St Isaac the Syrian: The Triumph of the Kingdom over Gehenna

“Those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love”—these words of St Isaac the Syrian have profoundly influenced the Orthodox understanding of hell and damnation. I suspect that most readers of St Isaac’s writings have long assumed that this mystical insight represents the apex of his reflections on hell. But in 1983 Sebastian Brock discovered in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, the complete text of a group of discourses that were virtually unknown in the Byzantine and Latin Churches. Unlike the well known homilies belonging to the First Part, translated into English under the title The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, these other discourses had never been translated into Greek nor into any other language (except perhaps Arabic). That they existed was known to scholars, but the one extant text in Iran was lost in 1918. And then Brock made his remarkable discovery, and in 1995 he published an English translation of the text under the riveting title The Second Part. In this volume we find three homilies specifically devoted to the Last Things. These three eschatological homilies, chapters 39, 40, and 41, reveal an Isaac of Nineveh whose understanding of hell was far more original and daring than previously suspected outside the Syrian Christian world: the damned may be “scourged by the scourge of love,” but the scourging is not forever!

As we have seen, underlying Isaac’s reflections on eschatology is his fierce conviction that retributive punishment is incompatible with the God of absolute and infinite love. Our Father wills, always wills, our good. He does not inflict unnecessary pain. If he chastises, it is always with the aim of our conversion and sanctification:

For it would be most odious and utterly blasphemous to think that hate or resentment exists with God, even against demonic beings; or to imagine any other weakness, or passibility, or whatever else might be involved in the course of retribution of good or bad as applying, in a retributive way, to that glorious divine Nature. Rather, He acts towards us in ways He knows will be advantageous to us, whether by way of things that cause suffering, or by way of things that cause relief, whether they cause joy or grief, whether they are insignificant or glorious: all are directed towards the single eternal good, whether each receives judgement or something of glory from Him—not by way of retribution, far from it!—but with a view to the advantage that is going to come from all these things. …

That is how everything works with Him, even though things may seem otherwise to us: with Him it is not a matter of retribution, but He is always looking beyond to the advantage that will come from His dealing with humanity. And one such thing is this matter of Gehenna. (II.39.3,5)

And one such thing is this matter of Gehenna—even perdition is encompassed within God’s salvific plan for humanity. Even hell can be used by God for our good.

“I am of the opinion,” announces St Isaac, “that He is going to manifest some wonderful outcome, a matter of immense and ineffable compassion on the part of the glorious Creator, with respect to the ordering of this difficult matter of Gehenna’s torment: out of it the wealth of His love and power and wisdom will become known all the more—and so will the insistent might of the waves of His goodness” (II.39.6). When I read these words I thought of St Gregory the Theologian, who was given deep understanding of the Scriptures through his contemplative experience. Similarly St Isaac now speaks to us from his own profound mystical experience. He is not content to reiterate the retributive views of theologians before him. He has been given such a transformative knowledge of the divine love that he knows that an eternal inferno is incompatible with this love—he knows this in the depth of his soul. He is not engaging in philosophical speculation. This is why St Isaac’s words possess such persuasive and compelling power. He is speaking to us as a mystagogue and holy ascetic who has been transfigured by union with God the Holy Trinity. From the solitude of the mountain the anchorite proclaims, the Kingdom of God will triumph over Gehenna.

Isaac is horrified by the teaching of an eternal hell: “It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when He created them—and whom nonetheless He created” (II.39.6). Like all of the Church Fathers, Isaac believes in God’s foreknowledge of the future. God created the world knowing full well that humanity would fall from grace, with death, sin, and hell as the consequences. It is not as if God created the world and then had to respond to the surprise of creaturely disobedience. That would reduce the Creator to a creature and would introduce mutability into the divine nature. Rather, in his foreknowledge of angelic and human sin, God in his wisdom included Gehenna within his providential plan to accomplish the final reconciliation of the wicked:

If the Kingdom and Gehenna had not been foreseen in the purpose of our good God as a result of the coming into being of good and evil actions, then God’s thoughts concerning these would not be eternal; but righteousness and sin were known by Him before they revealed themselves. Accordingly the Kingdom and Gehenna are matters belonging to mercy, which were conceived of in their essence by God as a result of His eternal goodness. It was not a matter of requiting, even though He gave them the name of requital.

That we should further say or think that the matter is not full of love and mingled with compassion would be an opinion full of blasphemy and insult to our Lord God. By saying that He will even hand us over to burning for the sake of sufferings, torment and all sorts of ills, we are attributing to the divine Nature an enmity towards the very rational being which He created through grace; the same is true if we say that He acts or thinks with spite and with a vengeful purpose, as though He was avenging Himself. (II.39.22)

Now let me admit that I personally find the topic of foreknowledge difficult. I affirm, of course, the omniscience of God—God knows everything that can be known—but is what hasn’t happened yet something to be known? At this point we are brought into the unfathomable mystery of the relationship between eternal divinity and temporal reality. The simple fact is we have absolutely no idea what we are talking about. Perhaps some philosophers might want to accuse Isaac of a naive, or unsophisticated, understanding of eternity and time. Well, whatever divine foreknowledge means, it certainly means that God was surprised neither by the sin of Adam nor by the personal sins of human beings that created hell. Yet God created humanity regardless—and that is the essential point. If the omniscient and benevolent Deity created the world knowing, or at least fully anticipating, that mankind was going to rebel against his love and authority, then he must have made provision for this eventuality from before the beginning. He must have. Because Gehenna is that intolerable.

If we do not share St Isaac’s horror of an everlasting hell, then perhaps that says something very important about us. This, I suggest, is St Isaac’s unstated argument. It’s not just a matter of philosophical reasoning or biblical exegesis. Once one has experienced the extraordinary love and mercy of God, as Isaac had, once one has been drawn into the embrace of the Father through the Son in the Spirit, then one knows the truth—and thus one knows how to rightly interpret the Holy Scriptures and one knows how to rightly preach the gospel of Jesus Christ … and one knows the impossibility of eternal perdition.

But Isaac also believes that he is speaking from within the Holy Tradition of the Church. He is not presenting his readers with a doctrinal innovation. He is not teaching, he assures us, “things of which our former orthodox Fathers never spoke, as though we were bursting out with an opinion which did not accord with truth” (II.39.7). He invokes two respected Oriental Fathers specifically in support—Theodore of Mopsuestia and Diodore of Tarsus. One quotation from Theodore is of particular interest:

In the world to come, those who have chosen here what is good, will receive the felicity of good things along with praise; whereas the wicked, who all their life have turned aside to evil deeds, once they have been set in order in their minds by punishments and the fear of them, choose the good, having come to learn how much they have sinned, and that they have persevered in doing evil things and not good; by means of all this they receive a knowledge of religion’s excellent teaching, and are educated so as to hold on to it with a good will, and so eventually they are held worthy of the felicity of divine munificence. For Christ would never have said “Until you pay the last farthing” unless it had been possible for us to be freed from our sins once we had recompensed for them through punishments. Nor would He have said “He will be beaten with many stripes” and “He will be beaten with few stripes” if it were not the case that the punishments measured out in correspondence to the sins, were finally going to have an end. (II.39.8)

Clearly Theodore does not understand repentance and purification as being impossible after death. He declares the hope and expectation that the wicked will eventually come to see the gravity of their sin and choose the good—and thus be saved. Divine punishment is educative and of limited duration.

St Isaac presents us with a simple choice—the punishment of Gehenna is either retributive or remedial, punitive or medicinal. If the former, then God, and we, are trapped in the past; if the latter, then God, and we, are open to a future beyond our imaginings:

So then, let us not attribute to God’s actions and His dealings with us any idea of requital. Rather, we should speak of fatherly provision, a wise dispensation, a perfect will which is concerned with our good, and complete love. If it is a case of love, then it is not one of requital; and if it is a case of requital, then it is not one of love. Love, when it operates, is not concerned with the requiting of former things by means of its own good deeds or correction; rather, it looks to what is most advantageous in the future: it examines what is to come, and not things that are past. (II.39.18)

Isaac’s eschatology is soundly biblical and must be distinguished from the Origenist construals of apocatastasis that were condemned in the sixth century.

In light of our reading of the eschatological homilies, the oft-quoted famous words of St Isaac of the scourging of the “scourge of love” take on a very different meaning. Read the passage yet once again:

I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love. For what is so bitter and vehement as the punishment of love? I mean that those who have become conscious that they have sinned against love suffer greater torment from this than from any fear of punishment. For the sorrow caused in the heart by sin against love is sharper than any torment that can be. It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of God. Love is the offspring of knowledge of the truth which, as is commonly confessed, is given to all. The power of love works in two ways: it torments those who have played the fool, even as happens here when a friend suffers from a friend; but it becomes a source of joy for those who have observed its duties. Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret. But love inebriates the souls of the sons of Heaven by its delectability. (I.28, p. 266)

The scourging of the “scourge of love” is nothing less than God’s work of purification in the hearts of the wicked. The chastisement that God imposes in hell is educative, remedial, and reparative. God scourges in order to bring the damned to salvation, to bring them into a knowledge both of his mercy and of their sin and its terrible consequences for themselves and for God’s creation. Even Gehenna falls into God’s redemptive purposes. Its purpose is to eventually create within the hearts of the condemned the stirrings of faith and repentance, thus allowing them to experience God precisely as love and not as torture. Only thus are the sufferings and anguish of the damned, caused by the inescapable presence of Love, morally tolerable.

St Isaac would emphatically reject any suggestion that the damned are beyond redemption. God would never have created a cosmos whose history would conclude, even for a small portion of those he has brought into being, with Gehenna. And it is unthinkable that he would have so constructed the after-life that the wicked would be incapable of turning their hearts to Christ and appealing to his forgiveness. The Lord’s face is set “all the time towards forgiveness” (II.40.13). His grace is like an ocean that knows no measure.

Here is where philosophy ends and mystery begins. Philosophers tell us that God so values human (libertarian) freedom that an eternal populated hell must remain a possibility, if not a definite certainty. Every human being is given an opportunity to definitively accept or reject God, and God will respect this choice, even if it means the individual’s suffering and destruction (see, for example, The Problem of Hell by Jonathan L. Kvanig and Hell: The Logic of Damnation by Jerry L. Walls). This has become the ecumenical justification for everlasting perdition. Freedom ultimately triumphs over Love. But the Syrian mystic refuses to be trapped by this philosophical problem, for the God who rose from the dead on Easter morning is not trapped by it:

Accordingly we say that, even in the matter of the afflictions and sentence of Gehenna, there is some hidden mystery, whereby the wise Maker has taken as a starting point for its future outcome the wickedness of our actions and wilfulness, using it as a way of bringing to perfection His dispensation wherein lies the teaching which makes wise, and the advantage beyond description, hidden from both angels and human beings, hidden too from those who are being chastised, whether they be demons or human beings, hidden for as long as the ordained period of time holds sway. (II.39.20)

Gehenna will end. Through his goodness and beauty God will overcome evil. The damned will be saved, not by force or coercion, but by the chastisement of love that will ultimately bring them to the true understanding of the happiness they have always hoped and dreamed for. St Isaac does not speculate further. He simply presents us with the confident hope that the infinitely wise and good God will restore and consummate his creation in Love.

In his essay “Universalism of Salvation: St Isaac the Syrian,” Catholic theologian Waclaw Hryniewicz summarizes St Isaac’s understanding of apocatastasis in these words:

In the sufferings of Gehenna Isaac perceives a hidden mystery. Gehenna has no sense in itself. The wise Creator knew that it would disclose its purpose in the future. Iniquity and willfulness of rational creatures will not remain in them for ever in the state called Gehenna. God is able to carry out His work to the very end. The mystery of Gehenna remains provisionally hidden before humans, angels and demons. …

Isaac belongs to those Christian mystics who do not exaggerate the power of evil. In his eyes human sin is infinitely small in comparison with the infinite mercy of God. The torments of Gehenna are caused by self-exclusion from the great feast in the Kingdom of heaven, by a person’s inability to participate in the love of God. Yet they will come to an end, although here on earth we do not know when it will take place. Gehenna is a consequence of sin which also will have its end. If God punishes, He does it out of love, in order to heal a sick freedom of rational creatures. Sinners in Gehenna are not deprived of the compassionate love of God. The purpose of punishment is change for the better, purification and conversion. The punishment ceases when this purpose is achieved. The sinners are not deprived of God’s love even in their infernal state. They can always count on His help. God’s justice and mercy are inseparable. He awaits with love all His creatures at the end of their purification. If evil, sin and Gehenna do not have their origins in God, how can they be eternal? …

According to Isaac, Gehenna can only be temporary and provisional, permeated by God’s love and mercy. He would not allow a punishment which would deny His own nature. The punishment has a therapeutic and correctional meaning. It is always connected with His “compassionate intentions and purpose” to set us on the upright path, and not to bring us to perdition. Gehenna’s torment is “a matter of immense and ineffable compassion.” It must have its end and achieve its purpose. For this reason it is subject to a limit. It is not for eternity and will last only for a fixed period, decreed by God’s wisdom. The punishments, measured out in correspondence to the sins, are finally going to have an end. The eternal punishment would be a monstrous reality unworthy of God. Who thinks otherwise has not overcome an”infantile way of thinking,” “the childish opinion of God.” (The Challenge of Hope, pp. 82-83)

Hilarion Alfeyev describes Isaac’s vision of Gehenna as akin to the Catholic doctrine of purgatory: “Gehenna is a sort of purgatory rather than hell: it is conceived and established for the salvation of both human beings and angels. However, this true aim of Gehenna is hidden from those who are chastised in it, and will be revealed only after Gehenna is abolished. According to Isaac, all those who have fallen away from God will eventually return to Him because of the temporary and short torment in Gehenna that is prepared for them in order that they purify themselves through the fire of suffering and repentance.” It is unclear to me why Isaac believes that the true aim of hell, namely, salvation, will be hidden from the wicked. How does this not lead to a despair that makes repentance impossible? But perhaps even ultimate despair can become the occasion of total surrender to God.

