The Pastoral Malpractice of Preaching Universalism

Synaxis of All the Saints (From Wikimedia Commons)
Synaxis of All the Saints
(From Wikimedia Commons)

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.

—St. Paisios the Athonite

We began a series on universalism here at O&H with Fr. Stephen De Young’s piece from the Biblical record. He showed that the overarching narrative of Scripture precludes all forms of universalism (however one arrives at them). More pieces are to come, further addressing the Scripture and the teachings of the Fathers.

Today, I’d like to address the pastoral problem of preaching universalism. This piece is not about whether universalism is true based on the Scriptures, the Fathers or the liturgical life, but rather about its effect on preaching.

It’s one thing to hold these views privately, even to discuss them or blog about them, etc. But if universalism is really the truth, then it should be proclaimed from the rooftops, because it has a radical effect on everything in the spiritual life. It has to be preached. And if it’s not universally preachable, then how can it be true? We’re not talking about the details of fasting or church administration here, but about the final destiny of all mankind. This is not something that can remain on the level of private opinion. It has to be preached. So what is the effect of preaching it?

Universalism is, in brief, the teaching that all must be saved. Some have used the word hope to describe their particular version of universalism, but that’s a disingenuous use of hope. To hope for something is not to say that it must happen. Hope admits the possibility that it may not happen but that we desire it anyway. Hoping that all may be saved is part of what it means to be Christian. Teaching that all will be saved is universalism.

This is a critical distinction, because how one preaches Christ radically changes based on how that turns.

In the historic teaching of the Church, preaching can be summarized with the words of the Lord and of His saints: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Preaching is essentially an exhortation to repentance. It is the command to do something—to repent—because something is happening—the Kingdom is coming.

But how would you frame this preaching if universalism is true?

Assuming that all will be saved no matter what, why exactly should people be exhorted to repent? It may be that your variety of universalism admits of some kind of suffering that takes place before the final salvation of all (i.e., some form of purgatory), so perhaps repentance will simply eliminate or shorten that suffering.

But the problem still remains: What happens if we don’t repent in this life? Well, we still get to the Kingdom anyway.

Repentance is hard in this life, and any possible suffering in the next life seems far away and is hard to be afraid of. That is true even for historic Christianity, to say nothing of universalism. But in the universalist teaching, any future suffering has no permanent character, anyway. So why suffer now, when I can enjoy life now, in order to prevent suffering in the future, which I won’t have any power over then and will eventually be over, anyway?

Now, none of this is to say that Christians struggle for salvation only because we are afraid of future suffering. We struggle for salvation because of what salvation means—union with God, adoption as His sons and daughters, healing of our spiritual wounds. But there is certainly a warning in “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” If universalism is true, that’s not much of a warning.

One can say that fear is a bad motivator for repentance, as some universalists do, but saying that doesn’t escape the reality that the Gospel is an exhortation to do something because something bad will happen if you don’t. And just because fear might be a “bad” motivator doesn’t mean that there is nothing to be afraid of. That’s just judging someone’s feelings rather than dealing with the object of those feelings. Wanting to avoid damnation is rational, even if one is not trembling while one does so.

Even if you take fear of damnation out as the motivator for repentance, there is still an “or else” present. That is, even if my motivation is love for God, if I do not repent, then my love goes unfulfilled because I did not repent. There is still a permanent consequence for a lack of repentance.

But universalism ultimately takes away all consequences.

That is why the recently canonized St. Paisios calls this a “trap of Satan,” because its effect is precisely to tell those listening to universalist preaching that they really do not have to struggle. It’s optional. And in absolute universalism, wherein there is no kind of suffering in the afterlife that could be allayed by struggle in this life, struggle is not only optional, but it’s actually pointless. Why struggle at all if you know everything is going to be just fine, no matter what you do?

And preaching universalism is most insidious if it is not true—even if there is any possibility that it might not be true. If it is not true, then telling people that they will be saved no matter what (even that they might be saved no matter what) is to encourage them to sin and therefore to cast them out of the Kingdom. That reality has to be faced by those who say they “hope” that it is true. If there is even a small possibility that it is not true, then preaching it is the most harmful thing you can do.

If you are going to be preaching, then you want the full weight of the Church’s tradition, especially in the Scriptures and the liturgical life, behind what you are saying. Yet everywhere in the Scripture and in our liturgical life—especially, for instance, during Great Lent and particularly on the Sunday of the Last Judgment—we see warnings telling us to repent because the end is drawing near. We see warnings about “fire eternal,” even in the funeral service (a place where one might expect to see universalist “hope” writ large).

In universalism, there is no ultimate risk in how you live your life. The judgment will ultimately be the same for everyone—”not guilty.” There are no goats, only sheep. When Christ says, “Depart from me, for I never knew you,” He is talking to no one at all. There is absolutely nothing to be concerned about.

Prayer is pointless. Asceticism is pointless. Baptism is pointless. The list goes on—in the end, all spiritual life is reduced to a “spirituality” whose sole purpose is to give some kind of consolation in this life but has no critical effect on the next. Why bother with curing one’s wounds in this life if there’s a total restoration for everyone just around the corner in the next? Preaching universalism is like a doctor telling his patient not to bother taking his medicines or exercising, because he can never die.

Just how would you give a universalist sermon that includes repentance? “Repent if you want to, but you’ll be fine no matter what”? “Repent, because that’s great for now, but even if you don’t, no one will hold it against you”? I struggle to see the critical necessity for repentance in the teaching of universalism. It is not critical in any eternal sense.

Now, some might say that everyone will repent no matter what. So, of course repentance is needed, but everyone will do it. But this again obviates any need for this message to be preached. Why bother exhorting anyone to repent if they’re going to do it no matter what? It would be like exhorting my heart to keep pumping blood. It’s going to do it whether I will it to or not.

In this, universalist preaching is like hard Calvinist preaching—an exercise in futility. For that sort of Calvinist, only those whom God forces to repent will do so, but for the universalist, the same is true, only God will indeed be forcing everyone to repent. Preaching becomes merely a prediction rather than an exhortation.

Some might say that preaching universalism actually would be the best kind of preaching, that the message of guaranteed salvation for all would produce a great inspiration for those who hear it. But does it? It’s not like there aren’t whole denominations that teach universalism and we have no idea what the effect of their preaching is. Their story is of radical decline. Why? Because if there is no risk involved, then there is no motivation to repent.

Repentance is necessary before one can be motivated by the love of God. Repentance is the first step toward salvation. If you really do not have to repent, if salvation is a guaranteed benefit, then there is no reason to change one’s way of life. It is a kind of spiritual welfare, where everyone gets it no matter what. Welfare in this life might be a necessary social safety net, but when was the last time you heard of an army of welfare recipients rising up in loving patriotism for their benefactors? That’s just not how human beings work.

None of this is to say that traditional Christian teaching on eternal suffering means that we can predict who will or will not be saved, even regarding all mankind. But the possibility for eternal condemnation actually does exist. Jesus is talking to someone when He sends them off to damnation, and it’s not demons, either. That’s the judgment of mankind we’re talking about.

Repentance is a gift of God to man. It is the gift of being able to change and that change making a difference in one’s eternal disposition. Universalism takes that away, because it says it’s ultimately pointless.

In the end, even if universalism might be true (which I believe it is not), it is still wrong to preach it. Why?

If universalism is true, yet the preaching is against it, then no harm is ultimately done, even if preaching against it may be needlessly painful for some in this life. Everyone will still be saved.

But if universalism is not true, yet one preaches in favor of it, then one has just opened the gateway to outer darkness even wider.

Let’s not do that. Let’s continue to preach: Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.


  1. I am glad that more attention is finally being paid to this growing movement in Orthodoxy. I have been following Eclectic Orthodoxy for a couple years now. I find much of the content brilliant but have struggled personally with the persistence in the universalist message. Please continue to address this issue in ever deeper and well defended ways. The newly coined term “infernalist”, as well as scoffing at the “un-loving” nature of those who hold, what I have thought was, a traditional view, is to me, a sure sign of deception.

    One major problem I have with universalism is suffering, but not in the way you mention here. Actual pain and suffering experienced by people in the world. Why would a God make himself difficult to see for so many, allow them to suffer so greatly, and create a faith which has divided so many, simply to turn around and say, “Hey guys, you really took life a little too seriously. I would have told you sooner but hey, you are happy now that it is over right?”

    Why are we here? What purpose could a mortal life hold for us if we could just wait until we have been released from the trappings of our flesh to more clearly see our creator? God becomes truly sadistic if universalism is true in my opinion. Life and death have no purpose when we have an eternity to figure it out. Does this mean I must see someone else suffer to find peace? No. I am still in danger myself. Does this mean I know how God will judge the unreached? No. I work to better myself for them and me. I agree. With so much tradition and scripture warning us of eternal hell, how could one rightly spread a message that could prove so harmful? I hope for but will not teach universalism. I thought this was the position of the Church.

    Please continue this series while addressing the points of Fr. Kimmel carefully and with complete love.

    1. I like what you say about universalism making God sadistic. To me this seems very clear. If all are absolutely going to be saved, then God is nothing short of evil for dragging this all out. If our saying yes or no to God has no ultimate significance, then we are being tortured for absolutely nothing.

    2. Drew, a few points.

      When I have talked with others about my universalism I have tried to think of a simple term that describes what I oppose. I thought about the word hellists, but we believe in hell too, maybe even more strongly than you do. I couldn’t for the life of me think of an easy term to use for those who really believe in everlasting torment as the fate of most of mankind. So when I saw Fr Aidan use the term infernalist I wasn’t surprised. When you have to use a term over and over you really do have to find one single word that will suffice. So you will have to be content with “infernalist.” If it gives the impression that we think you WANT people to suffer for ever and ever, that is totally unintended. So we have a very lame word for your position. We likewise have to be content with the very lame word “universalist” for our position even though that word puts us in with the nambi pambi versions of a sort of Unitarian universalism that we see assumed here on this site. No one has been able to come up with a better word for either side.

      As for scoffing at that “unloving nature” of the infernalists, I see almost no disrespect on Fr Aidan’s site. And from Fr Aidan’s posts and comments I don’t believe a single word of scorn toward a person could leave his lips.

      In fact, the one comment that could appear most like scoffing would be my own comment. But I had no scorn in me for any person, including any priest, however much I am so diametrically opposed to their position. In most of my past, the question of unending torment has been one of incredible angst with me, and I finally came to the conclusion that it would be okay, even good, to voice my opinion about it. But there is a difference between one’s position and the person behind it. I have a friend named Maximus who has beliefs virtually identical to those of the Maximus who has been commenting here. I can say to him freely that I think the belief that God can torment someone in hell forever and ever for no loving purpose is barbaric and that it blasphemes the character of God. And he can toss out to me that I need to acquiesce to the teaching of the Church. And I can retort, “the Church has not dogmatized any position,” and, “your attitude is so callous toward those who die unrepentant, and I would have to cut out my heart to believe there is no hope for them.” But even a difference that great between us cannot take away the deep respect and acceptance we have for each other that our very position in Christ gives us. We remain good friends and I truly love him. So basically we just don’t make a personal issue of it. We are all brothers and sisters in the body of Christ and we all need to reach down to the love that is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit and act from that love. I trust that the people here will do likewise. I do not believe harm can come from this if neither “side” belittles the other with caricatures and each side truly tries to understand what the other is saying. Besides, I think Fr Andrew thrives on debate. 🙂

      On that note, God bless.

      1. As for scoffing at that “unloving nature” of the infernalists, I see almost no disrespect on Fr Aidan’s site. And from Fr Aidan’s posts and comments I don’t believe a single word of scorn toward a person could leave his lips.

        So nominating three saints of the Orthodox Church (including one of the greatest — St. John Chrysostom) as “President of the Hellfire Club” doesn’t count as scorn? Sorry, but anyone who mocks Chrysostom is hardly being respectful.

        Besides, I think Fr Andrew thrives on debate.

        Not really, to be honest. But since I regard universalism as, in St. Paisios’s words, “a trap of Satan,” I think it’s worth earnestly contending for the truth so as not to let people fall into the trap.

        You know what I would be interested in? An actual statement of “This is what I believe as a universalist.” Because I’ve seen lots of “But you’re missing all the nuances of what I believe!” without actually stating what they are. And I’ve also missed how the cases that have been made here against universalism don’t actually apply to whatever boutique permutation of it a particular person buys into.

        Regarding this neologism infernalists, it’s really just an attempt to put a sectarian label on a view that is decidedly un-sectarian. Orthodoxy is not an “ism” of any sort. The eternality of the punishment of the wicked is so broadly embraced within Orthodoxy that believing it is simply part of what it means to be an Orthodox Christian. It’s everywhere in the tradition.

        That said, if a case is made that precludes all universalism, it doesn’t actually matter if one makes a case that specifically addresses some particular variety of it.

        1. You know what I would be interested in? An actual statement of “This is what I believe as a universalist.”

          I’ve been bemoaning that someone hasn’t come on and done this very thing. Well, it is right there in St. Isaac. Reading Fr Aidan’s series on him would be a good start. Also reading George MacDonald’s Our God is a Consuming Fire would summarize it up pretty well. You can find that also at Fr Aidan’s site. Repentance is extremely crucial in both these portrayals. It’s actually all about repentance.

          A personal quick version seems so impossible and that is what makes this conversation so frustrating. But I will try. For me it begins and ends with what Love is, what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves. It comes from my having to be totally dependent on God to love anybody at all. As a child and young adult, I went through an experience of extreme isolation and a total lack of love and/or connection with anybody. I would say I was definitely experiencing a taste of hell. It is in coming out of that hell, being dependent on God to show me what love is, that put me on the path of universalism. As I submitted to God (I think I said “Thy will be done” the way we in Orthodoxy say the Jesus prayer), and as I learned to trust God by “letting go and letting God” I had my first experience of real affection: I had a baby. I felt that I loved that baby more than anybody could possibly love anyone. Yet while he was still a baby I had a dream that he was murdered. I woke up crying, but it was not for my precious baby. I was crying for the murderer, for the animal-like inhuman thing he had become. I cried because I had been just such a person. I cried because people would say there was no hope for him, that he might never repent, never be transformed into the beautiful creature he was meant to be. I knew that if my child truly had died I myself would be in so much in grief that I might die too. But it is far worse to be in the murderer’s state. I know because I have experienced it. So now, when I see a hopeless, vacuous murderer I still cry. But I look at him and say, “I believe God. God is love. His love will not fail.” All the universalistic verses in the Bible – and there are so many! — simply took primacy over those that seemed to say otherwise, and the whole Bible started truly making sense. It was as simple as that.

          1. Without discounting your experience, I honestly don’t see anything in it that necessitates embracing universalism. I also believe that God’s love does not fail. But I don’t believe that God’s love will take away the freedom which He first gave to mankind by creating him in His image.

            To me, universalism is actually not an act of love on God’s part, but an act of coercion: “You must love Me. There. All better.”

      2. I’m no expert on the teachings of the Holy Fathers, but I do know scripture pretty well. And nowhere have I ever read or heard within the written and oral Tradition that God is the direct agent of torment. That concept is where the twisting of the concept of Hell became the equivalent of God actively “torturing” people there. But these two concepts are not synonymous, as you are trying to insinuate here. Torturing someone is an active participation in causing agony in another person, through a diabolical personal act. Torment does not necessarily imply an acting external agent, but can just as easily be from an internal source.

