Where is Everybody? Apokatastasis, Divine Charity and Human Freedom

by Richard Bernier, Ph.D.

In the 2016 remake of the classic film The Magnificent Seven, a motley crew led by Sam Chisholm, played by Denzel Washington, is called upon to rid a town of a bullying tyrant. In an exchange with one of the principal townswomen, Emma Cullen, who has lost almost everything to the villains, Sam asks her “So you seek revenge?” Emma answers him, “I seek righteousness, as should we all. But I’ll take revenge.” It is, if I may say, an immensely satis­fying line that captures one innocent woman’s refusal to surrender her ideals even as her oppressor’s impunity galvanizes her to yearn at least for his downfall if not his redemption. How often do the rest of us not look at some egregious example of shameless devilry, of monstrous inhumanity, and think “Let even this be redeemed, ibut at the very least, let it be avenged.” Most of us, even those of us who are Christians, I would venture to guess, have certain persons in mind whom we feel it would be neither difficult nor overly painful to imagine suffering eternal torments. At first glance, it seems one would have to be exception­ally charitable to muster a really heartfelt tear or shudder at the prospect of eternal damna­tion for the architects of the Holocaust, the Gulag, the Holodomor, the Killing Fields; for tormentors of children, for that vile fiend who designed an electrified chair to terrify the young Indigenous inmates of a Canadian residential school. It is all very well to seek righteousness; but there are times when all of us would take revenge. To read Dante is to become uncomfortably aware of a man who, for all his immeasurable talents, saw in the literary portrayal of the Last Things an opportunity to settle a few scores.

And yet, the pithiest and most concise affirmation of Christian soteriology is that line from the 21st chapter of the Apocalypse: “Behold, I make all things new.” However weary and calloused one might be in one’s outlook, nevertheless the sovereignty of Christ, trampling on death by death, victorious over the enemy, and on those in the tomb, lavishing life – this sovereignty seems mocked if the understandable human settling for revenge creeps into the Lordship of Christ over the transformed cosmos.

Prescinding for a moment from the very worst examples of human obliquity such as those just catalogued, it seems that settling for revenge rather than righteousness is even more plainly inconsistent with the Christian notion of Christ’s Lordship if we think, not of Pol Pot or Beria, but of the teeming masses of us who are just muddling through – such as your Great-Uncle Ned, a thoroughly decent chap who never managed to be terribly punctilious about attending Sunday Mass; our kind and just and generous neighbours who have not in any obvious way received the grace of faith; or the immense multitude of little ones who pass away without seeing the light of day let alone the waters of Baptism. The Lord makes all things new, and His mercy endures forever, but there are in our churches some solid traditions of consigning any number of such hapless souls to perdition without, it must be said, much dismay. This ought to trouble us. It ought to trouble us even in those utterly depraved cases I just mentioned; let us take as a specific example that loathsome individual who set out to inflict fear and pain on the little children from Indigenous communities sentenced to miserable years in a residential school. Even here, it seems to me, there is a world of difference between retribution with a fiery core of justice, and revenge with a rotten core of cruelty. An understandable justice might say “I would like to see that monster suffer as long and as deeply as he must until he himself has felt all the pain he inflicted, until he truly and from the depths of his being begs forgiveness from God and from his survivors.” On the other hand, to say, “I just want him to suffer and to go on suffering in anguish and despair for the rest of eternity with no hope of deliverance” – that is a revenge in which any spark of justice seems to have been extinguished.

The remarks that follow will not be about a single verse, but there in black and white in First Timothy is a most apposite verse, the verse that says concisely what so much of the Christian Faith conspires to affirm: God our saviour…wishes all people to be saved. It is not that this or any single verse proves anything definitively, but this phrase from Timothy expresses in a few words what is expressed throughout the Scriptures, Hebrew and Greek, the mystical traditions of the Church, and the lives of its most beloved Saints, such as Francis of Assisi, Thérèse of Lisieux, Seraphim of Sarov, or any number of others: the Divine act of Creation and the Divine act of Redemption arise from Divine charity and compassion and must be defined in terms of charity and compassion all the way down the line or they make no sense at all.

“God our Saviour wishes all people to be saved.” This sentiment immediately gives rise to entire departments of Theology as faith, seeking understanding, parses the verse and those like it. What does it mean to be saved? Once we grant that God wishes something, how is it that we don’t immediately move from the subjunctive to the indicative mood – for doesn’t God’s wishing something make it so? And if not, why not? “God our Saviour wishes all people to be saved” – the observation should delight but not really surprise us, once we have accepted that Christ’s life and teaching were Good News.

He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed. (Luke 4:18, RSV)

Make this mission selective rather than universal, and you immediately nullify its claim to be Good News. We can confidently take this as a conviction of orthodox Christianity and thus as our starting point: “God our Saviour wishes all people to be saved.” Any contraction of this circle of mercy in the name, let’s say, of one or another version of predestination, is at best a depressing triumph of clever cheese-paring wordplay over the radical hope promised by the Incarnation, and is at worst the most hideous of blasphemies.

And yet a phenomenological survey of orthodox Christian faith and practice reveals persis­tent and widespread conviction that some kind of perdition, some kind of personal escha­to­logical catastrophe, remains a real menace and one to be taken with great seriousness. This conviction arises first of all, of course, from the pages of the Greek Scriptures themselves and particularly the Gospels. Christian literature, Christian art, Christian homiletics, are shot through with an often intense anxiety that the final destiny of some is damnation, a permanent torment of separation from God, the intensity of which is represented by, even when it is not formally believed to consist of, scorching flames and ghastly shrieks and odours unbearable. It is this fearful prospect that the author of the Dies Irae seeks to be delivered from:

Confutatis maledictis, Flammis acribus addictis, Voca me cum benedictis.​

In the words of Irons’ translation:

When the wicked are confounded, Doomed to flames of woe unbounded, Call me with Your saints surrounded.

What are we to make of these “flames of woe unbounded”? This fiery imagery is of course not so very far from the New Testament images of the Gehenna, of the lake of fire, of the unquenchable flame, perhaps the very one that burns up the chaff. It is tempting to move on quickly from these popular, more fanciful or detailed portrayals of Hell in the Christian tradition, on the grounds that nobody really believes them, at least not anymore. However, Christian literary and artistic depictions of Hell are also part of the legacy of the Churches, and they continue their catechetical function even when they are no longer attached to pulpits, altars or cloisters but hang among the comfortingly eclectic holdings of art muse­ums, or are read in the sheltered confines of the seminar room. Consider the central place given to lurid descriptions of Hell’s torments in some homiletic resources and traditions in the West. James Joyce draws upon such chilling sermons for our disedification; in Québec, the Redemptorist Order were sometimes nicknamed the rédempterroristes because of their reputation for parish missions where Hell was preached with blood-curdling zeal. Christians are quick, I think, to take pride in the way cathedrals and stained-glass windows have served as catechisms for the unlettered; but then it would be inconsistent to insist on getting a pass on the nastier bits. It is all very well to derive a frisson of sophisticated amusement from the darker themes in Hieronymus Bosch, but his demons and hellscapes were no joke; they were no mere study in whimsy for the generations of unlettered faithful praying and trembling with his work looming over them.

What, then, have the churches made of damnation, theologically speaking?

First, and most bluntly: Christians have widely believed that it is possible, and terrible, to be punished by God for all eternity. Let your imagination run as wild as it might with specific torments, these can only approximate how dreadful Hell must be. Hell is real, on this view, and we have no basis for supposing it will be unpopulated. While everyone admits that Dante’s Inferno and Bosch’s hellscapes are no Lonely Planet guides by experienced visitors to the realm of everlasting torment, nonetheless, on this view, these artists’ instincts for what Hell may be like are perceptive and dependable ones, powerful not because they get the details right, but because they catch the drift of what must be meant by eternal damnation – namely, that it is the supreme and the only definitive tragedy.

But if eternal hellfire has this pedigree of being professed across many years and many cultures, and if it is the view that even now is in possession of the field, why bother attempting to revise it or question it? What is the point of disputing something so entrenched?

Well, it is because such a notion of a never-ending non-medicinal punishment is monstrous, plain and simple. No amount of mental or verbal gymnastics can really make intelligible the claim that an utterly loving and just God deliberately sentences some of His rational creatures to an eternity of unbroken anguish, whatever form it takes, without even sleep or coma to alleviate their grief, and with no healing or remediation possible. It is this point in particular that David Bentley Hart makes at length and very persuasively in That All Shall Be Saved, his vitally important recent book on universal salvation. Hart argues that positing a loving and just God who wills an eternal, conscious, non-remedial punishment is so starkly and manifestly perverse, and that the efforts to defend that view are so alien to reason and human experience, that the claim practically rises to the level of a logical impossibility. He is not alone in his misgivings, although he is exceptional for the vigour with which he expresses them.

In the first edition of his Apologia pro vita sua, St John Henry Newman initially wrote that he believed in eternal punishment but that he had “tried in various ways to make that truth less terrible to the reason“: in subsequent editions he changed that line first to “I have tried in various ways to make that truth less terrible to the intellect” and finally “I have tried in various ways to make that truth less terrible to the imagination.” This is an intriguing evolution, suggesting that Newman found the doctrine of Hell even more terrible to the heart than to the mind, or that he did not wish to undertake any defence of Hell which would require an attempt to adduce reasons, or a defense of the indefensible. Whatever Newman’s motives for adjusting so subtly the way he framed his reticences about the doctrine of Hell, we can see in Christian history a number of theological and pastoral efforts to make the doctrine of eternal damnation less terrible to the intellect and imagination, even when, as with Newman, the doctrine itself is not in question.