Most Christians are content to accept the eternal reality of hell, in all of its horror, but not Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov. “It is simply unacceptable,” he declares, “to imagine that from all eternity God prepares hell as a destination for his creatures. This would be a contradiction of the divine plan and thus a victory of evil! … The Father who sends his Son knows that even hell is his domain and that ‘the fate of death’ is transformed into the ‘gate of life.’ Even the despair of hell is wounded by the hope it already contains, and the Church teaches the Christian not to despair” (In the World, Of the Church, pp. 29, 33).

St Isaac is well aware that the eschatological hope of apocatastasis can be exploited to justify laxity and wickedness. This does not lead him to dilute the glorious revelation of grace and triumph, however. The full proclamation of the mystery of Gehenna leads us to wonder and amazement and finally to silent adoration (II.39.1). And so Isaac summons his readers to repentance. No one wants to experience the torments of hell, he tell us, even for a single moment. Far better to begin the ascent to God now. Now is the time to repent; now is the time to accept the forgiveness of God and to begin living the union of love:

Let us beware in ourselves, my beloved, and realize that even if Gehenna is subject to a limit, the taste of its experience is terrible, and the extent of its bounds escapes our very understanding. Let us strive all the more to partake of the taste of God’s love for the sake of perpetual reflection on Him, and let us not have experience of Gehenna through neglect. (II.40.1).

The call to repentance flows from the gospel and the hope of universal salvation.

St Isaac of Nineveh has presented us with a glorious vision of the future, a vision grounded in his mystical experience of the God of Jesus Christ and his contemplative reading of the Scriptures. “In every epoch,” Alfeyev writes, “the christian world needs to be reminded of this universal love of God for his creation because in every epoch there is a strong tendency within Christianity to replace the religion of love and freedom taught by Jesus with a religion of slavery and fear” (The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, pp. 300-301). We need not fear the proclamation of the unconditional love of God and the triumph of his Kingdom. It is this gospel that transforms our lives and gives birth to the Church. As the saint reminds us, “Divine hope uplifts the heart, but fear of Gehenna crushes it” (I.51, p. 384).

O the astonishment at the goodness of our God and Creator! O power for which all is possible! O immeasurable kindness toward our nature, that He will even bring sinners back into existence! … Where is Gehenna, that can afflict us? Where is the torment that terrifies us in many ways and quenches the joy of His love? And what is Gehenna as compared with the grace of His resurrection, when he will raise us from Sheol and cause our corruptible nature to be clad in incorruption, and raise up in glory what has fallen into Sheol? Come, men of discernment, and be filled with wonder! Whose mind is sufficiently wise to wonder worthily at the bounty of our Creator? His recompense of sinners is that instead of a just recompense, he rewards them with resurrection, and instead of those bodies with which they trampled upon His law, He robes them with the glory of perfection. That grace whereby we are resurrected after we have sinned is greater than the grace which brought us into being when we were not. (I.51, p. 388)

(Go to “All Are Saved … Satan too”)

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110 Responses to St Isaac the Syrian: The Triumph of the Kingdom over Gehenna

  1. elijahmaria says:

    There is little to argue with here, and none of it is a surprise, however hidden these particular texts might have been. However it is not yet convincing me that God would actually force someone to want to spend eternity with Him. IF there are such souls who do firmly reject God, then I think that heaven will not be the place of their everlasting life.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mary, St Isaac makes it clear (as I hope I have) that all who come to him in faith and repentance do so freely–that is the mystery.

      But I do not know why a Catholic would object to any expression of “irresistible grace,” which has a long, respectable Augustinian history in the Latin Church. On Augustinian grounds, why is it more acceptable to say that some are predestined to salvation rather than all are predestined to salvation. I am not at all suggesting that St Isaac was an Augustinian. But I don’t see why a Catholic would object on purely theological grounds to the possibility of apocatastasis. I can understand one doing so on biblical or traditional grounds (“that’s not taught in Scripture” or “that’s contrary to the dogmatic teaching of the Magisterium,” etc.); but it makes no sense to me how a Catholic can say “God can’t do that” when clearly Catholics have taught precisely that (restricted to the elect, of course).

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  2. Karen says:

    Wow! Just . . . wow! Glory to God!

    Elijahmaria, the essay (and St. Isaac) specifically says that God will not force anyone. Rather Gehenna does its work and they repent . . . freely. I think this suspicion that St. Isaac’s form of Universalism represents a repudiation of human free will perhaps betrays an inadequate understanding of the notion of freedom as it pertains to the human being made in the image of God. We are never more free than when we relinquish our distorted and corrupt personal (gnomic) will to sin to the deeper (natural) will of our created human nature to unite with God (which, by God’s grace, is sustained in existence despite our personal sin).

    For a while now I have dared to hope (and sometimes even start to believe) that the human will to avoid love cannot outlast God’s will to love. This is because it has occurred to me that sin is, by its very nature (analogous to terminal physical disease), a self-limiting condition (it ends in its own death), and conversely love will always be (even for the most corrupted human being) its own reward.

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  3. markbasil says:

    Christ is in our midst!

    Fr Aiden, thank you for this series.
    It is interesting to me how different people “gravitate” to different understandings of God’s love and its eschatological implications.
    I have always had a “hope” for the salvation of all- it comes from a deep place within me that has a profound investment in the power of God’s goodness and love. It is interesting to me that this “hope” has been with me through my meandering journey- at times very far from christian orthodoxy, and now as a man struggling to be Orthodox for close to a decade.
    It has always been something I have *felt* about God’s love. At times when I attempted to be most “orthodox” I would try to diminish this feeling somewhat or suppress it. However it is always there. I wonder why so many Christians do not seem “feel” this? Perhaps I am just hyper-sensitive?

    When I was in those attempted-“orthodox” phases (pre-Orthodoxy and exposure to the likes of St Silouan or St Isaac), I would try to tell myself that my ‘feelings’ about the ‘wrongness’ of eternal hell must be surrendered to the dominant witness of Christian (biblical) faith. After I became Orthodox (following on the heels of an ‘orthodox’ swing in my life!), I would remind myself that- since I am not a holy person, my own ‘feelings’ about the wrongness of eternal hell held no water. It took meeting and receiving healing from my relationship with my spiritual father, a local monk (now hermit) of extreme love and righteousness, for me to receive affirmation in my ‘feelings’ about hell.
    My spiritual father, this loving, wise man who is hidden away from any publicity and is praying for all, very simply “felt” this way about God’s love too! He said to me, “there is a certain feeling for truth that is given from God. When God shows you something true you must hold fast to it, no matter what the whole world thinks of you!”

    This old monk is steeped in the Scriptures and prayers of the Church- it is has been his whole way of life! And yet he does not understand “Orthodox Tradition” as reading all the traditional theology and holding onto whatever the ‘majority position’ is. (Perhaps many of us prefer this because it feels “safe”?). Instead the true Tradition was the Way of Life lived by God’s holy ones- this is what must be passed on, received, and lived!
    It is this mystical wellspring that lead St Seraphim to speak so beautifully about kindness and gentleness, and St Silouan to pray for reposed atheists, and St Isaac to write so beautifully about a merciful heart! These words are beautiful, but the true Tradition was the transfigured lives of the people who uttered them. That is the witness- that such “merciful hearts” actually beat in peoples’ chests!

    For me, I do not think I really received holy Tradition until my encounter with my spiritual father. He communicated to me a way of life- he was gentle, kind, patient, discerning, long-suffering, self-controlled. He taught me to always humble myself, never defend myself, to listen to the living God who is always with me. This is Orthodoxy. It is a hard way of life, but full of Joy! My spiritual father is above all radiating with joy! This is all I can accept as “Tradition” anymore- this sort of transfigured life.

    So yes. Sorry for the long meandering comment!
    I appreciate your series and I can find room for this as genuinely Orthodox because Isaac’s experience and communication of God’s love reminds me of my spiritual father. 🙂

    In the irresistible love of Jesus the Christ;
    -Mark Basil

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    • Karen says:

      I very much appreciate your testimony, Mark Basil. How blessed you are to have such a spiritual father.

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    • aegian says:

      Thank you MarkBasil. You remind me of one of my dearest friends – a former Catholic priest who is now an Anglican priest. His online name is Columba3 and he described on one of his many pilgrimages to Mount Athos how he experienced God as being extremely old, fragile yet strong and infinite and beyond anything we might have experienced, always waiting patiently for us to come to Him. Always quiet, always gentle, always loving, however many times we reject and mock Him. I must find Columba’s actual decription and post it here if people do not mind.

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  4. dino says:

    I would like to add that the experience of Hell/ Gehena, in this life (to those who have had such an experience) is always eternal…! For instance, three minutes in such a state can indeed feel like millions of years to the sufferer afterwards, due to the fact that the overwhelming thought in that unbearable state (what makes it so unbearable in fact) is the certainty that there is never ever any hope of an end to it. However, ! once the person who has this experience is grabbed and pulled out by the almighty all-forgiving conqueror of Gehena, our Lord Jesus Christ, then he also realises that such an unbearable state can never be tolerated (without a possibility for an ‘exit’ to Him, provided by the Lord), by the Holy Spirit in any other way than the one explained here above. It really is a mystery! Pedagogically we must tread very carefully perhaps, ontologically, experientially Love and Freedom have a relationship we cannot fully understand.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “I would like to add that the experience of Hell/ Gehena, in this life (to those who have had such an experience) is always eternal…!”

      You are so very right! I have known this hell. My son Aaron lived it and it destroyed him. Lord, have mercy.

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  5. PJ says:

    To be fair, Father, Calvinists also say that the elect “freely” choose God. They achieve freedom from bondage to sin and death by overwhelming and irresistible grace. And, having secured freedom, they necessarily use it to embrace God.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Absolutely right, PJ. For those of Augustinian persuasion, God’s predestinating grace leads the elect to freely surrender to God. No coercion is involved. Though I get conflicting information about Thomism on this issue, I believe that they too would fall into this category. So the question then becomes, If God can effectively predestine some to eternal salvation, why does he not predestine all?

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      • PJ says:

        To show forth His justice. At least, that’s the answer according to Augustine and the classical Latin tradition, at least as I understand it. All humanity sinned in Adam. Thus we all deserve damnation. That God predestines some (a few) to salvation is totally unmerited mercy. God is glorified in saving some through mercy; and He is equally glorified in the damnation of the many, for their punishment shows forth His justice.

        I don’t find that answer at all satisfying. Sometimes, the church fathers exhibit a moral callousness that is typical of ancient man. In the Augustinian corpus, there is much beauty and much ugliness. I fear that he was somewhat twisted through his conflict with the Pelagians. Also, the collapse of society around his head didn’t help things.

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  6. PJ says:

    “Freedom ultimately triumphs over Love. ”

    I’d say that it *is* God’s very love that allows those who hate Him to dwell in darkness. It would be more painful for them to be with Him.

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    • dino says:

      PJ,
      I think that, although your statement “God’s very love allows those who hate Him to dwell in darkness” makes sense, the experience of such darkness can be so terrible beyond any description, that God’s helping hand that pulls you out of it isaccepted -and as I stated earlier, comes as a complete surprise in such an unbearable despair. I could be wrong as I am only talking from my own experience. But I think your statement would make more sense if worded: a person (or demon) who will not ever confess that he needs saving cannot be saved even in the experience of Hell – however, that unbearable blackness, at a far higher intensity, makes one see they need saving without destroying their freedom…

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      • aegian says:

        Dino, I agree. Imagine all of a sudden being plunged into total darkness, on your own, away from your former life, with no companion and nothing to cling too. Who wouldn’t scream out in pain at that moment “Jesus save me!”? It would be a shame if there are any human beings on this earth who do not know on whom to call at such a calamitous moment.