        If I’m wrong about how the Fathers described it, I’m open to hearing it. But I wouldn’t be surprised of their use of any word similar to “torture” was a mistranslation.

  2. Excellent response, dear Father, on what seems to be the latest Orthodox fad. I can’t help but wonder sometimes if the universalist message does not have particular resonance with our culture because we have lost our sense of sin. Many decry the concept of the wrath of God as unloving, but to one who is ashamed of his sins, such wrath seems simply the corollary of His goodness. Anyway, thank you again for your work.

    1. No, Father Lawrence. For us Orthodox universalists it is because we are super aware of the hellish abyss of our own lower nature that we have pity for those still trapped in it. There is an ontological oneness that comes when we love by the grace of God our enemies and whatever remains human in them, no matter how vile they may be. We identify as Christ identified with those in prison, those imprisoned by slavery to sin.

        1. Since I come to universalism only through experience I can’t argue with this. I am not trying to prove universalism. I am only trying to clear up some misconceptions – and this particular misconception was that universalism seems to imply an unawareness of sin.

    1. I’m not competent to write anathemas, not being a synod.

      That said, anathemas are reserved for those who unrepentantly persist in heresy when examined by the appropriate authorities. Does that describe St. Gregory of Nyssa?

      Even if he was a universalist (which is contested, actually), that he made such an error does not mean he has to be subject to anathema.

      Let me also remind you that this post is about the effects of preaching universalism. Thanks!

      1. Maybe the issues dove-tail better than they might seem. To be consistent with his thought (it seems to me), Gregory’s universalism would have to be speculative rather than metaphysical. In other words, Gregory thinks that human beings really are free to reject God (thus eternal separation from God is a genuine possibility), but he just plain doesn’t think anyone really will do that once all things are revealed to all people.

        That’s fair enough as speculation, I think. Maybe he’s even right. God certainly hopes that he is.

        Yet, while Gregory does seem to have held a “universalist” view in this speculative sense, it is very hard for me to construe him as someone who “preached” universalism in the sense that “preach” is being used here. Gregory exhorts us to repentance and virtue all the time, while his universalism is explicated in only a small group of passages, and is not highlighted as a crucial issue.

        When it comes to preaching, then, Gregory seems to have appreciated that one must treat human beings as genuinely free (which they are), and thus the priority is to encourage them to seek God, rather than telling everyone to rest assured that they will be saved in the end no matter what. His witness in this respect, then, would seem quite consistent with the message of Fr Andrew’s piece here.

    2. Anathematize St. Gregory of Nyssa??

      St. Vincent of Lerins:

      …as though fanning smouldering embers into flame, they blow upon the memory of each holy man, and spread an evil report of what ought to be buried in silence by bringing it again under notice, thus treading in the footsteps of their father Ham, who not only forebore to cover the nakedness of the venerable Noah, but told it to the others that they might laugh at it, offending thereby so grievously against the duty of filial piety, that even his descendants were involved with him in the curse which he drew down, widely differing from those blessed brothers of his, who would neither pollute their own eyes by looking upon the nakedness of their revered father, nor would suffer others to do so, but went backwards, as the Scripture says, and covered him, that is, they neither approved nor betrayed the fault of the holy man, for which cause they were rewarded with a benediction on themselves and their posterity.

  3. This article relies on pretty uncharitable caricatures of the universalist position. I am surprised it was even published. I will say more when I have time, unless someone better fit for the task responds first.

      1. Forgive me. I spoke hastily. What I should have said I’d that the conclusions you draw from the universalist position seem poorly thought out. As I said previously, I will say more if I find the time.

  4. I will post what I posted on Ecelectic Orthodoxy and add something to it as well with some of my own questions based on the text I cite below:

    “Historical linguistic analysis of ancient Hebrew has habitually proceeded on the assumption that the Hebrew language of the MT represents largely unchanged the actual language used by the original authors of biblical writings. We document this assumption in the work of some key Hebrew language scholars in 3.4. This assumption, however, is out of line with the consensus view of specialists on the history of the text of the Hebrew Bible, who consider that the details of the biblical writings were so fluid in their textual transmission that we have no way of knowing with any degree of certainty what the original of any biblical composition looked like.

    To summarize, the sources of data for ancient Hebrew are rather scanty compared to the evidence for other premodern languages, whether English or Akkadian or any one of many other languages.35 Additionally the non-biblical sources for ancient Hebrew—Hebrew inscriptions, the book of Ben Sira, and the non-biblical DSS—are rather inadequate “anchors” for comparison with the language of the Hebrew Bible because of significant differences related to corpora sizes, subjects, genres, registers, possibly dialects, and so on. These limitations have to be factored into any historical linguistic analysis. As for the Hebrew Bible itself, there are three principal manuscript sources: early and fragmentary biblical DSS manuscripts and late MT and SP manuscripts. In reality, however, all the textual evidence for the Hebrew Bible is relatively late. The oldest manuscript evidence is already quite removed from the times of the original authors. The Qumran scrolls date centuries, perhaps many centuries, and in some cases maybe even a millennium, after the origins of the biblical books or their constituent parts. Furthermore, results of literary and textual analyses, 36 and the analogy of production of other Ancient Near Eastern literature, show that biblical writings evolved over time through a complex writing and editing process. Therefore, to paraphrase Fischer’s statement, “because the texts of the Hebrew Bible are edited, they are, as it were, an interpretation of the primary material, and it could be said that they constitute secondary sources rather than primary ones in the diachronic study of ancient Hebrew.”37 In other words, from the perspective of general historical linguistic theory and method, there is no primary evidence for BH; the evidence is secondary (DSS, MT, SP) or tertiary (i.e., translational: Septuagint [LXX], Old
    Latin, etc.) or tangential (inscriptions, non-biblical DSS, etc.). In short, the textual witnesses are nonauthentic, composite, and largely unsituated in time and place.38″ (pgs. 59-60;67)

    -“Historical Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew” by Robert Rezeth and Ian Young

    (Note: DSS–Dead Sea Scrolls; MT–Masoretic Text; SP–Samaritan Pentateuch; BH–Biblical Hebrew)

    So, if Robert Rezeth and Ian Young are correct in their book, “Historical Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew,” from a historical linguistic analysis, which I have no reason to doubt, concerning the texts of the Hebrew Bible that are interpretations of the primary sources, i.e., secondary or tertiary evidence, then why do we have anyone claiming any authority as to what the Bible actually says? And, not knowing what the original of any Biblical composition looked like, how can anyone be certain as to what the Bible claims, really?
    I would like to know whether historical linguistic analysis is taught in seminaries of any stripe within Christianity, and if so, how much emphasis is given to this, and if not, then why not?

    As an Eastern Orthodox Christian (Romanian) who is also a Christian Universalist, I must ask myself questions as to what the Holy Fathers of the Church have based their ideas on, if not the Biblical texts, and if only the Biblical texts, how could they have developed something that carried canonical legitimacy over time? I never understood either why within the Protestant world of Christianity, anyone would claim inerrancy or infallibility of the Biblical text–the linguistic/philological evidence does not support such a notion, whatsoever.

    1. So your argument is that, because the Bible is such an unreliable text, we really can’t say anything about anything? How is this different from liberal Protestantism?

      The Orthodox Church doesn’t approach the Bible that way. Its authority arises within the authoritative interpretive community, i.e., the Church. It doesn’t matter that the canon itself is an interpretation, because the canon is the not source of authority but rather an expression of it.

    2. Your comment here fails to take into account the radical difference between the Orthodox and Protestant view of Scripture. The concepts of inerrancy, infallibility, and inspiration that you cite here are all subsets of a sola scriptura theology that the Orthodox Church has never taught, in that they are the cornerstones for an argument that Scripture has authority in and of itself. No text in the Orthodox Church has authority in and of itself. What gives a text its authority is its canonization by Christ’s Church. Christ is the Word of God, and Christ possesses all authority in heaven and on earth. The Church canonized a list of books to be read in the churches because they bear witness accurately to the Risen, Living Christ whom they knew personally.

      But it cannot be understated how important it is that there is no particular quality of the text as text or the author of the text that makes it Scripture, or which makes a post-Scriptural writing in the Church carry authority. If genius were the qualifier, Origen would be a saint. If Apostolic authorship, then the Epistle of Barnabas would be in the canon. If Petrine authority, then I Clement would be in the canon. And so on.

      With regard to the Old Testament, the Fathers were perfectly aware that the Old Testament documents were the result of a long process of compilation, editing, etc. The early Fathers still lived in an era in which multiple recensions of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and other books were in simultaneous circulation. St. Jerome comments offhand that Ezra edited together the Pentateuch and was responsible for writing certain portions after the Exile as if it were non-controversial and public knowledge. They were consciously aware that they were not only choosing a set of documents, but particular forms of each of those documents, to promulgate as canonical for reading in the churches.

      As St. Gregory Palamas taught, there are those few holy men in every generation to whom our Lord chooses to reveal Himself personally, who come to know Him face to face. The rest of us can either believe and trust in their testimony, and through it come to know Christ as well, or we can doubt and reject it and be ignorant of Him. This begins with the Scriptures. We know that we can trust the teachings of Scripture about Christ because those who have known Him have told us that they, in their canonized form, are accurate.

  5. Daniel,

    I do not understand your comment:

    “I like what you say about universalism making God sadistic. To me this seems very clear. If all are absolutely going to be saved, then God is nothing short of evil for dragging this all out. If our saying yes or no to God has no ultimate significance, then we are being tortured for absolutely nothing.”

    Are you saying there is no point to all this evil and suffering unless some of us go to heaven and some of us go to hell? In other words, you would understand the suffering and pain in this world if God took your son or daughter to hell, but you would not understand the pain and suffering if he did not?

    I say, “son or daughter”, to put this into proper perspective. All of us are someone’s son or daughter, someone’s brother or sister, mother or father. Tell me, which of us should go to hell in order to make sense of all the suffering? Should I go?

    1. To sentimentalize this doesn’t change its basic character. Does anyone who believes in the eternality of Hell actually want people there? I sure don’t. The question is whether it’s true.

      This raises a big problem, though, and it’s again, a pastoral problem. If all sinful acts will eventually be wiped out forever and all consequences of them totally removed, then that actually means that history itself has no meaning. What we do in this life will, no matter what we do, not make any difference in the age to come. If you labor intensely, you will be saved. If you forget about it entirely, you will be saved. If you spend your life dedicated to others, they will be saved. If you spend your life destroying others, they will be saved.

      To borrow crassly from Gladiator, what we do in life does not echo into eternity. What we do here ultimately does not matter on way or the other. Oh, it may matter temporarily (assuming that the eschaton is subject to linear time, which is a big and problematic assumption), but it ultimately doesn’t matter.

      Universalism actually eviscerates one of the key elements of Jewish and Christian metaphysics—that history matters and that it carries into eternity.

      1. Fr. Andrew,

        Fr. Florovsky also said that apokatastasis is a negation and rejection of history.

          1. Fr. Andrew,

            Fr. Staniloae also has something pertinent to say as to why repenting in eternity would negate history:

            [O]ur existence on earth has a unique, decisive importance. Time is its exclusive form, and this gives time a decisive value, a value that corresponds to that of eternity. Historical life on earth is raised above relativity if obtaining the absolute life in God depends solely on it. It becomes absolute through participation, to translate the patristic expression “deification through participation.” Thus time is also a grace. Eternity cannot be transformed into gradual new decisions and acts; this would mean it was transformed into time.

            On the contrary, if time is eternal, if it continues eternally like an infinite pool, it loses its decisive significance, and every historical act loses its unique importance. Anything can be done anytime; anything can be repaired anytime, in a relative sense. Nothing is bound to a certain historical moment, to a certain person. There is no real progress; everything becomes a tiring uniformity. There is no rush to respond to any appeal. One can postpone responding as long as one likes. With the knowledge that there is an endless time to decide, one can keep postponing the decision. Eternity is not a setting for new decisions, nor is endless time a setting that requires a pressing decision. This is why eternity is only the setting within which we reap the eternal benefit of decisions in time. Eternal time is no longer a setting for real perfection.

            There is no longer anything wrong with postponing the fulfillment of a decision as much as possible; there is no longer anything wrong with not doing the requested good now. In this case the philosophy of torpor appears as the wisest course. In the eternal dominion of this sort of time, there is no decisive period of existence.

            But if there is no longer a time for obligatory decisions, then there is no importance attached to any one human person or another, nor to the totality of persons who are being perfected. That is, there is no longer any person who has a unique character linked to his own time. If we can still speak of persons, they are uniform. Any person can be killed because any other one can replace him. Neither one person nor all together can move time from its relativity, and such persons do not move toward the absolute so that they might become suitable for it. (The Experience of God Vol. 6: 32-33)

    2. No, what I am saying is that I can understand why God would allow suffering if:

      1. We are genuinely and totally free creatures.
      2. Our freedom is a beautiful and good thing.
      3. We and we alone, by way of our freedom, are the cause of sin and suffering.
      4. As we are free to sin, we are also free to turn back to God.
      5. God awaits this repentance in us, thus allows the world to keep going on because it keeps bearing the fruit of repentance.

      I think the Orthodox Church teaches all five of those things.

      If, however, #1 is not the case–if we are not truly free to the very core–then I can’t see how the logic of the other points can possibly follow. If God is going to over-ride our freedom in the end anyway to force us all into His Kingdom, then he should do it right now. Otherwise, why are we suffering here?

    3. I should also add that I think it’s perfectly Orthodox to say as a matter of speculation, “I don’t think anyone will really reject God when all is said and done.” I have often said that I’ve never met anyone who ever made me think they would honestly turn away from God when the full truth of all things is revealed.

      But it absolutely MUST be the case that we really and truly CAN reject him, even in the very end. Otherwise this is all madness.

      Hope that clarifies a bit.

    4. Uh, a little confused here. I am not a Biblical Scholar not even in a small way, but if I am correct in Matthew 24:34 (let’s spin the wheel and see which tranlation we stop on) okay the International Standard Version doesn’t the Lord say “I tell you with certanity, this generation will certainly not disappear until these things happen”? To me that sentence kind of quashes the reasoning behind the statement that would be making “God is a sadist” argument, because the way I see it a whole lot of generations have already passed. One more thing I was discussing the orthodox’s idea of hell with a Jewish friend of mine and he said we Jews do not believe in a hell. I then went and researched a bit and found it’s never mentioned in thethe Old Testament or the New in the way we have been taught to believe it to be as an eternal place. In factup not until North African Tertullian (160-220 A.D.) in Latin. He is considered to be the Father of the Latin Church. As of most of today’s Christian’s his view of hell was for people he didn’t not like or who did not agree with him and then the next step was fantazied about the “wicked”. Still the person who by far is responsible for this concept in the Western Church is of course St. Augustine (354-430 CE) who had been made Bishop of Hippo in North Africa (go figure). He had little knowledge of Greek and said he didn’t like it when he tried to learn it and in his misunderstanding of the language cemented the concept from then till now. Just a believer seeking the truth and who is really tired of all the disagreements in Christianity that has caused so much pain.

