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.