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  7. mary benton says:

    Thank you, Fr. Aidan, for such a rich and riveting discussion of a mystery that we cannot fully fathom. This Catholic has no problem with the notion of “irresistible grace” 🙂 In fact, knowing my own weakness, I place all of my hope in it!

    I have sometimes considered that the notion of eternal hell is based more on human desire for there to be an inescapable punishment for those whom we are not ready to love because of lack of mercy. We, not God, are the ones afflicted with rage and a desire for retribution.

    There remain mysteries that we cannot understand, as much as you have enlightened us in this series. Is it really possible for someone to hate God? While “freedom” would argue yes, it hardly seems possible that anyone would freely choose to hate goodness and unconditional love. People may seem to – because they do not recognize or understand it – or because life has taught them not to trust such promises. But are there truly healthy, rational people who do not long for this? (And, if not healthy/rational, would not accept the healing that would allow for it?)

    Another mystery is the notion of eternity. Our minds cannot really grasp this fully as, in our human condition, our experience is limited to an ever changing, living-dying way of being. It is also beyond our capacity to understand God’s transcendence of the temporal way of being to which we are constrained. Hence, we are limited to thinking about God ending Gehenna at some “point”. My belief is that God has already ended Gehenna in the death and resurrection of Jesus – but He allows us whatever “time” we need to suffer it in order to be ready to accept His love.

    As indicated in one of my previous comments, I would like to think that if there truly are those who would hate God despite all of this, that God might offer them relief by allowing them to become like the “dumb beasts” of C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, i.e. allowing them to choose non-awareness over eternal suffering.

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    • aegian says:

      Mary, thank you for your wonderful comment. I particularly liked the idea of sufferers becoming like ‘dumb beasts.’ (I hope I am not breaking too many forum rules by jumping in like this.)

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  8. aegian says:

    Dear Fr Aiden, Thank you.

    Would it be perimissble to take the Holy Saint’s insights further and perhaps wonder if our Father did not intend any sin or suffering or punishment whatsoever? The universe was of necessity imperfect. This is a paradox that seems to condradict the perfect nature of the Creator, but the so called physical cosmos must have some ‘slack’ or indeterminism in its fundamental workings or it would not work as it does, progressively self-assemblying itself into more and more complex and organised forms, including some capable of sustaining consciousness. This universe is a work of love and art. Art must have light and shade. Great landscapes require dark passages.

    Perfection admits of no improvement, no progress, no change… no hope for anything better! It is eternally static, never changing. The real creation does the impossible. Perfect to begin with [totally ordered in entropic terms] it improves after that and becomes a natural work of art that produces and includes its own audience; but it isn’t a scripted play. While there can really be only one ending, the hour and day of which even Jesus did not know, not everything which happens between the beginning and the end was necessarily fore-ordained. This obviates the ‘fault’ of predestination which would otherwise be present, with its attendant injustice. Some things were inevitable, or perhaps truly fore-ordained. The arrival of Christ, his betrayal, cruxifion and Resurrection being the key events.

    Perhaps the Universe is a set of Divine Truths which, when applied to nothing at all makes total absence, or ‘the void’, do something. The universe is governed by Natural Law. It is becoming increasingly clear that this Law might be arbitrary and Physics is very strange indeed. The more we look the more it seems likely that only God, in His wisdom, could be the author of this Law.

    When people transgress God’s law, of necessity they initiate their own punishment because that is the natural consequence. In His mercy God sent His son to share our suffering. This does not show a retributive God but a deeply committed and eternally kind Father who shares His children’s suffering on a daily basis on this earth and perhaps even after death.

    Like

    • mary benton says:

      aegian-

      I appreciate your comment as well. Just a thought: is the universe we know necessarily imperfect or is it our notion of perfection that is imperfect? Perhaps true perfection, as only known by God, is a living/dynamic experience as opposed to something static…More mystery.

      Like

      • aegian says:

        Mary, Yes! The way I see it, if I dare be so bold, is that perhaps there have been many creations and some of them have been perfect, beautiful and static – as the angels cannot do anything but worship God and do His will without volition. Yet God wanted creatures who would chose to love Him freely and so of necessity the universe which brought us to life had to be flexible and infinitely malleable, enabling us to express ourselves with free will.

        Perhaps hell is indeed temporary. Perhaps those souls who die without loving God temporarily merge with the material of creation and when the universe is burnt up they are freed. After that – a new creation, a new heaven and a new hell…? Deep mysteries…

        Thank you for telling me you are a psychologist. The poor lady I told you about had narcissistic tendencies and suffered all her life. She was not helped by meeting and loving two men who told her that religion is guff and all that.

        Like

  9. Blessings to all here.

    “If God punishes, He does it out of love in order to heal a sick freedom of rational creatures.”

    Or it is to protect His little ones who trust in Him?

    I can certainly identify with Isaac’s eloquent words about God’s love. The thing is, I don’t see why the presence of a hell where the “worm does not die”, “the smoke goes up forever and ever” and the punishment, analogously to eternal life, is “everlasting” necessarily make God less than God, or as the case may be, less then truly spiritual human beings. Are our hearts more merciful than His?

    Markbasil:

    “When God shows you something true you must hold fast to it, no matter what the whole world thinks of you!”

    Yes, but how? What do we think about: “Did God really say?” And why should I take those passages about other uncomfortable things – like the sinfulness of homosexual activity, to name just one – seriously? (in any case maybe either those passages are wrong to or eventually all unrepentant sinners will be saved anyways…)

    Is this to be the Church’s final test of loyalty in these end times? In other words, Jesus saying to us: “Can you believe that I am love and that I mean for you to preach an eternal hell for those who will not receive me and my people?”

    If you want to go with this, are you not even a little bit nervous? Will you look at me, and size me up by saying “you *can’t* say that you are attracted to the idea of all persons being saved… there must be some that you want damned….”

    In other words, will you judge my motives and see me as the main problem? (not to make this about me, but all this will have practical implications as views like this begin to affect more and more persons and they wrestle with how this should play out in their relations with others claiming Christ but holding onto hell).

    Again, there is a way to deal with this that I think is very satisfactory.

    Like I said before:

    “As to eternal torment, here is how I see it. Men might enjoy using this or that “God” for their own self-centered pursuits, but the flip side of this is that oftentimes, man, the fool, wishes the jealous and zealous God of Israel out of existence (Psalm 14:1). Perhaps this explains why there is eternal punishment with God, and not annihilation (the cessation of all personal existence, popular in Eastern conceptions such as Nirvana). Though God certainly expressed regret in the O.T. at creating man, He emphatically can not be said to “take life”, or “snuff out life” in order to be rid of relationships forever, dePersonalizing reality. Said differently, it is man who desires that God not exist, not God who desires that man not exist. Is man really so foolish that he would tell God what love is – namely treating others as if they do not exist, disregarding their presence, and ultimately destroying life, destroying relationships? Evidently.

    In other words, Hell is not so much about retribution, but about keeping those who would destroy our trust and love from God far from those who have and treasure these things. Isolation – an isolation they chose – is justice. And while God is in both heaven and hell (Rev. 14), His presence near the center of the circle results in health and wholeness while on the outside rings, there is not lushness, but desert.”

    Along with this we see that the soul does not continue to exist because it is by nature eternal, but because relationships are good and will not be destroyed. That’s why the incarnation happened after all.

    God does not do what man does.

    And He is serious about wanting all persons home – the hope of universal salvation. Sometimes, I submit, that means talking about eternal punishment, even if some call it a “religion of slavery and fear”.

    “Divine hope uplifts the heart, but fear of Gehenna crushes it” (I.51, p. 384). Yes – the Bible says we need crushing.

    I feel I must stick with child-like trust here. I pray that God would give us true wisdom.

    +Nathan

    Like

    • markbasil says:

      Dear to God Nathan-

      In my short time in the Orthodox Church I have begun to glimpse the breadth and depth of my own sin- it is so vast and touches everything (even how I read the holy scriptures- God’s word is perfect but my vision is cloudy). In contrast, to be a human being is, naturally, to be like Christ: What Christ is by nature we can be by grace. But for myself I do not do what my Master did- I see instead that nearly every thought I have and action I take is tainted by sin. So no, I do not put any great confidence in my thoughts or my feelings.
      But I have also experienced genuine healing since entering the Church. I have received some small sight- like the man whose eyes healed by holy mud could make out a little light and shape. I will wait for the Lord to complete His healing work. For my part I will try to repent and to keep silent more than raise speak about what my hazy eyes see (people looking like tree trunks walking around!). Meanwhile I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the little warmth in my heart and vision in my eyes!
      I can see enough to see the light of Christ burning in God’s holy saints- these are people who have been transfigured by their ascetic struggle to receive the grace of God, and have attained some measure of purity in their hearts. Written words are dangerous. They are so easily abstracted from the life of the mouth that speaks them. I do not read St Isaac’s words as if I am reading the words of a peer, a fellow Christian with as much blindness as you or me. If the Christian faith is of any use then it transforms those who practice it into the likeness of Christ. Some have made tremendous progress in this (humbling themselves, of whom the world is unworthy.). From this blessed purity of heart they can “see God” in a way that I and perhaps you, cannot. Saint Isaac is one such giant in the Faith. Be assured he knows the Scriptures as you do, perhaps better. His persistent hunger and thirst for righteousness was filled to the brim by the Lord! Isaac, like Christ, does not “deny” hell; like Christ he will preach on hell and warn against it. Like Christ, Isaac responded to the spiritual needs of those he addressed.
      There was (and still is) a terrible confusion about the nature of Hell and divine punishment. Isaac did what he could to clean the tarnish from the Divine One whom he knew with a knowledge that surpasses understanding.
      Recall that Christ rebuked his own disciples James and John when they misunderstood God’s Judgement. Recall that the Lord Himself “corrected” the Scriptures (e.g. on divorce- but far more fundamentally in revealing in his own person a God of overwhelming love and grace far beyond the imaginings of those who were most conversant in the O.T. scriptures).
      Nathan, perhaps your mind is already made up. But for myself I have had a small taste of salvation and seen a small glimpse of love in actual human lives transfigured- not just “decent and admirable Christians”, but lives that are transformed and healed while in this temporal life.
      From these experiences and exposure I know enough to keep quiet and think very little of my own opinions, thoughts, and feelings (including on the current topic). I will continue to repent, humble myself, and hunger and thirst after righteousness. What God provides I will receive with thanksgiving. But my own small taste of salvation gives me confidence that a man like my spiritual father, and even greater a man like St Isaac, see and know things through intimacy with God and enjoyment of his Love that I cannot possibly dare to claim on grounds of my own dim reading of Scripture. Their witness and the Love I have tasted in Christ Jesus, does keep the hope for the salvation of all alive in me, but I hold all things with an open palm save the living Christ Himself (our only Holy Tradition!).
      Asking your prayers;
      -Mark Basil

      Like

  10. jcarlostzavala says:

    Yes, the teaching of an eternal hell “is simply unacceptable.”
    Thank you, Father for sharing these words from such an amazing saint!

    I will share this with this with my friends.

    I have for sometime been a “hopeful universalist.”
    Now I am a convinced universalist.

    God is love.
    The message of grace is true.
    God will not fail in accomplishing His will.

    He will save all!

    The gospel is such good news.
    I love being a Christian!!

    Like

  11. elijahmaria says:

    It is Lent Father Aiden and you have added much to my comment that is not there, so I will refrain from making further comment but what I believe is in line with St. Isaac, St. Augustine and St. Thomas…whatever else can be said, that much is simple fact. I believe that we are free as creatures, in the image of God’s divine freedom. I believe that we are not all knowing, all powerful and every present and filling all things. But we share in that life and are perfected by His grace. In charity there’s nothing more I can say.

    Like

    • aegian says:

      Elijahmaria, I met one such person, whom I loved dearly and prayed for for thirty five years. She was baptised a Catholic but was always unhappy. As she grew up and grew older she actually came to ‘hate’ God. When she was dying she refused to make any arrangement to be given the last rites and extreme unction. My daughter was with her as she was dying and this lady was very unhappy and had no clue what would happen next but she held steadfastly to her seeming disdain for God and His Church. I wonder what happened to her and have hoped that His Saints saved her.

      I wonder if you are correct in thinking she might be unhappy in God’s presence. What do you think might happen to such people or should we not ask?

      Like

      • mary benton says:

        Most of the people I have known who have intense disdain for God have either been taught some very strange notions of God (in which case their personal disdain is correct) or they have been mentally ill (I am not saying this to insult non-believers; I am a psychologist and regularly encounter people with such illnesses).

        Like

      • Karen says:

        “Most of the people I have known who have intense disdain for God have either been taught some very strange notions of God . . . ”

        Yes this is my experience, too. When people who hate “God” speak about the God they hate, I don’t recognize my Lord–usually, this “God” looks more like the one called the Accuser of the brethren in the Scriptures!

