Finding the God who is Love

The love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for human beings is unconditional. This fundamental truth of the gospel bears repeating. It bears repeating because we Christians, clergy and laity, seem to forget it so easily. Yes, we know all the words—“God is love,” “Christ died for the ungodly,” “This is my body which is broken for you,” “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed”—and we can recite from heart the parables of the prodigal son, the shepherd and the lost sheep, the woman and the lost coin, as well as the stories of Jesus and the paralytic and of the woman caught in adultery—yet for whatever reasons we seem to prefer a different narrative. It goes something like this:

God is angry with us, and he’s been angry with us since the day we were born. But if we repent of our sins, he will change his mind, forgive us, and give us eternal life, as long as we continue to believe in him and avoid mortal sins. But we need to be careful, because if we trip up, God will turn on us at a moment’s notice.

Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants tell different versions of the story; but the popular narrative remains constant: God is a God of conditional love. If we fulfill the conditions he specifies, he will be to us loving and merciful; if we do not, he will be to us wrathful and punishing. God is Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Which one we meet depends on our performance.

And so I repeat the fundamental truth of the gospel: the love of God for human beings is unconditional. God does not love us because of anything we have done. He does not love us because we are virtuous or obedient or kind; nor does he cease to love us when we fail to love as we should or when we disobey his commandments. He does not cease to love us even when we commit evil. God’s love for us is unconditional, unmerited, unqualified, unreserved, absolute, immutable. We cannot earn it, no matter how hard we try; we cannot lose it, no matter how hard we try. God does not change his mind. He is eternally and hopelessly in love with the creatures he made in his image.

The Dominican theologian, Fr Herbert McCabe, rejoiced in the unconditional love of God and loved to preach and write on it. “It is very odd,” McCabe writes, “that people should think that when we do good God will reward us and when we do evil he will punish us. I mean it is very odd that Christians should think this, that God deals out to us what we deserve. … I don’t believe in God if that’s what he is, and it is very odd that any Christian should, since there is so much in the gospels to tell us differently. You could say that the main theme of the preaching of Jesus is that God isn’t like that at all” (God, Christ and Us, p. 11).

Look at the parable of the prodigal son. The younger son takes his inheritance and squanders it in a far country. Eventually he finds himself impoverished and hungry. In despair he acknowledges how his sin has altered his relationship to his father: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.” But what precisely has changed? Has the father ceased to love his son? Has he become the angry patriarch the son now fears him to be? On the contrary, the father has been waiting for his son to return, and upon seeing him in the distance, he jubilantly rushes to greet and welcome him home. No, what has changed is the son. Because of his sin, the prodigal is no longer capable of seeing the father as he really is. As McCabe explains: “Sin is something that changes God into a projection of our guilt, so that we don’t see the real God at all; all we see is some kind of judge. God (the whole meaning and purpose and point of our existence) has become a condemnation of us. God has been turned into Satan, the accuser of man, the paymaster, the one who weighs our deeds and condemns us” (Faith Within Reason, pp. 155-156).

The father does not need to be persuaded to forgive and welcome his son. He does not need to change his mind. He loves his son. That is his truth. All the son needs to do is to see his sin for what it is and acknowledge himself as a sinner—and at that moment he ceases to be one. His contrition is forgiveness. All the rest is celebration and feasting: “This is all the real God ever does, because God, the real God, is just helplessly and hopelessly in love with us. He is unconditionally in love with us” (Faith Within Reason, p. 156).

God doesn’t change his mind about us, McCabe declares; God changes our mind about him—again and again and again. McCabe is direct and pointed:

His love for us doesn’t depend on what we do or what we are like. He doesn’t care whether we are sinners or not. It makes no difference to him. He is just waiting to welcome us with joy and love. Sin doesn’t alter God’s attitude to us; it alters our attitude to him, so that we change him from the God who is simply love and nothing else, into this punitive ogre, this Satan. Sin matters enormously to us if we are sinners; it doesn’t matter at all to God. In a fairly literal sense he doesn’t give a damn about our sin. It is we who give the damns. We damn ourselves because we would rather justify ourselves, than be taken out of ourselves by the infinite love of God. (Faith Within Reason, p. 157)

I was more than a tad shocked when I first read these words. How can our sin not make a difference to God? If we could ask Fr McCabe this question, I think he would remind us precisely who and what God is. God is not a being within the universe; he is not a part of the world; he is not a god. He is the infinite mystery who utterly transcends the world he has made. The world makes no literal difference to God. This is what we mean when we say that God created the world ex nihilo, out of nothing. He did not have to create the universe, and if he had chosen not to, his glory and being would not have been diminished one whit. God plus the world is not greater than God alone. The world does not add anything to God; it does not change or affect God. Ultimately it does not make a difference to God. God is God, in infinite glory, majesty, and love. Robert Sokolowski describes this as the “Christian distinction”:

In the distinctions that occur normally within the setting of the world, each term distinguished is what it is precisely by not being that which it is distinguishable from. Its being is established partially by its otherness, and therefore its being depends on its distinction from others. But in the Christian distinction God is understood as “being” God entirely apart from any relation of otherness to the world or to the whole. God could and would be God even if there were no world. Thus the Christian distinction is appreciated as a distinction that did not have to be, even though it in fact is. The most fundamental thing we come to in Christianity, the distinction between the world and God, is appreciated as not being the most fundamental thing after all, because one of the terms of the distinction, God, is more fundamental than the distinction itself. (The God of Faith and Reason, pp. 32-33).

Pagan philosophers could not envision the Deity as utterly transcendent of the world he has freely made and might never have made. The creatio ex nihilo was incomprehensible to them. This understanding was forced upon the Church by divine revelation. To emphasize the radical transcendence of the Creator, the Byzantine tradition speaks of God as “beyond being” and “beyond divinity.”

Once we understand the Christian distinction between God and the world, we are then positioned to discern the limitations and anthropomorphism of the stories we tell about God and his people. Stories we must tell if we are to proclaim the gospel, for God presents himself to us by story, as story; yet the metaphorical nature of these stories must be recognized, if the Christian distinction is to be respected. God is not an object within the cosmos.

Christians proclaim the forgiveness of God; but what precisely do we mean when we say that God forgives us? In human relations we forgive someone who has offended us. Offense is something deeper than injury. If someone injures us accidentally, we may deserve compensation but we do not require an apology. But if someone offends us, if someone attacks and harms us, then apology, and perhaps much much more than apology, is needed. Only forgiveness will suffice, if both parties are to be healed and relationship restored. It is necessary for the offender to abase himself and offer atonement; it is necessary for the offended to surrender his right to vengeance and to forgive. Only thus can both offender and offended be healed and recreated.

The language of offense, atonement, and forgiveness has been appropriately transferred to the relations between God and man. “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love”—so begins a traditional Latin form of the act of contrition. Similarly, a preparatory prayer for communion composed by St John Chrysostom begins: “O Lord my God, I know that I am not worthy nor sufficiently pleasing that Thou shouldst come under the roof of the house of my soul, for it is entirely desolate and fallen in ruin.” It is vitally important for us to speak words like this to God; but it is equally important to recognize the figurative nature of this language. McCabe elaborates:

God, of course, is not injured or insulted or threatened by our sin. So, when we speak of him forgiving, we are using the word “forgiving” in a rather stretched way, a rather far-fetched way. We speak of God forgiving not because he is really offended but accepts our apology or agrees to overlook the insult. What God is doing is like forgiveness not because of anything that happens in God, but because of what happens in us, because of the re-creative and redemptive side of forgiveness. All the insult and injury we do in sinning is to ourselves alone, not to God. We speak of God forgiving us because he comes to us to save us from ourselves, to restore us after we have injured ourselves, to redeem and re-create us.

We can forgive enemies even though they do not apologize and are not contrite. But such forgiveness … does not help them, does not re-create them. In such forgiveness we are changed, we change from being vengeful to being forgiving, but our enemy does not change. When it comes to God, however, it would make no sense to say he forgives the sinner without the sinner being contrite. For God’s forgiveness just means the change he brings about in the sinner, the sorrow and repentance he gives to the sinner. God’s forgiveness does not mean that God changes from being vengeful to being forgiving, God’s forgiveness does not mean any change whatever in God. It just means the change in the sinner that God’s unwavering and eternal love brings about. … Our repentance is God’s forgiveness of us. (God, Christ and Us, pp. 121-122)

The language of faith is filled with conflicting images of God—the image of the wrathful God who hates our sin, who requires propitiation and appeasement; the image of the God who endures our iniquities, who is long-suffering and abounding in mercy; the God who punishes the wicked; the God who forgives the penitent. These conflicting images are helpful, necessary, and unavoidable. But it is also necessary, says McCabe, for us to think clearly:

The initiative is always with God. When God forgives our sin, he is not changing his mind about us; he is changing our mind about him. He does not change; his mind is never anything but loving; he is love. The forgiveness of God is God’s creative and re-creative love making the desert bloom again, bringing us back from dry sterility to the rich luxuriant life bursting out all over the place. When God changes your mind in this way, when he pours out on you his Spirit of new life, it is exhilarating, but it is also fairly painful. There is a trauma of rebirth as perhaps there is of birth. The exhilaration and the pain that belong to being reborn is what we call contrition, and this is the forgiveness of sin. Contrition is not anxious guilt about sin; it is the continual recognition in hope that the Spirit has come to me as healing my sin.

So it is not literally true that because we are sorry God decides to forgive us. That is a perfectly good story, but it is only a story. The literal truth is that we are sorry because God forgives us. Our sorrow for sin just is the forgiveness of God working within us. Contrition and forgiveness are just two names for the same thing, they are the gift of the Holy Spirit; the re-creative transforming act of God in us. God does not forgive us because of anything he finds in us; he forgives us out of his sheer delight, his exuberant joy in making the desert bloom. (God, Christ and Us, pp. 16-17)

McCabe’s emphasis on the priority of grace may strike some Orthodox readers as too Augustinian. What about synergism? Do we not still have to cooperate with God? And of course this is true. But too often the popular understanding of synergism forgets the divine transcendence and reduces God to a being within the world, as if God does the hard work, dragging us 90% of the way up the hill of salvation, but then drops us and leaves us to climb the rest of the way ourselves. God does his part, but now it’s up to us to do ours—faith and repentance is our autonomous work. But God is not a thing alongside us. He is our Creator and the transcendent source of our being and freedom. Divine grace does not compete with creaturely agency. As Met Kallistos Ware observes, “the inter-relationship between divine grace and human freedom remains always a mystery beyond our comprehension” (How Are We Saved?, p. 36). Faith is a gift and therefore always a surprise. In the midst of spiritual death we miraculously discover within ourselves the ability to call upon the Savior, “Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner!” As St John Cassian writes, “He puts into us the very beginnings of salvation” (Conf 13.18). As St Basil of Caesarea acknowledges, prayer and worship occur only in the Holy Spirit (On the Holy Spirit 18.47), citing the words of the Apostle Paul: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). “At every point,” Ware explains, “our human cooperation is itself the work of the Holy Spirit” (p. 43). The faith and repentance that restores us to our Father is his forgiveness of our sins.

The God of the gospel is not the Jekyll and Hyde of our nightmares. He is not a God we need to appease. He is not a God we need to persuade to forgive. He is not a God who puts conditions on his mercy and care. He is, rather, the Father who hurries to us in love, only in love, relentlessly and passionately in love.

(This article was originally published on my old blog Pontifications in January 2008. I have revised it for publication here on Eclectic Orthodoxy.)

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Grace, Justification & Theosis, McCabe & Turner and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

112 Responses to Finding the God who is Love

  1. PJ says:

    For some reason, this brings to mind a precious account of the Beloved Apostle, who in the last days of his life boiled the gospel down to one telling line:

    “The Blessed Evangelist John lived at Ephesus down to an extreme old age, and, at length, when he was with difficulty carried to the Church, and was not able to exhort the congregation at length, he was used simply to say at each meeting, My little children, love one another. At last the disciples and brethren were weary with hearing these words continually, and asked him, Master, wherefore ever sayest thou this only? Whereto he replied to them, worthy of John, It is the commandment of the Lord, and if this only be done, it is enough.”

    “If this only be done, it is enough…” Indeed.

    Interestingly, it is preserved by the irascible St. Jerome.

    Like

  2. PJ says:

    I would add, though, that it’s not without reason that people believe the “other narrative” you mention. Scripture is rife with images and ideas, magnified by some of the greatest Christians minds, that give form to this vision of a god of terrible holiness and uncompromising justice. Although I’m not a universalist, I’m closer to Isaac than Augustine in eschatological terms. Yet I think we need to be careful about dismissing this other vision: it is not without a sturdy foundation, even if it is ultimately incorrect. And many who embraced this vision were no strangers to mystical encounters with the Lord. Although I can’t fully accept St. Thomas’ account of the “last things,” I can’t deny that his life was shaped by resplendent encounters with the Living God. I must therefore give him a hearing, even when his conclusions make me uncomfortable. Do you see what I mean?

    Like

  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    PJ, of course you must continue to wrestled with these difficult, complex questions. I applaud you.

    Question: is it the unconditionality of grace that bothers you or universal salvation? One can affirm the former without affirming the latter.

