather than a hope, does indeed go against the witness of Scripture. The Scriptures are very clear about the two ways: The way to eternal life, and the way to eternal death. Although the Scriptures indicate that the angelic beings in heaven have received the gift of eternal life, and the devil and demons have been condemned to eternal death, it has not been revealed to us the outcome of the Last Judgment for human beings.

          3. Personally, I couldn’t stop fervently desiring the salvation of all if I tried—such would be tantamount to resigning myself to my own spiritual suicide, given my awareness that the line between good and evil runs right through my own heart (as Solzhenitsyn has also famously observed). Intellectually, I can distinguish between dogmatically teaching universalism vs. praying and hoping all will be saved, but if denying dogmatic universalism means dogmatically teaching the Scriptures imply a never-ending Gehenna for some, if not many or most, and if one is obligated to deny that the Scriptures give any hint or hope that salvation, Christ’s victory over sin and death on behalf of all mankind, could possibly be universal in its actualization as well as its potential, I don’t see how praying or hoping for the salvation of all can be anything but an exercise in self-deception, in disingenuous spirituality. It seems to me true prayer can only come from real trust in Christ’s mercy and power and from taking Him at His word when He says of the salvation of sinners, “With men this is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible” (Mark 10:26-27).

            Perhaps exegetical arguments and intellectual discussions like that in this post about Final Judgement are necessary–perhaps even theologically correct. One thing that troubles me about these sorts of arguments, which I believe may have already been pointed out in this thread (though I am not saying this is true of you, Fr. Stephen, and I trust not) is that usually it seems there is the underlying presupposition that we, professing Christians making this exegetical case, are the “saved” and only those others out there are the “damned” (which is, of course, opposite to the attitude encouraged in our Orthodox spiritual tradition). What is also troubling to me is how often this sort of reasoning about the meaning of Scripture proves to be an obstacle to my actively trusting Christ.

            This is the opposite of my experience of hearing or reading the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels in their own context (which are not abstract conceptual arguments, but rather aimed into actual concrete situations and addressing actual human hearts). I can read Jesus’ teachings on the narrow way and the dangers of hellfire (and here I notice He addresses warnings of the dangers of hell-fire almost exclusively to His close disciples, not to the wider crowds), and I can also read the frequently paradoxical sayings of the Elders and Fathers of the Church and find my trust in Christ and His ways is bolstered.

            Accordingly, St. Paisios of Mt. Athos can teach: “Let us struggle with all our powers to gain Paradise. The gate is very narrow, and don’t listen to those who say that everyone will be saved. This is a trap of satan so that we won’t struggle.”

            And his contemporary, St. Porphyrios (Bairaktaris), can also teach:

            “You are unable to be saved alone, of all others are not also saved. It is a mistake for one to pray only for oneself, for one’s own salvation. We must pray for the entire world, so that not one is lost.

            “I am not afraid of hell and I do not think about Paradise. I only ask God to have mercy on the entire world as well as on me.”

            And I can embrace both.

          4. I’ve tried to add a comment several times here, but it never posts (even awaiting moderation). Have such comments been lost, or have they ended up in spam? If several of those comments wound up in spam, would you, Fr. Andrew, only post the most recent (or the shortest) of them–otherwise there will be a lot of redundancy to say the least! If this posts, but you don’t find the others of my comments anywhere, perhaps I’ll give it one last try.

          5. Moderation is not instantaneous—it requires that I or one of the other moderators have seen the submitted comment and then permit it through the moderatorial queue.

            (I’ve had some people submit a comment and then submit another one hours later demanding to know why they didn’t get their comment published immediately. I had of course fallen asleep. It was after my bedtime.)

            Sometimes comments do end up in the spam folder and we don’t see them, especially if there are hundreds of spammed comments there together—they often come in the hundreds, sometimes just in a few minutes.

  18. I am not sure I understand the objections and discussion about using the perspective of a covenant community. The Church is after all a covenant community, and outside of the Church there is no salvation. We have to remember however, that the Church has a Heavenly as well as an earthly manifestation. I think it is interesting to consider that it is revealed in Daniel 9:27 that the New Covenant is to be confirmed for seven years. Half of that time was AD. 29-33. And the other half has yet to happen. I believe that the judgments and resurrection harvest of the Day of the Lord will extend over this three and half year period completing the confirmation of the New Covenant. At the end of this process of confirmation, all human beings and spirit beings are either in the Church or in Gehenna.