        Like

  12. Father Kimel,

    Would it be too much trouble to ask you for a simple shorthand distinction between Isaac’s views and those of Origen?

    Thank you,
    Nathan

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Nathan, I do not have the competence to give you competent answer. 🙂 I’m relying here to a large extent on Brian E. Daley’s book The Hope of the Early Church. From what I can tell, Origen’s understanding of the apocatastasis is all tied in with his understanding of his understanding of the preexistence of souls and a cyclical understanding of history: “the end is always the beginning.” As a result, “human fulfillment is really the restoration of the soul to a unity with God that it possessed before its fall and embodiment” (p. 58).

      Origen’s views must be contrasted with the Origenistic views that became popular in the 6th century and were condemned by various theologians and councils. Though attributed to Origen, they depart from Origen in significant ways. The “Origenist” eschatology represented “a radicalized Evagrian Christology and cosmology, and a doctrine of apokatastasis that went far beyond the hopes of Origen or Gregory of Nyssa. They envisage not only a spherical, ethereal risen body, but the complete abolition of material reality in the world to come, and the ultimate absorption of all created spirits into an undifferentiated unity with the divine logos, so that even the humanity and the Kingdom of Christ will come to an end” (p. 190).

      St Isaac’s eschatology is nothing like this.

      Like

      • Father Kimel,

        That’s a start – thank you.

        +Nathan

        Like

      • Father Gregory says:

        If I may, I would also add that in reading Origen we need to contrast what “others” have said he said and what Origen himself actually did say.

        A good argument has been made by Mark Julian Edwards (of “Origen against Plato” fame) that the “mythical pre-existence of souls and their fall into bodies” is not part of Origen’s actual theological thought. It occurs exclusively in fragment 15 of “On First Principles” which is a composite woven out of many different sources by Paul Koetschau whose operating principle for doing so was that “we know Origen taught this therefore we can reconstruct it” (even in he absence of any such teaching elsewhere in Origen’s writings). Edwards makes this point very forcefully and proceeds with a detailed analysis of “metempsychosis” and pre-existence.

        Origen like many of his contemporaries believed that souls were created directly by God and placed into bodies but this process does not involve a fall. It involves creation of a person. Souls and bodies according to Origen necessarily belong together and it is the Father, Son and Spirit exclusively that exist without body of any kind (and it is in this sense Origen de facto teaches a “consubstantial Trinity”). To be a creature = to be embodied. Insofar as fallen-ness is expressed bodily it is so in its density. If bodily density is indicative of the depth of the fall, as is certainly presumed by “the mythical pre-existence and fall,” than how do we explain that demonic bodies are less and not more dense in Origen’s theology? To be sure density of the body is important to Origen, but the less dense bodies of demons are not indicative of their relatively lesser fall compared to humans who have much denser bodies.

        In addition John Behr in “The Way to Nicea” has pointed out the “antecedent works” which, according to Origen, God uses to place souls in accordance with their merits is a convoluted way to speak of “divine providence” and not of works performed in a previous life (see Contra Celsum Bk 1, par. 32-3; Bk 2, par. 20; Philocalia of Origen XXV etc.). In addition when in Contra Celsum Origen gets to ridiculing the Egyptians for worshipping animals he also notes in passing that:

        “This view is even worse than the myth of transmigration, that the soul falls from the vaults of heaven and descends as far as irrational animals, not merely the tame but even those which are very wild.” Contra Celsum B. 1, par. 20.

        It seems evident that to Origen the fall of pre-existent, dis-embodied or pre-incarnate, souls (from the vaults of heaven) is mythical as well as theologically untenable (though Celsus’ views are even worse to Origen’s thinking). It seems to me that the doctrine condemned in 543 and 553 does not necessarily have much to do with Origen himself, but perhaps more with theological rhetoric to denounce opponents. I am aware that those who accept Origen’s innocence of this kind of 6th century “Origenism” usually attribute the guilt to Evagrius Ponticus instead, but Gabriel Bunge (mostly in French, Italian and German) and Augustine Casiday (in English) have made a good case which casts huge doubt on this attribution of Origenism to Evagrius. If there were indeed ‘Origenists’ of the type condemned in 543/553 their condemnation is justly deserved. But actual in depth reading of Origen distances rather than connects him with those 6th century condemnations.

        This of course does not mean that there are no shortcomings in Origen’s theology, but it does open up the real possibility that Origen’s theological shortcomings were much less severe than often believed.

        Gregory +

        Like

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Thank you, Fr Gregory, for your contribution here. It sounds like Origen was unjustly condemned by II Constantinople.

        Like

  13. Agni Ashwin says:

    Fr. Kimel, it seems to me you would agree that there has been no conciliar condemnation of the type of eschatology described by St. Isaac the Syrian, and that the condemnation of Origenism is not to be equated with a condemnation of a universalist theology that respects free-will and the body-mind-soul unity?

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Yes, most definitely. There are several points to consider:

      First, what is the authority of the anathemas allegedly issued by the 5th Ecumenical Council. There in fact has been a long scholarly debate on whether the Council formally issued these canons that are attributed to it. The dominant scholarly opinion at the present time is that the Fathers of the Council, under the pressure of the Emperor Justinian, adopted the 15 anathemas at a meeting prior to the formal opening of the Council. The anathemas are not discussed in the Acts of the Council. So the question remains: Do they represent authentic conciliar dogma?

      Second, when the 15 anathemas are read together, it is clear that they specifically address a radical Origenist eschatology that was popular in the 6th century. It is also clear that they do not touch the doctrine of St Gregory Nyssen, for example, which is very different from the heretical apocatastasis theories with which the Council Fathers would have been familiar. The decrees and dogmatic definitions of councils must always be interpreted within their historical context. Not to do so is to engage in a kind of ahistorical dogmatic fundamentalism akin to the literalistic readings of Holy Scripture. Unfortunately, Orthodox theology simply has not spent much time thinking about the hermeneutics of conciliar dogma. Folks seem to be content to simply prooftext. For example, anathema #1 is frequently cited. It reads: “If anyone advocates the mythical pre-existence of souls and the monstrous restoration that follows from this, let him be anathema.” Please tell me how this anathema touches the views of St Isaac. He doesn’t teach the “mythical pre-existence of souls,” yet it is clear that the apocatastasis that the anathema has mind is one that flows from the preexistence of souls.

      Three, the eschatological doctrine of St Gregory of Nyssa has never been formally condemned by an ecumenical council. In fact, the 7th Ecumenical Council declared him “Father of Fathers.” How could he be so revered and respected if his eschatological views are heretical?

      Like

      • PJ says:

        To them who accept and transmit the vain Greek teachings that there is a pre-existence of souls and teach that all things were not produced and did not come into existence out of non-being, that there is an end to the torment or a restoration again of creation and of human affairs, meaning by such teachings that the Kingdom of the Heavens is entirely perishable and fleeting, whereas the Kingdom is eternal and indissoluble as Christ our God Himself taught and delivered to us, and as we have ascertained from the entire Old and New Scripture, that the torment is unending and the Kingdom everlasting to them who by such teachings both destroy themselves and become agents of eternal condemnation to others: Anathema! Anathema! Anathema!

        –Contra John Italus, Chapter 10, Synodikon of Orthodoxy

        Is not this Synodikon a “significant canonical text,” to quote Perry Robinson.

        “How could he be so revered and respected if his eschatological views are heretical?”

        Because even saints have their flaws?

        It seems to me that you Orthodox also have the reckon with the first 1000 years of Latin theology. It can’t simply be ignored. There’s a millennium worth of fathers and ecclesiastical writers that must be considered. And the eschatology of the west is much less optimistic than the eschatology of the east. And even in the east, Isaac is unusual.

        I appreciate this wonderful study of the great mystic Isaac, but I ultimately think it is imprudent to speak of the salvation of all. There is just too much contradictory data in Scripture and Tradition.

        Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “Is not this Synodikon a ‘significant canonical text’?”

      That in itself is an interesting question, isn’t it? What is the dogmatic authority of the Synodikon, particularly regarding the post-7th Ecumenical Council anathemas? When one reads Orthodox theology books, one rarely, if ever, see the Synodikon being mentioned as a doctrinal authority. Two years ago I wrote a British Orthodox theologian precisely about the dogmatic authority of the Synodikon. He replied that the anathemas that did not have conciliar backing (and he was speaking here of II Nicaea) were not dogmatically irreformable. It seems to me that when folks start quoting obscure texts like this, they have already lost the argument. Is this really an Orthodox way of doing theology? Clearly bishops like Met Kallistos and Met Hilarion do not believe that the Church has already dogmatized on this question, and as far as I know, the bishops of the Orthodox Church are not calling for their excommunication. We are in the realm here of theologoumena , not dogma. As Evdokimov comments, “The current understanding of eternal suffering is nothing but a scholarly opinion. … The Fifth Ecumenical Council did not examine the question of the duration of suffering in hell.” The discussion cannot, and should not, be prematurely foreclosed by pronouncements that do not have the clear support of an ecumenical council. We are not Roman Catholics.

      In any case, it would be interesting to read a historical exegesis of this anathema. What precisely did John Italus teach that the Church judged to be heretical? From the little I can glean from the internet, he appears to have been a Hellenist philosopher who was enamored by Greek philosophy and taught, like Origen, the transmigration of souls. If so, this anathema simply cannot be quoted willy nilly as excluding the positions of St Gregory Nyssen or St Isaac of Ninevah. Do you know whether the bishops intended to exclude the position of St Gregory Nyssen? Once again, we have to interpret pronouncements like this within their historical context; otherwise we are just engaging in a fundamentalist form of proof-texting. Dogmas don’t fall from the sky. They are not dictated by God. They are formulated by fallible human beings to address specific theological concerns at a historical moment. And that means, they must always be interpreted.

      Like

      • aegian says:

        Thank you for all your posting Fr Aiden. This one is really moving. Although I am Orthodox I know little of the Church Fathers or of dogma and you are teaching me a great deal. I went to a convent (in Africa) and so I am never certain if I am Orthodox or Catholic, though I worship at an Orthodox Cathedral (Agia Sophia in London). I would be very grateful if you would expound on that small sentence, “We are not Catholics”, regarding the sayings of the Church Fathers and how we can theoroise about what they meant. Please forgive my ignorance.

        Like

      • PJ says:

        “As Evdokimov comments, “The current understanding of eternal suffering is nothing but a scholarly opinion.””

        Oh, come now! A “scholarly opinion”? You don’t think that’s a bit of an understatement?

        Like

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Yeah, I agree. It is a bit of an understatement. 🙂
        But I think Evdokimov is right about II Constantinople.
        He also describes Justinian as resembling “the ‘just ones’ in the story of Jonah, angry that punishment did not fall upon the guilty.”

        Like

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Aegean, you write: “I would be very grateful if you would expound on that small sentence, ‘We are not Catholics’, regarding the sayings of the Church Fathers and how we can theoroise about what they meant.”

        Aegean, I am thinking of the eccleciastical-dogmatic way of doing theology that is characteristic of much of Latin theology. It’s a matter of lining up and organizing alleged conciliar and papal definitions in order to determine the teaching of the Catholic Church. It’s similar to the way many evangelicals and Protestants argue to determine the authoritative teaching of the Bible. Both are fundamentalistic and literalistic.

        I do not believe that this is characteristic of Orthodoxy–at its best. Of course, this is what one often finds on Orthodox web sites and blogs (excluding Fr Stephen’s!).

        We all wish we could have dogmatic certainty on every theological matter, at this present moment! I do not believe that this is the way life is. Alas.

        Like

  14. elijahmaria says:

    Aegian: My own thought personally is that I dare not even consider, much less ask. It is my thought that I must pray God for my own salvation and for those souls lost by their own choosing that they may come to see clearly, what it is that I now work to see dimly. As I noted in another comment thread, I much appreciate Anselm’s protracted reminders that God’s ways are not our ways. He may well grace one who sins habitually while seeming to withhold grace from one who appears meek. It is better not to probe deeply that which we are incapable of understanding when it comes to the justice/mercy and love of God. The discussions of providence have all been engaged by Catholic saints and spiritual fathers in order to protect from our incessant probing that part of the divine which can never be natural to us but only glimpsed by grace.

    Like

    • PJ says:

      Amen.

      Like

    • aegian says:

      Thank you Elijahmaria. I am sorry if I think too much about the mysteries of religion. I am afraid all I ever do internally, while outwardly working and attending to the mundane necesseties, is pray and ponder.

      Like

    • mary benton says:

      elijahmaria – I don’t disagree with you on a fundamental level. To me, the value of this series is not so much in probing and then concluding that “now I know” – for I can never presume to know God’s mind. Rather, the value is in contemplating more deeply the fullness of God’s love and how questions that sometimes trip us as inconsistencies (e.g. if God is so loving, how can He condemn people to hell?) might be otherwise viewed.