    Like

  4. Edward says:

    I understand where PJ is coming from on this issue. I, like him, am closer to Isaac than to Augustine* (see comment at end) on questions of eschatology. But I can’t go all the way with Isaac in his teaching on universal salvation. The most I can muster up is a hope for the salvation of all a la Balthasar, and I find that even this hope is generally considered gravely erroneous, if not utterly heretical, by my Catholic brethren. Indeed, the majority position in the Catholic tradition, at least since the time of St. Augustine, has been that many more will be damned than saved. This teaching, which is shared by the FSSP priests at my parish and by a large percentage of the congregation, seems to do little but cause me bouts of sadness and despair. In fact, I remember last Easter when the Exsultet was sung at the Vigil and the “felix culpa” was proclaimed (“O happy fault of Adam that merited so great a Redeemer”). I couldn’t help but wonder what was so “happy” about the fault of Adam. Surely, if he had not sinned, mankind would not now be standing on the precipice of hell. Moreover, I kept wondering in what sense the Redeemer could be considered great if He could only redeem a very few out of the mass of mankind. Needless to say, I went home depressed on the one day of the year that should have been the most joyful.
    For all this, I can’t help but wonder if there is not something wrong with me. After all, many saints and mystics have believed in the salvation of the few and the damnation of the majority and have had no problem with this view. Is there something that I’m missing? I, like St. Isaac, wonder why God would create rational creatures knowing full well that the vast majority of them would end up in eternal misery. I cannot accept the Augustinian and Thomistic answer that this somehow shows forth God’s justice and redounds to His glory. The glory of God is, as St. Irenaeus asserts, “man fully alive.” Nevertheless, I remain unsure of myself. If holy men and women of God have believed in the salvation of the few without any qualms, perhaps I am the one who is in the wrong on this score. Perhaps I should not even allow myself to hope for the salvation of all.
    In any case, I do accept the Church’s teaching on hell, though I have many questions that seem to me, at least at the present time, to be unanswerable. Here are a few of them:
    1. If God commands us to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us, this can only be because, in doing so, we are imitating God. God loves His enemies and does good to them. How then is this compatible with the doctrine of an eternal hell, which, by all accounts, has no end other than the punishment of the sinner? If God willed the good of those who are in hell, then it would seem that he would use their suffering to bring about their good. But this is more in accord with St. Gregory’s universalism than with the more common doctrine of eternal misery.
    2. What are we to make of the constant teaching of the Old Testament that God’s wrath lasts only for a moment, but His love and mercy are forever? How is this compatible with the doctrine of hell?
    3. Why do we tell people to bring children into the world when we know full well that the vast majority of them will end up in hell? Indeed, it is often the same people who believe in the damnation of the many and the salvation of the few who are the most adamant that married couples should have as many children as possible. I don’t get this.
    4. In what sense can we say that the punishment of hell achieves justice? If justice were at any time achieved in hell, then the punishment would have done what it was intended to do and would thereby cease. The fact that the punishment is eternal means rather that, in the case of this particular sinner, no justice can be done.

    Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough. I struggle with these issues everyday. But all I can do is continue to pray and to offer sacrifices for the salvation of all.
    Ed

    *The Catholic historian of the early Church, Ilaria Ramelli, has just written a book entitled “The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis” in which, among other things, she argues that St. Augustine was a believer in universal salvation until he was confronted with the Pelagian heresy. She argues as well that his peculiar doctrines on hell and predestination arose due to the fact that he could not read Greek. Indeed, in Ms. Ramelli’s earlier book, “Terms for Eternity”, she argues that the word that is translated “eternal” in the New Testament (“aionios”) never means “everlasting” except when it is applied to God Himself.

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Welcome, Edward, to Eclectic Orthodoxy, and thank you for your good post. Clearly you have thought deeply about these matters. You write:

      But I can’t go all the way with Isaac in his teaching on universal salvation. The most I can muster up is a hope for the salvation of all a la Balthasar, and I find that even this hope is generally considered gravely erroneous, if not utterly heretical, by my Catholic brethren. Indeed, the majority position in the Catholic tradition, at least since the time of St. Augustine, has been that many more will be damned than saved. This teaching, which is shared by the FSSP priests at my parish and by a large percentage of the congregation, seems to do little but cause me bouts of sadness and despair.

      Is it actually the case that the Balthasarian hope is considered by most Catholic authorities as gravely erroneous? Based on my own reading of Catholic theology, I have to wonder if this is in fact accurate. See, e.g., John Sach’s article “Current Eschatology.” Karl Rahner, who was probably the most influential Catholic theologian in the 20th century, certainly was open to the hope for the salvation of all.

      But I know that a resurgence of *traditional* positions is taking place in some quarters in the Catholic Church. One of the decisive reasons I joined the Catholic Church was because of the Lutheran/Catholic agreement on justification. Only afterwards did I discover that many Catholic theologians judge that document as severely flawed and nonauthoritative. I was told by more than one that my views were “Lutheran” and not properly Catholic. And it is difficult to reconcile the Balthasarian hope with what appears to be the dogmatic position of the Catholic Church that the fundamental orientation of the human being is finalized at death. One has more latitude on these questions in the Orthodox Church.

      Like

      • Edward says:

        Hello Father Aidan,
        You wrote:
        “Is it actually the case that the Balthasarian hope is considered by most Catholic authorities as
        gravely erroneous? ”

        I don’t think the problem is with Catholic authorities so much as it is with your average traditional Catholic layperson. There are also a substantial number of more traditional Catholic priests who believe that a non-empty hell is a matter of dogma. One need only read some of the responses to Von Balthasar’s “Dare we Hope….” on the internet to see this. There is a book that has just come out, written by Ralph Martin, entitled “Will Many be Saved?” in which he argues that the universalism of theologians such as Von Balthasar and Rahner is responsible for the decline in evangelical and missionary fervor in the Catholic Church. Needless to say, this book is being pushed by a number of bishops and priests as a needed corrective to what is viewed as the optimism of Von Balthasar.

        “And it is difficult to reconcile the Balthasarian hope with what appears to be the dogmatic position of the Catholic Church that the fundamental orientation of the human being is finalized at death. One has more latitude on these questions in the Orthodox Church.”

        You are probably right about this. On the other hand, the Catholic doctrine of purgatory seems to me to hold some possibilities in this regard. Perhaps God, in His goodness, will ensure that no human being will leave this world in a state of wholesale rejection of the good. Perhaps God, as St. Edith Stein conjectures, will “outwit” even the most hardened of sinners and find an opening in his heart whereby grace can begin to do its work. To the extent that such individuals touched by grace remain attached to evil inclinations, they will require a more or less intense purification. That’s just an idea.
        Another thing to consider is the possibility that what seems to be a dogmatic position within Catholicism may not be. When Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the reunion of Orthodox and Catholic Churches, he always stated that no more should be required of the Orthodox than what was held in common in the first millennium. If this be so, it would seem that, in a future reunion of Orthodoxy and Catholicism, Orthodoxy would not be required to change its eschatology. What does this say then about the dogmatic status of some of the finer points of Catholic teaching? Perhaps many of these things are more theologoumena than dogma. But this is a matter to be dealt with by the Magisterium.

        Ed

        P.S.: I was very saddened to hear of your leaving the Catholic Church for Orthodoxy. At the same time, I have a difficult time believing that any of the Apostolic Churches are really divided from one another. I am reminded of Father Lev Gillet who, though he left the Catholic Church for Orthodoxy, never considered himself out of communion with Rome. Perhaps there is something to this. You are in my prayers Father.

        Like

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Thank you, Ed, for bringing to my attention Ralph Martin’s book. I had not heard about it, so I did an internet search and read some reviews, including Fr Barron’s column and Martin’s response. Given the kind of support the book seems to be generating, it certainly seems like the Rahner/Balthasar openness to universal salvation may have reached its peak and the Catholic Church will be swinging back more strongly toward a more conservative position. We shall see. I confess I am not surprised. I recall well the Oakes/Pickstick conversation on Balthasar in First Things seven years ago.

        I remember writing Fr Richard Neuhaus about Pope Benedict’s remarks in Spe salvi about the fewness of those going to hell. I thought this the weakest part of the encyclical. Assuming a classical formulation of damnation, can anyone dare to speculate, including the Pope? That one line didn’t make any sense to me then nor at the present. But having said that, St Isaac also thought that the number of those condemned to Gehenna would be a minority of mankind: “By this device of grace the majority of humankind will enter the Kingdom of heaven without the experience of Gehenna” (II.40.12). Of course, there’s a crucial difference: Pope Benedict believes that those who are damned are eternally damned, and St Isaac believes that those who are damned will ultimately be saved through purification.

        Martin’s principal concern appears to be the alleged conviction between evangelism and belief in eternal perdition: if we believe that God will ultimately save all, why evangelize? Is saving people from hell the primary reason the Church evangelizes? Is the good news defined by the necessity of an eternal and populated hell? Even just raising this question sends shivers down my spine.

        Like

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I think I’d like to add that the acceptance of an eternal hell becomes virtually incomprehensible to me if one believes, as I presume most Catholics do, in efficacious grace. If hell is indeed an eternal, populated reality, then that can only mean that God does not truly will the salvation of all–and this is not the God in whom I believe.

        Like

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Ed, you might find of interest this article by the Polish theologian, Fr Waclaw Hryniewicz. He is challenging the limits of the Latin dogmatic tradition, I know, and I imagine that the CDF would say that he goes too far; but still, it’s an interesting read: “Universal Salvation: Questions on Universal Soteriology.” Those who are attracted to St Isaac’s eschatology might find something of interest in it, too–particularly the sections titled “Biblical Universalism of Promise” and “Is God Helpless in the Face of the Gift of Freedom.”

        Like

  5. syrian88 says:

    What this comes down to is whether people believe that on some level God withholds salvation from some or many even though they themselves will it or if God remains forever open to repentance but we don’t know if everybody will choose to do so. I can understand the critique of universalism that argues that not all people will choose to be redeemed, but I don’t understand the one that basically argues that God has made it impossible for them to be redeemed at a certain point of no return because he is engaging in some kind of requital. I care less about what people believe about hell/Gehenna in terms of eschatology than I do what those beliefs say about the God they imagine they worship.

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “but I don’t understand the one that basically argues that God has made it impossible for them to be redeemed at a certain point of no return because he is engaging in some kind of requital.”

      Let me suggest perhaps a more likely scenario, in line with what I take to be the dominant understanding of damnation in both Catholicism and mainline Protestantism–namely, God has constructed humanity and the world in such a way that the choices we make in our finite lifespan effectively determine our eternal destiny. There are no further opportunities for change after death. It’s not as if God says no to anyone in hell who desires to repent–no one in hell wants to repent. Their orientation to God, whether for him or against him, has been definitively set. Nor is it the case that God is retributively punishing the damned for their decision; he is simply respecting their decision.

      Is the assertion that God is infinite and absolute love compatible with the above? Most people seem to think that it is, but I am becoming increasingly dubious. What do you think, Isaac?

      Like

      • syrian88 says:

        Fr. Aidan,

        You are of course right about what most people from those traditions actually believe vs. my very abstract examples that are designed to stretch implications to their ends. I have started to take it for granted that people may yet repent after death even though this appears to be limited mostly to Orthodox circles in terms of official beliefs and practices. Believing that the “tree lays where it falls” brings all kinds of problems with it ranging from the questions of babies and children dying before they could ever make a clear choice, or people born in times and places where they apparently never even heard the name of Jesus, to those who are taught such a twisted version of the gospel that they reject it out of their goodness, not their rebellion or self-love. I guess if these Catholics and mainline Protestants are holding to the notion that people in their freedom choose to reject God and something in their nature or something in the experience of God after death essentially “locks in” that choice then it is at least an understandable position. However, this goes right back to the question about why God would create if he knew that a good portion of his free creatures would reject him and ultimately wind up in an existence of eternal torment as a consequence and whether that is indeed compatible with a God that is infinite and absolute love.

        My main issue is with those who concede on one hand that God apparently, based on the scriptural support, wants all to be saved but, on the other hand, does something to limit or block that salvation. So I will stick to the belief that if anybody is ultimately not saved it won’t be because of anything lacking in the love of God. It could only be because one can’t find communion in the Trinitarian life of love without a free choice and one has ultimately chosen against it.

        Like

  6. syrian88 says:

    In American fundamentalist circles yes the “good news” is directly tied to the necessity of a populated hell. The Gospel for let’s say a “Bible believing Baptist” is usually not “the Kingdom of heaven is here, Christ is risen, and soon God will set everything to rights, remaking this fallen world into a “new heavens and new earth.” It is more like “if you died tonight do you know where you would go?” If you say the magic words you are in, If not, then God will have to punish you in hell forever. I was raised in this twisted religion and saw it make atheists of a large number of people.

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I remember that evangelistic technique. It was popularized, wasn’t it, by Coral Ridge Ministries–Evangelism Explosion.

      Avery Cardinal Dulles wrote an article ten years ago titled “The Population of Hell” in which he noted that down through the ages Christian theologians have taught that not only is hell populated but the large majority of human beings dwell there. On reading Dulles’s article one gets the impression that the gospel requires a populated hell; without hell the seriousness of the gospel is lost. “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:24).

      I can see how the threat of an eternal hell does add a seriousness to evangelism and the preaching of the gospel. But I also see how it might well drive people to atheism. Paul Evdokimov was quite critical of evangelistic presentations that threaten people with eternal damnation if they do not convert.

      Like

      • syrian88 says:

        Certainly the possibility of perdition lends a seriousness to the preaching of the gospel although I don’t really see evidence that when the early Christians preached the gospel they framed it in that way. I do think that when many fundagelicals are “witnessing” people they know they are doing it from no other motivation than to try to save the person from eternal torture so it is very serious for them even if the whole thing comes off as a pyramid scheme. And of course it also comes off as something like the offer of the mob to protect one’s business with the irony that it is the mob that is most likely to rob that business not lost on the prospective “client.” When people are told that God is angry at them and compelled by his own nature to punish them forever in a literal fire for eternity, they can’t help but feeling estranged from that God in the process.

        I don’t think our minds can really fathom “eternity” anyway so to the degree that a person may be on a path to Gehenna and to the degree that a fear of that outcome is likely to result in sincere repentance, I think the fear of an eternal Gehenna or an “ages long” Gehenna is effectively the same. If a person knew that he was going to have a severe flu for ten years straight without the possibility of dying from it he would be sufficiently terrified of the crucible he was about to pass through even if he knew he would come out the other end. So all that to say that to the degree that an eternal populated hell lends credence to the gospel, I think that an ages long hell that will eventually come to an end when all freely choose to repent is still serious and something we should all fear in terms of our own direction in life, not because we fear the retribution of God, but because we can, through our own choices, make it the case that living in the Kingdom of Heaven is hell for us. Making hell a matter of what God does actually helps people to avoid the terrible possibility that they can create their own hell through their own choices and actions even if God does everything to give them paradise. That should be far more terrifying to people if they are really thinking it through.