  19. Fr Stephen De Young, every representation you give of Christian universalism is quite a mischaracterization. I’m not saying this was deliberate on your part, but I am surprised you have not bothered to find out what Orthodox Christian universalists believe. To do so is easy enough: St Isaac would be a good place to start. Universalism has nothing to do with “punishment” in the way you have used the word, or “paying the price.” We universalists simply believe that judgment, even the judgment of hell, is nothing less than God’s mercy at work through the consequences of sin and the pain of utter isolation of the self. God’s “punishment” is remedial, not retributive, with the purpose of bringing about repentance.

    Please do the research and correct your statements about universalism. As C S Lewis says, if you’re going to argue against something, first put forth the best case for it and then address that. I think you may discover in doing so that the Scriptures support apocatastasis far more than the interpretation of finality you give to the judgments in the Scriptures you cite. 🙂

    1. The Universalism your describing says that after a period of , variously described as suffering, discipline, punishment, remediation or whatever other name you want to give it, after a period of that something everyone enters the Kingdom of Heaven. Meaning that final condemnation is not eternal in duration. My entire piece is directed at the fact that final condemnation is eternal in duration, and that there is no place, Biblical, in which it says that a certain amount or period of pays the price of sin and restores one to good standing before God.

      I spent so much time in the piece on the Biblical definition of justification, and the fact that God’s punishment in Scripture is only remedial within the covenant community, and then only for a certain period of time (this life on Earth), because the type of Universalism you describe, which I understand quite well, argues from a different definition of justification, and a different view of God’s punishment, than is expressed in Scripture.

      Your criticism in reference to C.S. Lewis amounts to saying, “Your article is bad because it isn’t a different type of article.” As I said from the beginning, I was not writing an article to refute a set of arguments for Universalism. I wrote a piece seeking to summarize the teaching of Scripture about the final condemnation, justification, and the nature of God’s punishment. If you don’t see your view reflected there, its because in my opinion, your view isn’t the view taught by Scripture.

      1. “there is no place, Biblical, in which it says that a certain amount or period of time pays the price of sin and restores one to good standing before God.”

        Of course not! No Orthodox Christin universalist would say this. This proves the point that Cathy Thienes was making. You are still misunderstanding what Orthodox universalists believe.

        1. If my piece was intended to refute this or that view, you would have a point. My piece is an attempt to lay out positively what the Scripture teaches about the topics listed repeatedly above. I don’t need to know anything about any alternative views to make a positive case about what I believe Scripture teaches. If your view is something other than the view I laid out in the piece, then I am saying your view is not the one taught by Scripture.

          I chose that approach for a reason. Simply put, I don’t have the time or interest to attempt to understand the ins and outs and minutiae of every individual Universalist’s variant on Universalism and try to refute them individually.

          My piece represents what I believe the Bible teaches. Lots of people have lots of other views with all kinds of individual variants and variables. My argument is that all other views are wrong because they are not the view taught by the Bible. I don’t need to understand and individually refute all possible alternatives.

      2. I can see your point about the type of article you wrote and that you were focusing on showing your version of what the Scriptures say of hell and judgment. However, you do refer many times to universalism. Since I assumed Orthodox Christians were your intended audience, it seemed odd for you to be defining universalism with such a shallow, easily ridiculed slant rather than referencing a universalist vision in line with Orthodox spokesmen for it. But I see now that you are clearly not familiar with Orthodox universalists and that you did not feel like taking the time to familiarize yourself with them. I hope and pray that some day you will find the inclination and time to read St Isaac’s version of what the Scriptures say of hell and judgment. Oh the difference!!!

        1. You’re speaking in circles Cathy. Clearly, you’re choosing to ignore the crux of father’s De Young’s entire argument. Let me point it out once again:

          “My piece represents what I believe the Bible teaches. Lots of people have lots of other views with all kinds of individual variants and variables. My argument is that all other views are wrong because they are not the view taught by the Bible. I don’t need to understand and individually refute all possible alternatives.”

          1. Gaetano, it is true that I am choosing to ignore the crux of “Father De Young’s entire argument” 🙂 — not his comment, but his post. For at least 40 of my Protestant years I have heard arguments such as his for unending eternal torment. Thankfully, his Scriptural interpretations are not prevalent in the Orthodox churches I have attended. Oh, and I think if you read my above response to Fr De Young’s comment to me carefully, you will see that a request for an accurate depiction of Orthodox universalism was in order after all.