      Like

  15. coffeezombie says:

    Fr. Aidan, something I just remembered while reading this latest post and the comments was an old (well, he was definitely as old as my parents which, when you’re in your young 20’s is old), Baptist, former pastor (I met him when we both played trumpet in our church’s orchestra). Despite the fact he was from a more rural area of Tennessee and had never had any formal theological training, was well acquainted with the likes of Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon, if I remember correctly, among others. He and I, of course, disagreed about my movement into Orthodoxy, but I still think about him with much fondness. He was, in a way, a spiritual father for me while I was a Baptist.

    I remember him asking me one day if I wanted to know what he thinks about grace. Of course I did! He then started talking about Christ, in Heaven, embracing Judas and forgiving him.

    Such a thought was quite shocking to me, since it was pretty obvious to me that Judas was damned. He betrayed God for silver! Dante rightly put him in the lowest circle of Hell! And I am reminded of this conversation every Holy Week, as we hear the refrain in, I think, one of the services of Holy Thursday or Friday, “But Judas the transgressor was unwilling to understand!”

    Boy, the Church comes down hard on Judas! Sometimes, listening to those services, I begin to feel bad for Judas! But, as I read these articles, as I think about this, I begin to wonder: maybe my old friend was right, all along?

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I am reminded of these words by Madeleine L’Engle:

      ‘There is an old legend that after his death Judas found himself at the bottom of a deep and slimy pit. For thousands of years he wept his repentance, and when the tears were finally spent he looked up and saw, way, way up, a tiny glimmer of light. After he had contemplated it for another thousand years or so, he began to try to climb up towards it. The walls of the pit were dank and slimy, and he kept slipping back down. Finally, after great effort, he neared the top, and then he slipped and fell all the way back down. It took him many years to recover, all the time weeping bitter tears of grief and repentance, and then he started to climb up again. After many more falls and efforts and failures he reached the top and dragged himself into an upper room with twelve people seated around a table. “We’ve been waiting for you, Judas,” Jesus said. “We couldn’t begin till you came.”’

      Like

  16. How can persons say “Amen” to Isaac without also saying that God is obligated to show mercy in spite of what He has told us in the faith once received by all the saints – and that if He does not He cannot be good?

    +Nathan

    Like

  17. elijahmaria says:

    Infanttheology: Because in Blessed Isaac all remain free. What he says is that it is entirely possible and coherent with what God has revealed of Himself to us, for us to think that some day hell can once again be emptied…but only if there have been eyes to see and ears to hear…None are forced to metanoia, but those who turn may be saved, even out of hell. The papal Church does not say that is absolutely impossible: end of discussion. They say it seems as though hell is an everlasting choice, but that is all they say.

    Like

    • PJ says:

      No. The Catholic Church dogmatically teaches that hell is real and eternal. “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity” (CCC #1035). However, it has never definitively declared anyone to be in hell. Therefore, one might hope that it is empty, though this is not a rather uncommon opinion.

      Like

  18. elijahmaria,

    I am not saying that in Blessed Isaac all do not “remain free”. That is not where I am focusing – I am focusing on what we say about God and His actions. Let’s try it a different way:

    How can persons say “Amen” to Isaac without also saying that God is obligated to offer mercy in hell (which evidently may still be freely rejected by some, just as it was prior to the “second death”) in spite of what He has told us in the faith once received by all the saints – and that if He does not offer mercy He cannot be good?

    +Nathan

    Like

    • Agni Ashwin says:

      “How can persons say “Amen” to Isaac without also saying that God is obligated to offer mercy in hell (which evidently may still be freely rejected by some, just as it was prior to the “second death”) in spite of what He has told us in the faith once received by all the saints…”

      What is the “what He has told us” clause, referring to, exactly?

      Like

  19. Could we add one about hell?: http://teampyro.blogspot.com/2013/03/check-your-jesus.html

    Please know, I write what I write here and share what I share here because I am concerned. Hell if I like hell. I don’t think God does either. But how do I know that there is not real wisdom behind it being everlasting (as it says in the Scriptures)?

    In any case, I feel like I need to defend the honor of Jesus, who spoke of hell more than anyone – and whose warnings are indeed terrifying.

    I see things here almost exactly replicating the thoughts of “Emergent Church” teachers. I to have speculative bones in my body – no doubt (see here for example, my thoughts about Judas: http://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2011/02/16/millstones-judas-iscariot-and-the-little-ones/ ) – but we need to take heed, do we not?

    For do we have any clue what the consequences of all this might be? The implications for Christian theology, the Scriptures, the Church?

    +Nathan

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Nathan, I think you have made your point: you believe that the teaching of St Isaac contradicts Holy Scripture. This point, however, only needs to be made once.

      Like

    • PJ says:

      Nathan,

      These ideas are not the stuff of lukewarm 20th century American religious liberalism. They have existed since the earliest centuries of the Church, although, as Father admitted, they were never common. Nonetheless, there are significant fathers who appear to have embraced universalism of one degree or another. You even find it even in the Church’s primitive hagiography, which you would think would be fairly eschatologically black and white (a la Tertullian). For instance, in the prison diary of St. Perpetua, the holy martyress apparently prays her departed brother Dinocrates from a pace of torment to a place of refreshment.

      “After a few days, whilst we were all praying, on a sudden, in the middle of our prayer, there came to me a word, and I named Dinocrates; and I was amazed that that name had never come into my mind until then, and I was grieved as I remembered his misfortune. And I felt myself immediately to be worthy, and to be called on to ask on his behalf. And for him I began earnestly to make supplication, and to cry with groaning to the Lord. Without delay, on that very night, this was shown to me in a vision. I saw Dinocrates going out from a gloomy place, where also there were several others, and he was parched and very thirsty, with a filthy countenance and pallid colour, and the wound on his face which he had when he died. This Dinocrates had been my brother after the flesh, seven years of age? who died miserably with disease – his face being so eaten out with cancer, that his death caused repugnance to all men. For him I had made my prayer, and between him and me there was a large interval, so that neither of us could approach to the other. And moreover, in the same place where Dinocrates was, there was a pool full of water, having its brink higher than was the stature of the boy; and Dinocrates raised himself up as if to drink. And I was grieved that, although that pool held water, still, on account of the height to its brink, he could not drink. And I was aroused, and knew that my brother was in suffering. But I trusted that my prayer would bring help to his suffering; and I prayed for him every day until we passed over into the prison of the camp, for we were to fight in the camp-show. Then was the birth-day of Geta Caesar, and I made my prayer for my brother day and night, groaning and weeping that he might be granted to me.

      “Then, on the day on which we remained in fetters,his was shown to me. I saw that that place which I had formerly observed to be in gloom was now bright; and Dinocrates, with a clean body well clad, was finding refreshment. And where there had been a wound, I saw a scar; and that pool which I had before seen, I saw now with its margin lowered even to the boy’s navel. And one drew water from the pool incessantly, and upon its brink was a goblet filled with water; and Dinocrates drew near and began to drink from it, and the goblet did not fail. And when he was satisfied, he went away from the water to play joyously, after the manner of children, and I awoke. Then I understood that he was translated from the place of punishment.”

      Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thanks for understanding, Nathan. It would be easy for us to fall into a Bible quoting war. Your raise good questions about the Scriptures, but we would need to do some very careful exegesis, particularly about the meaning of the terms aionios and kolasis; but such exegesis is beyond my competence. But St Isaac has in any case already addressed your various texts by adopting a hermeneutic of love. He will not allow you, and us, to remain at what he calls the surface level of Scripture. Hence you first have to critique his hermeneutic and the grounds for its adoption.

      Like

      • Father Kimel,

        Thank you for your words.

        “hermeneutic of love”

        Is this hermeneutic explicitly outlined anywhere? It seems to me that the whole question is about what love is or must be. I’m sure we would all agree that love entails taking another’s words seriously. I wonder how much of this comes down to philosophies of language. But then I come back to what someone else said about Isaac on Father Freeman’s blog, I believe:

        “When you turn to God in prayer, be in your thoughts as an ant, as a serpent of the earth, like a worm, like a stuttering child. Do not speak to Him something philosophical or high-sounding, but approach Him with a child’s attitude” (Homily 49)

        Not to minimize the exegetical and contextual challenges that any ancient text presents us with, but.. as regards God’s words to us, what does this mean?

        +Nathan

        Like

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Nathan, I hate to do this to you, but I strongly recommend that you borrow Revelation by Richard Swinburne through ILL and read through it. I still think Swinburne’s discussion of literal meaning and canonical meaning is exceptionally helpful. According to Swinburne, we cannot simply read the Bible through a grammatical-historical hermeneutic, because once a given text is incorporated into the canon of Holy Scripture, it must now be interpreted both in terms of the other writings of Scripture but also in terms of the audience of Scripture (namely, not just the original audience to whom the human author was speaking but Christian believers down through the ages). In other words, the change of literary context effected by canonization effects a change in meaning. I tried to summarize Swinburne in some of my old Pontifications postings. Egads, some of these go back to 2004. I am feeling very old.

        Like

  20. Agni Ashwin,

    Thus sayeth the Lord?:

    “worm does not die”… “the smoke [of their torment] goes up forever and ever”… the punishment, analogous to eternal life, is “everlasting” (Matthew 25)

    Scripturalism? Literalism? Why not this or that in God’s law? Why not the resurrection? Why not the second coming, that terrible day? Why not the full and total divinity of Jesus Christ?

    Many persons have their reasons for not wanting such things to be true.

    Yes, I understand that there is a rule of faith in the Church, known in our experience? But are the Scriptures nothing? Is the Jesus of John’s Gospel not to be trusted when He says His words are “Spirit and life”? When He says “it is written” and that we do not live apart from every Word that comes from His mouth?

    +Nathan

    Like

  21. elijahmaria says:

    Where is it, Nathan, that Isaac contradicts the everlasting worm?

    Like

  22. PJ says:

    Father,

    Please do not take this the wrong way. I do not mean to accuse you or insult you. But one question rises to the top of my mind: Why do you not simply accept the plain words of Christ and His apostles at face value? Again, I do not say this with malice. It’s just that that’s what I return to again and again. Despite the beautiful rhetoric of St. Isaac, he is but a man. Christ is God. The Scripture is His Word. And it tells us that punishment is eternal. Perhaps I am overly simple or literalistic, but that seems to close the case for me. I say this with great sadness, both as a sinner who himself “walks the line,” and as the only Christian in my family (save my wife). Once more, I tell you that I speak earnestly, not as an accuser.

    Like

    • Karen says:

      Alas, PJ, you lapse again into a sort of “commonsense realism” and nominalism here in your suggested hermeneutic it seems to me! We cannot know what the Scriptures mean by what they say — IOW, there is no “plain words of Christ . . . at face value” — apart from a real encounter with Christ in His love. This hermeneutic arising from the real experience of Christ and His mercy gives us the appropriate interpretation and application of the Scriptures. You read Scripture like a modern it seems to me (relying too heavily on your own rationalist sense of things), not truly in the manner of the Fathers and Saints (of whom the Apostles are pre-eminent).

      Let me give you a case in point. Do you believe that the Mother of God was pure and holy and kept by God’s grace to be without personal sin, as the Church teaches? You also believe, I assume, that she was as fully human as any one of us (she must have been because “that which is not assumed is not healed” and Christ assumed our humanity from her). The Scripture clearly “at face value” says that “ALL [human beings] have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Now what do you make of that?

      Again, another example–Hebrews states that it is appointed to men “once to die” and then comes the judgment. We are also told that death entered the world through Adam and that Adam bequeathed death to all his descendants. We are also taught that sin leads to death. But then we have Elijah and Enoch in the OT, who . . . never died, but were translated bodily to Heaven! Does that mean they are also exempt from judgment? Does it mean they never sinned at all (Scripture doesn’t teach this)?

      How do we interpret Proverbs 26:4-5? Do we answer the fool according to his folly? Or not?! 🙂

      All this is to show that it doesn’t work to be overly literalistic with the Scriptures, and they clearly cannot be interpreted rationalistically through the use of logical syllogism. Their full meaning can only be spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2), which is a whole-life experiential thing involving the conviction of the Holy Spirit in our hearts–not subject to human “plain sense” logic as such. Purity of heart (not the ability to connect “logical” dots based on the “plain sense” of the letter of the Scriptures) is key in receiving the Spirit’s wisdom, and that comes about only through ascetic discipline and the grace of God. That’s why I trust St. Isaac, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory Nanzianzus and other holy Saints in the Church far beyond my own (or any other fellow sinner’s) ability to rationally parse the Scriptures.

      I hope I haven’t given any offense with my comments, PJ. I always appreciate your pluck and candor in these conversations!