A first very modest step away from the unthinkable is to explicitly deny that Hell is in any sense a torture chamber: to deny that the sufferings are physical (failing which we would have to posit that God created a lake of fire or an icy prison), to deny that specific punish­ments are meted out in the manner Dante portrays, to deny that the damned are handed over to the demons for their malicious sport. This first step which we might summarize as a denial of Hell conceived as punishment in favour of a Hell conceived of as separation and alienation – this first step already takes us a long way from what Herbert McCabe notes “seem to have been largely projections of sadistic or vindictive fantasies,” from what Hell has often been in the Christian imagination, from the Vision of Tundale to Dante to Bosch to the New Yorker cartoons for which the palpable physical and elaborate emotional torments of Hell are a favourite trope – a long way, for that matter, from the third part of St Thomas’ Summa and the prima facie meaning of the formulation employed by the First Council of Lyon. Nonetheless, I think very many Christians today recognize the necessity of denying that Hell is a purpose-built torture chamber since otherwise we are obliged to claim that the Father deliberately causes sufferings which cannot be redemptive or medicinal or even pedagogical since they are unending, entirely retributive, in no sense restorative, and out of all proportion to what a human being can possibly merit.

The reason for taking this step is that the first and most glaring scandal of most traditional versions of eternal punishment is their lack of the two precise things that alone can make any punishment tolerable, namely the quality of being finite in time (so that there is hope of deliverance), and the quality of ultimately having some benefit for the person suffering. Can there be any satisfaction in seeing even the worst of villains punished if there is no way it can ever do them any good, if it cannot wring true repentance from their hearts? That, truly, would be revenge without righteousness.

But even if we take away the ghastliest and most blasphemous component of the conven­tional Western view, namely the positing of deliberately created torments, we are still left with the scandal of an eternity of despair that can never do anyone any good, even if that despair is framed, as it usually is nowadays, as entirely self-inflicted. Many catechists today will insist that God sends nobody to Hell, but that it is a state we choose for ourselves. Still, self-inflicted or not, an eternity of futile despair and unrelieved loneliness looks like a defect in Divine charity, no matter how hard we squint. It must also be said that many critics of universalism, whether Hart’s version or another’s, object that eternal punishment has been held by most Christians in every age while universal salvation has not. However, those raising this objection do not typically consider themselves equally bound by the fact that most Christians in every age envisioned Hell not purely as a state of separation, not purely as a spiritual alienation, but as a realm of outright punishment. It is entirely understandable that defenders of the doctrine of eternal punishment should want to distance themselves from the implications of seeing God as a kind of Grand Inquisitor, but it illustrates vividly how selectively they take the views of the Councils and the faithful as authoritative. The move to spiritualize Hell, after all, is not a triumph of the prima facie meaning of Scripture over subsequent accretions, given the language of worms and fires and the gnashing of teeth; it is a triumph of the primacy of God’s goodness over any secondary doctrines. If the Church can permit itself to qualify the flames in the name of God’s goodness, then many Christians will want to qualify other aspects of the established view, and with good reason.

Hence it is that attempts have been made to go even further, to mitigate the sting of positing this sort of damnation in the first place.

For example, one may argue that whatever Hell is like, we may at least hope it will remain strictly a theoretical possibility that will never actually exist for any person. This is von Balthasar’s position, and the position evoked by Bishop Kallistos Ware in The Orthodox Way and much more developed in the essay “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?” in The Inner Kingdom. I also take this to be Pope St John Paul’s point when he writes in Crossing the Threshold of Hope that we can’t even confidently say that Judas is a lost soul. In this view, it is possible to hope that all shall be saved, not by having their freedom overridden by grace or Divine decree, but on account of the sheer happy coincidence that, between grace and mercy and the essential goodness of human nature, nobody will in the end be lost. This position has the advantage that it allows us not to think very much about what damnation means – when the unpleasant topic arises in conversation or reflection, we can simply hope for the best and not dwell on it too much. This is probably the least controversial version of universal salvation, although von Balthasar does have his Catholic critics, among others, who consider that the data requires us to posit at least some lost souls. However, von Balthasar’s view meets even the very exacting doctrinal demands of the Latin Church’s pronouncements on the matter. The discipline of the Latin Church seems to leave little room for universal salvation to be preached in that Church, but von Balthasar’s version of the hope that all shall be saved is a kind of conditional universalism available to the Roman Catholic preacher.

Nonetheless von Balthasar’s earnest hope does not resolve the problem of what it means for our theodicy to posit damnation even if only as a theoretical possibility. Suppose I announced to this room that I have strewn landmines from here to City Hall but I add, “don’t trouble yourself too much – it may be that all of you will be lucky enough not to step on one.” I expect you would find your curiosity and indignation as to my motives, and your alarm at my state of mind, will remain unsatisfied by my assurances. In the same way von Balthasar’s hope in a de facto universal salvation fails to dissipate the weighty concerns raised by Bentley Hart.

Another quite different possibility is to maintain the eternity of punishment but to remove the scandal of apparent Divine indifference to this ongoing suffering by positing that lost souls will be annihilated or not be granted their immortality – in short that, while they will not enjoy life and the Divine presence, neither will they experience ongoing loss and despair. This is Fr Robert Wild’s position as expressed in his book A Catholic Reading Guide to Conditional Immortality (Resource Publications, 2017), a position he arrived at after concluding that eternal damnation is untenable but that universal salvation is inadequate as a doctrine to account for the radical implications that the Christian tradition has normally ascribed to our choices. This rather grey prospect of conditional immortality, dreary though it may be, spares the Christian the obligation of positing a God indifferent to the hopeless suffering of His beloved creations. If there is no way of confidently proclaiming that Hell is an empty set, then annihilation or non-survival seem like the next best thing, certainly better than an eternity of loneliness and despair.

In a similar vein, some who have broached the problem of eternal punishment have emphasized that eternity should not be seen as an endless succession of moments in time but as another mode of existence where time does not operate in the same way. Chuck Norris may have counted to infinity twice, but this is not an ability available to us average mortals – so that instead of taking as a model the intemperate homilist’s vision of hell as an endless series of desperate moments, we should instead understand it as a permanent state of separation beyond the categories of time.

But however we parse the place of eternity in one’s notion of hell, neither annihilation nor despair is very Good News at all, and this brings us to the various ways Christians have sought to make the doctrine of Hell less terrible to the intellect and imagination by making it temporary; and with this removal of eternity from the equation, we are in the territory of universal salvation, for apokatastasis as applied to human beings does not mean there is no justice or consequence of sin, but precisely that perdition need not or even must not be permanent.

One popular way of implicitly denying Hell’s eternity is also an interesting attempt to shift the locus of responsibility for damnation: namely, the position that Hell is real but that it is eternal only because, and if, the damned refuse to repent. This I take to be what C.S. Lewis means when he writes in The Problem of Pain that the doors of Hell are locked on the inside, and what he develops so beautifully in his extraordinary story The Great Divorce. A Hell continually freely chosen by the damned is much easier to grapple with than a doctrine of inexorable, unending, non-medicinal punishment or even alienation – but of course to posit such a Hell really means that we have ceased to describe perdition as eternal and have ceased to describe it as an inflicted torture. If those doors could be opened at any moment by those separated from God, if it is a self-chosen and reversible damnation, then it is not eter­nal but merely indefinite and accords a greater role to ongoing human agency than even most classic Western notions of purgatory. This idea that Hell is locked on the inside is very popular among catechists and evangelizers today, and understandably so, for it is much easier to speak with a straight face about the boundless mercy of God if even the lost are never truly lost beyond all hope. On the other hand, Lewis was not a universalist, and Kallistos Ware uses the locked-door image in The Orthodox Way, but still affirms that Hell is eternal – presumably because the soul is held to be fixed in its disposition and beyond conversion. This view, that the possibility of a change of heart ceases at death and the will becomes fixed, is a widely repeated claim for which I have not yet been able to see a persuasive argument. Be that as it may, if I have been rendered utterly incapable of unlocking a door, the fact that it is locked only on my side is of little comfort.

Another approach to denying Hell’s eternity is to affirm, not that it is a prison whose door is locked on the inside, whose sentence is self-imposed, but to conceive of Hell’s sufferings as a redemptive purgation, as a medicinal or remedial process that can and will end when the soul repents and is sufficiently purified. In effect, this view collapses the distinction between Hell and what the West calls Purgatory, and attributes to Hell some of the main features that the Western Tradition has normally ascribed to Purgatory, notably that it is limited in time and medicinal or restorative in nature. This is what I understand Origen, St Gregory of Nyssa, Hilarion Alfeyev, and Bentley Hart to be positing. Recent quite indispensable work by Ilaria Ramelli and Robin Parry has documented persistent affirmations of one form or another of universal salvation in different eras of Christian history. Thus whether universal­ism is true or false, it is no myopic innovation of a misguidedly soft-hearted age but a recurring, one might say incessant concern of Christians in the face of the difficulties raised by the doctrine of eternal punishment, and is by some accounts a persistent return to the liberating hope of the New Testament, though this is contested strongly by Hart’s critics.