  20. Fr. John Romanides:

    Augustinian Christians, both Vaticanians and Protestants…were never capable of understanding that God loves equally both those who are going to hell and those who are going to heaven. God loves even the Devil as much as He loves the saint. “God is the savior of all humans, indeed of the faithful” (1 Tim. 4:10). In other words hell is a form of salvation although the lowest form of it. God loves the Devil and his collaborators but destroys their work by allowing them to remain inoperative in their final “actus purus happiness” like the God of Thomas Aquinas.

    The question at hand is not, therefore, whom God loves and saves. God loves all and God saves all. Even human doctors are morally obliged to cure all patients regardless of who and what they are. From this viewpoint hell is indeed salvation, but the lowest form of it. One either chooses or one does not choose to be cured from the short-circuit which makes one religious. The one who chooses cure exercises himself like an athlete who follows the Lord of Glory’s directions for purifying his heart. “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” One cooperates with Christ in the purification of one’s heart and in acquiring the illumination of the unceasing prayer in the heart. This allows love to do away with self-centeredness and selfishness, but at the same time increases one’s dedication to destroying the work of the Devil. When God sees that one is ready to follow the cure which will make him selfless He guides him into the courtyard of glorification and takes him from being a child to manhood, i.e. prophethood (1 Cor. 13:11). One begins with sick love concerned with one’s own salvation and graduates into selfless Love which, like Saint Paul, would forego one’s own salvation for that of others. In other words one either chooses cure or refuses cure. Christ is the Doctor who cures all His patients to that degree of cure they accept, even that of hell. (THE CURE OF THE NEUROBIOLOGICAL SICKNESS OF RELIGION 5)

    1. We also, following our teacher Christ, “who is the Saviour of all men, especially of those that believe,” are obliged to say that there are two ways—the one of life, the other of death; which have no comparison one with another, for they are very different, or rather entirely separate; and the way of life is that of nature, but that of death was afterwards introduced,—it not being according to the mind of God, but from the snares of the adversary.

      – Constitution of the Holy Apostles VII.1

      1. Universalists remind me of Calvinists very much. Both groups know that their teaching is the minority report among the Holy Fathers; instead of following the acclaimed Ecumenical Teachers in the Church, both groups cling tenaciously to the Father of their liking (Sts. Augustine and Isaac); lastly, both groups rely heavily on innovative and/or idiosyncratic Scriptural exegesis and claim that others “just don’t get it”.

          1. Fr. Andrew, I would say this is a mistaken characterization of the Trinitarian version of universalist hope with which I am familiar. As an Orthodox, I cannot envision anything that can meaningfully be called “salvation” apart from freely chosen repentance in cooperation with the grace of God, yet I would certainly hope for the salvation of all and can imagine a spiritual dynamic of grace and a progressively increasing freedom of the human will which might bring that about. (Indeed, if this isn’t a possibility post-mortem, it seems to me only those who achieve full Sainthood in this life can truly hope for eternal life with Christ in Heaven. Isn’t this an important part of the reason we pray for the faithful departed, and indeed all departed souls–because we hope to facilitate the completion of their repentance post-mortem even if we believe such souls can no longer effect this change by their own prayers?) Further, since by Orthodox definition sin obscures the natural human will and brings the personal “gnomic” will progressively into greater and greater blindness and bondage, in what sense can we say that Gehenna is “freely” chosen, if we would do so? And, if we deny Gehenna is truly “freely” chosen, what are the implications of this if we believe in a God Who has revealed Himself to be the Unconquerable Savior and Redeemer of His Creation from the bondage of sin and death? This is a very deep subject. You’re a smart guy and you know a lot more than I do about many things, so maybe you really have thought this through, but I’ve discovered the way I and many have thought of “free will” is a bit simplistic (and biblically and philosophically suspect) to say the least.

          2. Honestly, I find the use of hope to describe universalism disingenuous. However you slice it, universalism isn’t about a hope but about a certainty that everyone will indeed be saved, no matter what, one way or another. If it’s a hope you’re talking about, then it’s not universalism.