        Like

  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I am somewhat surprised that no one has yet commented on McCabe’s claim that our contrition/repentance is the forgiveness of God. When I first read this claim it really jumped out at me and challenged me to rethink what it means for God to forgive and what it means for us to be forgiven by and reconciled to God. It also challenged me to rethink the Sacrament of Confession.

    It was because of McCabe that I finally began to understand what some of the spiritual fathers mean by forgiveness. For example, St Thallasios says, “Forgiveness of sins is betokened by freedom from the passions; he who has not yet been granted freedom from the passions has not yet received forgiveness.” I could easily imagine a person reading this and thinking, “Egads, not only am I not forgiven but I’m never going to be forgiven. It’s all hopeless.” But it makes sense when we realize that forgiveness is something that happens not in God but in us, and it will not be complete until we have been perfectly purified and sanctified in the Holy Spirit.

    Like

    • Karen says:

      Good point, Father.

      Dr. Alexander Kalomiros writes in Nostalgia for Paradise:

      Remission of sins and the healing of the soul are one and the same thing. Our repentance of sins is also our remission. Repentance means the change of our heart and mind, and our coming close to God, instead of living far from Him. Remission of sins is the overturning of the consequences of having been far from our Father’s House. In other words, it is our return to His House and His embrace, and to living once again as His children. Our departure from him was our illness and death, and our return to Him is our cure and our eternal life.

      I read this in Dr. Kalomiros’ work within the last couple of years, and that was when the “aha!” light went on for me. I was very gratified to see McCabe’s reaffirmation of that truth in this post. It also occurs to me that this is one more area where the fundamental difference between framing questions of theological truth in forensic terms (as Western theology has tended to do), and framing them in ontological terms, as the Eastern Fathers do, really expresses itself (and the Eastern patristic framework makes infinitely more sense of the totality of the Scriptures’ teaching). Expressing these things in terms of their ontological spiritual reality is probably the reason there is also not seen to be any fundamental difference (or conflict) in the East between (saving/living) faith and the works of faith and between God’s primary agency in salvation on the one hand and the necessity of free will human cooperation with that agency on the other (the whole Pelagian question never was a controversy in the East).

      Like

  8. mary benton says:

    I didn’t comment on McCabe’s claim, Fr. Aidan, because it made perfect sense without me saying anything. It added to something I was writing on my blog (I linked back here for people to read what you wrote so well) – and I started looking at where I could buy McCabe’s books. 🙂

    Like

    • Connie says:

      Mary, can you point us to your blog? I always enjoy reading what you have to say, both here and on Father Stephen’s blog.

      Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mary, begin with McCabe’s *God, Christ and Us*, and see what you think.

      Like

  9. Connie says:

    Fr Aidan, you write, “It also challenged me to rethink the Sacrament of Confession.” Intriguing. 🙂 I’m in absolute agreement with Fr Thomas Hopko who stresses that everyone should have someone to whom they confess every thought, feeling, and action. But in Orthodoxy the stated purpose for the Sacrament of Confession is simply absolution. If we know that forgiveness is there every time we pray to God, every time we access His grace, every time we acknowledge going astray, why is asking for absolution through a priest necessary? I know there is a good answer somewhere, but it always escapes me.

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Connie, what if “absolution” in this context is understood as prayer for the healing and renewal of the Spirit in the mind, heart, and soul of the penitent? Would that make a difference?

      Like

      • Connie says:

        Are we not praying that every time we pray “Lord have mercy” — every time we access His grace? But maybe it is like having the saints praying for us – a little added oomph to our own prayers?

        Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Yes, that is true. But have you not found a salutary grace in offering to God your life in its sinful particularities, and to then have a priest of Christ’s body invoke the absolution and blessing of God upon you?

      I can think of many spiritual and pastoral benefits of the Sacrament of Confession. For one thing, it helps to keep us honest. For another, it’s good to hear the words “God loves and forgives you” spoken to us in the name and authority of Christ.

      I do have a real problem with the communion discipline of some Orthodox parishes, where auricular confession is required before communion; but I’d prefer to discuss that another day.

      Like

      • Connie says:

        I have found miraculous healing in confessing continually to another person every thought, word, and deed. I am always feeling forgiven. So much so that confessing to a priest feels superfluous. But we are all different. I find your suggestion to think of absolution as prayer for healing and renewal extremely compelling. It makes me look at Confession in an entirely new light.

        Like

        • Edward says:

          I always think of the sacrament of confession in terms of the story of the prodigal son. The story is of one piece. We cannot take one part out without doing damage to the integrity of the story. The prodigal recognizes the dire state that he is in and he conceives a sorrow for what he has done. This is the beginning of a process of forgiveness. Then he says, “I will go to my Father’s house” and he begins his journey back. You cannot separate his contrition from his decision to return to his Father’s house. The two are of one piece. He could not go back with the same attitude he had originally. Nor could he truly find forgiveness without returning to receive it. Indeed, the decision to go back to his Father’s house is a part of his contrition. In the same way, the process of forgiveness for us begins when we conceive a sorrow for our sins. But we too must go back to our Father’s house, which is the Holy Church of God. We too must receive the embrace of the Father, through the words of absolution spoken by the priest.

          Ed

          Like

      • Connie says:

        Edward, you say, “But we too must go back to our Father’s house, which is the Holy Church of God. We too must receive the embrace of the Father.” Beautifully put. We will leave it at that. If I respond further I will totally derail Fr Aidan’s beautiful blog post. 🙂

        Like

  10. PJ says:

    I always find this verse reassuring: “After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands” (Revelation 7:9).

    “A great multitude, which no man could number.” And yet … The way is narrow, and few are those who walk it. It seems undeniable that Scripture offers conflicting images and ideas regarding these eschatological issues. There are verses that cause optimism, and verses that cause trepidation. I suppose, as Father suggests, it all comes down to your hermeneutic. For whatever reason, there must have been a hermeneutical change from the patristic era to the medieval and modern eras, because the Christian eschatological vision clearly “darkened” over the centuries. Whether this is good or bad, right or wrong, is up for debate…

    On another note, I think that we might fail to appreciate the the depth of human evil. I read the other day about how the Nazis would, in the death camps, grab infants from their mothers, toss the shrieking babies into the backs of trucks and then, when the bed was full, dump the little ones into a flaming pit. And these men went home at night to their wives and children! They weren’t, for the most part, “evil geniuses.” They were regular joes “just following orders.” By throwing infants into flaming pits! They were possessed by a profound and terrifying wickedness. Does not this cry out to heaven for justice? Is their not anything beautiful and good about justice? Could God really be merciful if He were not also just?

    I don’t know … Perhaps this is all over our heads. Perhaps we should simply proclaim the love of God, but also tell those who reject this love that doing so is tantamount to refusing food and water: it is self-inflicted death — suicide.

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “For whatever reason, there must have been a hermeneutical change from the patristic era to the medieval and modern eras, because the Christian eschatological vision clearly “darkened” over the centuries. ”

      You know, this is a really good question. In the patristic period, we can identify two people in particular who influenced and shaped the Church on hell : the Emperor Justinian in the East and St Augustine in the West. Augustine embodied the shift in his own life. In his battle with the Manichaeans, he believed in some form of apocatastasis, but later one, during his battle with the Pelagians, he rejected universal salvation and embraced a retributive doctrine of eternal hell: see this brief synopsis by Ilaria Ramelli: Augustine from Supporter to Opposer of Universal Restoration.

      Do not the terrible iniquities of mankind cry out for justice? Absolutely! But what would be true justice? I would think that it would involve at least two elements: (1) restoration for the victims–and not just restoration but so much more than restoration; and (2) the penitent involvement of the criminals in the restoration and healing of their victims. I think that the latter is partly what the Final Judgment is all about. We are all implicated in sin. Each of us must work for the healing and restoration of our victims. This is an essential aspect of our own salvation. This is speculation, I know. I know that some theologians have speculated on this, but for the life of me I can’t at the moment remember who.

      Like

  11. coffeezombie says:

    This post confirms something I have held onto dearly as a lifeline for a long time: at my darkest moments, when I couldn’t care less about God, and am perfectly content in this world, when it seems any flame in my heart has gone cold, and the absolute best I can do is to look at my condition and say, “I want to want to love and desire God,” the best I can do is wish that I wanted to be able to shed a tear over my sinfulness, that this tiny, almost invisible spark, is from God and is evidence that God is working in me, that God has not abandoned me, and that, through this very tiny light, God will save–is saving–me.

    Like

  12. Edward says:

    PJ wrote:

    “On another note, I think that we might fail to appreciate the the depth of human evil. I read the other day about how the Nazis would, in the death camps, grab infants from their mothers, toss the shrieking babies into the backs of trucks and then, when the bed was full, dump the little ones into a flaming pit.”

    While not denying the doctrine of hell, I am loathe to use these extreme examples to justify it. Please remember PJ, that the more “traditional” Catholic doctrine would place in hell, not only these wicked Nazis, but also the babies and the mothers whose lives they destroyed. They were, after all, unbaptized Jews. This is the logical trajectory of Augustinian thought. And it is not dead even today. I just read a comment the other day by a traditionalist Catholic in which he argued that abortion is not evil because it destroys an unborn child, but because it sends that child to hell. This is obviously not even close to a majority view in the Church anymore, but it certainly was so at one time.
    When people use extreme examples such as the Nazis to justify the doctrine of hell, I can’t help but wonder if they have lost sight of the gospel message itself. Is it not possible for someone who has committed such evil deeds to repent and to be saved? If so, how is justice served in this case? Do we forget that the greatest crime ever committed was the murder of the Innocent One Himself, Our Lord Jesus Christ? What should our recompense be for that? I think that we do not really understand what God’s justice is if we simply try to equate it with our all too human notion of retribution. And I think that this is one of the important points that St. Isaac wants to make. Until it actually sinks in, I don’t think that we have fully understood what the gospel is all about.
    Father Aidan states that the Emperor Justinian in the East and Augustine in the west shaped the doctrine of hell. I would point out that St. John Chrysostom in the East also held strongly to the eternity of hell and preached it forcefully. So, Augustine is certainly not the first to do so. What we see in Augustine, however, is the convergence of several ideas that were influenced largely by his controversy with the Pelagians. When you combine the belief that the vast majority of human beings are headed for eternal misery (which was shared by Chrysostom) with the belief that God is the sole initiator of the process of salvation, the doctrine of predilection and predestination follows logically. Anyone who believes that the vast majority of human beings are damned must hold also that, in some sense, God wills this. The very fact that He freely creates knowing the destiny of His creatures means that He must will that destiny, at least passively. What Augustine adds to this is the notion that God purposely does nothing to save those who are destined for hell. He, in fact, does not love them to the same measure that He loves His chosen ones.

    Ed

    Like

    • Karen says:

      Thanks for those insights, Ed.

      With regard to extreme examples of evil and the addressing of the problem of suffering evil from an Orthodox perspective, I highly recommend, David Bentley Hart’s little book, The Doors of the Sea. It’s the only treatment of the problem I’ve read (just for reference, I’ve read C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain and Yancey’s Disappointment with God) that I felt did the full genius of the gospel presented in the NT justice. Hart draws upon the character of Ivan in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov as the best example of posing the depth of question of the problem of evil from a Christian perspective. Ivan (the skeptic) recounts to Alexey (the character who embodies the true Christian) several instances of extreme evil that entailed the torment and suffering of innocent children (and here Dostoyevsky draws upon reports of real events that he was aware of–horrifying as that is) and asks him what could justify such suffering in a good God’s plan for the world. Drawing heavily upon the vision of St. Isaac of God in His mercy, Hart does a fabulous job of articulating a genuinely NT response to the problem of evil.

      Like

  13. Pingback: When You Fail, Return to God with a Broken and Contrite Heat | Inspirational Matters

  14. PJ says:

    Ed,

    You say the example is extreme: In one sense, yes, it is; in another sense, no, it is not. It is not the infamy of the evil I described that disturbs me, but its very ordinariness. The holocaust was the product of ordinary people going about their daily business. Toss a few infants into a flaming pit — go home for beer and sausages. The human heart — the ordinary human heart — is casually capable of utterly vile villainy.

    All I’m saying is that it is easy for us — at least, me — in my relatively comfortable world to forget or diminish or understate the human capacity for wickedness. You’ll notice that the doctrine of hell tends to evaporate precisely in those parts of the world wherein the monstrosity of the human heart is most concealed/restrained.

    Like

  15. elijahmaria says:

    It is one thing to acknowledge that in human understanding of evil and attachment to the Body of Christ, many more people would be deserving of hell than those who are prepared to go through the narrow gate. One of the things that I found useful, as a child in grade school, was the idea that we all get as close to God as we want to be after the final judgemen. Those who want nothing to do with Him are in one place and others who are middlin’ about things are in another and those who are more than a little middlin’ are in another but the ones who gave up everything to follow Christ will most likely be few and they will be the ones closest to him in life everlasting because they heeded his counsels while in this life when things were more obscure and the risks were higher. Years later, without the particulars, it seems to me that the CCC picked up on the same themes. This nun, I discovered later, did not make her idea up out of whole cloth but it came from reading the monastics and saints and doctors of the Church. But to say that all will one day turn to God as fully as he counsels in the gospels just does not seem any more real to me than tiny innocents writhing in hell through everlasting life.

    Like

  16. elijahmaria says:

    Ed: Saints and spiritual writers from both the east and the west recognize that it is a revealed truth that God withholds grace from some…How is this possible to believe of a loving God? The Great Apostle Paul also notes that we all do not receive grace equally for equally purposes. In fact the whole idea of equality in Scriptures and especially in the Gospels and Letters is very problematic.

    Like

  17. elijahmaria says:

    I just saw this sermon from Francis the Poor on-line and I thought, since it quotes St. Gregory the Great extensively, it might be interesting in light of the discussion here:

    As we have come to Low Sunday, Dominica in albis, I reviewed something of what Fathers of the Church had to say about our Gospel passage on this famous Sunday: John 20:19-31.

    Pope St. Gregory the Great (+604) preached on this very passage in the Basilica of St. John Lateran on the 1st Sunday after Easter. Here is the very end of his sermon, which sheds a different, and I think needed, light on the theme of “divine mercy”.