Assessing these competing visions of the Last Things means weighing their respective cogency but it also means weighing how readily they can be squared with the Scriptures, Holy Tradition, the canons of the Councils, and the teaching of the Fathers. It won’t have escaped our attention that on the matter of Hell, the Eastern and Western Churches have chosen over the centuries to go, by and large, down somewhat different paths. Advocates of belief in a universal human salvation often find their most kindred spirits among the Eastern Fathers particularly, notably St Isaac of Nineveh, St Gregory of Nyssa, St Evagrius Ponticus, St Theodore of Mopsuestia, St Athanasius, and others, and among modern Orthodox thinkers such as Bulgakov, Alfeyev, and of course Bentley Hart. At the same time, as Ramelli shows, this contrast should not be overstated as there are ancient Western authors sympa­thetic to universalism. Still, it is instructive to compare the treatment of Hell in two modern Catholic catechetical instruments of particularly solemn weight, namely the Catechism of the Catholic Church intended for the whole Catholic communion but preponderantly Western in outlook, and Christ our Pascha, the catechism of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. The 1999 Roman Catechism over several paragraphs reiterates the traditional Latin position that Hell involves punishment and is eternal; in contrast, Christ our Pascha treats of the topic very briefly in a single paragraph, specifically disavows the word “punishment”, and says nothing about eternity, turning instead to Maximus the Confessor and Origen for the imagery of an unrepentant soul that is not said to be separated from God but to be at war with itself. The choice to cite only Maximus and Origen on this topic is itself a very instructive choice of sources, as Origen is the most famous of Christian universalists, while Maximus is generally considered to be a universalist as well.

There are a number of critical points that must be explored in any discussion of universal salvation, especially the question of what we are to make of the New Testament’s claims about the fiery destiny of some, the implications for human freedom and responsibility, and the problem of how universalism might be squared with some of the magisterial affirmations of the Churches.

There is also the objection, often levelled, that universal salvation trivializes the implications of our actions. Let’s say for the sake of argument that it does. If eternal punishment is the solution, then the cure is worse than the disease. This is a point Bentley Hart makes especially powerfully – the idea that there is anything any of us poor creatures could do that would literally merit an eternity of unremitting despair is beyond credence, because of what it requires us to affirm about God and because what it requires us to believe about human nature.

Even more to the point, let us suppose instead that the vision of C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce were the truest version we have of the Last Things. Far from making our choices trivial, this vision recognizes that in fact we are constantly choosing Heaven and Hell every day. It would be a childish mistake to take only immediate lethal threats as worthy of concern. If my doctor tells me that an excessive predilection for Snickers bars may not kill me this afternoon but it will eventually make me miserable until I smarten up — that is not shallow or trivial but a real warning of a little Hell I am needlessly creating for myself. If a friend warns me that if I persist in checking social media incessantly, I may not die on the spot but I will live a more and more unhappy and stress-filled life, until I choose to learn to manage my futile rage — that perspective does not trivialize my choices, but urges me to cherish my life more carefully. It is truer to our experience and thus far more persuasive to say “Keep this up and you will live to regret the Hell created by your anger, your heartless­ness, your intemperance, your lusts, your cruelty, your refusal to trust God; and you will find it an excruciating journey to come back to grace, life, and peace.” That is far more persuasive than to say “The disposition of your will at the instant of your death – no matter how you have lived the rest of your life – will be your fixed and unchangeable disposition for the rest of eternity, so make sure you get that moment right.” And it is certainly more persuasive than to say, “We can only really live with our own claims about Hell by hoping nobody ends up there.” These important questions are beyond the scope of my remarks here but a number of the works cited, especially those by Bentley Hart, Ramelli, and Wild, do explore these problems in greater depth.

I do want to say a word about one particular question raised by universalism.

The official pronouncements of the Roman Catholic Church raise important questions for all those sympathetic to universalism and at the same time committed to grappling seriously with what it means to be in communion with Rome. Justin Shaun Coyle has written an interesting and hopeful essay entitled “May Catholics Endorse Universalism?“, published on the website Eclectic Orthodoxy. Fr Aidan Kimel, who manages and contributes to the site, has curated some of the most interesting work on the subject of universalism, and Coyle’s essay is specifically intended to address what versions of universalism, if any, might be available to a Roman Catholic who is guided by that Church’s pronouncements on the matter of eternal punishment. Coyle proposes a vision of how universal salvation might be squared with the Roman Church’s suite of official statements in favour of eternal punishment, and as I see it that vision is consciously in harmony with what Bentley Hart offers. In a nutshell, Coyle distinguishes between the true and the shadow self, between the sinner who burns everlastingly and the beloved soul which is liberated from those flames to everlasting life, no longer a sinner by the very fact of having his or her sins permanently purified. It is a reading well worth exploring by Roman Catholics, especially now that Bentley Hart has newly given voice to the grave objections that stand against the classic position. If Bentley Hart is right, then Roman Catholics will certainly want to think about how to receive Lateran IV and Lyon I in ways other than they have generally been received. Coyle’s project is one such attempt at a re-reading; doubtless others are possible and desirable. But some rethinking of Lateran IV and Lyon I becomes imperative, and Eastern Catholics will want to continue to think about what it means doctrinally to be in genuine communion with Rome while faithfully and fully retaining our own proper traditions, including an openness to universal salvation that is anchored in our history, in our theological and spiritual sources, and above all in our commitment to the Orthodox faith as to the nature of Christ and the nature of Divine charity.

I would like by way of conclusion to offer a few thoughts about one specific objection that has been levelled against the doctrine of universal salvation, namely: Doesn’t the hope that all shall be saved remove the incentive for holiness?

I contend that it does the opposite: to take the most obvious human parallel, the faithful love of our friends or family or Fred Rogers does not normally lead us to treat them shabbily, rather it draws us up to greater generosity and love. We don’t normally mistreat a beloved friend or family member because we are confident that she will not abandon us; her devotion instead evokes in us greater humanity. Consider St Ignatius of Loyola’s’ meditation on Hell in his Spiritual Exercises, a key moment in the Exercises where the exercitant faces what kind of person he or she intends and wishes to be with God’s grace. It would completely cheapen the whole process, the very spirit of the Exercises, if it merely urged us to avoid sin to avoid the torments of the damned; and such a craven and fearful attitude would belie the Exercises’ own portrayal of God’s love and of the freedom and abundant life for which we are created. This is shown by the pinnacle of the Exercises, the “Contemplation to Attain Love.” This contemplatio vigorously dismisses motives of fear and self-interest to consider simply how the graciousness of God ought to evoke in us love and collaboration.

It would be a caricature of the apokatastatic vision to suppose that positing an indefinite period of deep and cleansing purification is a kind of laxity, an insanely optimistic delusion. A major theme of recent work on apokatastasis (Bentley Hart, Talbott, Parry…) has been that the hope embedded in Jesus’ Good News seems incompatible with eternal punishment; however, as the universalist Fathers understood, the purification that most universalist views envision as the purpose of the unquenchable fire is no day at the beach. Jesus’ escha­tological teaching, for all its shadows and hints, seems clear about this: if we persist in injustice, in cruelty, in selfishness, in blasphemy, all these will eventually have to be purified as if by fire, and we will not be delivered from this fire until every trace of ungodliness has been burned away. This is no invitation to complacency.

If we envision Hell, not as an eternal punishment, but as the intrinsic consequence of living as though we and the rest of the human family and the rest of the world are mere accidents rather than creations; if we envision Hell as the natural evolution of what St Ephrem’s Prayer calls “slothfulness, discouragement, ambition, and idle talk”, then we will grasp that Hell really is the extension beyond death of what we are all living right now when we do not live by faith, hope, and charity. The imperative to evangelize is tremendously plausible and powerful if by grace we elect to avoid that sort of Hell for ourselves and others: Hell under­stood as Citizen Kane’s lonely deathbed, Sam Rockwell’s desolate base in the film Moon, Kayla’s stark and lonely world in the film Eighth Grade, or even grimmer Gehennas of our making. The imperative to evangelize is all the more plausible and powerful once we wish to avoid Hell understood as the world of the Gulag and the death camp. Look at BergenBelsen, or Lampedusa, or the suicide rates among young men in Québec, and then try to say with conviction that if we focus mainly on what sin is already doing to us right now, the stakes are just too damn low. We do not have the luxury of taking revenge when we must be seeking righteousness.

With Julian of Norwich, with St Catherine of Siena, with Dorothy Day, we must remind each other: All the way to Heaven is Heaven. Would anyone know this to be true by listening to what we profess to believe?1



[1] These remarks were delivered at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies [MASI] in Toronto on February 25, 2020. I am very grateful to Dr. Brian Butcher and Rev. Dr. Peter Galadza for the opportunity to speak at MASI. A version of this text is published in LOGOS: a journal of Eastern Christian Studies, vol. 60, nos. 1-4, (2019).

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Richard Bernier works as an administrator in Concordia University’s Faculty of Arts and Science (Montreal) and teaches in philosophy and religious studies at Concordia, and at McGill University where he obtained his doctorate. He is a member of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church.

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“The Father is glorified in the Son as in an image and type of his own form, for the beauty of the archetype is seen in its image”

When the Savior declares that he has made known the name of God the Father, it is the same as saying that he has shown the whole world his glory. How did he do this? By making himself known through his wonderful works. The Father is glorified in the Son as in an image and type of his own form, for the beauty of the archetype is seen in its image. The only Son then has made himself known, and he is in his essence wisdom and life, the artificer and creator of the universe. He is immortal and incorruptible, pure, blameless, merciful, holy, good. His Father is known to be like him, since he could not be different in nature from his offspring. The Father’s glory is seen, as in an image and type of his own form, in the glory of the Son.