  6. My utmost respect for Fr Damick. The role that his podcast has had in my conversion simply cannot be overstated.

    That said, I have some disagreements with this article that I hope come across the right way and not as coming from a place of pride or anger or any of that.

    First of all, I agree with the underlying point (that preaching universalism is unwise). Metropolitan Kallistos, despite having written one of the more influential pieces in favor of universalist hope, also would defend that point. He relays Origin’s thoughts in ‘Against Celsus’ where he advised that the doctrine of universal reconciliation ‘be kept secret; for, if preached openly to the immature, it will lead them to become careless and indifferent’.

    My first issue is where you say ‘if it’s not universally preachable, then how can it be true?’

    I don’t see how this is logically true as it is quite possible for there to be issues on which the church is not dogmatic and yet picking one side over the other in the mystery could be harmful if preached universally. Darwinian evolution springs to mind. Evolution may accurately describe the process by which God effected the diversity of life, yet preaching it universally before all the facts are known may be unwise (as would preaching a young earth model). Things of which we have incomplete knowledge of now are better left to mystery, especially when they cause division.

    A minor quibble was when you said ‘Universalism is, in brief, the teaching that all must be saved’

    Perhaps this is the normative definition for Christian Universalists? I do not know, but this is not the one I was exposed to. The ‘must’ seems to harken to Origin’s Apocatastasis wherein the salvation of all mankind was basically a logical necessity stemming from the immortality of the soul. An alternative definition, and one that I think is more than just wordplay, is that Universalism is the teaching that all ‘will’ be saved. So what’s the difference? The difference is that God has ‘chosen’ or ‘willed’ that all be saved. It is God’s choice to extend grace, not necessity, that would lead to the salvation of all. In the first definition, salvation is the expected outcome, in the second, salvation is an unexpected work of God who chooses to pursue us to the end of the earth and beyond.

    The remainder of the arguments against the preaching of universalism seem to presuppose a very simplified view of it. The Christian universalist view that I am most familiar with is much more nuanced and, I believe, nullifies many if not all of the issues that were brought up in this article. (I know the article’s communicated purpose is to dissuade one from preaching universalism, but many of the arguments seem to target universalist theology directly so I’ll address those arguments instead of arguing for the preaching of universal reconciliation, which I would not agree with in any case)

    A universalist theology that ignores the biblical verses on judgement and punishment can hardly be called Christian, in my humble opinion. Punishment is real, hell is real, the sheep and the goats are real. Furthermore, hell is awful. Whatever the details of the experience are, the one thing we do know about hell is that it is to be avoided at all costs. But must it be eternal in duration in order to be an effective deterrent? I don’t see why that would necessarily be the case. While hell is probably not a physical place, one can imagine all sorts of extreme physical torments ranging from medieval tortures, ww2 concentration camps, and beyond which one would not wish to experience for a second, let alone a year, or an aeon. The spiritual torments experienced in hell resulting from a rejection of God’s love could easily be as bad or worse than these physical torments.

    But how could God, who my patron Saint John the Evangelist EQUATES with love, bear for this torment to go on forever? How could he cease to pursue us, we who he had previously said he would leave the 99 for? We Orthodox reject the heinous notion that hell is the absense of God or complete separation from him. God is everywhere and fills all things. So are we to believe that he sits there near to them who he will never save? That he sits and passively observes them who will experience endless torment to the ages?

    The issue of repentence is tied to the objection of free will. Your comparison of universalism to calvinism suggests the notion that all have no choice but to ultimately repent. It suspects universalism of negating free will. Again, I would argue that this is not necessarily the case. I believe strongly with the church that man has free will and that God will not force us to love him. However, I believe we go too far when we say that this logically means that all will not eventually freely repent. If we want to talk about the overall thrust of scripture, I contend that scripture unfailingly depicts the character of God as one who constantly pursues his wayward children. From the protoevangelium, to Israel as the unfaithful spouse, to the parable of the 99, to the prodigal son, to the cross itself, God never ceases to pursue us. Yes Adam and Eve are cast out, yes judgement comes to Israel, but God never stops pursuing. The judgement is always followed again by another offer of salvation, another move to restore us.

    The free will argument against universal reconciliation presupposes that the human will is a black box, an unsolvable rubix cube that will frustrate God forever. It forgets that God knows us better than we know ourselves; that he knows how we tick and thus, he knows how and how long it will take to eventually persuade us away from our path of destruction. Can we resist God’s attempts to woo us forever? I really don’t know, but I suspect not. The possibility relegates universal reconciliation to a hope for me. But whether it takes years or aeons or to the ages of ages, I have hope that eventually, the last holdout will finally stop running, and remember ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!’

    To summarize, I reject the notion that universal reconciliation removes the impetus for repentence. I also reject the notion that universalism negates free will. I agree that universal reconciliation is best left as a hope rather than something to be taught universally. Like Origin and Kallistos Ware, I think a simplistic view of universalism could do damage to the spiritual walk of an immature Christian (of whom I am the first!). However, whether it is true or not, I think it would be wise for all of us to be cautious with the subject and not to come down too hard on one side or the other until we see the truth for ourselves. Yes, St. Paisios has his opinion on the matter, but so does St. Isaac the Syrian and my own parish’s patron St Gregory of Nyssa, a universalist who not only believed in the doctrine, but preached it (if extant writings count as preaching)! All of these men were named as Saints by the church and all of these men are uncondemned by the church in their beliefs on the topic. As all of these men are above our pay grade, so to speak, I think the only Orthodox way to handle this topic is with absolute humility as we trust in the wisdom and mercy of Christ. However it plays out in the end, he is the judge of all the earth and will not the judge of all the earth do right?

    1. My first issue is where you say ‘if it’s not universally preachable, then how can it be true?’

      I don’t see how this is logically true as it is quite possible for there to be issues on which the church is not dogmatic and yet picking one side over the other in the mystery could be harmful if preached universally. Darwinian evolution springs to mind. Evolution may accurately describe the process by which God effected the diversity of life, yet preaching it universally before all the facts are known may be unwise (as would preaching a young earth model). Things of which we have incomplete knowledge of now are better left to mystery, especially when they cause division.

      I see what you are saying, but I am arguing that the level of importance of what is taught by universalism is so high that it cannot but be preached. This is in fact another Gospel, not just footnotes to the same Gospel about the details of how creation happened, etc. Universalism says something about the destiny of all mankind. This is of such high importance that it should either be shouted from the rooftops or denounced from them. This isn’t minor enough to be “left to mystery.”

      Whatever the details of the experience are, the one thing we do know about hell is that it is to be avoided at all costs. But must it be eternal in duration in order to be an effective deterrent?

      The permanence of Hell isn’t for the purpose of being an effective deterrent. It’s rather because of what Fr. Stephen wrote in his piece about the everlasting covenant God has with His people. In Matt. 25, the eternality of the reward of the righteous is expressed with exactly the same language as the eternality of the punishment of the wicked. So, if Hell isn’t permanent, there’s no reason to believe Heaven is, either. To go deeper, though (and other writers here will likely address this), this says something about the eternal kingship of Jesus. He is not eternally king if the eternality of His punishment given in Matt. 25 is actually not eternal. Does He stop loving the wicked (is it not His love which is what punishes them)? In other words, the soteriology of universalism leads to a distorted Christology, too—a kind of Arianism, in fact.

      This is in fact the argument St. Hilary makes against Arianism’s claim that Christ is not eternal — Christ is the eternal King, so that we can have an eternal reward and there is therefore an eternal punishment. (Credit to Nathaniel McCallum for informing me about that.)

      But how could God, who my patron Saint John the Evangelist EQUATES with love, bear for this torment to go on forever? How could he cease to pursue us, we who he had previously said he would leave the 99 for?

      How can God bear sin now? Does God get worn out after a long time? This line of questioning really leads only to one place, which is the denial of the human will—it is, in short, a Monergist soteriology. And that ultimately requires a Monoenergist/Monothelite Christology. One has to side with the Calvinists on the point that grace is, indeed, irresistible.

      To summarize, I reject the notion that universal reconciliation removes the impetus for repentence.

      As a pastor, I have to admit that that sounds utterly crazy to me. The way people parse “Everyone will be saved no matter what” is “So that means I don’t have to do anything.” Having been a parish priest for years now, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind about that. The quote from St. Paisios above says this clearly, but one could find lots of other quotes from the saints that essentially say exactly that. We have other posts coming which will address the patristic witness.

      I also reject the notion that universalism negates free will.

      Right, but your argument against it boils down to “I just can’t believe it” mixed in with “How can anyone really know?” Universalism does indeed negate free will. Indeed, it even calls into question the very nature of man. How can he really be created according to the image of God if he is not truly free to go his own way?

      There are also all kinds of cosmological problems here. The universalist argument against the permanence of Hell requires describing it as “people being tortured forever,” as though there will continue to be linear time. Supposedly it will be years and years, and so forth. But time as a created reality will come to an end at the eschaton. There will be no more temporal movement in the sense that we now experience. This is why the demons will not repent — they aren’t subject to linear time but exist in aionic time. When the end comes, we will all move into the aionic “time zone,” which is what makes the reward of the righteous eternal and the punishment of the wicked eternal in exactly the same way.

      Yes, St. Paisios has his opinion on the matter, but so does St. Isaac the Syrian and my own parish’s patron St Gregory of Nyssa, a universalist who not only believed in the doctrine, but preached it (if extant writings count as preaching)! All of these men were named as Saints by the church and all of these men are uncondemned by the church in their beliefs on the topic.

      But this is not Orthodoxy, to pick a few errors by a handful of saints from the early years of the Church and to ignore the overwhelming witness against those errors. If we were really to embrace universalism, do you realize how many saints we would have to condemn? Do you realize how much liturgical material would have to be rewritten? We’re talking a sea change here. Universalism stands condemned by the mighty stream of Church tradition. It is not some permissible little eddy that largely goes with the flow. If the Church has gotten this wrong, it calls everything into question. You literally cannot truly embrace universalism and keep Orthodoxy as it is. You’d need a reformation, one bigger even than the one the West had.

      But what you would have left would not be Orthodoxy.

      1. It’s obvious that part of the problem here is that people don’t know how to read the Holy Fathers. In reference to the Latins Church, that chose the teachings of St. Augustine and a few Latin Fathers over the greater Tradition of the Church, Ecumenical Patriarch Gennadios II as hilarious once remarked: “we believe in the Church; they in Augustine and Jerome.”

        Thus, it can be said: “we believe in the Church; the universalists in Sts. Gregory and Isaac”.

    2. Great comment, John. Thanks.

      Regarding nuances in the tradition about judgment (and bearing in mind the partial/particular judgment is final judgment for the individual in that his true spiritual disposition is revealed at this time and he can no longer change his own state, even though the general resurrection hasn’t yet happened), here is some pertinent information:

      “The intermediate state is dynamic until the return of Christ when each receives his due reward. The righteous go from glory to glory, participating in the light of Christ ever more, but even departed sinners may receive some relief from the pains of Hades, and may even be moved to Paradise by the prayers of the Church and the mercy of God. Bakogiannis teaches that it is certain that the soul feels relief at the very moment of our prayers, while the movement to Paradise is uncertain but not impossible.[115] Concerning relief from suffering, he also writes that after traveling through Hades the Theotokos entreated Christ to have mercy on the souls that suffer there and so they are given respite between Pascha and Pentecost each year, and for this reason the Royal Doors remain open, the Saturday of Pentecost is dedicated to the departed, and the third kneeling prayer of Pentecost is a supplication for the departed.[116] A pagan priest who suffered in Hell revealed to St. Macarius of Egypt in what this relief consists, saying: “When you show pity on those in Hell and pray for them, they find comfort … seeing, in a way, each others’ faces. That is the comfort.”[117] Thus they receive, however temporary, some respite from the discord and hatred that characterizes the sufferings of Hades.

      “Souls in Hades cannot pray for their own release from that prison, and we do not pray that the souls move from Hades to Paradise, but rather for God to take them to Paradise. A great gulf is fixed between the two which only God can cross. Again according to Bakogiannis, the dead are no longer masters of their own souls and in this sense no longer have free will, and thus our prayers for the departed are even more powerful than those we make for the living. Whereas the living often choose to reject God’s mercy, the dead are unable to make this decision and so it is easier for God to have mercy on them. [!] Thus the Church prays fervently for them in line with the will of God Who desires the salvation of all men. Likewise, Vassiliadis writes: ‘With our removal to the other life, the door for confession and repentance, that is, for personal decision and action worthy to move the compassion of the impartial Judge, is definitely closed.'[118]”

      Bakogiannis, Archimandrite Vasilios. After Death. Trans. W. J. Lillie. Katerini: Tertios, 1995.
      Bakoyannis, Vasilios. The Mother of Christ: the Mother of God. Athens: Orthodox Book Centre,

      (Emphases mine.)

      From here:

      For a full appreciation of the entire context for this discussion and all the nuances of allowing a realistic hope for the salvation of all, rooted in a faithful Orthodox understanding of the nature of Hades, judgment, repentance, and the mercy and power of God, as a theologumen (sp?) in the Church (which I believe is all that is being asked–I haven’t noticed Fr. Aidan, nor others of his persuasion or something close to it, advocating the preaching of Universalism as it is presented here), it would be good to read the whole article at that link, though it is long.

      1. But the problem is that universalism can’t be a theologoumenon, a permissible theological opinion that is consistent with the tradition of the Church. Why? For one thing, it isn’t consistent with the Church’s tradition.

        But perhaps more importantly, it is because universalism is a teaching about the final destiny of all mankind. That is a major soteriological claim. It’s way too big to be a merely private opinion.

        That one person or another isn’t advocating preaching about the final destiny of all mankind does not mean that it really is just best left as a private opinion. It means that they either don’t see how important that teaching really is or they want to keep it a secret. In the first case, I am simply baffled. In the second, I cannot but help regarding that as either cruel or cowardly.

        1. Perhaps not Universalism as you conceive it, Father, and as it is anathematized and preached against in the Tradition of the Church (and it seems to me there is room also in the Tradition for disagreement with some of the particulars of your take on this), but the quote I highlighted shows that it is not outside the interpretive Tradition of the Church in its faith and practice to literally provide a basis for a hope for the salvation of all in the sense of no-one left in the camp of the damned at the general resurrection, even if it is a far-fetched hope (which, I would point out, the God of the Scriptures really seems to like to answer, e.g., Hebrews 11:11-13). This, even though, given free will, we surely know we can damn ourselves and we know, if left to ourselves, we have no hope of release from the bondage of such damnation. Yet, I have to ask, how many times in the Scriptures and elsewhere does God have to perform what is “impossible for men” and for the seemingly natural God-given order of things, before we trulybelieve God’s love and its demonstration are more powerful than death and the threat of death/punishment–something you deny quite explicitly in this post as it applies to our motivation for repentance?

          It seems to me, to be fully faithful to the Tradition we have received, we have to include alongside the quote from St. Paisios which I provided you, quotes like those below. And we should not understand them in a spiritually disingenuous manner either (which I would argue seeing absolutely no possibility that God could fulfill such prayers and seeing them rather as a form of “saintly” self “psyche-out” would be). I would like to, with childlike trust in the mercy and power of God, embrace and take them at face value:

          Elder Amphilochios (Makris) of Patmos:

          “My children, I don’t want Paradise without you.”