    Thus Gregory the Great:

    Consider again, beloved brethren, this important truth, and carefully endeavour to be preserved from the eternal perdition. These Easter-days are celebrated with great pomp and magnificence; yet our duty is to make ourselves worthy of arriving at the eternal Festivals. You endeavour to be present at these feastdays, which pass and disappear; try, then, your utmost to be one day present, all together, at the never-ending celebration in heaven. What would it profit you to assist at our festivals now, were you never to be admitted to the festivities of the angels in heaven? Our present feast-days are only the shadow of those we are expecting, and, though year after year we are celebrating them, we are longing for those never-ending days in the kingdom of God. Renew in your hearts the desire of the eternal festivities by the celebration of the annual earthly festivals. Let the happiness granted to us in the present time penetrate us in such a way that we continue sighing for the eternal happiness prepared for us in heaven, and ardently desired by us on earth. Prepare yourselves for that eternal rest by amending your lives and practising virtue and holiness. Never forget that He Who in His Resurrection was meekness itself, will be terrible when coming to judge the world. On this awful day He will appear surrounded by Angels, Archangels, Thrones, Principalities and Powers. On that day heaven and earth and all the elements, being the ministers of His wrath, will be in a general conflagration. May this terrible Judge be ever present to the eyes of your mind, that, penetrated by a salutary fear of His severe judgment, that is to be held, you may confidently expect His corning. Let us fear now, that we may be without fear then, and this fear will help us to avoid sin and work out our salvation. For I tell you that the more we are now afraid to rouse the anger of our Judge against us, the greater will be our confidence when we appear before Him at the end of the world.

    First, GO TO CONFESSION.

    Also, let us strive in our liturgical celebrations both to anticipate the beauty of the heavenly liturgy before the throne of God, and also to encounter within those sacred mysteries the mystery which is the remedy for our fear of death.

    If our liturgical worship does not prepare us truly for the moment in which we come to the Judge, then our liturgical worship has not provided what we truly need.

    Lastly, GO TO CONFESSION.

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, Mary, for the citation from Pope Gregory. And to properly appreciate St Gregory’s warning, we need also to recall that for Gregory the punishment of hell is retributive and penal, everlasting, and involves a physical fire. In other words, it is precisely the kind of understanding of hell that St Isaac the Syrian so vehemently protests against. Clearly it is the case that for St Gregory the Gregory, as for St Augustine before him and for the Latin Church after them (until fairly recently), the mercy of God does indeed come to an end. For the damned, there is only wrath.

      Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      No, Mary. I’m afraid that argument will not work when it comes to hell. For both the Latin Fathers and the schoolmen hell is eternal retributive and penal punishment. And it is a physical fire. If there are exceptions, I’d like to know who they are; but I’m confident that I’m right about the Latin tradition as a whole.

      Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mary, it’s a lot easier to be confident when one has actually read a fair amount of the Fathers on this particular subject. If you have any contrary evidence, particularly from the Latin Fathers, please provide citations. That hell was considered to be a place of retributive punishment is, I confidently believe, the unanimous consensus of the Latin Fathers. And overwhelmingly they believed that the punishment was inflicted by material fire. One such person was in fact St Gregory the Great. When Gregory warned his hearers against eternal perdition, they knew he was talking quite literally about hell-fire. Perhaps there were exceptions to the belief in the physical fire, though I am not aware of any; but I seriously doubt there are any exceptions to the former. You simply cannot read back your contemporary Catholic beliefs about hell into the Latin Fathers. If I am wrong, please provide explicit evidence. But don’t worry, I’m also confident one can find Eastern Fathers who also taught the same.

      In any case, the eternal pain of loss and everlasting conscious torment would have been equally unacceptable to St Isaac. And that is the critical point.

      Like

  18. elijahmaria says:

    Follows just a quick example: Note where it says that “thus far the Church has not censured their opinion.” This is only one part of Catholic eschatology where there is a diversity of opinion. In the history of the Church the spiritual writers and founding fathers and mothers of the monastic life are far more circumspect about the last four things and spend the bulk of their time talking about how to come into union with God rather than on how to avoid hell. Many of them speak of the torment of hell being separated from God. So you and the schoolmen, few of whom ever make it into the ranks of the sanctified, may be quite confident of your image of hell: but I would not be quite so confident of imposing it on the Church universal.

    ++++++++++++++++++++++++

    The poena sensus, or pain of sense, consists in the torment of fire so frequently mentioned in the Holy Bible. According to the greater number of theologians the term fire denotes a material fire, and so a real fire. We hold to this teaching as absolutely true and correct. However, we must not forget two things: from Catharinus (d. 1553) to our times there have never been wanting theologians who interpret the Scriptural term fire metaphorically, as denoting an incorporeal fire; and secondly, thus far the Church has not censured their opinion. Some few of the Fathers also thought of a metaphorical explanation. Nevertheless, Scripture and tradition speak again and again of the fire of hell, and there is no sufficient reason for taking the term as a mere metaphor. It is urged: How can a material fire torment demons, or human souls before the resurrection of the body? But, if our soul is so joined to the body as to be keenly sensitive to the pain of fire, why should the omnipotent God be unable to bind even pure spirits to some material substance in such a manner that they suffer a torment more or less similar to the pain of fire which the soul can feel on earth? The reply indicates, as far as possible, how we may form an idea of the pain of fire which the demons suffer. Theologians have elaborated various theories on this subject, which, however, we do not wish to detail here (cf. the very minute study by Franz Schmid, “Quaestiones selectae ex theol. dogm.”, Paderborn, 1891, q. iii; also Guthberlet, “Die poena sensus” in “Katholik”, II, 1901, 305 sqq., 385 sqq.).

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mary, you have mistakenly assumed that I am trying to win a Orthodox/Catholic debate; but at no point have I formulated these questions in terms of East vs West. One can find retributive models of hell within the Eastern tradition also.

      It really is futile to invoke “diversity” on this topic. The encyclopedia article only cites diversity on the question of the poena sensus. It most certainly does not suggest any diversity on the question of the retributive, penal, punitive nature of eternal hell. Are you really suggesting that a diversity of opinion on the retributive nature of hell existed in the pre-20th century Latin Church? In any case, I have no dog in this hunt. Roman Catholics have to decide for themselves what the authoritative teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is. Whatever that authoritative teaching turns out to be will not affect my view that the retributive model of an eternal hell is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

      Like

  19. elijahmaria says:

    I only published that as one example, Father; I did not mean to say that my searches or data were placed here exhaustively. Also, i don’t know what the protestants do with the term “retribution”, and like you with us, I don’t really care, but “retributive” to Catholics simply intends to highlight the fact that MAN chooses his destiny and gets what he and his behaviors indicate that he chooses, rather than the, at one time common idea, that GOD imposes his will upon man and that he punishes arbitrarily. That comes from any number of wrong-headed ideas about God and so, again using the Latin of the time, retribution was used to indicate that man gets, in the end, what HE chooses rather than some arbitrary judgment from an angry God. So even the ideas that you present, ostensibly in plain English, are not always so “plain” in meaning and very often take so far out of context so as to present false teaching. It is a puzzlement.

    More than that I think that we are far better served to read the holy fathers of the desert and the holy saints and founders of the western Catholic world in order to find out what is what on the ground with respect to how we should approach both here and here after. That paints a far more coherent picture and avoids the trouble one encounters when looking only to the best educated theologians of whatever world you choose to examine. That is my own estimation of things after many years of struggling with trying to find Truth in this garden of earthly delights. …

    I am not arguing with you, I am, as always, trying to get you, just for a moment, to take off those exquisite shades you wear now and then…They are handsome to look at, but sometimes the adornments on them block the view. I am not entirely an agenda driven automaton. I actually do live the life and have some idea of what I speak, east and west. And that is now more than enough from me, I expect.

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mary, you have cited the Catholic Encyclopedia article on hell. That article makes clear that the Catholic understanding of hell, at least at the time the article was written, is retributive. God actively and eternally punishes the damned:

      If we abstract from the eternity of its punishment, the existence of hell can be demonstrated even by the light of mere reason. In His sanctity and justice as well as in His wisdom, God must avenge the violation of the moral order in such wise as to preserve, at least in general, some proportion between the gravity of sin and the severity of punishment. But it is evident from experience that God does not always do this on earth; therefore He will inflict punishment after death. Moreover, if all men were fully convinced that the sinner need fear no kind of punishment after death, moral and social order would be seriously menaced. This, however, Divine wisdom cannot permit. Again, if there were no retribution beyond that which takes place before our eyes here on earth, we should have to consider God extremely indifferent to good and evil, and we could in no way account for His justice and holiness. Nor can it be said: the wicked will be punished, but not by any positive infliction: for either death will be the end of their existence, or, forfeiting the rich reward of the good, they will enjoy some lesser degree of happiness. These are arbitrary and vain subterfuges, unsupported by any sound reason; positive punishment is the natural recompense of evil. Besides, due proportion between demerit and punishment would be rendered impossible by an indiscriminate annihilation of all the wicked. And finally, if men knew that their sins would not be followed by sufferings, the mere threat of annihilation at the moment of death, and still less the prospect of a somewhat lower degree of beatitude, would not suffice to deter them from sin.

      Furthermore, reason easily understands that in the next life the just will be made happy as a reward of their virtue (see HEAVEN). But the punishment of evil is the natural counterpart of the reward of virtue. Hence, there will also be punishment for sin in the next life. Accordingly, we find among all nations the belief that evil-doers will be punished after death. This universal conviction of mankind is an additional proof for the existence of hell. For it is impossible that, in regard to the fundamental questions of their being and their destiny, all men should fall into the same error; else the power of human reason would be essentially deficient, and the order of this world would be unduly wrapt in mystery; this however, is repugnant both to nature and to the wisdom of the Creator.

      Now whether the above represents the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church others more knowledgeable than I must speak; but I’m fairly sure that it represents the views of the Latin Fathers. God punishes the damned. He positively inflicts suffering and torment. He does so because the damned deserve this punishment. I am away visiting my mother, and so do not have access to my library and am thus unable to provide supporting documentation.

      But returning to the original article, I suspect that the Latin Fathers, and perhaps some of the Eastern Fathers, too (St John Chrysostom?) would disagree with the fundamental thesis of Fr Herbert McCabe regarding the unconditionality of the divine love. McCabe presents us with a fundamental choice.

      Like

      • PJ says:

        Father,

        I’d suggest that more than “some” eastern fathers viewed hell as a place of fiery punishment. As Gregory Palamas wrote in his 33rd Homily: “Now, unless we hasten through repentance to heal the wounds he has inflicted, he will dispatch us to everlasting punishment and hell-fire. We are threatened with the unquenchable fire of hell and promised God’s eternal kingdom. This everlasting kingdom is for those who listen to God’s commandments and act upon them, whereas hell-fire is for those who by their actions disobey Christ’s Gospel. When true believers, who love their souls and desire to keep them for eternal life, hear these threats and promises, they immediately conceive longing and fear, fear of the unending pain in the threatened fire of hell, and longing for the promised kingdom of God with its eternal joy.” In fact, with one or two major exceptions, and a few minor exceptions, I think that Orthodox eschatology began to change about the same time as Catholic eschatology.

        This old fire-and-brimstone view was commonly held, east and west, because it is apparently the plain teaching of Scripture. Now, I know that you will protest that phrase — “plain teaching” — which is why I say “apparently.”

        I don’t necessarily think that hell is contrary to the unconditional love of God. God does not want anyone to end up eternally separated from him. But, in His love, He has given us free will. Some use this free will to love Him; others to spurn Him. The Virgin, in many of her apparitions, tells us that Christ is terribly pained by those who willfully choose damnation over salvation. Hell is a punishment, yes, but a FREELY CHOSEN one. That’s the terribly thing about it!

        At least, that’s how I’ve always understood the Church’s teaching, though I know there is a more Augustinian-Thomistic predestinarian wing…

        Like

    • Mary;

      “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” (Evagrius Ponticus; Treatise on Prayer, pg. 61)

      Orthodox (true/right belief) & Orthopraxis (true/right practice) are synergistic & necessary partners in our salvation. You just cannot have one without the other. In the East, “theology” has never been treated as a purely academic endeavor separated from the endeavor of spiritual life & practices as it long has been in the West under Scholasticism. Hence our Saints are theologians, including those Saints that never “wrote” anything or were poorly educated.

      When the West encounters Orthodoxy there is usually great confusion. Common terms are no longer understood by common definitions. The mindesets are different, the questions are different, the answers are different. The histories are different. Often the two sides end up talking around (as well as at) each other rather than truly communicating.

      Previously the RCC taught its followers to not worry about the heady theological details, just do what the RCC tells you to do. Protestantism in turn also taught its followers to not worry about the theological details, just believe in & act like the Christ of the Bible. Thus with both Western traditions Christian theology was deemed unnecessary for the average day-to-day Christian. The West, both RC & Protestant, is only recently beginning to try to reverse this Christian theology vs. Christian life dichotomy as both the RCC & Protestant churches have rendered themselves ineffective & irrelevant for the average day-to-day human being, whether religious or secular. By recent I mean perhaps the past 100 years or so with the rise to prominence of the Social Gospel under the Progressive Movement.

      The rise of the Social Gospel by both sides has greatly increased since Vatican II & the Counter-Cultural revolution of the 1960s to counter this growing ineffectiveness & irrelevancy. However, many are unaware of this reversal & think that what they are experiencing is the way it has always been. There is much reading into the ancient texts (especially into Holy Scripture) from our modern/post-modern culture, often the more undesirable aspects such as the supremacy of the individual to determine Christian truth & Christian practice. Many ancient heresies condemned long ago by the Church have reappeared under various auspices in the West as it continues to attempt to reinvent the Christian theological wheel.

      Like

  20. PJ says:

    Eternally Present,

    I don’t even know where to begin … So I won’t even try. Almost every sentence you’ve written contains a distortion or an outright error. I’ll just say that you’ve succeeded only in demonstrating an unfortunate mix of ignorance and intolerance. As a Catholic who understands not only his own church’s history and theology and spirituality, but who has also taken the time to study and appreciate Orthodox history and theology and spirituality, I can only shake my head with great grief. You’ve just trotted out the usual strawmen that characterize Orthodox argumentation against Catholicism. I urge you to look beyond the worn polemic and preposterous bogeymen of the Romanides/Kalomiros set.