The Son made known the name of God the Father to teach us and make us fully comprehend not that he is the only God — for inspired Scripture had proclaimed that even before the coming of the Son — but that besides being truly God he is also rightly called “Father.” This is so because in himself and proceeding from himself he has a Son possessed of the same eternal nature as his own: it was not in time that he became the Father of the Creator of the ages!

To call God “Father” is more exact than to call him “God.” The word God signifies his dignity, but the word Father points to the distinctive attribute of his person. If we say “God,” we declare him to be Lord of the universe. If we call him “Father,” we show the way in which he is distinct as a person, for we make known the fact that he has a Son. The Son himself gave God the name of Father, as being in some sense the more appropriate and truer appellation, when he said not “I and God” but “I and the Father are one,” and also, with reference to himself, “On him has God the Father set his seal.” And when he commanded his disciples to baptize all nations, he did not tell them to do this in the name of God but expressly ordained that they were to do it in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

St Cyril of Alexandria

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‘That All Shall Be Saved’: A Review of a Review of a Review

It’s not often that one comes across a review of a book review. Sometimes a journal or magazine will give an author the opportunity to respond to a critical review. Sometimes it will publish a second review that offers a different assessment. But rarely does one encounter a review of a review. I mean, what’s the point? But Dr David C. Ford, Professor of Church History at St Tikhon’s Orthodox Seminary, has given us precisely that. In response to Fr Michael Plekon’s sympathetic review of David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved (published on the website of the International Orthodox Theological Association [IOTA]), Ford has written a critical review of the review (same website). Not only is he convinced that Hart has written a heretical book (though he does not use the word), but apparently he also believes that his assessment must be shared by every Orthodox theologian, assuming that they too possess a right understanding of the Ortho­dox faith. Given that Plekon failed to address the “serious problems” with TASBS, we may conclude either that he has acted irresponsibly in writing an “ostensibly neutral review” or that he is a heretic right alongside Hart. With his review of a review, therefore, Ford kills two birds with one stone: he publicly rebukes Plekon for not writing the review he thinks he should have, and he solemnly warns the brethren of the heterodoxy of a popular Orthodox theologian.

At this point I need to be upfront. I have never met Fr Michael, but we have corresponded a few times over the years on specific theological topics, going all the way back to 2003 when I put some questions to him about Sergius Bulgakov’s understanding of the Eucharist. Most importantly, he did me a great kindness in 2011. After I was ordained to the Orthodox priesthood, he asked me if I had been given a silver cross to wear, as is customary for Russian Orthodox priests. When I told him that I had not, he immediately sent me one. So I harbor a fondness toward Fr Michael and was chafed when I read Ford’s piece. I deem it unfair, if not disingenuous, to make a reviewer the target of one’s criticisms when the book’s author is the true target.

(Dr Ford, if you want to take on Hart, do so directly. If a “more accurate and thorough review of this very problematic work” is needed, then please write one [5,000 words max—that should be ample enough], and I’ll publish it here on Eclectic Orthodoxy.)

So let’s go through Ford’s objections to That All Shall Be Saved.

First, Ford takes Plekon to task for this sentence: “[Hart] argues that in the early church, there was little evidence of a widespread, common conviction that God’s wrath required the eternal banishment and punishment of human beings.” Ford counters:

It’s simply not the traditional Orthodox understanding that ‘God’s wrath requires the eternal banishment and punishment of human beings.’ Rather, it’s God’s infinite love that some human beings and the demons continue to reject; and that, for them, is hell.

Ford’s objection misses the point. Hart has advanced a historical claim that a diversity of opinion on the final judgment existed in the early centuries of the Church, yet Ford counters with an appeal to what he believes to be “the traditional Orthodox understand­ing.” These are two different kinds of claims. Even if Ford is correct, Hart’s historical claim is not disproved. But is Ford correct in his assertion that Orthodoxy has traditionally understood damnation, not as just punishment, but as the experiential consequence of obdurate rejection of the divine love (and are they mutually exclusive)? What evidence can he provide? Can a wide­spread belief in non-retributive damnation be clearly documented in, say, the first six centuries of the Church’s life? Seven years ago I did some amateurish excavation of the early Church Fathers, and found that while one can easily find Latin and Eastern testimonies to the retributive nature of eternal punishment, texts supporting the now popular Orthodox view that “hell is heaven experienced differently,” as Bishop Irenei Steenberg felicitiously phrased it, are harder to come by. St Isaac the Syrian is often quoted on this point—“Those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love”—but this sentence reads very differently once one remembers that he was a universalist and believed that the sufferings of Gehenna were purgative and temporary. I published my non-scholarly findings in my 2013 article “What is Orthodox Hell?” and followed up with a second piece, “Hell and the Torturous Vision of Christ.” Orthodox Christians are of course free to adopt the hell is heaven experienced differently position. It’s an attractive view, at least by comparison to the punitive model of hell; but I’m skeptical that it accurately represents the consensual teaching of the Fathers or can be declared the authoritative view of the Orthodox Church.

Second, Ford criticizes Plekon for saying that Hart identifies St Basil as a universalist. Ford is right. Hart doesn’t say that, so score one point for the Church history professor. But if Ilaria Ramelli’s research holds up, Basil’s universalist sympathies may have been stronger than is generally thought.

Third, Ford accuses Hart of relying too heavily on figures associated with various heresies (Origen, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, as well as Sergius Bulgakov) than on the principal authorities within the Orthodox tradition. Whether any of these four men should be judged heretics I’ll leave to others to decide. What I do know is that they died in communion with the Holy Orthodox Church. It’s true that Hart positively mentions each, but he does not rely upon any of them. Only one theologian features significantly in Hart’s theological presentation of the universalist case—St Gregory of Nyssa. Is Gregory to be dismissed because he’s a minority of one? Is theological truth determined in the Orthodox Church by counting patristic noses? Ford continues:

Furthermore, Fr. Plekon does not point out that St. Gregory of Nyssa’s supposed Universalism, upon which Hart relies the most by far in his book, is not a definite fact by any means, as his commentary on the Beatitudes makes clear: “You looked not with compassion, so you will get no merciful looks; you ignored suffering, so you will be ignored as you perish” (addressing the rich man who spurned Lazarus; On the Beatitudes 5.8).

I chuckled when I read this. It’s true that a handful of scholars have recently challenged the long-standing scholarly interpretation of Gregory as an advocate of apokatastasis, but they have found few followers. Gregory’s teaching on apokatastasis is just too clear. Certainly no student of the Nyssen is going to be persuaded by that one sentence quoted by Ford. Judg­ment and punishment are intrinsic constituents of the universalist visions of Origen and Gregory. As Taylor Ross notes: “There is good reason to think that apokatas­tasis, the term of art for universal salvation in Origen of Alexandria and his heirs, entails a concept of judgment just as exacting, just as rigorous, and every bit as righteous as the sort of purely punitive punishment on offer in any version of the doctrine of eternal damnation” (“The Severity of Universal Salvation“).

Fourth, Ford challenges Hart’s reliance upon his own private judgment instead of explicitly grounding his views on the accepted sources of revealed truth:

Even more serious, Fr. Plekon does not explain how Hart’s ultimate source of authority is not the Scriptures and the consensus of the Church Fathers—and not the hymnography of our Church, or her iconography; and not prayer, or guidance from the Holy Spirit, or ascetic and/or mystical experience, or consultation with others of his own time—but rather, his own reasoning power. As he says, “My reasoning convinces me entirely” (p. 6).

For purposes of accuracy, here is the last sentence in its entirety: “For better or worse, my reasoning convinces me entirely, and that—sadly or happily—will certainly never change.”

What are we to make of Ford’s criticism? We may concede that Hart’s book does not resem­ble a typical work of Orthodox theology. It’s not peppered from beginning to end with quotations from Scripture, Fathers, Byzantine hymnography, and the holy elders of Mount Athos, though it may be noted that in meditation #2 Hart cites numerous New Testament verses that “plainly” affirm the universalist hope. My guess is that these verses did not persuade Ford. Why not? Because with a bit of effort that feels like no effort at all, they can be interpreted in consonance with the infernalist dogma. Hart of course knows this. He knows that his affirmation of apokatastsis directly challenges a venerable interpretive tradition that has controlled the Christian reading of Holy Scripture for some 1,500 years. In a situation like this, little is gained by focusing on individual texts. One must first persuade the Church to take off her infernalist spectacles and put on a new, but equally venerable, pair. One must look at Scripture and the entirety of the dogmatic tradition in a fresh way. But how does one persuade the Church to give the universalist spectacles a try? Hart’s solution: by confronting the Church with a logical incoherency embedded her evangelical message:

  • God freely created the cosmos ex nihilo.
  • God is the Good and wills only the good.
  • God will condemn a portion of his rational creatures to everlasting torment.

One may affirm any two of the above premises with logical consistency but not all three. I’m not going to rehearse the argument, having already done so in “The Incoherency of Eternal Perdition” and “Revealing the God Behind the Curtain.” It’s a cogent line of reasoning that deserves careful attention and analysis by Orthodox theologians. It should not be ignored simply because it challenges what we have long believed to be infallible dogma, nor can it be treated as a minor matter about which we may remain compliantly silent. That the Holy Trinity is absolute and triumphant Love belongs to the heart of the gospel. This is the great truth revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the one truth the Church is commanded to proclaim at all times and in all places, for it is the only truth that rescues sinners from death and brings forth a new creation. But is this truth—this thrilling, life-transforming good news—compatible with the affirmation of eternal damnation, or does the latter force us into an equivocity that ultimately subverts the gospel? The question cannot be answered by mere appeal to authority. We actually need to think and think deeply.