          “Consider all people to be greater than yourself, though they may have many weaknesses. Don’t act with hardness, but always think that each person has the same destination as we do. Through the grace of God I consider all people to be saintly and greater than myself.”

          Elder Joseph the Hesychast:

          “If someone wanted to live with me, he would hear my prayers and sighs and would see the tears I shed for all my brethren. All night I pray and shout, ‘Lord, save all my brethren, or else blot me out as well! I don’t want Paradise if I’m on my own!'”

          And, St. Porphyrios (Bairaktaris):

          “You are unable to be saved alone, if 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.”

          As for hope for the salvation of all “not preaching well”, I’d agree with Fr. Stephen Freeman and others that St. John Chrysostem’s Paschal homily certainly comes close (which is interesting to me, given this is the only patristic homily, to my knowledge, that has been worked into the Church Liturgy in this way). From my perspective, it certainly sounds a resonant note in that direction for those who have ears to hear. I don’t hear many complaining about that (though I don’t doubt there are a few).

          And I don’t understand why we would privilege Jesus’ warnings of the dangers of hell (which I understand as a true danger, the spiritual reality of which is surely more agonizingly tragic than any Scriptural image or metaphor can adequately convey) over His teachings revealing His Nature as our Good Shepherd:

          I don’t know why we might privilege St. Paul’s warnings of the judgment of hypocrisy and sin, over his teaching that “where sin abounds, grace superabounds.” The only hope any of us has, is knowing that the work of Divine grace in our salvation infinitely exceeds our human will and efforts, however essential those may also be.

          I strongly challenge you to reexamine your presupposition that fear of the punishment of hell is “the” motivation for repentance (especially in our modern context, given the construals of this teaching in the modern mindset thanks to the influence of Medieval Scholasticism and its effects on Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Protestants alike). In my experience, a realization of the holy love of God, through exposure to its reality in the beauty and holiness of the Person of Christ and of His Saints, is rather the only completely reliable and effective basis for a true and long-lived repentance and for an ongoing active trust in Christ that is so essential to the working out of our salvation in Him–far more essential than our fear of damnation! I find personally the fear of hell’s punishment (especially as I have pointed out the nature of this punishment is commonly understood in modern Christendom) is an extremely poor motivator for any but the lowest possible form of “repentance” as 1 John 4:19 surely would indicate.

          1. Sorry, that should have been, ” . . . His Nature as our Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep in the fold to seek the one still lost.”

          2. I strongly challenge you to reexamine your presupposition that fear of the punishment of hell is “the” motivation for repentance…

            But that is not something I presuppose at all.

            In any event, I have actually been very clear about what I am criticizing: the teaching that all will certainly be saved, no matter what. That is what universalism is. To use the word universalism to describe something that one hopes for only as a possibility but is not teaching as a theological certainty is to ally oneself with a very different teaching and thereby to sow confusion.

            I very much hope that all will be saved. I do not think it likely, however, because I have a lot of experience with human obstinance, even in the face of overwhelming enticement for change. Our capacity for addiction to our fallenness is truly great.

            As for why I might “privilege” one saying over another, I definitely am not reading the Scriptures like that. It seems to me that you simply want me to privilege something else, i.e., to read one passage and just forget another. But Orthodox hermeneutics doesn’t work that way. We take the whole Scripture in its integrity, and we listen to the Fathers and the liturgical life of the Church to work out where it doesn’t make sense or where it seems to contradict. Those passages you mention are not contradictory for me. No “privileging” is required.

          3. BTW, there is actually a large tradition of patristic homilies being read liturgically. It rarely gets done, though.

            As for Chrysostom’s homily, I don’t read universalism in it at all, just the universality of the resurrection.

        2. In my view, people sinning (obstinately arguing against God) corresponds precisely in Scriptural metaphor to the stupidity of sheep not knowing what is in their own best interests and forever straying into dangerous territory. (“All we like sheep have gone astray.”) The question is will the Shepherd abandon such a stupid sheep (sinner) while it is still lost or fail to continue to seek him in His love and care? This parable suggests not. I agree with you and so does St. Isaac, that people can be frighteningly obstinate in their sin. There is a real and likely possibility only the fiercest and most terrible experience of gehenna ( “gehenna anticipated” in the intermediate state?) would dislodge such a fierce attachment to sin for some. Does this notion not correspond precisely to the teaching about what it took to precipitate the repentance of the Prodigal Son in Christ’s parable, however? That of the Prodigal Son was another repentance and salvation that was unthinkable for a proper and dignified Patriarch to allow from the perspective of Christ’s targeted audience for this parable.

          Related to that, and for whoever said this (I don’t remember if it was in the post or comments here), I find the opinion that a belief God would wait however long it takes for the very last soul to repent (given He knows whether such a soul can or will repent, or not) is improper because it teaches sinners can “hold God hostage”, both ridiculous and blasphemous considering the revelation we have been given of God in Christ in the Gospel. It’s as if we don’t believe condescending to the needs and helpless condition of His fallen creatures is the very revelation of God’s glory and of the gospel and the way in which He brings in His Kingdom, not the desecration of it!

          1. The problem with this model is that, despite all Scriptural evidence to the contrary, it assumes that there will not actually be any final reckoning. God’s long-suffering will go on forever, despite all the warnings about the coming of the fearful Day.

          2. Father, forgive me, but your definition of final reckoning and mine (in the context in which I am speaking at least) are, apparently, a bit different. I should clarify if it hasn’t been clear up to now, I am not trying to defend the preaching of a dogmatic Universalism. I do not believe in that either. What I am trying to defend is that it is reasonable and even incumbent upon an Orthodox pastor, in the interests of furthering the salvation of certain members of his flock, to know it is still within the possible implications of the Tradition of the Church to have a realistic hope for the salvation of all. By realistic I mean a hope that is fully realizable based on faith in the revealed will and nature of God, in an Orthodox understanding of the nature of the human person and an Orthodox understanding of the nature of sin in its dynamic, and in the efficacy of the prayers of the Church for all, including the departed. What I am advocating, I believe, is the kind of hope for the salvation of all Met. Kallistos Ware has expressed an Orthodox may holdand that has inspired, for example, the Kneeling prayers of the Church at Pentecost.

            I guess it would be important to clarify whether you believe that the excerpt from the works by Archimandrite Vasilios Bakogiannis about the dynamic that is possible in Hades in the intermediate state through the prayers of the Church in my comment upwards in this thread faithfully reflects the Tradition of the Church (for this is, apparently, the basis of our prayers for the departed)? If Bakogiannis’ representation meets this standard, and in the event God knows in the end all those in Hades in the intermediate state who had failed to repent in the body would want His help if they now had the power to ask for it or seek it on their own (given enough experience of “gehenna anticipated”), why would He not answer the prayers of His Church that are in line with His will? I hope that you can see this is not a proposed scenario where what is envisioned is coercion–God dragging souls kicking and screaming into His bliss (what an oxymoron!) whether they want it or not! This envisioned and hoped for scenario arrived at through faith is not one of God saving those who do not want it.

            It’s not obvious to me (as it seems to be to you) why we should view what is revealed in the Scripture of the nature of Final Judgment for the wicked–its metaphors and images– as a literal prophecy of what will be in an already determined sense, but rather a revelation of a true present spiritual dynamic, and thus of what “will be” if certain conditions go unremedied. Certainly, we are given these images in order that we may cooperate in the remedy of our own unrepented sin and, by our prayers, also in the remedy of the unrepented sin of others, including the dead. It doesn’t seem to me, though, that God here intends to reveal in a way that can be logically deduced by the natural man from the literal surface meaning of the images of Scripture, how far these remedies will actually be successful. This is only possible to know, it seems to me, through a spiritual vision which can come about only to the extent of our realization of our union with Him, and if He chooses to reveal it to us. Clearly sometimes He reveals spiritual realities to some of His prophets or apostles which they are forbidden to pass on to the rest of us (Scripture records such being the case for both the Apostle Paul and the Apostle John and both seem to have been in the context of visions of the spiritual realities in the Heavenlies–I believe Daniel is such a case in the OT, too). It seems to me, like a parent with younger children, God has to accommodate the language of His revelation to our actual spiritual developmental state, and like any good parent He cannot tell us everything (some things are not beneficial for us to know until we are developmentally ready to understand and use the information appropriately) and sometimes what He must tell us for our good, according to our need, and so that it will aid in our salvation is not, strictly speaking, in the most literal sense, true. Perhaps Deuteronomy 29:29 applies here, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Emphasis mine.)

    3. Please forgive me for any presumption, John and Fr Andrew, but it seems to me that you may be talking past each other.

      John’s post affirms free will, along with a [[hope]] of universal salvation, and a speculative guess that it will come to pass:

      “The possibility relegates universal reconciliation to a hope for me. But whether it takes years or aeons or to the ages of ages, I have hope that eventually, the last holdout will finally stop running, and remember ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!’”

      This is speculation, and speculation only–a speculation I tend to share. I have a very hard time imagining people truly rejecting God forever. But the Church teaches, correctly, that they really and truly can do that.

      The universalism that Fr Andrew is rejecting is an absolute universalism–not a hopeful guess, but a theological guarantee. He is rightly pointing out that running around telling everyone “it is guaranteed that you will be saved in the end” is a terrible idea in light of the fact that you really might not–we really can reject God.

      All told, I think your positions are probably more or less compatible, if understood for what they are.

      I do think, however, that you, John, might want to reconsider whether you label yourself a “universalist.” I do not read your comments as affirming a truly universalist opinion. This is a term with a pedigree outside the Orthodox Church (from which Fr Andrew is drawing) and so must be used with great care.

      Again, forgive me if I’ve mis-read either of you.

      1. After rereading Fr Damick’s post and my own, I think I agree with you Daniel.

        It seems I was only adding confusion to the discussion by lumping my speculative hope (that all will eventually freely accept Christ’s love) into the word ‘Universalism’ which is already loaded enough as it is. I definitely agree with Fr Damick that preaching the idea that all will be saved is without warrant at best and harmful at worst.

        I suppose my self-identification with Universalism was for lack of a better term, and thus I felt that Fr Damick’s portrayal of it was unfair as it did not encompass my own hope/speculation that all will eventually (freely) repent. This is certainly not something I hold as an absolute.

        Definitions really can cause quite a headache can’t they? My apologies to Fr Damick and my thanks to you Daniel.

  7. Actual universalist pastors in C19 New England preached plenty of hellfire. They believed that (a) God’s punishment is correction rather than vengeance and that (b) all without exception will face more or less of it, and this encouraged them to preach repentance. Such preachers emphatically urged *all* to repent in this life lest God purge their sinfulness with fire in the aeon to come. Yet they were also able to reassure those who struggled against backsliding that God’s fire would give them victory in the world to come. Importantly, they seem to have had no difficulty keeping the penitent’s focus off of paralyzing fear and on disciplined self-regulation, which (as effective parents will know) is the key to strengthening a child’s capacity for self-control. Would it not be interesting to empirically compare the effectiveness of divine correction preachers and divine vengeance preachers?

    1. It would, but one should remember that those aren’t the only two options—the notion that eternal suffering can only be understood as “vengeance” imports a medieval view of justice that is not necessary to make sense of what’s going on.

      1. I agree.

        Since we can only directly observe contemporary ‘results’– eg a longitudinal diary study that allows us to see what happens after several occasions of preaching– we are probably constrained to study preaching that is, not medieval, but contemporary. Clearly, different sorts of preachers use different families of metaphors to characterize God when counseling ascesis and preaching repentance. Probably (but not presumably), in different sorts of listeners, these metaphors trigger different kinds and strengths of motivation to acts of ascesis and repentance. The factors that predict the variation in a listener’s response are over the horizon for now, but might be worth knowing.

        Why? In any given locale, the sort of preaching that normally works well is adapted to the grain of the place. But insofar as ascesis and repentance run against that grain, it would be helpful to know what metaphors for God can get past the gatekeepers in local minds.

  8. “To me this seems very clear. If all are absolutely going to be saved, then God is nothing short of evil for dragging this all out.”

    I wouldn’t say that. In fact it sounds blasphemous to me. Only God can judge the life of a man, and He is not bound by human syllogisms.

    1. I think you’re misunderstanding me. I clarified in a post above, so I won’t repeat here.

  9. Some maintain that John, the writer of the fourth Gospel, and perhaps even Luke, were universalists. I’m not convinced that is true, at least not in the way the word has come to be understood and used. The history of Israel (which the Church ought to take seriously, for it is authenticated by the New Testament writers as religiously significant) is inundated with sometimes even shocking examples of a ‘particularity’ at work. And although we as believers are offered a wider, higher (universal) hope after Calvary, it certainly seems to be the case that when it comes down to the matter of that eternal hope we have not been given permission to proclaim anything other than the particularity that is the Saviour Jesus Christ…and that includes all, of course, that the hope of His Gospel entails. It is, after all, our given mandate… why we are called Christians. I’m not suggesting we become narrowed, bigoted ideologues, but we should at least know the difference Christ makes… and when engaged in His world. I will confess to sharing some of the sentiments of the universalists, but my more sober thoughts would lead me elsewhere.

  10. Fr. Andrew,

    It was a stroke of genius to label the proclamation of universalism as “malpractice” because the Fathers (Sts. Basil the Great and Chrysostom immediately come to mind) say that this teaching doesn’t lead the flock to repentance and ascesis, and therefore, cannot heal.

    The Church has indeed given the verdict on universalism via the Councils, Divine Services and the teachings of the Saints. Those who act as if this is an undecided issue and deliberately choose to turn a blind eye and deaf ear, pretending as if they’re in the first millennium, certainly bear more culpability than the ancients who espoused this teaching. For instance, Luther bore great culpability in the 16th cent. for attempting to excise NT books whereas early Fathers who omitted NT books in their canon lists because they never received the Tradition of the fully matured NT canon bore little if any. Hence, it would be a gross error for someone to use one or two early Fathers as a precedent to deny the canonicity of the Apocalypse in 2015. This is not how Orthodox read the Fathers.

    It’s a terrible thing that in our time one can behold the obstinate, irresponsible public affirmation and defense for this speculative teaching, which is being passed off as the authentic love of God and the teaching of the early Church in the name of St. Isaac, lead little ones astray and divide the Church between universalists and supposedly unloving, “pro-hell infernalists”! Lord have mercy on us and illumine us with Thy truth!

    St. Barsanuphius the Great:

    Do not think that people, even if they are Saints, can grasp the depths of the divinity…Saints, having been made teachers, or making themselves such, or compelling other people to succeed greatly, succeed their own teachers, and, having received support from above, exposited a new teaching, but simultaneously preserved what they took from their former teachers, i.e., the incorrect teaching. Having succeeded and afterwards been made spiritual teachers, they did not pray to God that He might reveal them to be the first of their teachers; whether it was the Holy Spirit who suggested what their teachers taught them but, considering them to be wise and intellectual, did not examine their words; and therefore the opinions of their teachers got mixed up with their own teaching, and these Saints sometimes said that which they learned from their teachers and sometimes the good which was suggested to them by their intellect; but subsequently these and other words were attributed to them. (Direction on the Spiritual Life)

  11. To teach that universal restoration is a certainty is clearly pastoral malpractice, while teaching that it is a possibility is clearly not pastoral malpractice. Beyond the well defined dogmas of the Church, there remain mysteries yet to be revealed. To teach an opinion on any of these mysteries in a way other than possibility or probability, is usually pastoral malpractice.