    Like

    • PJ;

      My answer in no way was a meant to be a diatribe against either RC or Protestantism. I do apologize for any offense you have taken.

      My comment was meant for Mary & her comments “…to read the holy fathers of the desert and the holy saints and founders of the western Catholic world…” & “…avoids the trouble one encounters when looking only to the best educated theologians of whatever world…” with her claim “That paints a far more coherent picture & avoids the trouble…”

      I have heard this mantra before in both the RC & Protestant circles & it is again the mindset of theology being an academic endeavor & less important in the grand scheme of everyday life practice. Sadly, I readily admit that these views are being increasingly heard among the Orthodox. Colloquially in our times, we still hear it today in “It doesn’t matter because all beliefs (or religions) are the same”, “it doesn’t matter because all beliefs (or religions) are equally valid”, “it doesn’t matter what you believe, just believe” (although this one is being challenged more & more by atheists, secularists, & humanists)…

      However, it–theology–does matter! I do admit to an over simplification in my comments. I do not feel that RC & Protestantism have “literally” told their followers “don’t worry about the heady theological details”, but the end results of ignoring the theological details are rampant throughout post-modern America. Without proper understanding of theology combined with proper practice, faith devolves into morality, salvation devolves into irrelevancy & God devolves into an unnecessary metaphysical philosophical concept to be thought about when one has the time (we seldom do)…as is common in current America.

      FWIW: I have only read Romanides’ An Outline of Orthodox Patristic Dogmatics so I cannot judge his literary works overall. However, in this text, there was no “bogey-man”; just an good defense of Orthodox theology as compared to that in RC & Protestantism. I have never read anything by Kalomiros. I much prefer Schmemann, Yannaris, Zizoulias, Lossky & Staniloae though among many others.

      Like

  21. elijahmaria says:

    Thank you PJ…You’ve saved me the grief of walking this walk alone. I will only add that there are MANY Orthodox theologians today, some of whom are invoked here on this blog, who may or may not be, in their teaching, absolutely representative of universal Orthodox teaching on matters of faith and morals. YET the are invoked and respected. So it is with Catholic academicians of the 16th as well as the 21st century. They are studied and respected. They do not necessarily represent formal and universal Catholic teaching.

    MANY Catholic theologians are saints and doctors of the Church. SOME of them are saints and scholars. OTHERS are saints and monastics. These are not all scholars and in fact many of them are not primarily scholars but are people who live ascetic lives as co-heirs of the Kingdom through Christ, in the Church.

    I don’t see a REAL difference between us save the false one that flies by night and by day… I live, day to day, most closely to Orthodox liturgy and praxis, and eastern Catholic liturgy, and the spiritual writings of both east and west. I also have secular formation in the Order of Discalced Carmelites so I am familiar with the founders of that order and other monastic orders in the west. I take a long view of both east and west.

    There is and has always been a distance between ACADEMIC THEOLOGIANS in the west and actual Church teaching. Not every gem from the pen of everyone from Augustine to Von Balthasar has been adopted as formal Church teaching. The writings of the saints and doctors of the papal Church, who tend to be monastics and holy men and women, have been far and away more influential in contributing to formal and universal Church teaching on faith and morals than have the vast array of university teachers and purveyors of speculative theology.

    I did not want to go down this road but like PJ I cannot begin to say how wrong the assumptions made here recently are.

    Mary Lanser

    Like

  22. elijahmaria says:

    This is Jansenism, pure and simple, and you will not find it repeated in any formal Catholic document concerning the eschaton. It goes much too far and takes the classic understanding of retribution right out of context:

    ” In His sanctity and justice as well as in His wisdom, God must avenge the violation of the moral order in such wise as to preserve, at least in general, some proportion between the gravity of sin and the severity of punishment. But it is evident from experience that God does not always do this on earth; therefore He will inflict punishment after death. Moreover, if all men were fully convinced that the sinner need fear no kind of punishment after death, moral and social order would be seriously menaced. “

    Like

  23. Edward says:

    PJ wrote:
    “You say the example is extreme: In one sense, yes, it is; in another sense, no, it is not. It is not the infamy of the evil I described that disturbs me, but its very ordinariness. The holocaust was the product of ordinary people going about their daily business. Toss a few infants into a flaming pit — go home for beer and sausages. The human heart — the ordinary human heart — is casually capable of utterly vile villainy.
    All I’m saying is that it is easy for us — at least, me — in my relatively comfortable world to forget or diminish or understate the human capacity for wickedness. You’ll notice that the doctrine of hell tends to evaporate precisely in those parts of the world wherein the monstrosity of the human heart is most concealed/restrained.”

    I grant you PJ, that we can easily underestimate the human capacity for wickedness. I took you, however, to be arguing that the wicked acts of the Nazis during WWII cry out for justice, i.e., for an eternal hell. I simply don’t find this argument convincing. Consider the prodigal son, for instance. He goes off with his inheritance and blows it all on a life of indulgence and debauchery. He then comes back to his father’s house and is received, not merely as a slave, but as a son. He is restored to his former place, with everything that that entails. Where is the justice in that? Indeed, it is the elder son who makes the argument from justice, only to be chided by his father.

    Mary wrote:

    “Ed: Saints and spiritual writers from both the east and the west recognize that it is a revealed truth that God withholds grace from some…How is this possible to believe of a loving God? The Great Apostle Paul also notes that we all do not receive grace equally for equally purposes. In fact the whole idea of equality in Scriptures and especially in the Gospels and Letters is very problematic.”

    Hello Mary.
    I’m not sure what you mean by the statement that “God withholds grace from some.” Do you mean that there are some that He does not desire to save or simply that He withdraws His grace from those who persist in evil? If the latter, then I agree. If the former, I disagree. As to how it is possible to believe this of a loving God, I would say that the withholding of grace from an evil person is precisely an act of love. I return to the story of the prodigal son. When the Father allows his son to leave the house with his inheritance, he does wisely. He gives him over to his evil desires. This is what Paul calls the “wrath” of God. But it is definitely very clear that, in so doing, the father’s hope is that his son will be brought so low that he will see the error of his ways and return home.
    On the other hand, for God to withhold his offer of salvation from anyone is very difficult indeed to reconcile with his love. Moreover, it seems to me to be contrary to the plain words of Scripture which tell us that God wills the salvation of all.
    But, since it is you who asked the question, perhaps you can tell me how you view God’s withholding of grace as compatible with His love for man.

    Please don’t get me wrong all of you. The Church teaches that there is a hell. I believe in it. I would like to at least hope for the salvation of all, but I am constantly being told that this is heretical. Perhaps it is. I certainly don’t want to hold heretical views. Nevertheless, my mind keeps coming back to the words of St. Isaac:

    “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”

    Do we disagree with St. Isaac? Is it indeed God’s way to create beings whom He knows ahead of time will end up in eternal misery? Is this what God’s great plan was from the beginning? Does not this mean then that there are some that God does not and never did love? How can this be if God is Love Itself?
    What is the fault in St. Isaac’s logic here?

    Ed

    Like

  24. elijahmaria says:

    Ed: Reasonable question. The latter.

    Like

  25. Mary & PJ:

    Mary: I don’t see a REAL difference between us…

    Most don’t. Our multicultural, politically correct & pluralistic society forbids this. We recently had an RC convert that attended our worship services & discussions for almost 2 years before he did & became a catechumen. And that is fine as long as the not seeing is due to not understanding the real differences rather than ignoring them or rationalizing them away.

    I know that some of what I have posted here has caused offense & I do apologize again. I was not dumping all of the ills of American society on the Western religious traditions. I now suggest that we all remove our “rose-colored glasses” regarding our respective groups. Overly idealizing the strengths & ignoring the faults of our preferred group does no one any favors. Neither does the corollary in failing to recognize the strength & exaggerating the faults of the other group just because they do not adhere to your group.

    In this spirit I routinely provide feedback & refute outrageous claims made against not only EO, but also claims against RC by Protestants, especially on the internet. Blatant falsehood must be confronted & not allowed to spread & fester like a contagious disease lest it erupt in bloodshed & violence. For example, the Inquisition (the most frequent topic) should not have happened, but I understand how & why it came about. Neither was the Inquisition the epic bloodbath of cruelty that it has taken on in the legends & fictions that now passes for history. I have also refuted misinformation about the Immaculate Conception, Transubstantiation, the Mysteries (sacraments), the Eucharist (Holy Communion) & the Literal Presence.

    I am unafraid to admit that Orthodox hands are by no means clean; In the 8th-9th c. Orthodox Christian iconoclasts killed Orthodox Christian iconophiles who killed Orthodox Christian iconoclasts. Far too often the EOC has allowed itself to be drawn into secular politics. During the Middle Ages, the EOC tended to view the RCC as backward & theologically inept, not taking the RCC seriously as it was striving to keep some sort of civilized society (government, education, economy) functioning in Western Europe. EO was made the dominant religion in Russia via the sword & forced conversion. No our EO hands are far from clean.

    Likewise the RCC & Protestant groups also do not have clean hands. Protestants tend to ignore the fact that there are Orthodox Christians on this planet; nor are those Orthodox Christians merely RCs under another name. They enter Orthodox lands under the false pretence of assisting in building infrastructure or social service institutions while their real intent is to convert the local populace to Protestantism. The RCC also tends not to deal honestly & up-front with non-RC groups viewing them as “wayward children”. The RCC will work out a joint declaration with a non-RC group claiming that all are now in agreement regards some doctrine. Within a matter of days, the RCC will then issue a statement reaffirming the original RCC doctrine, thus nullifying the previous declaration. This has happened with Lutherans, Methodists & EO. Protestants & the RCC harp on the EO for being slow to come to the proverbial negotiation table; quite true, we are very hesistant. Frankly, punch me in the nose a couple of times & I will be very hesistant to come within your arms reach again. It would be nice if Protestants & RCs would approach us as equals & brothers rather than either idolators to be saved from hell or children to be brought under the Pope.

    Again, I apologize for any offense & I am done commenting on this topic.

    Like

  26. There is a line of thought no one has touched on exactly – one that intrigues me. It is not unusual for some among the spiritual fathers to say that after death “there is nothing we can do” to change our position. They do not say that our position cannot be changed, only that we cannot ourselves change it. Some attribute this to the separation of the soul from the body, giving us something of a more “Hades” like existence – that of a “shade” or something. We frequently seem to assume that our existence beyond death is mostly like our existence now, only different. 🙂
    But those among the Orthodox who say that there is nothing we can do, are quick to say that the prayers of others are very effective. This strengthens the understanding of a common salvation, the communion of saints, etc. It also says much for the heart of St. Isaac or St. Silouan who seemed to have prayed greatly for those in such need. Of course, there’s not really much of a way to think about these things in a dogmatic fashion (certainly for the Orthodox). But thoughts about my utter helplessness often come to me when I think of these things. I need to make friends with my unrighteous mammon, so that they will receive me into their mansions.

    Like

    • Fr. Stephen;

      They do not say that our position cannot be changed, only that we cannot ourselves change it.

      Great thought & posting! This is one of those areas that I had not realized how my thinking had changed since my Chrismation more than a decade ago until you worded it so very eloquently. One of the Fathers told a story/parable of an old irreligious woman whose only good deed in life was that she once gave an onion to a begger. While not the point of the story, I was & continue to be fascinated with the perspective that you just put forth for us. Thank you also for linking this to other Orthodox doctrines.

      Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, Fr Stephen, for raising this issue. The question of the passivity of the departed is important. Clearly we are moving into an area of which we have no knowledge. I question, though, if we should think of the departed souls as passive and helpless. To the statement “All will be saved,” C. S. Lewis asks, “With out their will, or with it?” It is precisely this question that troubles me when I try to think of how a person can be saved without conversion and repentance.

      Met Hilarion addresses this question in his book Christ the Conqueror of Hell:

      “Is it at all possible that the fate of a person can be changed after his death? Is death that border beyond which some unchangeable static existence comes? Does the development of the human person not stop after death? It is impossible for one to actively repent in hell; it is impossible to rectify the evil deeds one committed by appropriate good works. It may, however, be possible for one to repent through a “change of heart,” a review of one’s values. One of the testimonies to this is the rich man of the Gospel. He realized the gravity of his situation as soon as [he] found himself in hell. Indeed, in his lifetime he was focused on earthly pursuits and forgot God, but once in hell he realized that God was his only hope for salvation. Besides, according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, the fate of a person after death can be changed through the prayer of the church. Thus existence after death has its own dynamics. … On the basis of what has been said above, it may be said that after death the development of the human person does not cease, for existence after death is not a transfer from a dynamic into a static being, but rather a continuation on a new level of that road which a person followed in his or her lifetime.” (pp. 216-217)

      Thank you again for raising this very interesting question. I look forward to your further comments on this.

      Like

  27. elijahmaria says:

    Father Stephen: you’ve hit the proverbial nail!!…Catholic saints who preach and teach a theology of the Church, remind us all frequently to pray for ALL souls. We even have a liturgical ALL souls day. I think much that is said about the Catholic Church on the disposition of ALL souls is in response to Calvin and not in response to true Catholic teaching. I find as I move through this morass of schism that very few who convert to the papal Church, and move to Orthodoxy do not read at all deeply, or even at all, the boring saints and doctors of the Church but focus on the more exciting exegesis of contemporary speculative theology. I also find that when they move to Orthodoxy they do the same thing. In any event we all then wind up like the six blind monks and the elephant. It’s sad really.

    M.

    Like

    • elijahmaria says:

      In my note above I meant to say that, in my experience, few read at all deeply or at all…I flipped my negatives and said the opposite of what I meant.

      Like

  28. elijahmaria says:

    Just as an aside: I was being VERY specific when I said there was no difference between us on a specific point, but my comment was take right out of a specific context and used as a platform to discuss something for which I would have said something quite different. That is not a good way to use people though it happens often enough. Also when I encounter someone who has a poor or no understanding of Catholic teaching, I am never offended. I think it is tragic when those people refuse to hear anything but their own ideas or ideas borrowed from others whom they choose to follow.