Ford then identifies three New Testament texts that he believes Hart has egregiously mishandled:

It’s also disappointing that Fr. Plekon does not observe how Hart’s handling of the Scriptures is problematic. To give three examples: Hart falsely trans­lates thelei in 1 Timothy 2:4 as “intends” instead of “desires” (p. 96); he flagrantly misinterprets 1 Corinthians 3:11–15, as he disregards the context of those verses (pp. 105–106); and he ignores the main Gospel passage about life after death—the one about the Rich Man and Lazarus, in which Christ makes very clear that after death there is a gulf fixed separating the redeemed from the lost, a gulf that cannot be crossed (Luke 16:19-31).

I’m sure that Hart would be happy to enter into the exegetical trenches with Ford; whether the St Tikhon’s professor would survive the encounter is another matter. Given that I do not read Greek and have given away most of my New Testament commentaries, I’m reluctant to offer an opinion about Hart’s alleged mishandling of the three cited texts; on the other hand, I’m just a blogger—so …

a) Is Hart’s translation of thelei as “intends” rather than “desires” a bad translation? Hart’s translation of 1 Tim 2:4: “Who intends all human beings to be saved and to come to a full knowledge of truth.” I contacted a New Testament scholar and expert on Paul and asked his opinion. He prefers the rendering “desires,” but he also copied the section on the word from the Bauer-Danker lexicon. It appears that thelei has a wide semantic range and can be used to signify intentions and volitional acts—so Hart’s translational choice doesn’t seem impossible or wildly irresponsible (also see Hart’s brief explanation). It may be noted that the translators of the King James Bible rendered 1 Tim 2:4 in an even stronger volitional sense (“Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth”), as does the New American Bible (“who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth”) and Young’s Literal Translation (“who doth will all men to be saved, and to come to the full knowledge of the truth”). Also of relevance is the Douay-Rheims rendering of the Vulgate: “Who will have all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (qui omnes homines vult salvos fieri, et ad agni­tionem veritatis venire). I think that gives Hart sufficient cover for his lexical choice; but really, what is the difference between saying that the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent Deity desires the salvation of all and intends or wills the salvation of all? It all depends on who and what you think God is. God after all does not have appetites or needs. His desire is his will. He intends that which he desires and desires that which he intends. Does God, therefore, get everything that he wills, like the salvation of all? That is the question, and it can’t be begged.

b) Does Hart flagrantly misinterpret and misapply 1 Cor 3:11-16? Here are the verses, as translated by Hart:

For no one can lay another foundation beside the one laid down, which is Jesus the Anointed. Now, if on this foundation one erects gold, silver, precious stones, woods, hay, straw, Each one’s work will become manifest; for the Day will declare it, because it is revealed by fire, and the fire will prove what kind of work each person’s is. If the work that someone has built endures, he will receive a reward; If anyone’s work should be burned away, he will suffer loss, yet he shall be saved, though so as by fire.

Hart cites this text in his elaboration of the universalist trajectory of St Paul’s escha­tology. For those who have not yet read That All Shall Be Saved, Hart proposes that eternal damnation is not found in the authentic letters of the Apostle. Yes, it’s a controversial claim, but is it wrong? Origen and St Gregory of Nyssa didn’t think so. As Hart notes, the last two verses only identify two classes of the judged. If Paul believed in a third class, “that of the eternally derelict,” he does not say so, either here or anywhere else. Again, the matter cannot be resolved solely by appeal to patristic or ecclesial authority. Many Orthodox, I know, will find this rankling. It sounds all too like sola Scriptura. But Hart’s historical exegesis of Paul can only be successfully refuted by superior historical exegesis.

c) What about Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)? Ford is right. Hart does not discuss the parable. I wish he had, just as I wish that he had discussed 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10. Oh well. That All Shall Be Saved is a little book, and it’s unreasonable to expect Hart to cover everything. Speaking only for myself, I do not believe that by this parable Jesus intended to provide divinely-revealed information about life after death. Its point lies elsewhere—namely, God’s judgment upon the refusal of the rich to provide for the poor and destitute. In any case, the parable speaks of life in hades before the Lord’s harrowing, about which Orthodoxy in fact has a lot to say, as amply demonstrated in Metropolitan Hilarion’s book Christ the Conqueror of Hell. The parable reads very differently when read through a hermeneutic of Pascha.

5. Ford chides Plekon for “not pointing out Hart’s misunderstanding of the crucial distinction between our human nature and our distinct human hypostasis, when Hart overemphasizes our unity with other human beings to the point of nearly extinguishing the distinctiveness of each human hypostasis (pp. 152–158).” I honestly do not know what to think about this objection. Read the chapter on personhood in TASBS and show me where and how Hart extinguishes the distinctiveness of the human person. On the contrary, Hart emphatically insists upon the distinctiveness of each person. It is only when every human being is reconciled to Christ in the eschaton that the body of Christ will be displayed in the fullness of beauty and glory. The loss of even just one person would diminish this display and “leave the body of the Logos incomplete and God’s purpose in creation unaccom­plished” (p. 144). We are not autonomous individuals. Our personhood “is created by and sustained within the loves and associations and affinities that shape us” (p. 153). We are human beings in communion. As Hart comments: “I am not I in myself alone, but only in all others. If, then, anyone is in hell, I too am partly in hell” (p. 157).

6. Ford raises the pastoral dangers of the universalist message:

This claim, that hell will not last forever—and that all rational beings, including the Devil and all his hosts, will indeed be saved eventually—is exactly what our profligate world would love to hear: “Great! I can live however sinfully and irreverently I want to in this life, and it won’t matter a bit! I’ll just plan on repenting the moment I get my first taste of hell.” Of course, anyone who really loves Christ would not think or act in such a way. But for many people, living especially in our promiscuous age of unfettered feelings/emotions/indulging in fleshly pleasure, the Universalist assertion very likely would provide a great temptation to make such a “deal” in their minds, even if not with God directly!

My experience as a priest, preacher, and pastor directly contradicts Ford’s concern. It is the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection that saves and converts, not the threat of everlasting torment. The latter may cause individuals to change specific behaviors, but it does not generate saving faith and repentance. It does not bring about that new creation that is ecstatic life and freedom in the Holy Spirit. What is at issue here is the moral character of our God. What kind of God punishes his children with interminable suffering? What kind of God abandons them to anguish and misery? The Orthodox may protest that they reject the Latin doctrine of eternal retribution, but their preferred model of perdition, popularized by Alexandre Kalomiros under the title “The River of Fire,” leaves the sinner in the very same place. In the end the damned can only wish they had never been created. Before the God who damns (directly or indirectly, it doesn’t matter), there can only be obsequious servitude, terror, despair, rebellion, atheism. Only absolute Love and infinite Mercy liberates us into the Kingdom of love and bliss (see my article “The Divine Presence and the River of Fire“).

Yet having said this, there certainly is a place within the universalist construal of the gospel for prophetic warnings and threats of punishment. The rejection of Love necessarily creates an ever-deepening condition of alienation, obduracy, and hatred, which in turn generates ever-increasing interior suffering. We know hell; we live it. Hence the time to repent is now. In George MacDonald’s novel Robert Falconer, the young Falconer pleads with his father to repent and turn his life over to Christ. His father refuses. “You will have to repent some day, I do believe,” Robert replies—”if not now under the sunshine of heaven, then in the torture of the awful world where there is no light but that of the conscience. Would it not be better and easier to repent now, with your wife waiting for you in heaven, and your mother waiting for you on earth?”

7. Finally for Ford, That All Shall Be Saved is damned by Hart’s “striking lack of humility—that virtue which is the hallmark of the Orthodox phronema—as he holds himself up as the final word on this issue.” I am shocked by this accusation. Hart’s pugilistic and polemical rhetoric is a legitimate target of criticism (but see Jordan Wood’s thoughts about it); but the extrapolation to judgments about his moral and spiritual state is a different order of criticism. Hart does not ask anyone to accept his arguments on his own personal authority. The truth speaks for itself.

In conclusion, David C. Ford has written a ghastly review of a review. It ignores the theological and philosophical substance of That All Shall Be Saved and pointedly refuses to take up the evangelical challenge David Bentley Hart has posed. It should be dismissed for the drivel that it is. Orthodox theologians can do better and must do better.

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David B. Hart on “Can Persons Be Saved?”

“What can be stated with considerable certainty, and with quite a good deal of scriptural evidence, is that wherever the narrative of salvation becomes most developed, especially in Paul’s theology, it necessarily expands into an affirmation of the universal and cosmic scope of God’s saving work in Christ. Whether or not Paul was ever explicitly a universalist, it is obvious that his understanding of the logic of salvation in Christ becomes completely internally coherent only as a universalist narrative. Thus, such famously difficult verses as Romans 5:18 or 1 Corinthians 15:22 (difficult, that is, for proponents of eternal perdition) ought not to be treated as incautious hyperbole or rhetorical excess, but as moments of extreme clarity in the unfolding of the Pauline vision. So too, verses such as Romans 11:32 and 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 cannot be confined within the logic of limited election without dissolving into empty babble.”

Read the entire article at Public Orthodoxy:

Can Persons Be Saved?