  12. You said, “To hope for something is not to say that it must happen.”

    Purgatorial universal reconciliation (PUR) is a corollary of a number of premises. If one or more of these premises is false, then PUR may not be true. If those premises are true, then PUR must be true. None of us are wholly, 100% certain in all of these premises. This is why we can simultaneously say that we hope in universal reconciliation insofar as we hope in the truth of the premises from which it is a corollary, but also that it must be true insofar as it is a corollary of those premises.

    The confusion here comes from mixing of “formal epistemology” and “colloquial epistemology” that pervades theological discussions. It creates “loudness,” as the answer is relatively straightforward when one bothers to define their terms explicitly.

    You said, “So why suffer now, when I can enjoy life now…?”

    This argument is predicated on the logic that unrepentant sin = “enjoying life”; that a life of unrepentant sin would otherwise be “better” than a life of sanctification, and thus the latter needs an endless hell “buttress” or “crutch” to tip the scales in its favor.

    I think you realized this, which is why you quickly said, “Now, none of this is to say that Christians struggle for salvation only because we are afraid of future suffering.”

    By saying this, you undermined your previous argument (conveyed by means of a rhetorical question). The fact is that a life of sin is always wallowing in the muck. Consider the parable of the Prodigal Son. The prodigal son “enjoyed life” and ended up with the pigs. The dutiful son “suffered” at home in sobriety.

    Let’s see what the dutiful son had to say:

    “But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”

    The dutiful son made the very same argument you are making now, i.e., What’s the point of suffering at home, when you could “enjoy life” like the prodigal son and be forgiven anyway in the end?

    The argument you are employing is the very same argument one could employ against late repentance after a life of sin. You know that God, in his unfailing love and mercy, abhors this way of thinking. See the Prodigal Son. See the parable of the field workers. See Jonah. Since God abhors this way of thinking, you should stop thinking this way. You should also stop trying to instill into other Christians this way of thinking.

    You said, “Universalism ultimately takes away all consequences.”

    Now, it is obviously false that PUR takes away all consequences — the “P” is a real consequence, as you admitted earlier. This is where we notice your use of the word, “ultimately.” You employ this word over and over and over again as a fast-forwarding reduction, in a maneuver to clamp all interim action to final results.

    This represents a bad/corrupt schema of how meaning “works.” It is a radical reduction. We can, for instance, apply this radical reduction to conclude as meaningless all events in our lives that don’t “make the difference” between our salvation and condemnation. We don’t do this, of course; there are all sorts of things that we find extremely meaningful that don’t “make that difference.” Our missions, our vocations, our projects, our families, our expressed adoration of God, our artistry, our innovations, our compositions, our strivings, our struggles, our convictions, and our chastisements are all intensely meaningful from day to day, even though single positive actions or lack thereof don’t make repetitive knife-edge differences between salvation forever or hell forever.

    The conclusion of my argumentum ad absurdum here is this: A schema of meaning must be adopted whereby every moment and decision and event and experience matters; they matter not only due to the consequences they entail, but they matter “here and now.” In short, all means are ends, and they’re all meaningful to every interested being.

    This is not a novelty. This is the “upright and true” conclusion of Ecclesiastes. Ultimate reduction yields only “hollowness.” Meaning comes from day-to-day experiences of interested beings. Again, this MUST be our conclusion; if we fail to conclude this, then radical reduction invalidates everything that doesn’t ultimately contribute to the determination of a permanent fate.

    You employ your bad schema of meaning over and over again in this article:

    “In universalism, there is no ultimate risk in how you live your life.” (‘Ultimate’ clamping.)

    “The list goes on—in the end, all spiritual life is reduced to a ‘spirituality’ whose sole purpose is to give some kind of consolation in this life but has no critical effect on the next.” (‘In the end’ clamping, bypassing the criticism of Judgment by fast-forwarding to the eventual universal reconciliation.)

    “If universalism is true, yet the preaching is against it, then no harm is ultimately done…” (‘Ultimately’ clamping.)

    I hate to repeat myself on this, but I want to be very clear in what I’m telling you:

    Your bad schema of meaning — “100% ultimacy-bound” — yields all sorts of bizarre and perverse conclusions about our Christian experience, but this schema is that upon which your indictments against eventual universal reconciliation hinge.

    When you grumble about “spiritual welfare,” this is what you are doing:

    John 3:10 & 4:1-2

    “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity [whereas I wanted Nineveh’s threatened destruction].”

    You may grumble at the prospect of a universal repentance, like Jonah did at the repentance of Nineveh, but that simply means that God is more loving and merciful than you are. The universal, willful repentance at Judgment will please God, because Ezekiel says that, as surely as God lives, he’d rather have a person repent. That’s how his preferences are “ordered.” You don’t get to reorder it.

    Indeed, Romans 14:10b-11 tells us:

    “For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘Every knee will bow before me, and every tongue will fully confess to God.'”

    Every knee shall willfully bow, not wallow in endless rebellion. Every tongue will fully confess, the same word used for those who sought John the Baptist and other places of repentance (like in James ch. 5).

    The Romans 14 context is directed toward believers, of course, but Paul’s reference to Isaiah is the universal promise of all people’s hearts at Judgment — it continues, however, that the unrighteous shall come “in shame.”

    That’s the difference.

    So if you insist on the exclusive importance of ultimacy — which I vehemently advise you to stop doing — here are some “ultimacies” under PUR:

    (1) Those in the zoen aionion “in life” enjoy closeness with God and sanctification. After life, this opportunity shall be gone forever.

    (2) Those outside are on the Prodigal path; superficially praiseworthy only to fools. After life, this shall persist forever as a rueful regret.

    (3) Those who inherit the zoen aionion at Judgment — by being found in the Book of Life — receive rewards and authority. God himself tells them, “Well done, my good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.”

    (4) The faithless, hypocritical, malicious, and lazy suffer God’s stored-up wrath (Romans 2); they “suffer loss” and are “ruined” even as they are “saved through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15-17). They suffer the justice of God, defined over and over and over again in Scripture — from Job to Psalms to Matthew to Romans to 2 Corinthians to Revelation — as recompense in equity to what a person did.

    “Pleroma” means overfull abundance; excessive, even such that it was used as an idiom for patched clothing.

    Romans 13, Galatians 5. Love is the pleroma of the Law.

    1 Corinthians 10. The earth is God’s, and the pleroma in it.

    Colossians 2. In Christ is the pleroma of the Deity, bodily.

    Romans 11. The pleroma of Jews will be reconciled. The pleroma of Gentiles will be reconciled.

    1. So if you insist on the exclusive importance of ultimacy — which I vehemently advise you to stop doing

      I got that you don’t want to talk about what is ultimate. But you haven’t advanced an argument as to why I should stop. I’m very interested in what is final, permanent, etc. And aren’t universalists? Isn’t that actually the whole goal of universalism, that ultimately, everyone will be saved, no matter what? I didn’t say that what is ultimate is of exclusive importance, but it’s what universalism is actually all about, no matter what the details of how one gets there are.

      The purgatorial stuff is really so much smoke and mirrors by comparison. Whether you argue for that or not, universalism is still a claim about what is ultimate.

      That’s why repentance is ultimately meaningless in universalism. Yes, it may have some temporary effect, but it’s still just temporary.

      As for “grumbling” about all mankind repenting, nothing would give me greater joy. (Universalists “grumble,” I suppose, over the traditional teaching on ultimate things.) But it doesn’t matter how any of us feels about it. What matters is what God has said in the Scriptures, the Fathers, the liturgical life, etc.

      I’m familiar with the interpretations you give the Scripture, but suffice it to say, I do not agree with how you frame those passages, so of course I won’t agree with your interpretations.

      1. You said, “I got that you don’t want to talk about what is ultimate.”

        I love talking about what is ultimate.

        You said, “I didn’t say that what is ultimate is of exclusive importance.”

        But it is an implicit premise for the arguments you were making. You were making an argumentum ad absurdum that if everyone is ultimately reconciled, then all manner of interim things (like in-life repentance) cease to matter, or matter only a tiny bit.

        (1) If the consequent follows from the antecedent, and

        (2) we agree that interim things (like in-life repentance) matter, then

        (3) this would be a valid argumentum ad absurdum.

        But #1 is false. The above was a non sequitur. Everyone being ultimately reconciled does NOT make interim stuff (like in-life repentance) meaningless or near-meaningless, just as allowing for late repentance does not make the timing of repentance in life (early versus late) meaningless or near-meaningless. It’s not just about hedging against a surprise “hit-by-a-bus”; it’s better to repent now! Right now!

        Put another way:

        If you agree that, aside from bet-hedging against “death comes unexpectedly,” it is better to repent RIGHT NOW even though you could dilly-dally and repent later in life, then you’ve hung your coat on the coat-rock of “The timing is meaningful, with interim-meaningfulness and all sorts of interim exclusivities, though the ultimate result is the same or similar.” And that’s the same coat-rack upon which the PUR coat was and is hanging.

        I assume that you agree with that. You agree that, yes, even though the ultimate result is the same or similar for Lisa (who repents immediately) and George (who repents only on his deathbed), it would have been better for George to have repented early in life; by waiting so long, he made a big mistake. You would agree with that. But your agreement with that statement undercuts your argument against PUR by invalidating its premise.

        Now, you said, “Yes, it may have some temporary effect, but it’s still just temporary.”

        Perhaps you would say this about the case of Lisa and George. ‘Sure, it was better for Lisa to repent early, but in the end they’re both saved, and their ratio of experience with the divine ticks-on everlastingly toward 100%.’

        But I already addressed this as I offered you the “ultimacies” of PUR. Lisa will always treasure the blessing of sanctification and relationship she enjoyed by and of God’s Grace. George will always ruefully regret the stupid decision to wait so long. Meaning isn’t a commodity that approaches calculus limits; it’s a reflection and reaction of interested souls and punctuating memories.

        Here’s another try at explaining:

        Remember that the lazy servant of 1 Corinthians 3:15-17 was “ruined” and “suffered loss” even though he was ultimately saved. In pursuing your argument you are claiming that Scripture here is making a toothless threat; “Who cares if a man is ruined and suffers loss, if he is saved in the end?”

        You said, “I’m familiar with the interpretations you give the Scripture, but suffice it to say, I do not agree with how you frame those passages, so of course I won’t agree with your interpretations.”

        Well, I wouldn’t consider myself “suffice’d” here. Though, I have never, ever seen a coherent response to Paul’s “pleromas,” so I’ve stopped expecting one from folks. That really is the bizarre state of things.

        1. I can’t speak for what you’ve seen or not seen. As for your quotes from Paul, I find your interpretations far-fetched and no slam dunk at all. Christ’s “fullness” as all in all, etc., does not mean that all must be saved. Casting people into outer darkness because they did not wear the wedding garment does not in any way detract from the fullness of Christ’s presence in the Kingdom any more than it detracts from His fullness right now — all power in Heaven and Earth have already been given to Him. He has already conquered death and redeemed human nature. But that redemption of human nature only becomes fully effective on the hypostatic, particular level if the individual hypostasis cooperates.

          That said, I don’t accept your attempt to make parallel the lifelong Christian vs. deathbed conversion to universalist teaching. Why? In the first instance, both are doing what we are told (even by St. Isaac of Syria) to do, namely, to use this life for repentance. George just happens to use the last moment of his life, while Lisa uses most of it. Both they both do it — 1st hour, 11th hour, etc. I also think it’s nonsense to suggest that George will spend eternity in regret. What regret is there in the blessedness of Heaven? He’s really going to sit around bummed that he got the Pearl of Great price after waiting a tiny, tiny amount of time in comparison to eternity versus the slightly tinier amount of time it took Lisa?

          In the universalist model, where everyone will definitely repent no matter what, the result truly is the same no matter what you do. It might hurt a little (or even a lot) in the short term, but in the long term, it will still be the same. If the universalist is asked, “Do I have to repent in order to be saved?” his answer must be either “No” or “You don’t have to choose it, because God will eventually make you do it.” But that is never the answer of the Scriptures, the Fathers, etc. There is a great deal of urgency to it, as well — you had better do it before you die, lest you be shut out from the Kingdom.

          You know, more and more, these arguments remind me of Calvinism, in which natural necessity rather than personal freedom are what determines the course of things. Even God becomes subject to the necessity of what we think He ought to be like rather than how He has actually revealed Himself.

          1. You said, “Christ’s ‘fullness’ as all in all, etc., does not mean that all must be saved.”

            That’s one Scriptural usage of pleroma, but that’s not the argument I’m making. The specific pleromas I’m talking about are those from Romans 11, which explicitly says that the pleroma of Jews and pleroma of Gentiles shall be reconciled. As you say, this becomes effective in the particular only upon cooperation — as Romans 11 also says — but Romans 11 makes the promise that, indeed, the pleroma of Jews and pleroma of Gentiles shall be reconciled. This isn’t a far-fetched interpretation. Not only is this the text as written, but it is the conclusion that acknowledges Paul’s theodicean development beginning in the latter half of chapter 8, and moving to the end of chapter 11, with the confession of universal binding to disobedience for universal mercy, and the grand sovereign doxology.

            You said, “He’s really going to sit around bummed that he got the Pearl of Great price after waiting a tiny, tiny amount of time in comparison to eternity versus the slightly tinier amount of time it took Lisa?”

            Perhaps my argument from 1 Corinthians 3 was passed-over because it was specially marked, doorframe-style. 🙂

            Forgive me for being repetitive, but let me put that argument into more formal terms.

            (1) 1 Corinthians 3:11-17 is a threat against lazy believers — those who build with wood, hay, straw.

            (2) It threatens ruination (Gr. phtheiro) for them — the same word used against the false teachers of 2 Peter 2, who shall be “paid back with harm for the harm they have done.”

            (3) It threatens loss-suffering (Gr. zemio-) for them. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but himself being lost (Gr. apolesas) or suffering loss (Gr. zemiotheis)?”

            (4) And yet the threatened believer shall be rescued, though through fire.

            Premise 1: This is meant as a legitimate and meaningful threat. Paul intended it to be convicting and motivating.

            Premise 2: If your schema of meaning considers relatively unimportant that which does not decide ultimate ends. By “relatively unimportant,” I mean “unimportant to degree X, where degree X is that which makes passages like 1 Corinthians 3:11-17 unmotivating and unconvicting.”

            Premise 1 + premise 2 give us the following hypothetical: If your schema of meaning is correct, Paul is ignorant at best or deceptive at worst; though writing a threat, what he wrote is actually toothless and anemic, since that “loss suffering” and “ruination” is an infinitesimally-trivial stopover.

            Premise 3: The consequent of the above hypothetical is false; it is an absurdum.