    One of the most tragic things is that we do not get to really share our lives as co-heirs with Christ. Thankfully not all Orthodox believers are of the opinion that there’s nothing common in our respective spiritual lives or I’d have darn few people to talk to where I am.

    M.

    Like

  29. elijahmaria says:

    I went looking for examples of the holy fathers commenting on the worm that never dies and found the following. However much I want to believe that we all repent and become filled with compunction eventually, the following does have at least an emotional impact on me:

    Ignatius of Antioch

    “Corrupters of families will not inherit the kingdom of God. And if they who do these things according to the flesh suffer death, how much more if a man corrupt by evil teaching the faith of God for the sake of which Jesus Christ was crucified? A man become so foul will depart into unquenchable fire: and so will anyone who listens to him” (Letter to the Ephesians 16:1–2 [A.D. 110]).

    Second Clement

    “If we do the will of Christ, we shall obtain rest; but if not, if we neglect his commandments, nothing will rescue us from eternal punishment” (Second Clement 5:5 [A.D. 150]).

    “But when they see how those who have sinned and who have denied Jesus by their words or by their deeds are punished with terrible torture in unquenchable fire, the righteous, who have done good, and who have endured tortures and have hated the luxuries of life, will give glory to their God saying, ‘There shall be hope for him that has served God with all his heart!’” (ibid., 17:7).

    Justin Martyr

    “No more is it possible for the evildoer, the avaricious, and the treacherous to hide from God than it is for the virtuous. Every man will receive the eternal punishment or reward which his actions deserve. Indeed, if all men recognized this, no one would choose evil even for a short time, knowing that he would incur the eternal sentence of fire. On the contrary, he would take every means to control himself and to adorn himself in virtue, so that he might obtain the good gifts of God and escape the punishments” (First Apology 12 [A.D. 151]).

    “We have been taught that only they may aim at immortality who have lived a holy and virtuous life near to God. We believe that they who live wickedly and do not repent will be punished in everlasting fire” (ibid., 21).

    “[Jesus] shall come from the heavens in glory with his angelic host, when he shall raise the bodies of all the men who ever lived. Then he will clothe the worthy in immortality; but the wicked, clothed in eternal sensibility, he will commit to the eternal fire, along with the evil demons” (ibid., 52).

    The Martyrdom of Polycarp

    “Fixing their minds on the grace of Christ, [the martyrs] despised worldly tortures and purchased eternal life with but a single hour. To them, the fire of their cruel torturers was cold. They kept before their eyes their escape from the eternal and unquenchable fire” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 2:3 [A.D. 155]).

    Mathetes

    “When you know what is the true life, that of heaven; when you despise the merely apparent death, which is temporal; when you fear the death which is real, and which is reserved for those who will be condemned to the everlasting fire, the fire which will punish even to the end those who are delivered to it, then you will condemn the deceit and error of the world” (Letter to Diognetus 10:7 [A.D. 160]).

    Athenagoras

    “[W]e [Christians] are persuaded that when we are removed from this present life we shall live another life, better than the present one. . . . Then we shall abide near God and with God, changeless and free from suffering in the soul . . . or if we fall with the rest [of mankind], a worse one and in fire; for God has not made us as sheep or beasts of burden, a mere incidental work, that we should perish and be annihilated” (Plea for the Christians 31 [A.D. 177]).

    Theophilus of Antioch

    “Give studious attention to the prophetic writings [the Bible] and they will lead you on a clearer path to escape the eternal punishments and to obtain the eternal good things of God. . . . [God] will examine everything and will judge justly, granting recompense to each according to merit. To those who seek immortality by the patient exercise of good works, he will give everlasting life, joy, peace, rest, and all good things. . . . For the unbelievers and for the contemptuous, and for those who do not submit to the truth but assent to iniquity, when they have been involved in adulteries, and fornications, and homosexualities, and avarice, and in lawless idolatries, there will be wrath and indignation, tribulation and anguish; and in the end, such men as these will be detained in everlasting fire” (To Autolycus 1:14 [A.D. 181]).

    Irenaeus

    “[God will] send the spiritual forces of wickedness, and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, and the impious, unjust, lawless, and b.asphemous among men into everlasting fire” (Against Heresies 1:10:1 [A.D. 189]).

    “The penalty increases for those who do not believe the Word of God and despise his coming. . . . [I]t is not merely temporal, but eternal. To whomsoever the Lord shall say, ‘Depart from me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire,’ they will be damned forever” (ibid., 4:28:2).

    Tertullian

    “After the present age is ended he will judge his worshipers for a reward of eternal life and the godless for a fire equally perpetual and unending” (Apology 18:3 [A.D. 197]).

    “Then will the entire race of men be restored to receive its just deserts according to what it has merited in this period of good and evil, and thereafter to have these paid out in an immeasurable and unending eternity. Then there will be neither death again nor resurrection again, but we shall be always the same as we are now, without changing. The worshipers of God shall always be with God, clothed in the proper substance of eternity. But the godless and those who have not turned wholly to God will be punished in fire equally unending, and they shall have from the very nature of this fire, divine as it were, a supply of incorruptibility” (ibid., 44:12–13).

    Hippolytus

    “Standing before [Christ’s] judgment, all of them, men, angels, and demons, crying out in one voice, shall say: ‘Just is your judgment!’ And the righteousness of that cry will be apparent in the recompense made to each. To those who have done well, everlasting enjoyment shall be given; while to the lovers of evil shall be given eternal punishment. The unquenchable and unending fire awaits these latter, and a certain fiery worm which does not die and which does not waste the body but continually bursts forth from the body with unceasing pain. No sleep will give them rest; no night will soothe them; no death will deliver them from punishment; no appeal of interceding friends will profit them” (Against the Greeks 3 [A.D. 212]).

    Minucius Felix

    “I am not ignorant of the fact that many, in the consciousness of what they deserve, would rather hope than actually believe that there is nothing for them after death. They would prefer to be annihilated rather than be restored for punishment. . . . Nor is there either measure nor end to these torments. That clever fire burns the limbs and restores them, wears them away and yet sustains them, just as fiery thunderbolts strike bodies but do not consume them” (Octavius 34:12–5:3 [A.D. 226]).

    Cyprian of Carthage

    “An ever-burning Gehenna and the punishment of being devoured by living flames will consume the condemned; nor will there be any way in which the tormented can ever have respite or be at an end. Souls along with their bodies will be preserved for suffering in unlimited agonies. . . . The grief at punishment will then be without the fruit of repentance; weeping will be useless, and prayer ineffectual. Too late will they believe in eternal punishment, who would not believe in eternal life” (To Demetrian 24 [A.D. 252]).

    Lactantius

    “[T]he sacred writings inform us in what manner the wicked are to undergo punishment. For because they have committed sins in their bodies, they will again be clothed with flesh, that they may make atonement in their bodies; and yet it will not be that flesh with which God clothed man, like this our earthly body, but indestructible, and abiding forever, that it may be able to hold out against tortures and everlasting fire, the nature of which is different from this fire of ours, which we use for the necessary purposes of life, and which is extinguished unless it be sustained by the fuel of some material. But that divine fire always lives by itself, and flourishes without any nourishment. . . . The same divine fire, therefore, with one and the same force and power, will both burn the wicked and will form them again, and will replace as much as it shall consume of their bodies, and will supply itself with eternal nourishment. . . . Thus, without any wasting of bodies, which regain their substance, it will only burn and affect them with a sense of pain. But when [God] shall have judged the righteous, he will also try them with fire” (Divine Institutes 7:21 [A.D. 307]).

    Cyril of Jerusalem

    “We shall be raised therefore, all with our bodies eternal, but not all with bodies alike: for if a man is righteous, he will receive a heavenly body, that he may be able worthily to hold converse with angels; but if a man is a sinner, he shall receive an eternal body, fitted to endure the penalties of sins, that he may burn eternally in fire, nor ever be consumed. And righteously will God assign this portion to either company; for we do nothing without the body. We b.aspheme with the mouth, and with the mouth we pray. With the body we commit fornication, and with the body we keep chastity. With the hand we rob, and by the hand we bestow alms; and the rest in like manner. Since then the body has been our minister in all things, it shall also share with us in the future the fruits of the past” (Catechetical Lectures 18:19 [A.D. 350]).

    Like

  30. elijahmaria says:

    Gallows humor made me smile at the commentary from Cyprian above.

    All those good Orthodox Cyprianites: I wondered if they follow fully, or only partially?

    Like

  31. elijahmaria says:

    Not even that rotten heretical papal Catholic Church takes the Cyprianite position in teaching about prayers for the dead…by the way.

    Like

  32. Gee, Mary, I do seem to have a penchant for offending you, don’t I 😦 Again, I am sorry for that.

    However, please do not feel that just because someone focuses on a particular phrase that they are “using” you. Rather please take advantage of the opportunity to learn about & how to handle the differences between people. Just because we may use the same words or phrases, for example grace or salvation among many others, they may or may not be understood by others in the way that we are using them. It is an excellent opportunity to also learn how to better express our beliefs, attitudes & opinions so that they resonate better with others. While I lately seem to have a penchant for offending you & PJ, this is not normal in my dealings with others.

    I never said or implied that we (RC & EO) have no commonality. Of course, we do! Afterall our respective groups were in union for approximately 1,000 years. I “have darn few people to talk to where I am” as well. My area is devout German Lutheran & equally devout RC, most of which have never heard of Orthodoxy. Conversations with those that have generally go like this:
    Them: “So do you go…” or “Where do you go to Church?”
    Me: “Yes, I attend XXX Orthodox parish in YYY town.”
    Them: “You’re EO?”
    Me: “Yes.”
    Them: “Idolator!” if they’re Protestant. “Schismatic!” if they’re RC.
    I can always tell if I’m talking with a more knowledgable RC because they will ask me if my jurisdiction is “in communion with Rome” before calling me a schismatic. A rare few though are not this way & we end up having rather pleasant exchanges where both of our commonalities & differences are thoughtfully discussed.

    I was first exposed to RC when I was 15. My mother was unemployed with no child support from my father…I had to work but child labor laws forbid my being officially hired. My best friend was RC, also 15 & needing to work to help her family) worked for cash only at a local RC publisher & distributor in their mail room & got me a job unofficially on weekends. I was earning money & was allowed to read everything there on breaks or work lulls. For a broke avid reader who favored theological topics this was heaven! Throughout college I attended RC mass daily even though I could not commune. Even now 30+ years later I still correspond & discuss topics of theology with RC laity & clergy from there & now elsewhere as my life has taken me. I have also attended what used to be called RCIA, helped my youngest step-daughter learn her Catechism for her Confirmation & occasionally attended mass with my husband.

    Much of what I wrote in my first “explosive” comment above did not originate with my Orthodox readings. Instead it came from them & those RC publications written by deacons, priests & cardinals I read as a young broke Presbyterian teen sitting on a mailroom stool. They were lamenting the ineffectiveness & irrelevancy of the RCC just as were the hierarchy of my own Presbyterian group & other mainline Protestant denominations were their respective groups. One of the issues they all identified was the problem of theology being an academic endeavor & thus separated from the real lives of their faithful. A few RC authors even commented & complimented EO spirituality as a synergy between Orthodox theology with Orthodox life & wondered how it might benefit their groups; ironically even then, they too were rebuffed with charges of schism & heresy. They too lamented the rapid rise & broad-based unquestioning acceptance of The Social Gospel & its effects that were already manifesting then throughout our society. The ramifications (materialism, humanism, secularism, entitlement mentality) we now see so prominently were actually predicted by them back then.

    Like

    • PJ says:

      EP,

      You didn’t offend me. You just seem to have bought into some well-worn canards, especially regarding so-called “scholasticism.” First, the origins of scholasticism are found in the east, and it flourished throughout the Byzantine world right up to the fall of Constantinople. John of Damascus and Gregory of Nazianzen can be just as dry, speculative, philosophical, and Hellenistic as any Frankish or Italian schoolman of the High Middle Ages. Furthermore, there is no lack of spirituality and mysticism among the great scholastics (many of whom are also great saints!). For instance, Thomas Aquinas wrote many beautiful hymns still sung today; he could hardly get through Mass without crying tears of joy and awe; he would spend hours before the tabernacle in contemplation.

      Like

  33. elijahmaria says:

    EP: I have no idea what you are talking about actually. Furthermore it seems to have nothing to do with the question of whether or not both east and west do teach that hell is eternal, or whether or not there’s any one there in the end: whatever “end” means. I think I am going to do my best to stay on topic. Again you do not bother me. I think it is sad.

    M.

    Like

  34. elijahmaria says:

    Father Aidan: Back to my comment on “poena” as loss. That was taught to me by a Benedictine monk, several in fact, and an eastern Catholic priest who spent time in both Roman rite and eastern rite seminaries. So it is not just any old dog that won’t hunt. Penal: however much it may be commonly used in English: when used formally in the papal Church means the loss of contact with God. That is the primary and formal Latin referent.

    Like

  35. elijahmaria says:

    http://blog.adw.org/2010/02/what-is-the-wrath-of-god/

    This was the sort of thing that I learned in Catholic School about the wrath of God…back when masses were still sung in Latin and Greek…

    Like

  36. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Folks. I just returned home late this afternoon after visiting my mother in Virginia Beach. I see that this thread has generated a lot of heat, some of it unhelpful. I’d prefer not to close the thread, but I do ask everyone to please avoid generalizations and to provide evidence for your claims–and please do so in a non-polemical way. It is in sufficient to say “this is what ____ taught me.” Please support your claims with documentation, either direct textual citation or secondary scholarship or both. Thanks! I want this blog to be a place where we can learn together. Constructive debate is welcome, but the vigorous, ideological assertion of unsubstantiated opinion is not. As Daniel Moynihan remarked, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

    The debate was triggered by Mary’s invocation of St Gregory the Great. I responded by noting that St Gregory advocated a retributive construal of hell and final judgment. For support, I reference the fourth book of his Dialogues. In the dialogues we learn the following:

    1) At the point of death, the souls of the just are assigned by God to heaven and the souls of the unjust are assigned by God to hell: “If, by the testimony of holy scripture, you believe that the souls of holy and perfect men be in heaven: by the same reason ought you also to believe that the souls of the wicked be in hell: for as just men do rejoice and be glad at the retribution of eternal justice, so necessary it is that the wicked at the same justice should be grieved and tormented: for as heavenly felicity doth glad the elect, so we ought to believe that, from the day of their departure, fire doth afflict and burn the reprobate” (Chap. 28).