      Like

      • PJ says:

        Karen,

        No offense taken. I do believe that my hermeneutic is shaped by a real encounter with Christ and His love. And I don’t think it is “nominalistic” or “rationalistic” to believe Christ when He says that hell is eternal. I’m in good patristic company in my interpretation of His words regarding everlasting punishment. Certainly, there were fathers who disagreed. But eternal punishment is hardly some medieval accretion or modern Protestant novelty. I don’t even need to rely on Scripture: I can simply rely on the patristic consensus, especially in the west. The Church — at least, my church, which represents the legacy of at least half of Christendom — is clear on the matter. I don’t like the conclusion. I hate it! But I feel that I must accept it. Perhaps I am wrong. I often pray I am wrong. But I feel that I’d do violence to Scripture and Tradition to believe otherwise. Thanks for engaging me, though. I always appreciate your thoughts.

        Like

      • dino says:

        I totally agree with you Karen.
        And, PJ,
        as Father Aidan says, one can take Scripture at “face value” and yet reach very different conclusions to another person.
        I could even have a completely different understanding (myself) from one day to another, for instance: I could read about Judas one day and think that ‘those traitors all go to Hell – but I, am on St John the Divine’s side”, and the next day, in a more compunctionate state, I could think (while reading about Judas, “I am the only Judas – ever!-, only me, all others including Judas are saved compared to me, because God’s grace has less obstruction in all other beings but me”…
        Quite a difference!

        Like

      • Karen says:

        PJ, as Fr. Aidan also points out in his reply, accepting that “Christ says hell is eternal” as a fair interpretation of the Scriptures, the question remains what does that mean (I would add, not only from a grammatical, textual and historical perspective, but also given that our own frame of reference in terms of experience is quite temporal/sequential)? If I am remembering correctly (Fr. Stephen would know), the Greek term for “everlasting” where Christ talks in Matthew 25 about the goats going into “everlasting punishment” refers not to continuous sequential time passing (for which there is a different Greek term), but rather to the “Eschaton,” i.e., “of the age to come,” which is actually outside of space and time–and, if this is true, here we are confronted with that “mystery” of which Fr. Aidan (and Fr. Stephen) writes. We “see through a glass darkly” this side of the grave. In no way does St. Isaac deny the existence of Gehenna or that it takes place in the Eschaton.

        Secondly, of course I accept that you have some experience of Christ’s love (as I believe do I), but I doubt you would want to claim that you abide in that love on the level of St. Isaac or St. Gregory, etc., (or do you?). I certainly cannot make such a claim. The Saints who inhabit Christ’s love in this manner are those who consistently engage in the “hermeneutic of love” Fr. Aidan refers to and which is the only hermeneutic, it seems to me, that is solidly inherently of the Spirit of Christ. It’s not one that I can for the most part make a claim to be able to engage well, if at all, but I think I can many times recognize those who do, and these inspire my trust.

        I certainly can appreciate where you’re coming from–it’s what I understood the Scriptures/Christian tradition to teach for most of my Christian life (though I was never a Roman Catholic). It is interesting to me, as I reflect on that, though, to observe that I was only ever really at peace with this interpretation of the implications of what the Tradition says when my primary concern was saving my own spiritual skin, so to speak–the assurance of my own “salvation” such as I understood that (a baldly self-serving motivation, not to put too fine a point on it) . . . and that does not seem insignificant to me.

        A last point that occurs to me is that I suspect the Church and the Fathers would seem to have almost diametrically opposed things to say about the same Reality (or same inner meaning) of the nature of Christ’s judgment in the Eschaton, depending on who they are addressing. The person who is glibly and presumptuously complacent about his own sanctification, taking “universal salvation” for granted, has some far different needs in terms of what he must be confronted with about the realities of encountering God in the Eschaton in order to begin truly working out his own salvation (the concern of all dogmatic teaching and the application of it in the Orthodox tradition) than the person who (having some experiential awareness of it) holds the inherent purity and holiness of God in his love in such dread that he is agonizing about the possible meaning of that in the face of millions of lost souls in danger of never properly embracing this mercy and becoming holy themselves (himself necessarily included!). I think the seeming contradictions both in Scripture and in what the various Saints and Fathers have said on these issues many times may be understood as being of this nature. I believe we can only know what the truth of the Reality of the Eschaton means to the extent that we come to really know ourselves and our own needs–what sort of person we are, or are becoming, along that continuum of human need–which is why purity of heart is the key to the proper discernment of the meaning of the Tradition found in the Scriptures and what the Fathers (of whatever Christian tradition) have said about that. As Fr. Aidan also points out, the approach of the Roman Catholic Church to this process of discernment is somewhat of a different thing than a genuine Orthodox approach.

        Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      PJ, I know no offense was intended. Not to worry. You ask, “Why do you not simply accept the plain words of Christ and His apostles at face value?”

      Why do you think that I am not? Why do you think that St Isaac is not? Is the plain meaning of the Bible so obvious to you? Is this a meaning that is accessible to all, even neutral spectators? Even on a grammatical-literal level, are you really sure that that when Jesus speaks or the Apostles speak of “eternal” punishment they mean “eternal” punishment?

      The simple fact is, I cannot argue this question on the basis of the grammatical-historical meaning of Scripture alone. For one thing, I can’t read biblical Greek, which is a huge disadvantage. But for another thing, I honestly do not believe that important theological issues are resolved by textual exegesis alone, though I also want to insist on its importance. I’m in a middle position here.

      If we had to rely on grammatical-historical exegesis, we could not confess the Holy Spirit as God, of one being with the Father. That controversial issue cannot be resolved by biblical exegesis alone, as St Gregory the Theologian realized.

      But perhaps we might argue that the early Church dogmatically resolved the issue of universal salvation (which it most certainly did not) … but what if we are still in the early Church? What if this is a doctrinal matter that is finally coming to the attention of the Church? It took the Church four centuries to achieve dogmatic consensus on the doctrine of the Trinity. It took the Church six centuries to achieve dogmatic consensus on the person of Christ. Why should it not take 21 centuries to achieve dogmatic consensus on the universality of salvation? Every age has its own questions to address. Perhaps this is ours.

      Like

      • syrian88 says:

        There are biblical arguments for all the various views or positions a person might take on “last things.’ After seeing people argue for years using “The Bible Game” strategy it becomes clear that the Bible can be hammered into any shape. It is a scandal that a person who wishes to follow Christ must also choose which of the Christian traditions to attempt to do it in, but answering that question is not solved by biblical arguments. We all approach the scriptures through the lens of tradition.

        When I asked my own priest about personally sharing St. Isaac’s view of universalism and yet remaining a faithful Orthodox Christian, he pointed out that I was free to hold it as a “pious opinion” but should not tell people that the Church as a whole teaches it. I think that is right. I can’t argue that the Church has taught that position or even that it constitutes anything close to a majority view, but as a minority view it has a solid following among some of the most highly regarded saints of the Church and I certainly wouldn’t accept the view that you can’t be an Orthodox Christian and hold to universalism if someone tried to draw that line in the sand. In fact, I think it would be a good thing if the Church did teach it’s members that it is right and proper to hope and pray for the salvation of all regardless of whether it will happen. I can’t see how a person could object to that approach unless he is somehow banking on the damnation of others.

        Like

      • PJ says:

        I don’t think the struggle to produce exact Trinitarian and Christological formulae is really comparable to this matter. If universal salvation is the case, then the Church has, by and large, been terribly, horribly wrong on one of the most fundamental issues of the faith for nearly two millennia. Indeed, it has been guilty of outright blasphemy at the highest levels. I cannot accept that. Maybe this speaks to a personal weakness in my character, a certain lack of faith. I don’t know.

        But I appreciate your frankness and forthrightness, Father. Thank you for your thoughtful words. I’m going to try to listen and read for a while, since I think my small store of wisdom has been exhausted on this matter. God bless.

        Like

  23. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Fr Ted has made available a compilation of patristic and contemporary Orthodox testimonies on hell. He just needs to add in some of the material from St Isaac that I have provided in this series.

    Like

  24. syrian88 says:

    The passages that Fr. Aidan has quoted above are the reason I took the name Isaac at my baptism into Orthodoxy and why I feel such a close affinity with this particular saint of the Church. I understand all of the objections to what St. Isaac wrote in the Second Part, but what I understand less is the many reactions to his writings that express anger and disappointment that what he wrote may actually be true (and I don’t particularly mean this thread, but rather other discussions at other times and places).

    Like

  25. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Looking again through this thread, I realize I may have given the impression that I do not believe that the New Testament can be reasonably interpreted to support the universalist position of St Isaac. In fact, I do think this is the case; but given that I am not a biblical scholar and do not read biblical Greek, I am reluctant to jump into that part of the debate on this blog. But for those of you who are interested in researching the matter, I offer the following recommendations:

    1) “Universalism and the Bible by Keith DeRose. Dr DeRose is not a biblical scholar. He teaches philosophy at Yale. He pulled this paper together for an adult Bible study class. It’s an accessible introduction to some of the key passages.

    2) The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald. “Gregory MacDonald” is actually a pseudonym. The author’s real name is Robin Parry, and he is a trained biblical scholar.

    3) The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott. Talbott is a philosopher, too; but he also discusses the Bible at some length in his book. Talbott and St Isaac share a lot in common in their understanding of love as God’s primary attribute.

    Anyway, this should get those started who want to pursue this part of the debate. But as I said above, the Bible reads differently when one reads it through a hermeneutic of love, i.e., through Christ.

    Like

  26. infanttheology says:

    Father Kimel,

    Could you speak briefly to how you think this view of hell might affect the way we talk about God’s law and its ongoing role in the life of the world?

    It seems to me that if a person takes this view, they could adopt all manner of liberal views regarding God’s expectations in this world. Why worry about this or that unrepentant sin? Why worry about any urgency at all in “winning back the brother”? (I Cor. 5) Eventually, after all, we can rest assured that they will make it. I can see all manner of reasons arising out of this that would justify inaction and completely non-confrontational approaches to life.

    I know we are new creatures in Christ who, at some level, want what is really the best and most healthy for our brothers and sisters. That said, there is also the temptation to keep quiet, to mind one’s own business… and to avoid uncomfortable confrontation. That would be old Adam.

    Even if persons holding views like Isaac’s on hell don’t say “don’t worry about this – how can you be sure that you are interpreting that rightly when you say [pick the sin the world wants to accept] is sin?”, it remains the fact that those who do think such things will find an ally in St. Isaac for their more liberalizing and libertine agendas.

    Is there a question of wisdom here as well? Even if Isaac were – crazy to say? – right?

    +Nathan

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Nathan, doesn’t St Paul address this in Romans: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom 6:1-2).

      I believe that when we are preaching the grace of God properly, in all of its Pauline radicality, folks will immediately raise the specter of antinomianism (and if they never raise this specter, that probably means we are not preaching grace properly). Note that Paul refuses to address the antinomian objection on the objector’s terms.

      However we want to construe the place of “the Law” within the eschatological existence of the Church (and I honestly do not know what the Orthodox view is on this–perhaps someone can inform me), it seems to me that what you are suggesting is that humanity needs to be constantly presented with the threat of eternal damnation in order to be persuaded to be virtuous and good. Love and hope are not enough. Rebirth in the Spirit is not enough.

      I want to argue that life in the Church, which must be understood as the proleptic experience of the Kingdom, must not be understood in this way. We cannot terrorize people into the Kingdom.

      This is not to say that I never preach judgment. When we are confronted with the gospel, we are confronted with an eschatological either/or–God or self, heaven or hell. We each know the possibility of hell within ourselves. God summons us to choose. This, I think, is the point of those parables of Jesus that seem to leave us in the outer darkness with the wailing and gnashing of teeth. But ultimately, I firmly believe that it is the good news of Christ’s resurrection and his victory over death and sin … and hell … that transforms people’s lives and opens up virtuous, Spirit-filled living.

      Although he would reject the universalism of St Isaac (and he probably wasn’t even aware of it when he delivered the lecture), Alexandre Kalomiros raises some important criticisms of classical Western presentations of God and hell in his article “The River of Fire.” Unfortunately, he appears to have been unaware of the changes that were happening in both Catholicism and Reformation Protestantism.

      Like

      • infanttheology says:

        Father Kimel,

        “I firmly believe that it is the good news of Christ’s resurrection and his victory over death and sin … and hell … that transforms people’s lives and opens up virtuous, Spirit-filled living.”

        Yes. Amen.

        “…it seems to me that what you are suggesting is that humanity needs to be constantly presented with the threat of eternal damnation in order to be persuaded to be virtuous and good. Love and hope are not enough. Rebirth in the Spirit is not enough.”

        Not sure how you conclude this from what I wrote. Seems like a leap to me. Perhaps you’d like to help me see how you got from what I wrote to what you said. I urge others to re-read what I wrote.

        The only thing that can begin to create true goodness in our hearts is the Gospel of Jesus Christ narrowly understood – His blood and righteousness for poor sinners.

