One of the big problems with an Orthodox Christian embracing universalism is that he has to reject a large portion of the liturgical tradition of the Church in order to do so. The eternality of the punishment of the wicked is ubiquitous in the services of the Church. This may be less apparent if one does not have access to frequent church services, but it really becomes apparent the more time you spend in church listening to what is being sung.
The Church doesn’t spend all its time talking about the eternality of damnation, but mainly focuses on encouraging sinners to repentance and to embrace the resurrection of Christ. But even though we are definitely running toward something, we are also very much running from something. And the Church does sing about it often.
To give some sense of this, I wanted to give some samples that speak of this (admittedly, hard) teaching of the Church from the most beloved time of the Church year—the Triodion, which includes the periods of Great Lent and Holy Week. I’ve highlighted some relevant phrases (in some cases, it’s the whole hymn that mentions this, so I didn’t highlight any specific phrases).
You will notice that the biggest selection of this material comes from the Sunday of the Last Judgment, the Sunday that directly addresses the question of the eternal destiny of mankind.
From Soul Saturday
From the ever-burning fire, from the darkness without light, from the gnashing of teeth and the worm that torments without ceasing, from every punishment deliver, O our Saviour, all who have died in faith. (Ode 5 of the Matins Canon)
From the Sunday of the Last Judgment
The books will be opened and the acts of men will be revealed before the unbearable judgment-seat; and the whole vale of sorrow shall echo with the fearful sound of lamentation, as all the sinners, weeping in vain, are sent by Thy just judgment to everlasting torment. Therefore we beseech Thee, O compassionate and loving Lord: spare us who sing Thy praise, for Thou alone art rich in mercy. (Vespers Sticheron on “Lord, I have cried”, Tone 6)
I lament and weep when I think of the eternal fire, the outer darkness and the nether world, the dread worm and the gnashing of teeth and the unceasing anguish that shall befall those who have sinned without measure, by their wickedness arousing Thee to anger, O Supreme in love. Among them in my misery I am first: but, O Judge compassionate, in Thy mercy save me. (Vespers Sticheron on “Lord, I have cried”, Tone 6)
Think, my soul, of the fearful examination before the Judge; in trembling prepare thy defence, lest thou be condemned to the eternal bonds. (Ode 6 of the Matins Canon)
Deliver me, O Lord, from the gates of hell, from chaos and darkness without light, from the lowest depths of the earth and the unquenchable fire, and from all the other everlasting punishments. (Ode 6 of the Matins Canon)
When Thou, O God, shalt judge all things, who among us earthborn men shall dare to stand before Thee, for we are all beset by the passions? Then the unquenchable fire and the destroying worm shall seize the condemned and hold them fast for ever. (Ode 7 of the Matins Canon)
Wednesday of the First Week
Elijah, glorified by fasting, rode in the divine chariot of the virtues and was carried up to the height of heaven. Eagerly follow his example, O my humble soul, and fast from every evil, from envy, strife and passing pleasure. So shalt thou escape the harsh and everlasting agony of Gehenna, crying out to Christ: Glory be to Thee, O Lord. (Vespers Sticheron on “Lord, I have cried”, Tone 2)
Fifth Sunday in Lent
‘During thy life,’ said Abraham to the rich man, ‘thou hast lived in wealth and luxury; so now thou art tormented in the fire eternally, while Lazarus the poor man rejoices in unending gladness.’ (Ode 5 of the Matins Canon)
From Holy Week
Behold, the Bridegroom cometh at midnight, and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching: and again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, lest thou be given up to death and lest thou be shut out of the Kingdom. But rouse thyself crying: Holy, holy, holy, art Thou, O our God. Through the Theotokos, have mercy on us. (Apolytikion of the Bridegroom, Tone 8)
O wretched soul, think of thy last hours. Be dismayed at the rebuking of the fig tree. Act, and double the talent given to thee with a fatigue-loving purpose. Awake, watching and crying out, lest we remain outside the chamber of Christ. (Kontakion of Holy Tuesday)
When thou didst help the Disciples at the Supper and knewest the intend of Judas to betray, thou didst reproach him for it, knowing all the while that he was beyond redemption; but preferring to make known to all that thou wast betrayed of thine own will, so that thou might snatch the world from the stranger. Wherefore, O long-suffering one, glory to thee. (Kathisma from the Twelve Passion Gospels Matins, Tone 7)
No one who loves God revels in this stuff. But it’s still real. And that’s why we sing about it. Teaching universalism means we would have to stop singing about this reality. And it would be a pretty big editing job to revise the liturgical tradition of the Church to accommodate such a teaching.