    2) In hell God punishes the souls of the damned by corporal fire (Chaps. 28, 29, 43).

    3) The punishment of hell is everlasting (Chap. 44): “Certain it is, and without all doubt most true, that as the good shall have no end of their joys, so the wicked never any release of their torments: for our Saviour himself saith: The wicked shall go into everlasting punishment, and the just into everlasting life.”

    4) Even though the crimes of the damned are of a finite nature, they are rightly punished for eternity (Chap. 44): “This which you say might have some reason, if the just judge did only consider the sins committed, and not the minds with which they were committed: for the reason why wicked men made an end of sinning was, because they also made an end of their life: for willingly they would, had it been in their power, have lived without end, that they might in like manner have sinned without end. For they do plainly declare that they desired always to live in sin, who never, so long as they were in this world, gave over their wicked life: and therefore it belongeth to the great justice of the supreme judge, that they should never want torments and punishment in the next world, who in this would never give over their wicked and sinful life. … Almighty God, because he is merciful and full of pity, taketh no pleasure in the torments of wretched men: but because he is also just, therefore doth he never give over to punish the wicked. All which being condemned to perpetual pains, punished they are for their own wickedness: and yet shall they always there burn in fire for some end, and that is, that all those which be just and God’s servants may in God behold the joys which they possess, and in them see the torments which they have escaped: to the end that they may thereby always acknowledge themselves grateful to God for his grace, in that they perceive through his divine assistance, what sins they have overcome, which they behold in others to be punished everlastingly.”

    “With Gregory the Great,” Brian Daley writes, “Latin Patristic eschatology reached its final form” (The Hope of the Early Church, p. 214–for a survey of patristic eschatology, read this book). St Gregory clearly falls into what I have called a retributive model of hell: God actively punishes the damned because they deserve to experience suffering and torment for their crimes. St Gregory’s views are continued in the Latin scholastic tradition. See, for example, the discussion by St Thomas Aquinas. And in his Breviloquium St Bonaventure writes:

    Concerning the pains of hell, the following must be held. These are suffered in a material place, down below, in which all the wicked, both men and fallen angels, are eternally afflicted. They are tormented by a single material fire which affects both souls and bodies, and yet never consumes these bodies, but tortures them forever–some more, some less, in proportion to each one’s guilt. To this pain by fire shall be added affliction in every one of the senses, and also the pain of worms, and loss of the beatific vision. Hence, in these pains there shall be variety, and together with variety, bitterness, and together with bitterness, endlessness; so that, as regards the punishment of the reprobate, the smoke of their torments goes up forever and ever. (Brev. 7.7)

    Personally, I find this construal of hell unacceptable, for all the reasons offered by St Isaac the Syrian; but I cannot deny that this has been the dominant understanding of hell and the final judgment within Western Christianity, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. It is also the case, as I noted in my St Isaac series, that during the past half century many Catholic and Protestant theologians have sought to move away from a retributive model to an issuant model: God does not actively punish the damned; he allows individuals to freely reject his mercy and to freely separate themselves from his presence and love. This model has its own problems which I hope one day to address on this blog. I do not believe that it solves the manifest injustice of eternal conscious torment. The God of unconditional love would not accept this situation; he will find a way to save all. That is my belief.

    Like

    • PJ says:

      Welcome back, Father.

      You say you find this “unacceptable.” But does that mean it is not true? I don’t like the idea any more than you. But — again — what does that say about its veracity? When I first came to the Faith, I found much of it unacceptable. But I slowly yielded to the Truth. I came to understand that the wisdom of the Church is superior to my own intuitions, however sincere they might be.

      If hell is not eternal, if it is not penal in some sense, then the Church has been terribly, tragically wrong on one of the most important dogmas of our religion. How can this be? Perhaps this reveals my own cowardice or simplicity, but I cannot accept that the Church could be so wrong for so long. If it was wrong on this, then I cannot trust it about anything. I wouldn’t know where to turn. Do you know what I mean?

      Like

      • PJ says:

        And how could countless holy men and women of the past accept the traditional vision of hell without hesitation? Why do we feel that our moral sense is so superior to their own? They did not see the damnation of the wicked as diminishing the utter goodness and love of God. Should we not follow their lead?

        Like

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        “You say you find this “unacceptable.” But does that mean it is not true?”

        Quite right. The fact that I find it morally unacceptable does not of course mean that the traditional view of hell is not true. I am not an infallible authority; in fact, I’m not an authority at all! If, for example, the Magisterium of the Catholic Church has authoritatively determined that the retributive construal of hell is the correct one or that hell is indeed populated, then I suppose that means that the question is closed for Catholics and that the eschatological visions of St Gregory Nyssen and St Isaac of Ninevah are wrong. There’s not a whole lot more then to be said, is there?

        But if the question is still open for Catholics (and I’m not saying that it is–see Cardinal Dulles’s article “The Population of Hell“), as it is open for the Orthodox, then we each must make a fundamental hermeneutical choice: will we or will we not interpret Holy Scripture through a hermeneutic of absolute love and triumphant hope? I have decided to follow St Isaac. If I have chosen wrongly, may the Lord forgive me.

        Does that sound reasonable?

        Like

      • PJ says:

        Father,

        I am very wary about forming any personal hermeneutic. Who am I? One little man, relatively uneducated and rather prone to sin. If the Church has spoken, I must listen. And it seems to me to have spoken, at least on the essentials of this matter.

        I agree with you: The traditional view of hell does not seem to comport with a God of perfect love. Yet it is apparently the teaching of Scripture — and it is certainly the teaching of the western — and much of the eastern — Church.

        I must therefore regard my own hesitations with great suspicion. After all, my mind remains darkened by sin. I must trust that the goodness and love of God prevails, even if its triumph does not look like what I imagine it would look like.

        But maybe I’m wrong: Maybe the consensus is not so solid; perhaps the teaching not so set in stone; perhaps the Church might have erred. If so, like you, I hope that God forgives my error. I do not want to express my own opinion: I want to believe and present the Truth.

        Like

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        PJ, I well understand the desire to avoid “private opinion” and to confess only the infallible teaching of the Church. But I suggest that things are more complex than that, for both Orthodox and Catholics. It’s not as if, for example, everything that is taught in our respective Churches (you are Roman Catholic, aren’t you?) enjoys irreformable status. Theologians are constantly discussing and debating these matters, including whether doctrine ____ possesses infallible authority; and the debates are often quite contentious.

        On the question before us, I think it is safe to say that Orthodox have more latitude than do Catholics. See Edward’s comments above. Putting aside for the moment the question of universal salvation, I know for a fact that many Catholics would disagree with Fr McCabe’s presentation of the unconditional love of God. This disagreement becomes apparent whenever one begins to discuss justification by faith. That’s a pretty fundamental disagreement, don’t you think? BTW, if you do not have access to the First Things website, you can find an archived version of Dulles’s article on hell here: http://goo.gl/yJ6A6.

        In any case, I am not trying to convert you to my universalist convictions, PJ. All we can do is to reflect on these difficult questions and make up our minds as best as we can. You raise good questions and I thank you for the non-polemical discussion.

        Like

    • PJ says:

      What I mean is: Have modern man’s moral sensitivities been sharpened or dulled? Do we have a clearer understanding of the love and mercy of God, or have we lost any sense of the blackness of sin and the glory of God’s holiness?

      For what it’s worth, many (most?) of the Marian apparitions hammer home the reality of hell, and the multitude of modern souls who have unwittingly fallen prey to the devil. So unless they’re fake, we have confirmation from the Virgin herself that hell is real and terrible. I’m not sure what Orthodox think about Fatima, Lourdes, etc.

      Like

  37. Connie says:

    Welcome back, Fr Aidan!

    Like

  38. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have blocked ElijahMaria from any further commenting on my blog. Please do not respond to her comments, as she will not be able to respond. I have made my comment policies clear, and she has refused to abide by them.

    Like

  39. PJ says:

    Father,

    I wonder what you make of 1 Cor 3:10-15:

    “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”

    Like

    • coffeezombie says:

      I know you asked Fr. Aidan’s opinion, but I couldn’t help myself to comment here and point out that the last bit, there, “If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire,” sounds pretty much exactly like what St. Isaac is saying! There is still Hell, but salvation is still the end game.

      As a side note, have you read Flannery O’Conner’s short story, “Revelation”? Whenever I read that passage, I always think of the ending scene from that story.

      Like

  40. PJ:
    We are not in disagreement regards Hell. We only disagree in the form & purpose. Yes we could roll out the Scripture passages speaking of “God as a consuming fire” as eternal damnation & burning. But we can also roll out those that speak of God as a fire of purification (1 Corinthians 3:11–15, Malachi 3:2–3, Isaiah 4:4, Zechariah 13:9, Isaiah 1:25, Daniel 12:10). We can also do the same with the writings of the Saints on both sides of this topic. We could also trot out the 10th Anathema of the Emperor Justinian against Origin from the 5th Ecumenical Council. Also the monks that experienced the divine light/fire such as St. Seraphim of Sarov can be added to the mix with Scripture & Saint passages of God is Love. We are merely trying to eliminate seemingly incongruencies between the sides.

    Long before I became Orthodox & was the Jewish equivalent of a catechumen, a proselyte. The main draw for me was the lack of focus on a eternal damnation of hellfire. The Jewish reasoning was as put forth by Fr. Aidan in his study by St. Isaac: A loving God would not be so cruel as to burn throughout all of eternity his children for their actions across a very finite lifespan of 80 or so years. The Jewish mindset taught that God would just wipe evil ones out at the coming of the Messiah leaving the righteous ones to continue living in the Kingdom, Heaven. On the other hand, the Jewish mindset did not focus on attaining Heaven (or rather worrying about am I going to Heaven), but rather living according to God’s commandments (613 laws) would lead to righteousness which would in turn lead to Heaven. Basically, their mantra was to live righteously & trust in God’s fair & equitable judgement at the coming of the Messiah, the Final Judgment.

    I hope that this mantra sounds even vaguely familiar. It is very similar to our concept of theosis/divinization. We are to progress in salvation & deepen our union with God. We judge ourselves now & work synergistically with God (who purifies us) to become by grace what He is by nature. Thereby we avoid His judgment later although we too will be purified by God eternally as we will always be progressing into deeper communion with Him. So too I believe with the wicked. God loves all of his children (wicked & righteous) & thus purifies both us & the wicked who have chosen not to respond to His love. Eventually, all will be willing partakers of the Divine nature through this loving purification. I think this is the point of St. Isaac the Syrian if I am understanding what Fr. Aidan is saying.

    I much prefer the idea of purification rather than punishment. I have just had to deal with too many people that have been harmed & driven away from God through the constant harping on God’s wrath & punishment that they substantiate by trotted out the writings of Scripture &/or the Saints &/or the decrees of whatever church to justify their pronouncements. This rationale does not encourage faith in God, it far too frequently destroys it.

    A problem that I do see though with St. Isaac’s thoughts on final reconciliation of all even the wicked is our human penchant to say, “Well then, why should I strive for righteousness now to attain Heaven if I’ll just end up there anyway?” All I can say in rebuttal is, “There is an easy way to do things & there is a hard way & there are corresponding consequences to be faced accordingly…choose which you prefer.” The easy way is willingly working for salvation now through God’s grace while in the temporal world. The hard way is working for salvation later in eternity through God’s direct purification.

    Scripture says:
    I have sworn by Myself; The word has gone out of My mouth in righteousness, And shall not return, That to Me every knee shall bow, Every tongue shall take an oath. (Is 45:23)

    Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Php 2:9–11)

    I just see no reason to believe that this kneeling, bowing & oath-taking/confessing is forced on anyone by God who is Love. I much rather believe that it will be a fully-natural fully-human reaction to God’s loving presence, sinner or saint.

    Like

  41. PJ says:

    Father,

    I am the first to admit that there is room for discussion regarding the details and specifics of the last things, which are ultimately shrouded in mystery. And I’m even willing to push the boundaries on some points, especially given the Balthasarian tendencies of the recent bishops of Rome! My eschatology is really quite optimistic; I just appear like a backwoods fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist next to you mystical orientals. 😉

    As an Augustinian, I am engrossed by the enigma of God’s goodness and providence on the one hand, and man’s wickedness and freedom on the other. To my eye, the mystery of hell shares the same root as the mystery of evil in general: the gift of human freedom. This gift, which is essential to our being in the image of God, is the foundation (to my mind) of the doctrine of perdition. Yet it is also the foundation of the doctrine of salvation, for true love must be freely given and freely received … But this very same freedom, which allows for love and communion, also allows for hate, and thus separation. Alas…

    Like

    • Edward says:

      I think that the discussion is not so much about the reality of hell but rather about the extent of God’s power to save. It seems to me that the whole Church holds to a doctrine of hell. I include here even Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Isaac of Nineveh. We all believe that, apart from the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, man would be separated from God forever. Nothing defiled can enter the presence of God. So, where is the difference? The difference lies in how far we believe that free will can go in resisting God’s grace. Those who believe that the vast majority of human beings are damned must also believe that God’s power to save is minimal — that evil is stronger than God’s grace. Those who believe that the vast majority are saved will also believe that the power of the cross is greater than the evil of man and will win out in the majority of cases. The universalist goes so far as to say that the power of the cross is so great that it has transformed even gehenna into an instrument of God’s salvific purpose. For myself, I find it hard to believe that God, Whose only purpose in coming into the world was to save mankind, should fail in that venture. I don’t think that this necessarily means that all are saved, but I would think it would imply the salvation of the greater number of mankind.
      PJ brought up the visions of our Lady. I have given this some thought myself. We must remember, of course, that when the Church approves a private revelation she merely affirms that it contains nothing contrary to the public revelation of the Church and that it can be of benefit for the faithful. With regard to the visions of Fatima, we must always ask whether they are intended by way of vivid warning or whether they represent the actual state of affairs. In Scripture, for instance, there are several instances in which God says that he will destroy a people, apparently unconditionally, and then later relents. Indeed, these visions of hell show us where our sins would lead us were it not for the Redemption won for us by our Saviour. Hence, we should desist from sinful behaviour and cultivate virtue. To this extent, I think that private revelations can be salutary. Nevertheless, they can never be the basis for doctrine.
      By the way, there is a very obscure verse of Scripture that very few ever bring up when speaking of God’s unconditional love for us. I am referring to that verse in which Jesus states that the Good Shepherd seeks the lost sheep until he finds it. Note what He does not say. He does not say that the Good Shepherd seeks until He gets fed up with this sinful lost sheep. No. He seeks until He finds. On the face of it, it seems to imply that God never gives up on us. That does give me a great deal of hope for mankind.