            1 + 2 + 3 = Argumentum ad absurdum: The antecedent of the above hypothetical — “Your schema of meaning is correct” — must be false, based entirely on a shared acceptance of 1 Corinthians 3:11-17 and the benign premises of 1, 2, and 3.

            You said, “You know, more and more, these arguments remind me of Calvinism, in which natural necessity rather than personal freedom are what determines the course of things.”

            Personal freedom does not preclude a universal willful submission and full confession. The idea that it does is a non sequitur that pops out of a remarkably virulent (among both theologians and laypeople) modal scope fallacy.

      2. Stan and Fr. Andrew,

        Is this a fair characterization?:

        PUR is the claim that our personal participation is necessary, and the nature of that participation has real consequences, but only God and His grace are ultimate.

        A “plain” literal surface reading of particular passages of the Scriptures’ teaching of the existence of hell as “eternal punishment” for those unrepentant in this life, a view represented in these recent O & H posts, claims God’s grace is necessary but the nature of our personal participation in that in this life is ultimate.

        If this is a fair characterization, would it be helpful to ask which of these views most conforms to the overarching narrative of the gospel as that is reflected in the Gospels and in our Orthodox Liturgy, the high point of which being the celebration of Pacha?

        1. You know, when I hear Pascha mentioned by universalists, I get the impression that “high point,” etc., is meant to suggest that Pascha is the only day we should actually come to Church. I do a lot of church services (for six years, I was doing them every day), and I have to tell you, universalism makes absolutely no sense in light of the liturgical witness. Warnings against eternal punishment are everywhere.

          The triumph of Pascha is a triumph not because everyone will now be forced to enter Paradise, but because the way has been opened whereas before it was shut. It is not a triumph of love to force everyone’s wills into something — that is actually a Monothelite/Monoenergist Christ with a Monergist salvation. Synergy goes out the window. Human beings don’t get a critical say.

          1. Father, please see my most recent comment to you when it appears below. Perhaps it may further illuminate what seems a bit “off” to me and Stan about your perception of how the Scripture’s teaching about Final Judgment extrapolates to ultimate things. We do not deny (if I’m not speaking out of turn for Stan) that deterministic Universalism is out, and I would vehemently deny what we understand by the possibility of PUR implies anyone is “forced” into “Paradise” (what an oxymoron!).

    2. Just as St. Paul argues that we cannot compare the momentary sufferings of this life to the eternal blessings of the Kingdom, so also any period of purgation, no matter how tortuous you may wish to argue it is (though from recent experience, many Universalists will immediately counter that it isn’t torture or suffering), pales before the eternal blessings of the Kingdom. This is why ‘Ultimacy’ is so important. The knife cuts both ways. In the Universalist schema, the innocent victimized and the unrepentant victimizers have the same ultimate destiny, and one so glorious that anything either of them has had to suffer in this life or the life to come will seem so momentary as to be irrelevant.

  13. Fr. Andrew,

    I was curious if you have read and pondered David Bentley Hart’s extensive thoughts on Universalism, given his stature as a theologian and philosopher, as well as being Orthodox?

    1. I saw his comments on Fr. Kimel’s blog, and I have to say that his treatment of the authority of the ecumenical councils was nothing short of appalling.

      I like some of his writing, but this was terrible stuff. He outright rejected the Church’s authority.

      1. I was hoping, perhaps, you could discuss his take on free will, since that seems to be a big part of the discussion surrounding universalism. If you get a moment.

  14. Fr. Andrew’s article briefly mentioned Calvinism. In recent conversations with a Baptist relative who believes in “eternal security,” I began to understand that Calvinism is an incipient form of universalism: if I once repent of my sins and say “Jesus is Lord” then I’m saved for all eternity, and I don’t need to struggle or repent daily or strive toward holiness because I’m on the glory train, headed for heaven no matter what. Thus, Calvinism is salvation for all who are the “elect” and of course, we’re all the “elect” in this warm-fuzzy, feel-good, Starbucks-drinking mega-church-ianity, aren’t we? So if we’re all the “elect,” it’s just another crypto-universalism.

  15. Fr. Andrew,
    You joust at windmills, insisting that you are responding to a definition of universalism that you yourself have invented, and then telling people that this is what they are. Many of those who use the term universalist actually fit into the category of “hope” that you admit is well within the teaching of the Church.

    What you do not see, for whatever reason, is that the central issue within the universalist conversations, particularly as seen on Fr. Aidan’s site, or as discussed by DBHart, is really the question of theodicy – the nature of the justice of God.

    This is perhaps among the most important topics in the proclamation of the gospel in our modern setting. Is God good? This is essential to the gospel. Some, like Fr. Aidan, have pressed that question – not actually as far as St. Isaac. But St. Isaac’s teaching is rooted entirely in the question of theodicy, not in any speculation about life after death, etc. It is rooted solely in the confidence of a good God.

    When or if (God forbid) a suicide occurs in your parish, I assume you would immediately call the bishop and plead almost any excuse you could find to get a blessing to bury the suicide from the Church, in consecrated ground, with all of the prayers, etc. In a pastoral heart, still conscious of the canons, etc., you as a good priest would stretch economia to the very breaking point. Surely.

    I see the same thing at work in the thought and conversations currently among those such as Fr. Aidan, whom I have known for over 25 years, and count as a dear friend. It is not a game of playing lightly with Scripture (if Scripture is taken lightly, then why play at all?). Nor is it liberalism (for God sakes some of these men, such as Fr. Aidan, could still be happy Episcopalians if they wanted to be liberals). But there is a heart, just like your pastoral heart, only extended to the very least of those in Hades. And they stretch, and they plead, and they reason, and they even beg of God a mercy that they believe they will find in the good God.

    Theodicy would rightly ask the question, “Why would God create anyone knowing that they would choose to burn in hell forever?” That is a cogent, serious question that almost any serious inquirer might ask.

    Your writing here seems mostly to think this is all about defending some embattled position. You are not listening or reading with any empathy what is actually written, it would seem to me.

    What do you do with the question of theodicy? Does God create some with the foreknowledge that they will forever burn in hell. I know that Reform theology is perfectly comfortable with this. St. Silouan said, “Love could not bear that.”

    Why are you so worked up over someone who is emboldened by the love of St. Silouan (and many others)?

    You may qualify everything you’ve said in this article by saying, “I’m only talking about this kind of universalism and that it’s wrong to preach it.” I would say that it is wrong to preach it – beyond what is given to us in the Church.

    Your present argument seems to be that without the fear of hell no one will repent. Do you preach, or would you counsel preaching, that suicides will all burn in hell? If you don’t, do you think that not preaching it encourages people to commit suicide?

    I have been a priest for 35 years now. I’ve led many people in the life of repentance. I can think of very, very few instances (if any) who repented out of the fear of hell. In truth, I think it is the single most ineffective form of preaching known to man. I have met many who heard such preaching and repented themselves of being Christians at all. I know, because many times they come to Orthodoxy, looking for the Church that preaches, “He is a good God and loves mankind.”

    How good is your God? How far will you press His goodness? St. Abraham interceded for Sodom and Gomorrah. I think he gave up to soon. The Lord who would have spared the city for 10 righteous – would He not have spared the city for one? And has that one not been born among us?

    Think more about theodicy. It’s the real question and you’re overlooking it. Thanks.

    1. 1. I didn’t make up the definition of universalism.

      2. This is a blog, not the confessional, etc. We are discussing what the Church teaches. How exactly that is explained to someone in a sensitive situation is not what is being discussed. Of *course* one would not lead into dealing with a suicide, etc., with the Church’s teaching on Hell. But that is really just a bit of gnosticizing red herring here.

      3. I believe in a good God, but the good God I know does not mar His creation by stealing from it the very image of Himself that granted free will. You’re right that justice is at issue. It would be profoundly unjust and unloving for God to become the monster that the Calvinists would have us believe in. That’s why I do pray for the salvation of all, because something is very much at risk. In the universalist doctrine, however, there is no risk, so even if one does pray, there is none of the urgency the saints show.

      As for whether I have empathy or not, to be frank, you have no idea what you’re talking about. I could just as easily speculate the same thing about you, because I don’t think you get what’s being said here. But let’s leave aside imagining others’ inner psychological state from reading on a blog. It’s unbecoming of gentlemanly conversation.

      1. Fr. Andrew, now I know (in the only way I have ever found it possible to truly know anything) from this response beyond any doubt you have been, and remain, spiritually deaf, dumb and blind to what this whole conversation is all really all about. Forgive me, but I cannot speak otherwise and remain true to all that God has ever taught me about Himself and the true nature of the gospel of Christ He has revealed in our Orthodox Tradition.

        I hope you will read and try to understand all my comments here, but I do not now hold out any more hope they will get through.

        Kind regards all the same. I certainly do not disagree with many things you have affirmed and can understand some of why this can be very difficult to see, but I just wish the truth you affirm wasn’t so mixed up with patently false notions and misperceptions. It has been a fruitful exercise for me at least. It has helped me to refresh and solidify my own acquaintance with many of the Scriptures pertaining to such things and also familiarize myself with much more that has been said by the Church and the Saints about this. And that is always a good thing.

        1. Fr. Andrew, now I know (in the only way I have ever found it possible to truly know anything) from this response beyond any doubt you have been, and remain, spiritually deaf, dumb and blind to what this whole conversation is all really all about.

          But what is “this whole conversation”? (Are you the only one speaking? Or are you suggesting that even we don’t understand what we’re intending to say?) Like I said, if what was written in these posts isn’t about what you believe, then why are you arguing? Really, why won’t you answer that? If you’d prefer we were posting about what you believe (whatever exactly it is), well, I’m sorry, but we didn’t claim to be doing that.

          Honestly, I could say the same thing about your responses, i.e., that you really don’t get what we’re addressing, etc. But I won’t presume to guess what you understand.

          Either way, “you don’t get it” is not an argument. It’s just a claim to privileged knowledge, i.e., gnosticism. Unfortunately, “you don’t get it” seems to be a pretty common defense among various folks who wear the label universalist. I’m sorry, but how is that the Gospel?

          Forgive me, but I cannot speak otherwise and remain true to all that God has ever taught me about Himself and the true nature of the gospel of Christ He has revealed in our Orthodox Tradition.

          This statement is puzzling. Are you suggesting that God has taught you information directly that the rest of us don’t have access to? This seems to be another form of the “you don’t get it” argument.

          1. Did you, or did you not, write this post as a response to the articles and comments at Fr. Aidan’s blog? If you didn’t, I apologize. If you did, well, I find this response extremely saddening–especially for what it may mean to the sheep coming through your door looking for spiritual direction and help. Win an argument, lose a soul is, I think, no one’s idea of tending Christ’s flock.

          2. No, this post was not a response to anything specific written by Fr. Aidan. Where in the post did it say it was? These posts have been to address the topic generally. If anything applies to what he’s written (and it does apply to all universalism, i.e., any teaching which says that all will definitely be saved, whatever you think about how we get there), that’s not because we’re answering him directly. We’re not. If we’d intended to, we would have said so. (And the main reason why I, at least, haven’t turned this into a direct answer to him is that I find his writing not to come out and say what he really teaches on the matter. He tends to just tell people to read big piles of stuff rather than answering direct questions. It’s hard to address that stance, because it isn’t a stance.)

          3. By the way, you make the error here which Fr. Stephen Freeman did elsewhere — assuming that addressing a specific teaching of the Church is therefore one’s only evangelistic or pastoral approach. I don’t welcome visitors into my parish by saying, “Did you know that Hell is eternal?” But I will say that I have had some who have said that they find it refreshing that sin is actually taken seriously in Orthodoxy, and they point to the eternal consequences of it when they do so.

    2. I know that this exchange is basically over but I’ve seen many say that fear of eternal punishment is not a good motivator for repentance. Fr. Freeman even went so far as to say, “I can think of very, very few instances (if any) who repented out of the fear of hell. In truth, I think it is the single most ineffective form of preaching known to man.”

      This line of thought is very concerning to me so since it goes counter to Orthodox ascetic teaching. I know for a fact that that fear of divine retribution is utilized in certain circumstances in the tradition. N. Sakharov sums up this teaching succinctly in “The Theological Legacy of Archimandrite Sophrony”:

      “…fear of the final retribution spurs repentance and prevents sinning. Often the remembrance of death is associated with remembrance of divine judgment. The remembrance of eternal punishment, stimulating fear in the ascetic, becomes “a source of almost every virtue.” This fear fuels one’s repentance for misdeeds in the past. Thus, by reminding a fallen virgin of death Basil calls her to repentance. The fear of punishment also serves as an effective deterrent from sin, and as such was often used by the fathers in ascetic teaching: “He who always thinks of death . . . cannot go far astray.” Maximus believes that one who fears punishment refrains from passions. Memory of death is sometimes recommended as a weapon against fleshly lust. Climacus summarizes it: “Remember your last end, and you will never sin.” Thus, the same fear helps the ascetic to maintain vigilance (nepsis) and self-control, and brings about contrition of the heart. Third, anticipation of eschatological rewards stimulates aspiration after ascetic endeavor. Mindfulness of eschatological bliss serves to maintain the ascetic’s inspiration. It is often recommended as a means to avoid despondency. Spiritual nostalgia for life after death is a vital element of monasticism. In this optimistic understanding, Christian writings echo the pagan genre of consolation literature. Theodore the Studite records a saying of an elderly monk: “Let us be vigilant . . . let us remember also the heavenly kingdom.” According to Dorotheus of Gaza, one reason for spiritual carelessness is that one has tasted neither the expected rest nor the eternal torment.”

      I’m certainly not advocating for excessive fear-mongering but the Fathers say that it’s an error to seek after nothing but consolations in the spiritual life.

    3. “Why are you so worked up over someone who is emboldened by the love of St. Silouan (and many others)?”

      This is the crux for you Fr. Stephen, as obviously St. Silouan is key for your understanding of God and Christianity. I don’t know if I will ever get around to reading him, but through this “discussion” (which I have been following as a sometime lurker on Fr. Aidan site for about a year) I don’t think I will. He and St. Isaac/Nyssa and company, if they are being interpreted by Orthodox universalists correctly, are in serious need of correction. If the Church of the East was operating on anything more than “survival” level for the last 1300 years or so, I believe universalism(s) would have been properly and fully anathematized long ago.

      I believe this to be truly tragic. I respect your ministry immensely, but universalism is tragic. It is an error that touches on Scripture, Christology, anthropology, and of course (as you point out) God and theodicy.

      I grew up in the Unitarian Universalist church. If I had known about this strain of Orthodox Universalism 20 years ago, I would have never entered communion with the Orthodox Church. Universalism is a crack, a dark and sad thread through the very heart of Church. I can say with all honesty I am asking myself “Is the Orthodox Church the Church” seriously for the first time since being convinced it was all those years ago. I have often asked “do I believe this” or “am I Orthodox”, but I can’t recall doubting the Church itself in such a full way.

      Oh well, on the individual level spiritual crises come and go. Will the Church have the leadership (bishops, I am looking at you) and the confidence to face this real theological crises in the future?

      p.s. The fact that the traditional Christianity (i.e. Christians – Orthodox or otherwise) are now called “infernalists” says it all – let those with ears hear…

  16. Sticking with the topic at hand (the obvious implication being that the fear of punishment – eternal or not – is the primary and only REAL reason for faith and deterrent of chaos since nothing really matters without it) I thought I’d post a link to this article. Charles Featherstone has an incredible story.