        +Nathan

        Like

        • dino says:

          We have a word for man’s response to Love rather than the Law in Greek, beloved of Elder Paisios “φιλότιμο” – meaning responding out of love, good will, gratitude, appreciation. It is similar to the patristic notion of moving from the state of a slave, and a mercenary to that of a Son…

          Like

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Nathan, looking back on what you wrote, I probably misinterpreted you. My apologies. i think I jumped to the conclusion that I did because of the way you connected Law and hell. In any case, I think the answer to your concern is in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

        Like

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Philotimo–I was not acquainted with this word. Thank you.

        Like

      • coffeezombie says:

        Dino,

        What you say reminds me of an icon I once saw of St. Anthony the Great. In this icon, he was holding an open scroll, on which were written the words, “I no longer fear God, but I love him.”

        Like

  27. Father Kimel,

    No problem. But it seems to trite in saying that, forgiveness flows like a river!

    I do think some of the questions I raised do need to be explored in much depth. Clearly Christ was not opposed to preaching about hell and judgment, regardless of whether it is eternal or not. But there is also this concern about the ongoing relevance of God’s Law in the life of the Christian – and the ease with which such a view of hell could be hi-jacked by those who have a vested interest in minimizing the import of God’s law for today. That is what I was trying to point out in my most recent comments.

    +Nathan

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Nathan, are you talking about the third use of the Law, as espoused by the Reformed? If I were a Lutheran, I would say, when you preach grace, preach grace; and when you preach law, preach law. Just don’t mix them up and conditionalize the gospel.

      We now live in the Spirit, in the Spirit of the Kingdom, in the Spirit of love and freedom. Thus St Augustine: “Love and do what you will.”

      Like

  28. Father Kimel,

    I certainly agree with all of that. But I still can’t see how that relates to my concerns. Do you think they aren’t really things we should be concerned about?

    What do others think?

    +Nathan

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Nathan, could you do me a favor? Would you mind listing your concerns, in order of priority, with a brief explanation for each. Clearly I am not understanding your rightly, and I’d like to take another stab at addressing your concerns. Thanks.

      Like

  29. “when you preach law, preach law….”

    Sounds good – but I think we all know that there are questions about what constitutes this law in many quarters. Maybe we could sum up my concerns this way: does the law of God – as it exists in the New Testament books (I am thinking 10 commandments, other moral commands and prohibitions) – have ongoing relevance in the life of the Christian or not? If not, why not? If so, why?

    And if it does have ongoing relevance, what would be the implications for the law’s status were Isaac’s view of hell were to be accepted more widely, if not by all?

    +Nathan

    Like

    • William says:

      Hi Nathan, I don’t want to add much to what Fr. Aidan said, but it seems to me that, in connection with the question you seem to be asking, it might help to reiterate one aspect of St. Isaac’s universalism that is highlighted by Met. Hilarion in his book. It’s that St. Isaac, while believing that all will be saved in the end, still maintains that Gehenna is a horrible experience whose sufferings no one would want to undergo, even if it is temporary. Of course, if something like Isaac’s universalist vision were somehow to suddenly become the norm in our current-day Christianity, it’s entirely possible (maybe likely) that many people might use the notion that “everyone’s going to be saved in the end, anyway” as a pretext for laxity concerning Christ’s commandments or concerning evangelization, thinking that such things don’t make much difference. However, those who thought this way would not really be sharing in St. Isaac’s vision. For St. Isaac, such things very much make a difference. First of all, as Fr. Aidan says, following Christ’s commandments deepens our sanctification and our union with Christ, and if we love him, then we want nothing more than this. But beyond this and other similar reasons, there is also the reason that even if it is temporary, Gehenna is still very real and still very horrible, and it would still behoove the sinner to do anything he could to avoid it. I doubt knowing that Gehenna were temporary would help anyone who is in the midst of it to “just grin and bear it.” (In any case, I believe St. Isaac says that those experiencing Gehenna really won’t have a sense that it is temporary as they are experiencing it.)

      On another topic, related to some of the other concerns expressed on this thread (not necessarily by you, Nathan) about St. Isaac’s teaching that Gehenna is temporary and how that compares with scriptural descriptions that at least seem to suggest that it is everlasting or never-ending: Perhaps this tension can be resolved somewhat by further consideration of what it means that the fire of Gehenna is the fire of God’s love (the view of St. Isaac and quite a few other saints and teachers). If this is so, then this fire is indeed eternal and everlasting. How it is experienced by a human being might not be. I’ve already written more than I intended, so I won’t try to elaborate, but perhaps this is useful thought-fodder for some.

      Like

      • dinoship says:

        The experience of Gehenna is in fact, exactly what you have said: an experience of never-ending despair (even if that lasts for 5 minutes).
        So is the experience of God’s Uncreated Light.
        Someone who has experienced both, as have many Saints of our times such as Saint Silouan the Athonite, obviously acquire a truly vast depth of experience and understanding after that…

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  30. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Nathan, I just clicked on your handle (I should have done so much earlier) and discovered you are a Lutheran. Are you also a Lutheran pastor or even a bishop? (I note the “+” before your name.)

    As a Lutheran I would think that you would especially appreciate my reference to Romans 6. Lutherans who strongly preach the unconditionality of grace (Jenson, Forde) are often accused of antinomianism–or at least are accused of opening up that door. Both Jenson and Forde’s response to the charge is the invocation of Romans 6: we are no longer the kind of creatures who would seek to exploit grace! We have died to sin!

    So let me ask this question: Why do you think that the unconditionality of grace underwrites a disregard for obedience to the will of God?

    If I have been baptized into the death of Christ and raised to new life in the Spirit, am I not now the kind of person who desires to obey the commandments of my heavenly Father? (I’m talking theoretically now. I’m certainly not thinking of myself. 🙂 )

    For purpose of this discussion, I think we can temporarily bracket the question of universal salvation and simply focus on the unconditionality of grace, because it seems to me that *this* is the “problem.” The fear is that by confessing the unconditionality of grace in all of its radicality we open the door to sin. Why not sin when I know that God will forgive me? Why follow the commandments and do good works if I am already justified by faith? What does your Lutheran faith say about this?

    I can think of a couple of reasons for Christians to follow the commandments:

    1) Because they express the good, both for ourselves and society, and because we now live in Christ, we desire to live in union with the good.

    2) Because choosing evil leads to painful consequences, both for ourselves and for society.

    3) Because following the commandments deepens our sanctification and our union with Christ.

    Why not do the good and live in the good when it’s so darn good for us?

    Why does the incentive to do the good diminish if I am assured that God’s love for me will not diminish one iota? Why does the incentive to do the good in this life diminish if I am assured that if I should turn my back on God in this life he will ultimately restore me to himself in the next, though perhaps not without great suffering?

    I do not know if I have adequately addressed your concerns, but I suppose this is the best I can do at the moment. I’m sure others can do better. Thanks for the dialogue and good questions.

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  31. Father Kimel,

    I am a theologically educated layman who teaches theology on an adjunct basis (see my “About” for more). I am the same Lutheran Nathan who interacted with you a lot about justification when you were doing your Pontifications blog.

    This helps a lot. You have done much to counter any of the lingering doubts I had about your own view of God’s law. I like to say, “the law of God describes that objective form of life wherein (not whereby) our relationships with God and neighbor are nourished and are brought to fulfillment” and it sounds like you want to say something very similar.

    Further, am I right to think that you would also say that faith lives in repentance and that all unrepentant sin should concern us? Even so, as regards our own souls and those of others, this particular statement and corresponding evaluation of persons would seem to be far less critical if Isaac’s view is adopted – attempting to look at the matter “objectively”, that is. That said, would you say that is perhaps a problem with the way I am approaching things – trying to talk about things “objectively” in the first place…? (you’ll note I did that in my statement about the law as well) Or no?

    This is why I am concerned about others hijacking this “pious opinion” (teaching?!). There are many persons who seem to know what the Bible says and who seem to have a spiritual life involving some “Christ” at least that is important to them. And yet, they are emphatic about not putting a “period where God has put a comma” and change the morality that the New Testament clearly attests to. If we do not talk about these things “objectively” (some things outside of us are true for all of us) – using the Scriptures as an anchor – I think this will inevitably confuse and cause many to shipwreck their faith.

    For it seems to me that both Paul and Jude are right. Grace is a scandal (Romans 6) but to assert that this scandal is good and ultimately beautiful does not mean that some will not use the concept of grace (something they don’t understand very well if they do in fact have any true faith at all) as a license for evil and abuse (Jude 1).

    Would you at least say that the Holy Spirit’s witness is in line with the words of the Scriptures – which is one of those “objective” anchors by which the Church is kept in the faith once delivered to all the saints? I know that we can’t not interpret the Scriptures and that you do not want to say that the church changes the interpretation of the Scriptures as it sees fit. But how do we keep the emphasis on the fact that first and foremost the Holy Spirit uses God’s words in the Scriptures to interpret us?

    I know I bring up all kinds of issues here, but they all seem related.

    +Nathan

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  32. Karen says:

    Father and Nathan,

    I agree that our trouble with unconditional grace and our trouble with the hope/possibility of universal salvation are intimately connected and that if we have trouble with universal salvation (as a possibility) we likely have also not fully accepted the unconditionality, the very nature, of grace.

    I’ve given some thought, too, as I suppose we all have, to the questions Nathan raises about if unconditional grace and if even universal salvation, then what is to convince the unrepentant that they need to repent in this life?

    A tentative answer or at least some thoughts that I have are:

    1. Love its own reward (immediate in the depths of the union we experience with Christ in our hearts and at least also ultimately in terms of the consequences of grace overflowing to others–transfiguring even our circumstances and those around us).

    2. Sin is its own punishment. Sin’s destructive consequences in their fullness and consummation can also be deferred, but I’m thinking how much easier it often is to convince a street bum (alcoholic, prostitute, etc.) of their need for God than a religious and “moral” sinner. Street bum type sinners know the misery they feel in their degradation and the obvious havoc that has been wreaked on their own lives by their sin and that of others against them (especially of the religious hypocritical variety). The reason such sinners stay in their degradation is often only because they cannot believe in grace (not because they don’t believe in hell).

    3. The only really effective witness for the intrinsic necessity and good of full Christian repentance are the Saints–especially those living among us, who overflow with the grace of the Holy Spirit. Their very presence and reality (think of those encountered in the Romanian prisons, in Stalin’s gulags, etc.), is a powerful convincing proof of the intrinsic good of repentance even to the unrepentant. The love of Christ presented in all its humility and purity is a powerful attraction to repentance: it also is an immediate and powerful proof of the intrinsic evil of one’s own debasement by sin.

    4. Guilt and fear have shown themselves to have a very poor capability for creating or sustaining our capacity for embracing grace. They can only change our outward behavior (our performance) and that only for as long as the threat subsists or is convincing. Fear can induce a desired performance quite quickly and easily in terms of this outward change, and that is why I believe a lot of Christians are convinced the fear of hell is necessary to Christian repentance. So many people who believe in the threat of hell as it is so often preached in Christendom will start to incorporate all the outward forms of a Christian and moral life, and if at any point they become convinced that God or hell does not exist as these have been preached to them (either via rational argument or the discovery of the falsehood of someone else’s life or witness), they fall away. Those who remain or continue to hang around are those who begin to encounter grace through a fellow believer or the Scriptures and consequently to hope in the love of God.

    I wonder if it would be true to say that to the extent that such believers encounter grace is the extent to which they will have trouble with the image of the punishing, wrathful God and the arbitrary seeming notion of sin’s punishment in eternity having an “everlasting” quality in the same sense as God Himself in His love (even though their sin could only ever have been finite in its own reality).

    The better we get to know Christ, the more we realize it seems to me that those who are rejecting “God” are often rejecting something other than the Christ we have begun to truly encounter–and that they really are rejecting distortions of Christian teaching. I have difficulty seeing such rejections as rejections of God Himself at all and so I have hope even for such people (especially as they have a capacity for personal integrity and compassion for others) that they will be found repentant in the eyes of God Himself on the day of judgment.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Excellent, Karen. So much better said than I could ever have written. Thanks!

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      • dino says:

        Karen,
        very, very well said!
        Especially the last paragraph…!
        I have this truth ringing in my head: “The love of Christ presented in all its humility and purity [is the most] powerful attraction to [genuine] repentance”

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    • mary benton says:

      I agree, “well said”, Karen,

      I also was reflecting on my own blog that it is not so easy to accept God’s love as completely free and unconditional. (One would think it would be a great relief to be “off the hook” for all of our wrongdoings.) However, if it is unconditional for me, it must be unconditional for everyone and that can be very hard to swallow – unconditional for Hitler? child molesters? or people who have hurt me? I don’t think that we can really accept God’s love without the repentance that allows us to be changed by it.

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  33. All,

    If the questions about the Scriptures are not to be discussed, I may be done here… don’t know (no time now)

    …but I just wanted to say that Karen has brought up many many things I will say “Amen” to.

    +Nathan

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Nathan, I know you are eager to do some hard-core biblical exegesis and to discuss the tough passages. May I suggest that you visit the Evangelical Universalist forum. They have a number of people there who really know their Greek New Testament and will be happy to analyze with you the details of Holy Scripture. I know you’ll find it interesting and perhaps helpful.