          3. Well, this gets a bit tricky to articulate because it is a universalist “hope” which Met. Kallistos Ware espouses (last I knew), yet I believe he does get labeled a “Trinitarian Universalist” (for instance, in Wikipedia). Met. Kallistos also teaches St. Isaac’s “universalism” (in contrast to St. Gregory of Nyssa’s) is of the “hopeful” variety. St. Isaac apparently doesn’t dogmatize either, yet perhaps you would disagree? Personally, the position I’ve arrived at is that which Met. Kallistos states in his book, The Orthodox Church, which stops short of dogmatizing that all “must” be saved. We simply hope (definitely “hope” in a stronger sense than a mere wish, in that this is necessarily a hope” grounded in the revelation of God’s mercy and power given us in Christ) all “may” be saved. Personally, I can’t honestly say I have “certainty” about anything I haven’t already actually experienced (and, even there, I don’t always trust my experience either)! 😛

          4. A hugely important point — and not just in a utilitarian sense but because any such sermon casts doubt on its truth value. If the Gospel is an exhortation, any preaching that precludes its efficacy isn’t the Gospel.

          5. Fr Andrew, you find the idea of “hope” disingenuous in the mouth of universalists. But both you and Fr Stephen have stated in comments at least once that you also “hope” that all will be saved, which I find equally disingenuous. It seems clear from the authoritative teaching of the Church that there will be an eternal condemnation and that there will be at least some beings experiencing it. The devil and his angels, for one; all the unmerciful from Mt 25, for another. Though it’s not stated explicitly in Scripture that Judas’s punishment is eternal, the verses referring to him (including Psalm 108 as interpreted in Acts 1) refer to his fate in the bleakest terms.

            Which is not to say that I enjoy the thought of any of the above being condemned for all eternity — I’m just pointing out what consistency requires.

          6. My sense of “hope” for the salvation of all is that I believe it is possible for every person to be saved. I don’t think it’s likely, though. But I still want it to happen, in the same sense that God is not willing that any should perish.

        1. Since this most interesting thread is now four years old (Holy Resurrection from the Dead, Batman) I was not going to comment, but then you brought up this shiboleth regarding man’s “free will,” which to those who insist upon eternal, conscious torment, seems to close the argument, as if God is either too weak or too lacking in intelligence to overcome.
          My response would be this:
          I should be interested in your reply to these musings.

  21. Father Stephen (and/or others),

    I wonder if anyone here would be willing to discuss the so-called “age of accountability” and how it relates to covenant theology and to this topic as a whole.

    I find that most who believe that God does at least WANT to save each and every person (however “save” is defined”) are effectively “child universalists” no matter how inconsistent such an idea might be with key points of their overall theology – sort of a divine loophole, asterisk, or exception.

    I only see a few possibilities:

    1-Faith and repentance are ontological necessities for union with God, and therefore there is no “loophole” or age of accountability. Any perceived injustice is irrelevant.

    2-Same as #1, but there is some sort of possibility of postmortem repentance.

    3-There is an age of accountability. In which case the default destiny at birth of any human being is towards union with God, while each and every day that a child grows older adds infinite risk of eternal tragedy. “Free will” doesn’t seem to be much of a problem for God to overcome here.

    4-Ignore any implications or discomfort from the “age of accountability” as speculation and instead appeal to “mystery”, regardless of how inconsistent the appeal might be within the underlying theological framework.

    I don’t intend this to be a theological trap – I just see it as immensely important question.

    Any thoughts?

    1. I don’t know of any patristic sources that affirm that every infant that dies enters directly into communion with God. These quotes may help the age of accountability discussion:

      The Lenten Triodion

      When baptized infants die, they enjoy the paradise of delight, whereas those not illumined by baptism and those born to pagans go neither to paradise nor to Gehenna. (Saturday before Meatfare; Matins. Synaxarion at the Sixth Ode of the Canon)

      St. Gregory the Theologian:

      And so also in those who fail to receive the Gift [Baptism], some are altogether animal or bestial, according as they are either foolish or wicked; and this, I think, has to be added to their other sins, that they have no reverence at all for this Gift, but look upon it as a mere gift— to be acquiesced in if given them, and if not given them, then to be neglected. Others know and honour the Gift, but put it off; some through laziness, some through greediness. Others are not in a position to receive it, perhaps on account of infancy, or some perfectly involuntary circumstance through which they are prevented from receiving it, even if they wish. As then in the former case we found much difference, so too in this. They who altogether despise it are worse than they who neglect it through greed or carelessness. These are worse than they who have lost the Gift through ignorance or tyranny, for tyranny is nothing but an involuntary error. And I think that the first will have to suffer punishment, as for all their sins, so for their contempt of baptism; and that the second will also have to suffer, but less, because it was not so much through wickedness as through folly that they wrought their failure; and that the third will be neither glorified nor punished by the righteous Judge, as unsealed and yet not wicked, but persons who have suffered rather than done wrong. For not every one who is not bad enough to be punished is good enough to be honoured; just as not every one who is not good enough to be honoured is bad enough to be punished. (Oration 40.23)

      There is also the “Augustinian” Tradition in which unbaptized infants go straight to Gehenna eternally.