    I wonder, has the love of God become something that we’re overfamiliar with, and so tend to see it as impotent, as static noise?

    A few quotes that seemed relevant to me:

    And that bothers me. Because it is no small thing to say, “God is love.” Or “God loves you.”

    But you know what? It is no small thing to hear, and to say, in a violent and brutal world, in a world where many easily use others for pleasure and profit, “God is love.”

    1. (the obvious implication being that the fear of punishment – eternal or not – is the primary and only REAL reason for faith and deterrent of chaos since nothing really matters without it)

      But no one’s actually arguing that. The point is that we can’t ignore that motivation, since it’s all over the Scripture, Fathers, liturgical services, etc.

      What I’m primarily saying here is that universalism precludes the necessity for choosing to repent, since God will either make you do it or you won’t need to do it, anyway. That is, universalism removes all ultimate risk.

      1. I strongly disagree that you aren’t arguing that.

        “Prayer is pointless. Asceticism is pointless. Baptism is pointless”.

        How else would I read that? According to the post, there is only a “point” to these if there is irrevocable, ultimate and endless torment (the only possible TRUE and REAL consequence)– that IS your argument. Any gospel “exhortation” or call to repent is apparently meaningless without it – that is the meaning of saying that something is “pointless” as you did in your post. Without this ultimate fear of irrevocable loss, there is no ultimate meaning.

        Ultimately, I’m simply arguing that there are other real and legitimate reasons for repentance. I strongly disagree that “Repentance is necessary before one can be motivated by the love of God.” To me love of God and repentance are indistinguishable. Love of God and the knowledge of the love OF God can and does inspire repentance, as I believe the linked story (as well as a great many other stories throughout history) demonstrates.

        You have explicitly stated that your post is about the effects and malpractice of preaching universalism and not directly about what’s all over “the Scriptures, Fathers, liturgical services, etc.” I thought you made it clear that you didn’t intend this to be a post about the specifics of universalism so I’m not sure why you’re slipping over to that as support. Different argument.

        1. That there must be a critical risk involved in spiritual life does not mean than fear of punishment is the only possible motivation. One can respond rationally to risk with feelings other than fear. We do it all the time. Just because I want to avoid something does not mean that I am afraid of it.

          The point here is that if there is no eternal risk at all, anything you might ultimately hope to accomplish via repentance, asceticism, baptism, etc., will all happen without those things. Do you need to choose to repent, be baptized, etc., in order to be welcomed into the Kingdom of God? For the universalist, the answer is a definite “no.” That’s why those choices are ultimately meaningless, because the same effect will ultimately be had no matter how one chooses.

          1. Do you need to choose to repent, be baptized, etc., in order to be welcomed into the Kingdom of God? For the universalist, the answer is a definite “no”

            Father, if your view of what universalism is leads you to think that it necessarily and inexorably leads to all that you’ve put in this post, then you haven’t been exposed to much universalist thought. These are caricatures of universalism. You may disagree with universalist thought (and there are reasons to do so), but it shouldn’t be for the reasons that you’ve put here – that prayer, asceticism, repentance, etc. are ”meaningless” (your words) in that context. I might suggest viewing St Gregory of Nyssa (for one) in the context OF his universalism rather than contend that it isn’t really there. Again, that’s a separate question though.

            The primary argument here, though, is that and free actions and life is a whole is meaningless because without a consequence of irrevocable torment there are, in actuality, no REAL consequences at all – not any that actually matter anyways. Or that repentance won’t happen without the threat of unending torment (your reference to the decline of the unnamed universalist congregations) – fear is presented as more primary and as the fundamental motivation – love may (or may not) come later. It’s those assertions that I’m addressing. And I think that the link that I posted earlier (along with many other stories of real, lived experience) testify otherwise. Again, this isn’t to address any biblical, theological, historical concerns at all.

            And I am not a dogmatic universalist at this time (not for any of the reasons highlighted in this or previous posts). But I also don’t dogmatically reject either God’s absolute love and desire to “save” each person OR God’s ability to eschatologically get what He wants within the overall scheme of His created order even while respecting “free will”.

            Final post for me. Blessings!

          2. But I also don’t dogmatically reject either God’s absolute love and desire to “save” each person OR God’s ability to eschatologically get what He wants within the overall scheme of His created order even while respecting “free will”.

            I don’t reject those things, either. What I reject is real universalism, which is the teaching that all will definitely be saved. I didn’t make that definition up, by the way.

            As far as not being exposed to much universalist thought, well, we’ll have to disagree. As I wrote elsewhere, I’ve seen three things that go by the name of “universalism”: 1) True universalism, i.e., that all will absolutely be saved. 2) “Hope” that all “may” be saved. This is not actually universalism. All Christians should hope that all may be saved. But they don’t spin theories that hint at true universalism in order to have that hope make sense. 3) People who won’t actually say what they believe but will instead wave their hands and tell people to read big piles of books that don’t all teach the same thing.

            To be honest, a lot of this pussy-footing around strikes me as either dishonest or cowardly. It’s one thing to believe something privately but another publicly to teach something as the truth. The problem comes when one is supposed to put the honor due to the latter instead to the former.

            Here’s the upshot: If critiques of true universalism don’t apply to your “hope” (however it’s expressed), then those critiques aren’t addressing you. Demanding that they do so is just another form of the online fallacy best expressed as “Your article would have been better if it had been about something else.” You may prefer that a writer talk about your particular thing rather than the thing he’s addressing, but that’s your problem, not his.

          3. Just more thought, Father, and it gets to the crux of where I really disagree.

            I understand the “free-will” defense of hell. There is the a priori assumption that eternal and irrevocable conscious torment in hell exists, and the provided reason for that existence is “free will”. Although I don’t see how one can dogmatically say it’s “irrevocable” and maintain that “free will” defense without also dogmatically saying that God effectively removes the option of “free will” – and maybe that is your defense. In that case, it seems that either God doesn’t really want all to be saved (not in any eternal or meaningful sense) or God’s disposition of love changes at the moment of death, and with that change goes the gift of “free will”.

            What I simply don’t agree with, however, is that “free-will” ceases to be “free” without the possibility of irrevocable eternal punishment. The idea that free will and human existence inherently necessitates a set of irrevocable and infinitely horrific consequences in order for it to be “free” and have significance is deeply incoherent to me.

            The argument (however flawed) works one way, but not the other (IMO).

          4. What’s lurking underneath here is an unstated cosmology of the afterlife. If we become “like the angels in heaven” in the age to come, then, like them, we don’t have the possibility for repentance. No one would say that the angels don’t truly have free will, but we know that they won’t be changing their minds. Their fallenness or lack thereof has been set because of the existence they lead.

            Human wills don’t become “un-free” as a result of moving into the age to come, except only in the sense that movement of that sort is no longer possible. God doesn’t do anything to human nature to make that happen. It’s just what happens when linear time is ended.

          5. Father,

            I’m not addressing critiques addressed at my own views. I’m addressing critiques aimed at dogmatic universalists – a dogmatic universalism which you claim inexorably leads to things that it, in point of fact, does not.

            Represent universalist beliefs accurately if you want to write an article called “The pastoral malpractice of preaching universalism”. Universalism simply doesn’t preach what you claim it does. Universalists don’t believe that prayers, asceticism, repentance are pointless, and if you think that they do it’s because you don’t understand it. I get that, regardless of what universalists might SAY, your belief is that it, in point of fact, DOES make them pointless. Still, that doesn’t explain why universalists are every bit as devout as you.

          6. I’m not addressing critiques addressed at my own views. I’m addressing critiques aimed at dogmatic universalists – a dogmatic universalism which you claim inexorably leads to things that it, in point of fact, does not.

            Well, that’s what’s at issue, isn’t it? I get that you disagree about where dogmatic universalism leads, but I’m not convinced that you’re right. Telling me that I just don’t understand isn’t going to convince me, either.

            As to whether “universalists are every bit as devout as you,” that requires a knowledge of someone’s inner spiritual life that is impossible for anyone but God to have. I make no claims about anyone’s devotion. But I will say something about the inconsistency of fighting hard for something that you can get even without the fight.

    1. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day! 🙂 Actually, we of course share many things in common with Calvinists, though the things we differ on are really big.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “underlying frameworks,” though. What exactly (in terms of specific content) do you mean by that?

  17. Hi, Fr. Damick,

    First, I agree with your view on Universalism.

    But, one thing that is missing from the argument is…relative time scale. If a material human being suffers in Hell for 10^80 years (that’s 1 with 80 zeroes after it!!), this is a time scale that is so long it is essentially…INFINITE…to humans. By the time that penance has been served, the being will no longer remember why they were punished. If we could store the memory of each of those years on a _single_ atom of their physical brain, their brain would be FAR LARGER than the entire observable universe. I doubt even Satan could remember what happened 10^80 years ago because he is, after all, just a FINITE being…Finite beings can only store so many memories. Perfect recall of every act over an arbitrarily large number of years is not guaranteed anywhere. Only God has perfect recall of all events in Time. Only those in UNION (THEOSIS) with HIm should have access to that perfect recall?


    1. A couple things:

      1) Assuming what you say about time is correct, why would a human person in the age to come not be able to remember anything? His body won’t be subject to the corruption of this age which is what causes memory loss.

      2) What you bring up is actually a huge issue for the “Hell is real but temporary” universalists — it presumes that the age to come is bound by linear time as we now know it. But it’s a strange eschatology that carries over created, linear temporality into the age to come, which corruption, death, etc., are no more. To buy into this view, it only works if time keeps “going” as we now perceive it. That’s a pretty big “if” to swallow.

  18. Fr. Andrew, where you comment to me: “The problem with this model is that, despite all Scriptural evidence to the contrary, it assumes that there will not actually be any final reckoning. God’s long-suffering will go on forever, despite all the warnings about the coming of the fearful Day.”

    I just have another observation about how what you say here may not resonate with other parts of the direct revelation of Scripture, because of how you are extrapolating to the Eternal Age (in which we may only speak of God’s attributes and actions, I believe, as they inherently are in themselves) the language Scripture uses in reference to God’s actions related to bringing forth His purposes during this present Age, and which I believe is the only context in which what you affirm here may be logically applied as true in an unqualified sense). Does not the Scripture teach and do not we sing in the Psalms repeatedly, “For His mercy endureth forever and ever. Alleluia!”? And do not also the Scriptures teach that God is love in His energies toward the whole world, and that His goodness, which does not change, is poured out upon good and evil alike, and in 1 Corinthians 13 that the love that comes from God (and that on His part, and for the whole of His creation, “endureth forever”), is by very definition, “long-suffering”, “hopes all things”, “endures all things” and “never fails”??? To fail to draw the inference from this that in reference to His disposition toward all His creatures which He continues to hold in existence in Eternity, God’s love, and hence His long suffering, will never end, is, I believe, to do blasphemous violence to the image of God we are given in the gospel. We are not told (certainly not at least unambiguously) that because this is true, all will or must be restored to a place of rest in His presence (because, indeed, though He extends His goodness and grace to all of us equally impartially in this life, all do not accept to receive the benefits of it in this life either, and God grants us freedom to refuse), and so I would agree with you any form of determinist Universalism that ignores the Scripture’s teaching about the role that our personal response to God plays in how we must experience Him in Eternity is out of the question. But just because the Scripture affirms He is qualified and will judge us according to His perfect good will and wisdom at a particular place in our spiritual development and time in this life in order to bring about His perfectly good will and purposes for the whole of Creation in Eternity, and that indeed He will condemn us all to physical death and the destruction inherent to any persistent attachment to our sin (as indeed, He did to Adam and Eve), and though this also plays a role in how we will experience Him in Eternity (all of which I would certainly agree with wholeheartedly), that He will not still be long-suffering in His disposition (and thus all His dealings) with the souls in Hades (regardless of whether they will still be capable of benefitting from that or not) is not an inference it is biblically justifiable to draw from this. I mean, isn’t this the very definition of what His long-suffering must mean in Eternity: that He continues to sustain the existence of those who have refused His love (and presumably allows them still to experience whatever good that they may be capable of)? This is what God’s impassibility means, is it not? The intuition or deduction of C.S. Lewis’ about the nature of the gates of Hell as being locked from the inside was very beneficial to me as I was struggling with the way traditional Christians today tend to, so often, construe the language of Scripture about these ultimate things and how this so often distorts our image of God in His unfailing and (unqualifiedly in the Eternal sense) long-suffering love toward all, even His enemies, and which, it seems to me, is typified in your comment to me above. This is how I understand St. Isaac’s teaching as well and also Kalomiros’ “The River of Fire” (notwithstanding Perry Robinson’s assertions about St. Isaac’s supposed “Nestorian” understanding of God’s impassibility in another thread!).

    1. Karen,

      Isaac’s Nestorian view of impassibility can be seen by comparing a few things. First, pick up Clayton’s The Christology of Theodoret of Cyrrus along with Gavrilyuk’s The Suffering of the Impassible God, and Alefyev’s The Spirit World of Isaac the Syrian. Isaac’s argument for universalism depends on God being only love and all other things said of him being true of the recipient only, that is they are aspectual. To think otherwise he reasons is to think that God is capable of changing. This is why in his Christology he goes with the standard lines about “Christ” suffering rather that the Chalcedonian Logos suffering human death, for to think the latter in his mind entails that God changes. It was exactly this view of impassibility that Cyril, Ephesus, Chalcedon and specifically 2nd Constantinople rejected. If you carry his reasoning out regarding impassibility it entails a denial that the Logos suffered on the Cross. This is why Isaac’s works had to be edited by Chalcedonians to make him acceptable.

      1. Perry,

        Thanks for all your comments but this one in particular. A lightbulb came on for me when you said:

        ” Isaac’s argument for universalism depends on God being only love and all other things said of him being true of the recipient only, that is they are aspectual.”

        I myself have been wondering about the “neoplatonic” character of these “Orthodox universalists” but I have not been exactly sure why their conception of God has this neoplatonic character. It’s due to their philosophical conception of “God” as “God is Love”, and thus their concept of “Love” has this philosophical, essentialist flavor that reminds me of a certain way of doing theology (thomistic, etc.).

        I understand from another blog that you have been responding more directly to the recent wave of Orthodox universalsists (D.B. Hart, Fr Adian, etc.) on social media. Do you have a recent/updated presence on the open web?

        1. Christopher,

          On the one hand, later Platonists from my knowledge don’t think of God as love. That is a distinctly xian conception. But the idea of universal motion from a single source, present at every degree or level of existence, proceeding out in the many and returning to that single source, their true home, is decidedly late Platonic. It is no accident that Plotinus for example adopts Stoic compatibilism in glossing the fall of the Soul to matter as “free” yet determined.