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The Cosmic Dance That is Holy Trinity


After his harrowing battle with the Un-man and his rebirth in the bowels of Perelandra, Elwin Ransom finds his way to a hidden “valley pure rose-red, with ten or twelve of the glowing peaks about it, and in the centre a pool, married in pure unrippled clearness to the gold of the sky.” He is greeted by two eldila. Together they await the arrival of the king and queen of Perelandra, Tor and Tinidril. With Tinidril he was already acquainted, but this was the first he had met Tor. The king shares with Ransom some of what he has learned. He speaks of that day when evil will be conquered on Earth, wiping out the false start that was the Fall of humanity “in order that the world may then begin.” And when his and Tinidril’s children, and their children and great-grandchildren, have “ripened and ripeness has spread from them to all the Low Worlds, it will be whispered that the morning is at hand.” Tor’s prophecy, however, creates doubts in Ransom’s mind. It seems to imply that despite the Incarnation humanity has been displaced and no longer enjoys significance in the divine plan:

I am full of doubts and ignorance. In our world those who know Maleldil at all believe that His coming down to us and being a man is the central happening of all that happens. If you take that from me, Father, whither will you lead me? Surely not to the enemy’s talk which thrusts my world and my race into a remote corner and gives me a universe, with no centre at all … To what is all driving? What is the morning you speak of? What is it the beginning of?

To this last question Tor answers: “The beginning of the Great Game, of the Great Dance.” He asks the eldila to provide further illumination. They respond with a magnificent hymn of praise (please click on the hyperlink and read the entire hymn). Note especially these strophes:

The Great Dance does not wait to be perfect until the peoples of the Low Worlds are gathered into it. We speak not of when it will begin. It has begun from before always. There was no time when we did not rejoice before His face as now. The dance which we dance is at the centre and for the dance all things were made.

Where Maleldil is, there is the centre. He is in every place. Not some of Him in one place and some in another, but in each place the whole Maleldil, even in the smallness beyond thought. There is no way out of the centre save into the Bent Will which casts itself into the Nowhere.

In the plan of the Great Dance plans without number interlock, and each movement becomes in its season the breaking into flower of the whole design to which all else had been directed. Thus each is equally at the centre and none are there by being equals, but some by giving place and some by receiving it, the small things by their smallness and the great by their greatness, and all the patterns linked and looped together by the unions of a kneeling with a sceptred love.

All that is made seems planless to the darkened mind, because there are more plans than it looked for. In these seas there are islands where the hairs of the turf are so fine and so closely woven together that unless a man looked long at them he would see neither hairs not weaving at all, but only the same and the flat. So with the Great Dance. Set your eyes on one movement and it will lead you through all patterns and it will seem to you the master movement. But the seeming will be true. Let no mouth open to gainsay it. There seems no plan because it is all plan: there seems no centre because it is all centre.

All indwell the center for God is the center, and the center indwells both the all and the particular. St Bonaventure, quoting Alain de Lille, memorably stated: “God is an intel­ligible sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” The Great Dance circles around God and within God, dance within dance, movement within movement.

Cosmos.jpgIn his book The Discarded Image Lewis surveys the place of the Great Dance within medieval imagina­tion. Intelligences and hierarchies; angels, archan­gels, cherubim and seraphim; the seven planets in their spheres; beasts and human beings: “everything has its place, its home, the region that suits it, and, if not forceably restrained, moves thither by a sort of homing instinct” (p. 92). Lewis invites us to gaze upon the sky on a starry night and attempt to envi­sion it as the medievals did:  “The Earth is really the centre, really the lowest place; movement to it from whatever direction is downward movement” (p. 98). Up and down are absolute. The medieval universe, “while unimagin­ably large, was unambiguously finite…. And because the medieval universe is finite, it has a shape, the perfect spherical shape, contain­ing within itself an ordered variety” (p. 99). Whereas the modern eye sees the night sky as “a sea that fades away into mist,” the medieval sees it as a great building, each being given its divinely ordered place and purpose. The Earth is at the center but small when compared to the heavenly bodies and their concentric spheres. The largest sphere, enveloping all others, is the Primum Mobile. Indis­cernible to the senses but posited as cosmological necessity, the first-moved and fastest sphere confers motion upon all other beings by love for the Primum Movens, the final cause of the universe. Aristotle states in his Metaphysics: “The final cause, then, produces motion as being loved, but all other things move by being moved” (12.7). God dwells with his elect beyond the Primum Mobile in the Empyrean. As Beatrice explains to Dante: “We’re on the outside of the highest body [del maggior corpo], in the purest light, in intellectual light, light filled with love, love of the true good, filled with happiness, happiness that surpasses all things sweet” (Paradiso XXX).

Lewis invites us to gaze once again upon the night sky:

Whatever else a modern feels when he looks at the night sky, he certainly feels that he is looking out—like one looking out from the saloon entrance on to the dark Atlantic or from the lighted porch upon dark and lonely moors. But if you accepted the Medieval model you would feel like one looking in. The Earth is ‘outside the city wall’. When the sun is up he dazzles us and we cannot see inside. Darkness, our own darkness, draws the veil and we catch a glimpse of the high pomps within; the vast, lighted concavity filled with music and life. And, looking in, we do not see, like Meredith’s Lucifer, ‘the army of unalterable law’, but rather the revelry of insatiable love. We are watching the activity of creatures whose experience we can only lamely compare to that of one in the act of drinking, his thirst delighted yet not quenched. For in them the highest of faculties is always exercised without impediment on the noblest object; without satiety, since they can never completely make His  perfection their own, yet never frustrated, since at every moment they approximate to Him in the fullest measure of which their nature is capable. You need not wonder that one old picture represents the Intelligence of the Primum Mobile as a girl dancing and playing with her sphere as with a ball. Then, laying aside whatever Theology or Atheology you held before, run your mind up heaven by heaven to Him who is really the centre, to your senses the circumference, of all; the quarry whom all these untiring huntsmen pursue, the candle to whom all these moths move yet are not burned. (Discarded Image, p. 119)

Oh to see, if only for the briefest moment, the night sky in its Ptolemaic harmony and beauty. The vision is compelling, but in the Latin West it appears to have enjoyed its greatest appeal among poets and philosophers than among the spiritual writers. The reason is obvious: in the ancient cosmological model “God is much less the lover than the beloved and man is a marginal creature,” whereas for Christian preachers and spiritual writers “the fall of man and the incarnation of God as man for man’s redemption is central” (p. 120). The divine Creator of the gospel is not only the Beloved who draws creation to himself in his Goodness and Beauty but is first and foremost the Lover who seeks out his lost children to restore them to himself. Yet despite this critical difference, the cosmological and theistic visions appears to have been held together by medieval Christians without felt contradiction—at least until the revolutionary theories of Copernicus changed everything.

In an illuminating essay, “For the Dance All Things Were Made,” Paul Fiddes calls our attention to Lewis’s reworking—perhaps we might even call it his Christianization—of the medieval model of the cosmos. Recall Ransom’s concern that the creation of Perelandra has effectively displaced humanity, thus implying a meaningless, centerless universe. In the Eldelic Hymn Lewis corrects this misunderstanding by asserting the indwelling of God in creation: “He dwells (all of him dwells) within the seed of the smallest flower and is not cramped: Deep Heaven is inside Him who is inside the seed and does not distend Him.” Everything exists in the center, is the center, for God is the omnipresent center. Fiddes suggests that Lewis’s view might be called panenthesm, which to me seems anachronistic. What Lewis is presenting is simply the dynamic theism of older Christianity, without taint of Enlightenment deism. Here’s the crucial passage from Fiddes:

Certainly then, Lewis’s picture of the Great Dance combines transcendence with immanence, eternity with time. But something even more extraordi­nary is happening here. He is merging two images—the cosmic dance and the universal indwelling of the center. Both images in Christian tradition assume that the center is unmoving, in accord with Aristotle’s definition of the Unmoved mover, assumed (though with qualification) by Plotinus. According to the traditional image of the dance, angels, planets, and other created beings circle around the still center of God, moving around a God who is unmoving in a Neoplatonic stasis. God moves all things but remains motionless as God’s self. As Lewis summarizes the medieval tradition in his book The Discarded Image, “There must in the last resort be something which, motionless itself, initiates the motion of all other things.” In a Neoplatonist universe, indebted to both Aristotle and Plato, God, or “the One” as pure Being, cannot share in the qualities of a world of becoming and change. Further, according to the image of the center that is every­where, God can be in all time and space just because God is eternal and unmoving. As Bonaventure puts it, pure and absolute Being “comprises and enters all durations, as if existing at the same time as their centre and circumference, because it is eternal and most present”; quoting Boethius, he goes on to say “Because it is … most immutable, for that reason ‘remaining at rest [stabilis manens] it grants motion of everything else.” The images of both dance and omnipresent center have thus traditionally relied upon the conviction that the center of the dance does not move, but when Lewis brings them together here they make a different imaginative impact. The impression made on us is that the center of the dance is itself dancing. We are not just witnessing a dance around God, but the dance of God. Lewis’s version of the Great Dance is not merely an “updated form of Christian Neoplatonism,” or a medieval commonplace. It deconstructs Neoplatonism while using its images. (C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra, pp. 34-35)

I am unconvinced that Lewis is deconstructing Neoplatonism—at least not any more so than St Athanasius, the Cappadocians, St Maximus the Confessor, and St Thomas Aquinas had already done—but clearly he is creatively revising the ancient cosmological model in a way that better expresses the Christian vision of the unmoved yet always moving Creator.