  22. Forgive me, as this may sound like a small point, but I don’t believe the common use of the word “hope” is the same as how it’s used in the New Testament Scriptures, especially in Hebrews 11:1.

    We commonly use the word “hope”, but what we usually mean is “wish”. As in, “I don’t believe in – or preach – in the salvation of all, but I *hope* for it.” I don’t see anywhere in the Scriptures, or in the Holy Fathers, where we are taught to hope for anything that is not certain, that is not assured.

    In Hebrews 11:1, it states “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” As many know, the word “assurance” in English renders the Greek word “hypostasis”, used likely in its antique meaning of “substance.” As well, the word “conviction” in the second phrase carries with it the meaning of “evidence” and “proof”.

    We *hope* for the Resurrection of the Dead, because we believe – and know – that it will happen.

    We *hope* for the Second Coming of Christ in glory, because we believe – and know – that it will happen.

    We *hope* for the Restoration of all (things) (cf Acts 3:21, “apokatastasis”), because we believe – and know – that it will happen.

    We cannot *hope* for the salvation of all men (as persons), because we *know* that it will not happen, as Fr Damick has so well put it in his new essay.

    We should not waste our time on *hoping* for things as if fantasy were part of our Christian faith. God is not in the slightest unmerciful because some will suffer in Hell. We are the ones who don’t understand Him properly.

    Forgive me.

    We *hope*

    1. Perhaps “desire” would be a better word choice. God desires that all should be saved, as should we, but He knows and has revealed to us that not all will.

  23. My conception of the covenant of salvation is not a system but the body of divine promises.

    The Reformed say that Romans Ch. 9 etc. shows God to be a respecter of persons in the eternal Creation in that He picks out some to place within His covenant while leaving others out, and this is the difference between one sinner and another, and one in Hell but not another.

    As I understand what I believe as an Orthodox Christian, all men are chosen for the covenant. No one can say he was excluded. Does that mean all will be saved? I cannot say. Like our fathers among the saints, I can hope (for my own sake).

  24. St. Paul uses marriage as a metaphor for salvation. Is not marriage both covenant AND koinonia (union)?

  25. “For the wages of sin is death” I understand.
    “For the wages of sin is eternal life in hell, I don’t understand.

    “The soul that sins it shall die” I understand.
    “The soul that sins it shall live forever in torment, I don’t understand.

    “He who sows to his flesh will reap corruption…He who sow’s to the Spirit will reap everlasting life” I understand.
    “He who sows to his flesh will reap everlasting life in torment”, I don’t understand.

    “These shall be punished with everlasting destruction” I understand.
    “These shall be punished with everlasting torment”, I don’t understand.

    “Rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell” I understand.
    “Rather fear him who can torture both body and soul in Hell”, I cannot.

    “Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them…suffered the vengeance of eternal fire” (death), I understand.
    They are not suffering eternal torment.

    I even understand “these will go away into eternal punishment”, because death is an eternal sentence never to be returned from. Is this really the second death, or the second LIFE…..of torment?

    It seems God, who alone has immortality, is not said to give immortality to all, but that it is rendered only to those who seek it (Rom 2). This mortal puts on immortality and death is swallowed up in victory only in the redeemed (1 Cor 15). Christ saves and brings immortality to light through the gospel (2 Tim 1).

    Scripture repeatedly says God gives eternal life to those who believe and are baptized into Christ, and that this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life, he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. Yet eternal life would be required for eternal conscious torment. Eternal life is said to be given, in fact to be “put on” by Persons in Christ, not just human nature due to the Incarnation.

    No matter how you slice it….eternal, personal, conscious torment would find it’s cause in the divine energies. To exist in eternal conscious darkness with God as it’s direct sustaining cause, seems incompatible with our God who is light, and in him is no darkness at all.