      I didn’t mean to put the kabosh on all discussion of Holy Scripture. I’m sure there are people here who’d be happy to discuss specific texts with you.

      I do now remember you from the old Pontifications blog. I glad you discovered Eclectic Orthodoxy.

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  34. Karen says:

    Fr. Aidan writes: “So much better said than I could ever have written.”

    Not at all true, but very nice that you thought so!

    Thanks, all, for the kind affirmations. No thought I present in a comment is ever original with me, but I’m always thankful when I can pull some things together that I am learning and articulate them in a way that is helpful to others. I’m grateful for the numerous folks (you among them) who have done that for me. Glory to God.

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  35. Father Kimel,

    I will try to make time to look more closely at the arguments of those arguing against eternal punishment via the historical-grammatical method, as you have said. That said, I have already read several articles and monographs on the topic throughout my Christian life. I have always come away thinking that those pressing for annihilationism or what not from the texts that their arguments have been very weak and forced.

    After reflecting on this more here is what I am thinking right now:

    I think that we need to cling to the Word of God and what seems clear to us. I know that in our ecumenical age, no one likes to speak in this way, but in my spirit I feel compelled to urge – and even warn – you to do the same.

    Wisdom is indeed vindicated by her children, but I believe that the life that is the holiest life may not always look this way to the world or even to many true believers in the Lord’s Church. In any case where do we turn when holy and wise teachers of the church – whose visible love for Christ and His creatures seems undeniable – contradict one another on an issue like this? What do we do when those men and women whom in their speech of Christ and outward actions of love seem quite saintly start to talk about the possibility that the church was wrong about “committed” homosexual relationships as well?

    This way does not end well, I think (and feel).

    I know that several weeks you quoted Saint Gregory talking about how the spirit of Scripture trumps the letter of Scripture, but here is where I believe I must cover his error. The reason that the Scriptures may not be interpreted in multiple ways regarding something like the Trinity is not because the “letter” cannot be clear to sinful man, but because sinful man – even the sinner that remains in those who truly believe (old Adam) – has a vested interest in not only undermining the clear words of Scripture, but the tradition of the true rule of faith that always goes hand in hand with Scripture. No – I think Saint Gregory did not realize how the Lord actually brought Him to see the truth of the matter – through the Spirit’s revealing to Him what the Word said and meant (this was clear even in the quotes from Gregory you provided, which were packed with Scriptural allusions and references).

    There must be room for the Spirit to interpret us vis the Word of God. And I believe that God gave us the Scriptures in part to safeguard the Apostolic deposit and that they are clear in the things that we need to know for forgiveness, life and salvation in Christ. I think it safer and wiser to trust in His word in a face-value way – even if this seems “ham-fisted” some… perhaps to be like a very simple child. Some will see my approach as childish, and not child-like to be sure.

    May the Lord have mercy on us all, and especially me. May any stubbornness on my part only be from Him.

    +Nathan

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    • dino says:

      Nathan,
      I very much sympathize with your concerns regarding the abuse of Scriptural exegesis, they are indeed very valid however, I also realize that there is something higher than Scripture: the Holy Spirit Himself… What I mean to say is that even though many a person will err when using their own noetic faculty and intellect to explain Scripture, there are Saints that will understand beyond Scripture. They won’t be contradicting it of course, but this is not because Scripture is the Word of God, no… but because it is Christ that is the Word of God -partially revealed in Scripture- and they ‘know’ Him in the Spirit.
      Words belong to the created order, the beholders of the Uncreated Light have beheld the Uncreated order… In the classic patristic 3 stages of “Purification, Illumination, Glorification” they have reached the last stage, the stage at which all Scripture (as in the Kingdom of Heaven) is superseded in the presence of the Living Divine Logos Himself.
      So, although we might fall into error while in the two first stages, while one beholds the Uncreated God, they might say things (concerning God’s eternal dispensation for instance) that hold a very different kind of genuine authority…

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      • Karen says:

        Dino, your comment brings to mind this passage from St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:

        8 Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.

        11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

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      • dino,

        And how do we know Isaac reached that stage? How do those who have not reached those higher stages discern which “higher stage” person to listen to?

        “They won’t be contradicting it of course, but this is not because Scripture is the Word of God, no… but because it is Christ that is the Word of God -partially revealed in Scripture- and they ‘know’ Him in the Spirit.”

        Why either/or? I do not believe that this is what the church has historically said.

        +Nathan

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        • dino says:

          Nathan,
          It is not “either/or”, rather it is both. The importance of the Spirit comes first though.

          Karen I agree completely:
          “when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away”.
          In the majority of Lutheran strands the Bible has become the only authority – even judging, ‘correcting’ the Church through the Bible became the norm, which in the early centuries would obviously be seen as the wrong way round, and is unheard of in Orthodoxy. Reading Scripture outside the Church is like having Holy Communion outside of it…. The Scriptures -when they eventually were decided upon by the Mother Church- were never “independent” exerting authority over everything else as they have come to do in the post Reformation west. Nor were they ever considered clear read independently, rather they were considered “dangerous”.
          Inspired by the Spirit, Scripture is written by, written for, written to, as well as read by the Church, without the Church they lose their particular meaning, and become a kind of ‘Christian Koran’ (referred to by Protestants as “the word of God”). Considering that Scriptures reveal to us Jesus Christ the Word of God, misinterpreting Scripture itself for the word of God verges on a kind of blasphemy. Jesus is the Word of God and not Scripture.
          “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me” (John 5:39)
          Only God in Christ through the Holy Spirit can “open to us the scriptures” (Luke 24:32), and then through Christ, through Love Himself, we might interpret them, not in some out of context “objective” fashion, but, within the context of the Church.
          There is more than what is recorded in Scripture written in the hearts of the Saints, Saint Mary the Egyptian never read a single word of Scripture whether in her former life or for the over 40 years in the desert, yet, she knew Scripture by heart when at the last days of her life she talked to Saint Zosimas.

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    • Karen says:

      Nathan, I hadn’t actually read your comment here when I posted my response to Dino’s comment below, but I do find it apropos also to your concerns. Even the Apostolic witness testifies that “prophecy” (Spirit-inspired human language, whether oral or written) is only a partial and incomplete revelation of the Truth, which, of course, we know is Christ Himself (John 14:6). The whole purpose of the Scriptures and the sacramental and spiritual disciplines given to the Church is to lead us to this real encounter with Christ Himself by the Holy Spirit in greater and greater fullness, which utterly transfigures us from the inside out. Only to the extent that we have that intimate connection with Christ can we truly understand the intent of the Scriptures and the depth of what is implied in their teaching.

      That said, I do accept your concern not to go against what seems clear to you from Scripture. It seems to me the whole issue in Romans 14 is applicable in this area as well. We are all at different places in our understanding, and the Orthodox approach to these questions is not the modern liberal approach, though it may sometimes look that way from the outside. (Perhaps this would become clearer to you if you were to become more familiar with Orthodox elders and ascetics themselves who most fully embody the Orthodox mindset. Their very lives are letters to us written by the Holy Spirit that speak more powerfully than any simply verbal word could of the nature and reality of Christ and our salvation in Him. These are men–and women–filled with the knowledge of the Scriptures and of Christ. The very fact that they are ascetics, as St. Isaac was, should tell you that there is something fundamentally different in the Orthodox approach to the exegesis of the Scriptures than that of modern liberal Christianity!)

      I would encourage you to be open to the Holy Spirit showing you things from the Scriptures and His work in your own heart that might change how you understand or approach some of the teachings of the Scriptures, but in the meantime, it isn’t a good idea to glibly ignore what your conscience allows.

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      • Karen,

        Thank you for your good words. Can a married person be an ascetic?

        “the Apostolic witness testifies that “prophecy” (Spirit-inspired human language, whether oral or written) is only a partial and incomplete revelation of the Truth, which, of course, we know is Christ Himself”

        Can you tell me more specifically what you have in mind here? My point above was only that Scripture was the word of God – not that this “written tradition” is the only one.

        +Nathan

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  36. Karen says:

    Thanks, Nathan.

    Can a married person be ascetic? Most certainly! This is the very meaning of the crowning part of the wedding service in Orthodoxy (crowns are for martyrs). Christian marriage, like monasticism, is a living holy “martyrdom” where husband and wife are called to give of themselves sacrificially in love for their spouse to the glory of Christ. It is simply another arena where we work out our salvation in such a way in fear and trembling. Also, traditionally in Orthodoxy the Orthodox family is considered the smallest unit of “Church,” and as such Orthodox families traditionally engage in all the spiritual disciplines of the Church together, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, etc., even in the setting of their own home. Children normally attend the Liturgy and prayer services of the Church together with their parents. They aren’t typically shuffled off to a “children’s church” service or Sunday school during those times.

    Certainly, the Christian Scriptures are the word of God in some unique sense, but Orthodox are not “Sola Scriptura” adherents in a manner in which we believe the Scriptures (or even the traditions of the Fathers) can be understood simply by some sort of historical-critical analysis of their texts and can be held to be authoritative in this manner. Only Christ Himself is the Word of God in the fullest sense, and only an immersion in His Life can yield (progressively) a full and proper understanding of the Scriptures (and the Orthodox Fathers). Also, the letter of the Scriptures, in and of itself, effectively is not the word of God in any presumably “plain sense” someone may choose to interpret or apply them. Consider how the letter of the Scriptures can be used against believers (Christ’s temptation comes to mind) and how many modern atheists understand and use the Christian Scriptures to discredit what they understand of Christian faith. Consider how so many of the Scribes and Pharisees of Christ’s day, though immersed in the study of the letter of the Scriptures out of supposed reverence for them as the very word of God, missed and rejected the very Author and embodiment of the Truth found in the Scriptures when He was walking among them. Fr. Stephen addresses this sort of thing on his blog quite regularly and this post comes to mind:

    http://glory2godforallthings.com/2012/10/09/how-the-church-reads-the-church/

    And this post from Fr. Andrew Damick might also be of interest:

    http://orthodoxyandheterodoxy.org/2012/08/14/using-the-bible-against-christians-sola-scriptura-atheism/

    Hope this is helpful.

    Please, Father Aidan, chime in if I’ve misrepresented the Orthodox understanding.

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    • Karen,

      Thank you. Yes, its coming back to me now. I like what you say about EO asceticism. I did a post years ago about what would be a valid Lutheran monastic approach and it tracks closely with what you have said here.

      “but Orthodox are not “Sola Scriptura” adherents in a manner in which we believe the Scriptures (or even the traditions of the Fathers) can be understood simply by some sort of historical-critical analysis of their texts and can be held to be authoritative in this manner.”

      …actually, Lutherans are not this historically either, even if we do believe there are times when the Scriptures need to have the final word so to speak. But even then, not through “some sort of historical-critical analysis of their texts” but with the true rule of faith. That said, we also tend to think that while the Scriptures are clear enough so that a genuinely curious atheist could discern their main message (on a careful reading), he could not, for example, produce by himself the theological content of the Lutheran Book of Concord – determining what is essential and non-essential doctrine cannot be done satisfactorily without the true rule of faith (Acts 8 – teachers to guide).

      Yes Father – I know this post is not about Lutheranism. No more from me on that!

      +Nathan

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      • Karen says:

        Thanks, Nathan.

        My frame of reference and background is broadly Evangelical. I’m not familiar with the particulars of Lutheran theology, so, of course, I can’t speak to any of that. I know there are some Orthodox Priests who are converts from Lutheran faith and they might be worth tracking down to ask questions for more clear contrast and comparison between Lutheran and Orthodox views. You may have read that Jarislov Pelikan finally made the leap from being a Lutheran (in his case, scholar) to Orthodox. I have read many who say it is a much less radical leap in many ways from a Lutheran (particularly a conservative Lutheran) faith and a conservative Anglican faith to full Orthodoxy than for someone like me from a Methodist and then Anabaptist-influenced traditions.

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  37. Karen,

    Yes, I have talked with them. Thanks again for the conversation.

    +Nathan

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  38. Pingback: Should Christians be a “People of the Book”?: a response to Father Stephen Freeman | theology like a child

  39. infanttheology says:

    Father Kimel,

    This conversation – as well as one at Father Freeman’s blog (perhaps influenced by this discussion?) – has prompted a post of my own. You are mentioned there near the end.

    In Christ,
    Nathan

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  40. Pingback: Re-Blog: Reading the Real Bible and Notes on the Real Hell | Everywhere Present Filling All Things

  41. Juan Carlos Torres says:

    Reblogged this on Jesus, Image of the Invisible God.

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  42. Reblogged this on The Ladder to the Paradise of God and commented:
    Here is a fascinating post on astoundingly profound eschatological vision of one of the great saints of the early Church: Saint Isaac the Syrian (also known as Saint Isaac of Nineveh)

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