Fiddes suggests the “dynamic naturalism” of Henri Bergson as a possible source of Lewis’s metaphysical vision, despite Lewis’s own strong critique of Bergson. For Lewis the universe exists in a state of evolving unfolding. This unfolding seems to be embedded in the very structure of Perelandra. Everything is movement; everything flux and novelty. The Green Lady is commanded by Maleldil not to stay the night on the fixed island. Wave by wave, she is bade to receive the innumerable and surprising goods of his divine providence (see “Riding the Waves of Providence“). Even while journeying through the subterranean depths of Perelandra, Ransom discovers a world full of life and majestic beauty. “Assuredly the inside of this world was not for man. But it was for something.” Again the Eldilic Hymn:

Never did He make two things the same; never did he utter one world twice. After earths, not better earths but beasts; after beasts, not better beasts but spirits. After a falling, not a recovery but a new creation. Out of the new creation, not a third but the mode of change itself is changed forever. Blessed be He!

Lewis rejected the “life force” of Bergson, but retained the vitalism of his evolutionary vision. As Sanford Schwartz comments: “The Adversary may preach the gospel of creative or emergent evolution, but Lewis designs his own version of creative evolution by endowing his imaginary world with a principle of dynamic change in which even the evolutionary lapses, including the spiritual catastrophe that has overtaken our own fallen planet, are transfigured into something new and more marvelous by the redeeming act of God” (“Perelandra in Its Own Time,” in C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra, p. 55).

A more likely source for Lewis’s creative reworking of the medieval model is Charles Williams’s novel The Greater Trumps (see “The Dispassionate Sybil“). The Lee family has long guarded a set of golden figurines. The figurines are the archetypes of the forms depicted on the ancient Tarot cards: Emperor and Empress, Hierophant and High Priestess, the Hanged Man, Justice, the Devil, the Tower, the Lovers, and the Juggler circle perpetually around the seemingly stationary Fool, “reflecting the dance of the cosmos and all the move­ments of people and nations of the world” (Fiddes, p. 40). Henry explains the dance to Nancy:

Imagine, then, if you can, imagine that everything which exists takes part in the movement of a great dance–everything, the electrons, all growing and decaying things, all that seems alive and all that doesn’t seem alive, men and beasts, trees and stones, everything that changes, and there is nothing anywhere that does not change. That change—that’s what we know of the immortal dance; the law in the nature of things–that’s the measure of the dance, why one thing changes swiftly and another slowly, why there is seeming accident and incalculable alteration, why men hate and love and grow hungry, and cities that have stood for centuries fall in a week, why the smallest wheel and the mightiest world revolve, why blood flows and the heart beats and the brain moves, why your body is poised on your ankles and the Himalayas are rooted in the earth–quick or slow, measurable or immeasurable, there is nothing at all anywhere but the dance. Imagine it—imagine it, see it all at once and in one!

vera-petruk-samiramay-0-major-arcana-tarot-card-fool.jpgBut the figure of the Fool remains a mystery. Neither Henry nor his father can explain why the Fool does not participate in the dance. Only to Sybil, purified and possessed by the divine Love, is given the revelation that the Fool moves so swiftly through the cosmic dance that he only appears immobile. “Surely that’s it,” she exclaims, “dancing with the rest; it seems as if it were always arranging itself in some place which was empty for it.” With boundless exuberance the Fool steps in and completes the measures. Williams never explicitly names the Fool as the eternal Word through whom the world was made, but the symbolic identifica­tion seems obvious to the Christian reader. But equally as fascinating is the figure of the Juggler. The Juggler dances round the edge of the circle, tossing up his little balls and catching them. When Nancy asks of Henry the import of the Juggler, he replies: “It is the beginning of all things—a show, a dexterity of balance, a flight, and a falling. It’s the only way he—whoever he was—could form the beginning and the continuation of the dance itself.” “Is it God then?” She asks.  “What do we know?” he answers. “This isn’t a question of words. God or gods or no gods, these things are, and they’re meant and manifested thus. Call it God if you like, but it’s better to call it the juggler and mean neither God nor no God.” Neither God nor no God—“the Juggler,” Fiddes proposes, “is the Primum Mobile of medieval cosmology, the first moved reality moving the other spheres (balls)” (p. 41). Nancy’s subsequent vision of the Dance appears to confirm his proposal: “The dance went on in the void; only even there she saw in the centre the motion­less Fool, and about him in a circle the juggler ran, for ever tossing his balls.” Yet I wonder if another interpretation might be possible. When Sybil returns to the house, having found her lost brother in the apocalyptic blizzard, the Juggler comes to her mind: “She saw—but this more in her own mind—the remote figure of the juggler, standing in the void before creation was, and flinging up the glowing balls which came into being as they left his hands, and became planets and stars, and they remained some of them poised in the air, but others fell almost at once and dropped down below and soared again, until the creating form was lost behind the flight and the maze of the worlds.” Would it be too fanciful to see here the Holy Spirit, ordering and propelling the beings made by the Word? Given his hermetic convic­tions, Henry could not, of course, make this identification; but Sybil certainly could. But perhaps I am working too hard to find references to the Holy Trinity.

Lewis makes the decisive move in Mere Christianity. As understood by Christianity, he avers, divinity is inadequately described as a person. The life of the Father, Son, and Spirit is better understood as an infinite movement of self-giving and receiving:

All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that “God is love.” But they seem not to notice that the words “God is love” have no meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love. Of course, what these people mean when they say that God is love is often something quite different: they really mean “Love is God.” They really mean that our feelings of love, however, and wherever they arise, and whatever results they produce, are to be treated with great respect. Perhaps they are: but that is something quite different from what Christians mean by the statement “God is love.” They believe that the living, dynamic activity of love has been going on in God for ever and has created everything else.

And that, by the way, is perhaps the important difference between Christianity and all other religions: that in Christianity God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance. (p. 152; emphasis mine)

The Triadic God not only creates the Great Dance; he is the Great Dance. “The dance of heaven in which the creation participates is not merely that of the ranks of angels,” writes Fiddes, “but that of the triune God” (p. 36). For the first time in the history of dogmatic reflection, a theologian of the Church explicitly identifies the inner trinitarian relations of the Godhead as the eternal Dance who grounds, generates, and sustains the Dance of the Cosmos.

(26 June 2017)

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Slowly Reading St Athanasius: Staring Death, Corruption, and the Nothing in the Face

by John Stamps

Christ is risen! The very best gift Eastern Orthodoxy can offer to the rest of Christendom is that we know how to say “Christ is risen!” with joie-de-vivre and supreme panache.1 We refuse to broker a deal with death. We name death for the great evil that it is. Because of that, for forty days we can sing con brio about Jesus’ triumph over death and the grave, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life.” Truly He is risen.

If we don’t speak about Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection from the death on the third day with clarity and conviction, none of the rest of what St Athanasius says here about evil and non-being/Goodness and Being is going to make any difference or yield tolerable sense.

As you might have noticed, St Athanasius is not very systematic.2 He constantly repeats himself. He says he is going to talk about Incarnation. Then he launched into a prolonged discussion about Creation. Now the entire discussion is brought to a screeching halt with the densest and most terse definition of evil I’ve ever encountered: “Evil is non-being, the good is being, since it has come into being from the existing God” (De Inc. §4).

Then St Athanasius rinses and repeats.

The great Coptic theologian George Bebawi calls this use of repetition and looping by St Athanasius “a concentric style of writing.”3 To make sense of De Incarnatione, we repeatedly loop through the circles of Creation, Fall, and Incarnation. This style of writing is a bit confusing at first. But the loops create a cumulative effect on the careful reader. For example, Athanasius doesn’t discuss evil in a vacuum. You will look in vain for an abstract or theoretical discussion of evil. You slowly start to realize what St Athanasius says about evil is carefully and concretely interrelated with what he says about Creation and Incarnation.

We’re now ready to unpack what St Athanasius has to say about evil.

For if, having a nature that did not once exist, they were called into existence by the Word’s advent [parousia] and love for human beings, it followed that when human beings were bereft (κενωθέντας/kenothentas) of the knowledge of God and had turned to things which exist not — evil is non-being, the good is being, since it has come into being from the existing God—then they were bereft (κενωθήναι/kenothenai) also of eternal being. But this, being decomposed, is to remain in death and corruption. For the human being is by nature mortal, having come into being from nothing. But because of his likeness to the One who Is, which, if he had guarded through his comprehension of him, would have blunted his natural corruption, he would have remained incorruptible, just as Wisdom says, “Attention to the laws is the confirmation of incorruptibility” (Wis 6.18). And being incorruptible, he would have lived thereafter like God, as somewhere the Divine Scripture also signals, saying “I said you are gods, and all sons of the Most High; but you die like human beings and fall like any prince” (Ps 81.6–7). (De Inc. §4)

The bolded sentence is surely the world’s most brusque and abrupt definition of evil ever made by a major theologian. It might also be one of the most unexpected. It summarizes key arguments spread throughout the earlier work, Contra Gentes, especially §7. St Athanasius expected us to have already read and digested it. And for that I apologize. So we’re going to play catch-up ball. Let’s huddle up.

Remember that St Athanasius has been engaged in a running duel with the Dualists. This is yet one more shot: “So since this view of theirs seems unsound, we must present clearly the truth of the church’s knowledge,4 that evil neither came from God nor was in God, nor did it exist in the beginning, nor has it any independent reality” (Contra Gentes §7).

This is an amazing assertion by St Athanasius. What does the church know about evil? The church knows this one truth — evil is non-being, evil is non-existence, evil is not a substance, evil is a great absurdity. Evil looms large as a horrific force, yet evil has no existence of its own. We need to unpack this.5

As usual, Meijering elegantly summarizes the dilemma the church faces when we try to describe evil: “Either God is not the Creator of all things or He is the Creator of evil as well, if God is the Creator of all things and evil is a substance.”