  26. The debate about universalism has been closed by the Holy Spirit in 553 A.D. (it’s not so hard to understand, even for minds of fallen men):

    9. If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary, and will one day have an end, AND that a restoration (ἀποκατάστασις) will take place of demons and of impious men, let him be anathema.

    10. Anathema to Origen ….., who set forth these opinions together with his nefarious and execrable and wicked doctrine and anyone who holds to these thoughts, protects them and by any other way and reason will dare to repeat them.

    For details => http://mission-center.com/en/publications/2243-sysoev-5-sobor-i-origenizm

    In fact, the debate should not even be started, because our Lord (the Word of God, you know…) states UNEQUIVOCALLY against these possibilities in SEVERAL Gospels’ passages.

    Therefore, understand this: whoever stands by these doctrines is under anathema, and commune unworthily to the Body and the Blood of the Lord.

    All the priests teaching these heresies should be severely reprimanded by their bishops, who ought to intervene urgently, and defrocked if they do not desist from spreading this spiritual poison to their flock. The bishops “must give account”, St. Paul says!

    Economy cannot be administered to the shepherds in our times, which are evil as never before. Today the secular powers are entirely in the hands of the enemy and outside the Church men are educated by the devil since the birth; it’s NOT tolerable that errors and lies and fantasies attack them even inside the Church.

    As for the laymen, I beg them to stop thinking that Christianity (i.e. Orthodoxy) is something negotiable. Do not come to the Church to be pleased, come to the Church to please Christ.

    Stop the madness to impute to God the wickedness of men! Everybody will have earned his lot. To avoid that some men would end up in eternal sufferings (thanks to THEIR free choices), God could only create us in bondage, slaves (but what good slaves could be to the Almighty?), or do not create us at all! What is better?

    The eternity is for the age to come, when our Lord will come again, this time in His Glory, and no evil will be allowed into His Kingdom.
    Until that time, even dead people can still escape a terrifying lot, but only through the prayers of the Church (and everyone of you is a member of the Church). Therefore, do not waste your time with eclectic bags of hot air and gnostic inanities, but pray unceasingly and give alms for the dead. And watch yourself against wolves in sheep clothes, who misunderstand Christianity for their feelings and emotions, their fantasies, and lead astray the little ones.


  27. The idea that the concept of “covenant” is not an Orthodox idea is bizarre, and it misunderstands what a covenant is in the first place. A “covenant” is not something which “exists” independently of God or which is created by God. Instead, covenant is a mode of describing a relationship between one person and another. If one carefully surveys the biblical covenants from Adam to Christ, one will find that in each and every case, the relationship is that of a father to a son. Adam is the son of God (Genesis 5:1-2) and Abraham’s family is a corporate Adam. God is tutoring His son through the Torah in preparation for the time when the Eternal Son (the prototype for Adam and Israel, after all) takes on the flesh of Israel so that He might bring God’s adopted son to maturity and give him rule over the kingdom.

    I even think the so-called “five steps” of the biblical covenant can be mapped onto God’s eternal Trinitarian life. The Spirit is the seal of the unity of Father and Son, so the Spirit binds every covenant together- even the marriage covenant is mapped onto this model. The husband is the head of the wife as God is the head of Christ, as St. Paul says.

  28. One more thing, with respect to the issue of the relationship between kingdom and covenant. Covenant always includes the idea of kingdom. Covenants are always mediated by kings. God cuts the covenant with Abraham after he receives bread and wine from a king. God’s covenant at Sinai is mediated through Moses, who is a royal figure in the Pentateuch (see “Royal Motifs in the Pentateuchal Portrayal of Moses” by Danny Matthews). The Davidic covenant is royal. The reorganization of Israel after the exile comes with Zerubbabel as crown prince. And the new covenant is mediated by Jesus Christ, king of kings. The Eucharist is a feast which the king celebrates surrounded by His princes and princesses.

    Covenants describe the relationships which organize a kingdom.

  29. Although this was implied in at least one other post, for a text to be about something such as ‘covenant’ does not mean that the word must explicitly mentioned. Fr. Stephen alludes to this when he refers to ‘torah’ or ‘law’. It is a little like saying that marriage is not central to a text that is about husband and wife just because it is not explictly referenced more than once or twice.

  30. Interesting debate. Thanks. According to YouTube Eastern Orthodoxy is Universalist but I’m not reading you gentlemen that way….

    The gentleman giving the explanation did a good job of describing the normal Protestant version of the situation.

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