          The subordination of the many to the one is a long standing Platonic view. And it is a part and a problem (how do you get one out of many in the first place?) of all species of Universalisms that I know of. It is more implicit in Isaac’s defective Christological thinking. But it is certainly true of Origen as well as the early Calvinist Universalists from which modern Universalism sprang. More recent universalist writing among more Catholic or Orthodox circles (as opposed to the more evangelical variety) seems largely indebted to Hegelianism or other modern Idealisms. Such seems to be the case for Balthasar and various Catholic writers as well as some Orthodox writers, specifically Russian authors. There were some English casualties also influenced by Jakob Bohme such as William Law, though I don’t know if Law every openly advocated for Universalism, tho he tends to read like he is going in that direction.

          I really don’t think it has anything to do with the concept of Love per se. The thinking is rather driven by underlying structures relating to how unity and plurality relate. This is one reason why I think when pressed, the operating principles in universalism will yield a return to the thesis of pre-mortal existence.It is just that contemporary U’s are so focused on the end that they have not carried through those principles to think about creation and the fall much, if at all. And that is fine if one is LDS, but not if one is Orthodox.

          On social media, I simply remark on stuff that comes across my personal FB page. The more recent Hart stuff seems silly and Kimel’s stuff is just rehashing Talbot and other stuff, rather than really interacting with anything substantially critical of the universalist position. To my knowledge and to date, Kvanvig’s Destiny and Deliberation is still the best material on the topic in the first half of that book. Frankly the second half as a critique of Molinism and Open Theism is amazing stuff. His work is superior in terms of philosophical quality-precision, tightness of argument and clearing the board of pseudo-avenues while pressing ahead to a genuine solution to problems. That is the hard work of philosophical theology and few ppl do it better than Kvanvig. Reitan and others IMHO simply do not even come close.

          The two fundamental problems that I see U’s having is that their position doesn’t really solve the problem of Hell, which is a species of the problem of evil. They still seem vulnerable to the problem of evil, which means they have just moved the problem, rather than solved it. And second, they really can’t demonstrate that the church per se taught it and so can’t demonstrate that it is of the apostolic deposit. At most it is a theologoumenon and nothing more. They are then eclectically orthodox, which is just to say, sectarian.

  19. Thank you, Fr. Andrew, first for posting this article, and then for patiently responding to the many who obviously wish that what you are saying were incorrect. Admittedly, I have not taken (because I have not had) the time to read every comment, but I have read enough to get the gist of those who are critical, and to them I have two observations:

    1. To those who believe that “fear is a poor motivator” I would respectfully but emphatically disagree. In fact, the emotion of fear is a gift from a loving God intended to help preserve us. Without fear, we might blithely walk along the edge of a cliff, lose our footing and plunge to our death. Fear’s purpose is to be an instructor to dissuade us from potentially fatal behavior which God is lovingly warning us to avoid. Isn’t it interesting that we call a person who has overcome the natural fear of danger and performs so-called “death-defying feats” a “daredevil”?

    2. I am still new to Orthodoxy and am no by means an expert, but coming from protestantism, one of the revolutionary Orthodox teachings that so appealed to me was the concept that “heaven” and “hell” are one and the same “place”: the encounter and experiencing of the fiery presence of God for eternity. It is the content of one’s heart which will determine whether that existence will be heavenly bliss or infernal torment. Will our life’s work remain through the fire and be judged as gold and precious stones, or, like wood, hay and stubble, will it be incinerated? Is it not possible that the church fathers who seem to hint toward universalism are in fact describing this scenario? It is universalistic in that we all go to the same reward, but it is we, who through a lifetime of exercising our free will, determine what that eternal reward means.

    Note: Fr. Andrew, you make a good point that universalism is not too far from Calvinism. It is in fact, partial-Calvinism. As opposed to “double predestination” maybe we could call this “half predestination”. This is an argument I have used with my Calvinist friends: if God is truly loving, and His will is “irresistible”, why even create the damned in the first place? Why not just create the elect? God can do whatever He wants, after all. Universalism is the answer to my hypothetical question. But as you point out, what is the purpose of life then? Why put us here in the first place if this is just a brief stopover and all of us are going to heaven? Why make us endure pain, hatred, suffering, etc? That doesn’t seem very loving. So, ultimately, our existence has no rational purpose in either a Calvinist or partial-Calvinist (i.e., universalist) system.

  20. Jim,

    1. Yes, and no. I, for one, am not saying in an absolute sense, fear (and even fear of hell, with the caveat that this can only result where the understanding of the nature of hell is spiritually accurate) is *never* a good thing. Obviously, that is not the case as your illustration shows. But, despite his denial, Fr. Andrew has very clearly stated here, that the fear of hell (which he seems to understand as God’s active/ongoing retribution visited on the wicked in the afterlife, because this is how the fear of hell’s punishment is typically understood) is a necessary condition for repentance, and he has even said it is “the” condition for repentance. (What he claims he is saying seems to be an ever-moving target compared to his post, as we move through these threads, but I suspect that is because there is so much talking past one another for reasons which have been stated by others–for which it seems to me there is responsibility on both sides including wrong assumptions I have made–and which I don’t need to go into here.)

    The kind of fear actually engendered by the understanding of Final Judgment/hell’s punishment Fr. Andrew *seems* to reflect in his thinking and writing here (as opposed to what might be a proper fear of hell and Final Judgment for what it really is), as I would argue most people in our culture–especially non-initiates, but also many who have been members of the Orthodox Church for some time–experience it in response to this doctrine, is actually the fear that God might not really be good (and/or powerful) enough to save those who are, we are agreed, completely helpless to save themselves. It is the fear of this “God” (which is really a distorted image), who for some inscrutable reason *must* continue to visit His retribution on the wicked to fulfill his purposes, not only in this life (where it is easy to see why this must be), but in Eternity (where the wicked–it is acknowledged–can no longer benefit by their punishment, but where also the righteous also can no longer benefit by it either, being no longer capable of being hurt by the wickeds’ perpetration of injustice, nor tempted to sin themselves by the presence of evil!). As for the true God, He has never been able to be tempted or injured by our wickedness in the sense we are talking about! It is the fear of this distorted understanding of the nature of hell and the kind of God it implies that impedes our full abandonment of ourselves to the love of God, which is the only thing that can allow us to be perfected in our salvation as transformation into His image as 1 John 4:19 very clearly states.

    It is into this precise context the question of the possibility of the salvation of all has come up. The question has arisen in response to the teachings in the gospel as presented in the Orthodox Liturgy (ALL of it taken together, Fr. Andrew!) as well as the actual practices of the Church, as we have begun to shed these false understandings of both the nature of God in His retributive justice (in terms of how that plays out in the afterlife) and of the nature of hell’s punishment (which, I hope it would be clear, we fully acknowledge as the inevitable consequence of the wickeds’ ongoing attachment to their sin). As for the “fear” mentioned in this verse, it need not involve such a distortion of the image of God, but only an imperfect apprehension of the full extent of God’s love, and it will still be an impediment (not a help) to the perfection of our repentance. This I know from experience. Yes, we ought to fear in many senses, but it would be interesting to compare the exhortations to fear in the Scriptures with those to “fear not.” I’m sure an examination of those contexts as well as the relative proportion of one kind of exhortation to the other would be very instructive.

    Anyway, hope that helps!

    I think the mistake of Fr. Andrew is that he did not, perhaps still does not, understand the real context into which he would be speaking with this post. The mistake us would be “Universalists” have made as that we have assumed he might have some inkling of what that really was.

    1. I think the mistake of Fr. Andrew is that he did not, perhaps still does not, understand the real context into which he would be speaking with this post. The mistake us would be “Universalists” have made as that we have assumed he might have some inkling of what that really was.

      The “real context” is the Internet, a place where people bring whatever it is that they have with them when they read.

      Like I said, I do actually get what various folks who wear the universalist label are saying, and they fall roughly into three groups: 1) Those who teach that all will indeed be saved, 2) those who teach that all might possibly be saved and who thereby wear the label incorrectly and 3) those who will not come out and say what they teach. There are some variations on the details of #1 and #2, but the point of universalism is not the exact path one takes to get to #1 or #2 but rather where they end up.

      1. Yes, it is the Internet, which is a group of people and their stuff as you note. Most of these people we don’t know or know well. But, we do know these are fellow human beings, and we have a whole host of commands by which the Lord taught us to approach one another. Since our only tool for communicating the love of God (and don’t you think perhaps if that is not the bottom line of even an exercise like this, we should close up shop and go home?) in this is words, ought we not try to choose them very carefully–especially with those bothersome whole-person type issues that inevitably crop up around discussions of ultimate things (regardless of how they seem to get people off what we think is the real point of the exercise)? I have often found what I thought was the point of an exercise of my initiation was not what God had in mind, but what He had in mind was infinitely better.

        Here at this site (judging by those that care to comment) seem to be almost exclusively fellow believers, mainly Orthodox, who seem to care very deeply about the faith and how we present it for some very good reasons and, though, many not entirely on the topic as you would like, are touching on important tangential issues which all still impact the bottom line of your concern here–that people be motivated to repent and be saved by how faithfully we communicate what has been given to us. That alone deserves some respect, regardless of how we may perceive people to be in error (and I know I often am–I am trying to learn).

        I just don’t find the response which is essentially: “I get that you fit in box a), b), or c). We are talking about a), and you are not, so get lost” is an adequate response for most human interaction and discussion–let alone those centered around the most ultimate thing of all in life and the life to come.

        1. No one has told you to get lost. (We’ve published, to date, some 93 of your comments.) But you also don’t get to commandeer our posts because you would prefer to talk about something other than what they’re about.

          As for treating other folks with respect, I don’t regard any of the articles on this site to be disrespectful to other people. You do, I gather. I disagree. I choose my words very carefully, and so do our other authors. You don’t like the words we chose. Okay.

          Anyway, I don’t think it’s profitable to turn this into an ad hominem about how we write. Let’s keep this about the actual content, okay?

          1. Father, you misunderstand (again, alas!–I am trying to be patient). I do not consider your *posts/articles* to be disrespectful at all (some of the argument a bit misguided in how it is presented perhaps), but the way you handle many of the comments come across so (apparently not only to me–I do recall seeing the term “boorish” applied). Sorry, not to be more clear. I also didn’t accuse you of literally telling me to get lost, but that was the gist I got out of this:

            “If what you teach is not what’s being addressed here, why are you arguing? It’s not like anyone called you out by name.”

            [What I teach? Btw, I am not teaching anything. I’m not a Priest. I’m trying to explain what I perceive and interact with the topic at hand in the only way I know how. I’m sorry that is not acceptable to you.]

            Anyway, I bid you peace. I think perhaps, I’ve made 93 too many comments here.

          2. I’ve been online since 1994. I take it as axiomatic that, no matter what I post, someone will hate it and think I am a total jerk. So feel free to call me boorish if you like. I’ve been called much, much worse. (One person even accused me of not having a soul.) It doesn’t bother me any more. I may well be a complete and utter misanthrope. But that’s still ad hominem and doesn’t really address the issues.

          3. Well, I must add one last observation that I respectfully disagree that this apparent (at least to some) m.o. of yours that erupts from time to time is the beside the point (and boorish wasn’t my term). We are all products of what we believe and hold most deeply to be true about the nature of God and how He deals with us. Whatever words we say and no matter how well they match those in the Tradition on the surface is beside the point if what we really believe they mean and what we mean by them ourselves (deep down in our hearts which will manifest in how we live) doesn’t actually match the Spirit of that Tradition (and their true, inspired meaning). In those terms, I would say if there’s a persistent feedback you’re getting and it’s coming from a variety of places, you may be the best advertisement that what you are teaching in this post (that the fear of an eternal hell is necessary for repentance) is false.

          4. Okay, Karen, if you’re just going to do ad hominem, we won’t publish your comments.

            In any event, we also get lots of positive feedback. The best we can do is to be true to ourselves and what we understand to be right. If you don’t like how we do that, please don’t torture yourself any longer.

  21. “And so we know, that God does not punish anyone in the future, but everyone makes themselves receptive to share in God. And so to share in God is a delight, while not sharing in Him is Hell.”

    “God forever supplies good things even to the devil, but he does not want to receive it.”

    (St. John of Damascus, Against the Manicheans)

  22. To embrace universalism is to cease to be truly Orthodox in your Christian identity. Also, it makes much of the liturgical life we pray null and void. “And for a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ, let us pray to the Lord.” This prayer becomes virtually meaningless if I know what the judgement is not only for me but for everyone…

  23. Fr. Andrew,

    I have profoundly disagreed with you on ecumenism in the past. I want to thank you for your efforts here. I am only tonight getting around to reading these posts but they are timely and very very important I think. Universalism is a tragic understanding of God and our repentance, this “time of our repentance” (since most of us are not sitting on hard stools in a monastery, and thus don’t have a “monastery of our repentance”).

    Unfortunately, you are only at the beginning of what will need to be a full and robust theological refutation of this dark thread in the very heart of the Church that goes back centuries…

  24. I am very late to this conversation but gotta post this as it really bugs me. Fr. Andrew, in your article here you state:

    “Some have used the word hope to describe their particular version of universalism, but that’s a disingenuous use of hope. To hope for something is not to say that it must happen. Hope admits the possibility that it may not happen but that we desire it anyway. Hoping that all may be saved is part of what it means to be Christian. Teaching that all will be saved is universalism.”

    First off, I truly don’t understand how any Christian, much less Orthodox Christians that have a consistent witness of both scripture and the Ecumenical Councils, can possibly arrive at any kind of universalist position. It’s much like how they butcher scripture to arrive at the idea that practicing homosexuality is not a sin. However, I really think that those of us on the other side of this debate are not helping the situation by our use of the word “hope”. The fact is, is that there is NO hope of salvation for the damned be they human or demon. Period. Why “hope” for a non-existent reality? I do not “hope” for Santa Claus to be real…he is not. I suggest we use words like “want” or “wish”. By saying “hope” we are leaving the door cracked open on this issue…just enough for the universalist to keep getting their foot in that door. There are things that the Church needs to slam the door shut. Leaving no wiggle room whatsoever. This door, in my opinion, needs to be slammed shut. There is no hope…period. Sounds harsh but, as this series of articles point out, this is a rightfully condemned teaching and needs to be abandoned for the sake of our people.

  25. I don’t think fear of hell should be used to encourage repentance. To borrow a quote from the Sufi tradition: “O my Lord, if I worship You from fear of Hell, burn me in Hell; and if I worship You from hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your own sake, do not withhold from me Your Eternal Beauty.”

  26. IMO this Scripture addresses the topic of the OP:

    1Tim.4:9 This is a trustworthy saying, worthy of full acceptance. 10 To this end we labor and strive, because we have set our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe. 11 Command and teach these things

    1. He is indeed the Savior of all men, and indeed of the whole world, but not all men will receive salvation because not all men will cooperate with that salvation. That is why it is “especially of those who believe.” Those who do not believe have a Savior, but they do not have salvation.

  27. Great article. Thanks for defending the faith. Universalists are not converted to apostolic Orthodox Christianity. They are full of ego and think they have greater insight than the Church. The important thing to remember is that the Bible is the highest doctrinal authority of the Orthodox Church, and it categorically affirms eternal Hell, as did Christ. There is no doubt about it for anyone who actually believes in Christ and Scripture.

  28. Permit me to put a plug in for an excellent book: “Hell On Trial: The Case For Eternal Punishment,” by Peterson. Sometimes the heterodox get things right. The biblical evidence and arguments he gives are irrefutable.

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