St Athanasius has eloquently argued up to this point, Yes, God is the Creator of all things. No surprise there. Everything that God makes is good. No, God did not create evil. No surprise there either. God didn’t create evil when He created the heavens and the earth. God didn’t create evil when He created the earth or animals or human beings. God did not create evil when He created the angelic beings. Now the last point is a surprise. No, evil is not a substance. Evil is not a thing. Evil lurches and jars us back into non-being.

What Creation does for good, evil strives with all its unholy might to un-do. Goodness creates, evil un-creates. Goodness creates the universe and fills it with being. But evil negates everything it can. It works to dissolve God’s good creation back into non-being. Evil is our great downward slide into nothingness.

Evil is not part of Creation, not one chunk, not even one atom. That means, for example, that matter is not evil. Bodies are not evil. Most important of all, the human body is not evil. Embodiment is not evil. Immortal souls don’t “fall” into bodies as punishment for their sins (Phaedrus 248c).

Evil is not a zero. At least zero has a placeholder. Evil has no such proxy. It is naught.

Evil is a shadow. It is that dark shape that is formed when light has been blocked out. It’s a jagged tear in the fabric of the universe.
What is the metaphysics of a shadow?
What is the ontology of a hole or a rip?
The metaphysics of evil is The Nothing, The Nada. Karl Barth calls evil “das Nichtige,” because everything sounds more ominous in German.

We can go further. Evil is not the absence of Good, but the outright rejection of the Good. We don’t pull out our eyes and blind ourselves like Oedipus, nothing so drastic. Instead we do something more incredibly stupid. We simply shut our eyes to the Good. We play the nihilist version of “Marco Polo” or “Blind Man’s Bluff.” We all scrunch our eyes down tight and pretend we can see. The sun’s light still shines. But we don’t see the light simply because we refuse to see it. We have stupided ourselves.

But they were like someone who closes his eyes when the sun is shining and all the earth is illuminated by its light, and imagines darkness which does not exist, and then wanders about missing his way as if in the dark, often falling and stumbling over precipices, thinking it was not light but dark, for he thinks he is looking, but does not see at all. In similar fashion the soul of men, shutting the eye through which it could see God, imagined evil, and moving therein did not realize that, although it thought it was acting, it does nothing at all, for it was inventing non-existent things. And it did not remain as it had been made but appeared such as it had defiled itself. (Contra Gentes §7)

This is a startling analysis of Evil. We don’t exactly create evil ex nihilo. Instead we blindly imagine evil ex nihilo. We invent non-existent things.7

We have reversed Plato’s famous cave. At least in the cave we saw shadows dancing along the wall. Now we don’t even see shadows. We see nothing. We refuse to see. We have shut our eyes to the sunshine. We pretend our self-imposed blindness is sight. We delude ourselves that we do see. We spurn the light that would illuminate our paths. Our self-inflicted blindness is sheer stupidity. If only we would open our eyes, we’d stop our self-inflicted injuries at once. We wouldn’t fall down manholes. We wouldn’t trip over sleeping dogs. We wouldn’t blindly march over steep cliffs to our destruction. All because we refuse to open our eyes.

Christian theologians love to speak of Christ’s kenosis. Christ Jesus, being in the very form of God, begrudged His rightful divinity not one bit, but emptied Himself to become a human being. And boy howdy, did He empty Himself. Not just becoming any human being but He became a slave, dying the tortuous death reserved for slaves, criminals, and traitors — crucifixion on a cross.

Evil parodies Christ’s kenosis:

When human beings became emptied (κενωθέντας/kenothentas) of the knowledge of God and had turned to things which exist not … then they became emptied (κενωθήναι/kenothenai) also of eternal being. (De Inc §4)

We can intensify Fr John Behr’s most excellent translation here. Human beings didn’t just become bereft. We were completely emptied out.

In the kenosis, the Word of God emptied Himself of what properly belonged to Him for our salvation. But not us. We suffered a double kenosis of evil. Neither knowledge of God nor eternal being properly belonged to us. Both were gifts on loan. When we rejected God, we were emptied into Death, Corruption, and Self-Inflicted Annihilation. It’s like we owned two bottles filled with the most excellent vintage red wines — one filled with knowing God and the other filled with eternal being — and we simply poured them out on the ground out of sheer spite. And the only being that remains for mortals if you spurn eternal being is the existential possibility of non-being. Our invention is horrifying. It’s pure nihilism.

Postmoderns are way more afraid of God than they are afraid of the Nihil. California nihilism surfs around the edge of the Abyss and pretends we’re not terrified. Cheerfully idiotic NorCal oblivion is thinkable. God is not. Some indeed slip and fall into destruction. But we continue our ménage à trois with Death and the Abyss. What else can you do when you no longer believe in your heart of hearts that God is good and He loves mankind? We are terrified. We are scared shitless of tumbling into the Nihil, the Nada. But if we mask our fears and anxieties with more and better diversions, the terror of the Nihil goes away, at least for a while anyway.

I’m reminded of the old waiter in Ernest Hemingway’s classic short story, “A Clean, Well Lighted Place.” What do you do when you can’t sleep at night? What do you do when life is emptied out of its meaning, if you don’t even have a wife and a warm bed to go home to? You try to feed the existential bulldog as best you can. But you can only hold him off so long. He keeps on growling, wanting to be fed. But how do you feed the Nothing? Maybe you even try to pray. But you can only pray blasphemies. Hemingway’s omniscient narrator observes:

What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread, It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine.

Why read Martin Heidegger when you can read a really good Ernest Hemingway short story? “The light is very good,” Hemingway solemnly intones like God in Genesis. But apparently it’s not good enough to stave off the nada. Drinking strong coffee in a clean and pleasant cafe is a short-term fix at best. Death, Corruption, and the Nothing stare us in the face.

The second best gift we can offer our non-Orthodox brother and sisters in Christ is the Orthodox funeral service. We will let the mortician apply lipstick and makeup to corpses. But we steadfastly refuse to sugarcoat and prettify Death. We pray with great sobriety St John of Damascus’s sobering hymn:

Alas! What an agony the soul endures when from the body it is parting; how many are her tears for weeping, but there is none that will show compassion: unto the angels she turns with downcast eyes; useless are her supplications; and unto men she extends her imploring hands, but finds none to bring her rescue. (Tone 2)

Needless to say, we Orthodox don’t do “Celebrations of Life” during the funeral service itself. We’re not killjoys. We can toast and cheer the life of the recently departed all we want afterwards in the fellowship hall. But during the liturgy itself, the priest holds the floor. He soberly reminds us Death is the last enemy and certainly not to be trifled with. But God the Father has offered us the sure and certain promise that, with His Son, He will raise us from the dead.

We’ve talked plenty about Corruption, Death, and the Nothing in §4. St Athanasius and Mere Christianity have forced us to. If we don’t understand evil, then we won’t understand our wondrous salvation enacted by the Word of God’s incarnation. It’s my best practice to conclude with a de rigeur C.S. Lewis quotation. Here Lewis dots all the i’s and crosses all the t’s about creation ex nihilo and the only truly plausible Christian response to evil.

If you do not take the distinction between good and bad very seriously, then it is easy to say that anything you find in this world is a part of God. But, of course, if you think some things really bad, and God really good, then you cannot talk like that. You must believe that God is separate from the world and that some of the things we see in it are contrary to His will. Confronted with a cancer or a slum the Pantheist can say, ‘If you could only see it from the divine point of view, you would realise that this also is God.’ The Christian replies, ‘Don’t talk damned nonsense.’ For Christianity is a fighting religion. It thinks God made the world—that space and time, heat and cold, and all the colours and tastes, and all the animals and vegetables, are things that God ‘made up out of His head’ as a man makes up a story. But it also thinks that a great many things have gone wrong with the world that God made and that God insists, and insists very loudly, on our putting them right again. (Mere Christianity, p. 37)

In the next installment, there is no more hemming and hawing by St Athanasius. No more clearing our throats. No more procrastination. We’re actually going to start discussing the Incarnation. Why did the Word of God become incarnate? Wait and see.


[1] You’ll have to wait until the conclusion for the second-best gift.

[2] Nor am I.

[3] George Bebawi, “St. Athanasios: The Dynamics of Salvation.” Sobornost 8 (1986): 24–41.

[4] I corrected Robert Thompson’s most excellent translation in this spot. He wasn’t paying attention in §7 (“we must present clearly the truth of the church’s teaching…”). He simply copied-and-pasted his translation from §6. Copy-and-paste errors happen to the best of us.

[5] If you came to St Athanasius after reading St Augustine’s Confessions (for example, 3.7.12), the treatment of evil in De Incarnatione might surprise you a bit. Athanasius doesn’t argue that evil is a privation or absence of the good (privatio boni or steresis agathou). George Bebawi observes, “In fact Athanasios nowhere refers to evil being the absence of good. He does constantly speak of evil as non-existence or non-being, but this is based on his understanding of the true nature of man, and it is not merely an anti-Manichean definition.” I double-checked Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione, but I couldn’t find any place where evil is defined as the absence of good. Peter Leithart apparently couldn’t find it either (Athanasius, page 185). It’s an interesting omission.

[6] The first definition of naught in Merriam-Webster’s, not the second.

[7] I’m going to expand on humans inventing evil in §5. I’m putting yet another stake into the ground here.


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David Bradshaw and Jared Goff Discuss the Essence/Energies Distinction

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