      Ed

      Like

      • PJ says:

        Ed,

        This is what Sr. Lucy, one of the children from Fatima, said of hell:

        “She opened Her hands once more, as She had done the two previous months. The rays appeared to penetrate the earth, and we saw, as it were, a vast sea of fire. Plunged in this fire, we saw the demons and the souls [of the damned]. The latter were like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, having human forms. They were floating about in that conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames which issued from within themselves, together with great clouds of smoke. Now they fell back on every side like sparks in huge fires, without weight or equilibrium, amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fright (it must have been this sight which caused me to cry out, as people say they heard me). The demons were distinguished by their terrifying and repellent likeness to frightful and unknown animals, black and transparent like burning coals. That vision only lasted for a moment, thanks to our good Heavenly Mother, Who at the first apparition had promised to take us to Heaven. Without that, I think that we would have died of terror and fear.”

        I admit I’ve always been a little … uneasy? … about these apparitions/visions. I’m not one of those Catholics who are very involved with these sort of devotions — for better or for worse. And yet … the miracles and wonders associated with Lourdes, Fatima, etc. are remarkable. Thus they bear considering.

        Like

      • Karen says:

        Good insights, Ed. Actually, I have thought of the parable of the Lost Sheep in the context of this discussion as well, and it gives me great hope. It’s that vision of God in His love that gives me peace.

        Like

      • Connie says:

        PJ,
        I have not heard of those Marian apparitions (I’m not very familiar with Catholicism) but they are very puzzling. You mentioned that in many of the Virgin’s apparitions she tells us that Christ is “terribly pained by those who willfully choose damnation over salvation.” I can’t help wondering: If Christ is pained, how does His pain end? How can Christ “see the travail of His soul and be satisfied?” (Isaiah 53:11) Actually, I can see these visions fitting in with a “damnation” (hell) that lasts only until the remedial nature of the punishment has accomplished its purpose, but how does it fit in with a damnation that is permanent/everlasting? Does the Catholic Church teach that the pain of Christ is an ultimate, eternal reality? Excuse my great ignorance here.

        Like

      • PJ says:

        Connie,

        You’ve not heard of Lourdes or Fatima? They are two of the largest pilgrimage sites in all Christendom: 5,000,000 per year visit Lourdes alone. On May 13, the crowds at Fatima often swell to 1,000,000 in size! And not without reason: In 1917, tens of thousands saw the sun dance, just as the Virgin had told the visionaries it would. For the “Miracle of the Sun,” go here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Miracle_of_the_Sun

        From what I’ve read, one of the regular themes of these apparitions is the pain and anger of Christ at the blindness and sinfulness of the world.

        As I said, I’ve never been a close follower of these devotions, and I have certain hesitations about the theology which has grown up around them, but they’re certainly “data points” in my consideration of eschatology, given their significance…

        Like

      • Connie says:

        You can chalk my ignorance up to a general disinterest in visions or miracles of all kinds. I don’t discount them or judge them one way or another. I truly believe in miracles, but compared to the miracle of a transformed life, all other miracles pale for me.

        But about the pain Christ feels toward those who freely choose damnation: Do you think a hell that lasts forever makes more sense in the context of these apparitions than a hell that lasts only as long as necessary to bring a sinner to repentance. If hell lasts forever, then wouldn’t Christ’s pain have to last forever too, and wouldn’t that make pain and sorrow an ultimate eternal quality of our Lord? But if hell is remedial, then truly Christ will “look at the travail of His soul and be satisfied.” (I’m sorry if I’ve repeated myself.)

        Like

  42. PJ says:

    Would you agree that this is one of the most challenging verses for a universalist? “It would be better for that man if he had never been born.” I’ve always found it terrifying. Especially because I have always had a strange anxiety about having never been born — despite the fact that I obviously have been born already.

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Regarding this verse, Pope John Paul II commented: “Even when Jesus says of Judas, the traitor, ‘It would be better for that man if he had never been born’ (Mt 26:24), His words do not allude for certain to eternal damnation.”

      Strictly and literally interpreted, why do you think the verse implies eternal damnation? Why jump to that conclusion?

      Like

      • Karen says:

        Regarding Mt 26:24, is it possible this is another instance of Jesus’ use of hyperbole to make a point?

        Like

      • PJ says:

        I can’t imagine any other way to interpret it. There’s only one thing worse than never existing: Existing eternally apart from God.

        Like

        • Edward says:

          PJ,
          Our Lord’s words to Judas are more than likely a proverbial expression. We find examples of it in the Old Testament. For instance, Job says, “let the day perish wherein I was born.” He says this in reference to the earthly calamities that he has suffered and certainly not in reference to hell. Do you think that Job really believed it would have been better not to have been born? I think not. I think he expresses in a very vivid way the greatness of his suffering. Again, in Ecclesiastes 6:3, we have the following: “if a man live many years, and his soul be not filled with good; and also that he has no burial; I say that an untimely birth is better than he.”
          Judas is about to do a horrible thing. One way to express the horror of his sin and of all sin for that matter is to say that it is better not to have been born than to have committed that sin. This does not mean necessarily that the individuals who commit sins are bound for hell.

          Ed

          Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      In her lenten devotional Bread and Wine Madeleine L’Engle writes:

      And when we meet our Creator, we will be judged for all our turnings away, all our inhumanity to each other, but it will be the judgment of inexorable love, and in the end we will know the mercy of God which is beyond all comprehension. …

      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.”

      I think this perfectly expresses the spirit of St Isaac.

      Like

      • Karen says:

        I recently read that same story. I don’t have much faith in my own efforts, so I thought it would be better ended,

        After many more falls and efforts and failures, a last time Judas slipped and fell back down to the bottom of the pit. Brokenhearted and spent to the core, he cried out, “Lord, help me! I cannot climb out of this pit.” Jesus answered, “I thought you’d never ask. Take my hand . . . “

        Like

  43. Let’s keep that verse in its context & about the one, Judas, whom it was said rather than applying it “universally” beyond its intent or personally towards ourselves. Yes, we all “betray” Christ through our sins & thankfully God forgives us our transgressions. Let us rather learn from his example to not do such things & let God eternally deal with Judas. Who is to say that Judas was not one of those freed from the grave along with Adam & Eve at the Resurrection? Surely, not I who is eyeball-deep in my own sins!

    Like

  44. PJ says:

    Er, if Judas was indeed freed from his grave to be with God, that verse would make zero sense. Christ declares that non-existence is preferable to the fate that awaits his betrayer. If Judas was saved — even after enduring terrible purgatorial suffering — then how could non-existence be preferable? That’s the rub, you see: surely eternal existence with God is preferable to non-existence, even if it comes at the cost of purifying “fire” or some such thing.

    Like

  45. PJ:
    Remember the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian, especially the last line:

    O Lord & Master of my life! Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, & idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, & love to Thy servant. Yea, O Lord & King! Grant me to see my own transgressions & not to judge my brother; For Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

    Gotta love those Syrians 😉

    Even St. Paul considered himself to be the worst of sinners: (This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. [1 Timothy 1:15]) We are not to judge anyone, not even Judas; only ourselves. As others have said another’s salvation (let’s also include another’s damnation) is not our business; only our own. All of us merit eternal damnation because of our own sins, no more or less than Judas. None of us merit eternal life because of our own sins, again no more or less than Judas. But God loves us despite our sins & bestows His grace (His love) on us willingly & completely so that we may attain eternal life—salvation—union with Him—so that we may be by His grace what He is by nature. May He be glorified!

    Er, if Judas was indeed freed from his grave to be with God, that verse would make zero sense.

    Er, not necessarily 😉 I agree with Fr. Aidan & Karen that the passage you cited does not necessarily imply eternal damnation (neither Judas’ nor universally) & may well be a figure of speech or hyperbole. Also, we do not necessarily know what Judas endured while in the grave before the Harrowing of Hell by Christ (The Resurrection). The only thing profitable to the Judas story for us in this temporal life is that we are not to emulate him, but rather we are to remain in Christ. Debating Judas’ eternal destiny is most unprofitable.

    Also, according to Scriptures & many of the Fathers, Judas’ betrayal of Christ was foretold; he was doing what he was meant to do in order to for God to complete His plan of salvation on our behalf. We could even say that Judas was “predestined” to betray Christ. This now brings into question Judas’ free-will; did he have free-will or not? If he did not, then how can God, Love personified, “justify” condemning Judas’ eternal damnation? Just as the Theotokos was prepared for her role as Mother of God, was Judas also prepared for his role?

    Before this starts another round of “debate” let me state that I do believe that Judas had free-will & that he was predestined to perform his role. God in His omniscience knew what Judas would do with his God-given free-will. Let’s just say that God arranged for the “right person” to be in the “right place” at the “right time” to do the “right deed”, just as He did with the Theotokos.

    Like

  46. Correction. Should have been

    If he did not, then how can God, Love personified, “justify” condemning Judas to eternal damnation?

    Sorry. That’s what happens when one tries thinking, composing & posting after a long day & work shift :-\

    Like

  47. PJ says:

    I don’t think I’m “judging” Judas. I’m just trying to interpret a hard saying of Christ’s. If Judas was/is saved, then of course it is better that he be born than not. I don’t consider myself any better than Judas. He betrayed Christ, I betray Christ. We are alike. That is why I try to maintain a healthy fear of damnation. I am, in my selfishness and sinfulness, fully capable of separating myself eternally from God. My love is weak and my hope is fickle and my faith is little.

    And, as a side note, I think we must take care to see the difference between judging and admonishing. Much of my spiritual growth has been the result of loving correction from my brothers and sisters in Christ. In fact, it is one of the spiritual works of mercy in the Catholic tradition. As the Lord said, “If thy brother shall offend against thee, go, and rebuke him between thee and him alone.” And St. Paul: “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.” Of course, as the Lord and the Apostle suggest, it must be done with the utmost charity and sensitivity, and one must take care not to slide from correction to judgment.

    Like

  48. That is why I try to maintain a healthy fear of damnation. I am, in my selfishness and sinfulness, fully capable of separating myself eternally from God.

    I think perhaps that the word “separation”, especially in the sense of separation from God, is one of those inadequate words that we use to try to inadequately explain what we inadequately mean. I think that “separation” can be taken too far in a literal sense. Christ through His Incarnation, Crucifixion & Resurrection forever united the creation with the Creator, so we in essence are not fully capable of separating ourseves from God no matter how much or how great our sins. Add to this that God is everywhere present so there can be no true separation from Him as there is no place where He is not present.

    This is why Heaven & Hell for the Orthodox are how we experience God’s presence in eternity. Our experience is based on did we respond to His love (by pursuing deeper union with God) while temporally alive or did we reject His love by pursuing self-love through sin? As you noted the only way to be truly separated from God is to be non-existent. One of the fundamental assumptions in Fr. Aidan’s St. Isaac the Syrian series is that God loves all of his children whether righteous or unrighteous. Therefore He would not strike the unrighteous out of existence nor will He roast them like a pig over a spit forever. But rather He will use His loving grace to somehow, someway bring them back into the eternal fold of His loving arms.

    I do not think that you are judging Judas either & are trying very hard to understand God’s word; this is commendable. The same night that Judas betrayed our Lord with a kiss, St. Peter also denied our Lord 3 times. Judas in despair hanged himself & lost his bishopric while St. Peter on the other hand repented & was restored to his. We are to do like St. Peter (repent, confess, & be restored to our “bishopric”) & not Judas (fear, despair, despondency)…that is the lesson…nothing more…nothing less (IMO).

    I do believe however that you have your thoughts wrapped around the wrong axle so to speak (Judas eternal destiny) & are making this one passage (especially one sentence: “It would be better for that man if he had never been born.”) of the Gospel too dominant & to the exclusion of others. Perfect love casts out fear. Our focus (our axle) is to be in willing participants in the love of Christ; in Christ there need be no fear of damnation. Rejoice & be glad! 😀

    Like

  49. PJ says:

    “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

    Like

  50. PJ says:

    I don’t understand how the Orthodox commitment to synergism jibes with universalism, which seems to demand irresistible grace. What is a universalist but an optimistic Calvinist?

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      It’s a mystery! 🙂

      You may find of interest Thomas Talbott’s book The Inescapable Love of God. Check out this chapter from the book.

      But let me flip the dilemma you pose. I do not know how anyone who believes in efficacious grace, construed along either Augustinian or Thomistic lines, cannot be a universalist. If God is absolute love, why would he not confer the grace to bring all to salvation? That the Augustinian God does not do so logically leads to some form of limited atonement and double predestination. Calvin simply connected all the dots.

      Like

  51. Edward says:

    PJ,
    I wrote this response to you earlier today, but it got shoved into the middle of the combox section so perhaps you didn’t see it. Here is what I wrote:

    “Our Lord’s words to Judas are more than likely a proverbial expression. We find examples of it in the Old Testament. For instance, Job says, “let the day perish wherein I was born.” He says this in reference to the earthly calamities that he has suffered and certainly not in reference to hell. Do you think that Job really believed it would have been better not to have been born? I think not. I think he expresses in a very vivid way the greatness of his suffering. Again, in Ecclesiastes 6:3, we have the following: “if a man live many years, and his soul be not filled with good; and also that he has no burial; I say that an untimely birth is better than he.”
    Judas is about to do a horrible thing. One way to express the horror of his sin and of all sin for that matter is to say that it is better not to have been born than to have committed that sin. This does not mean necessarily that the individuals who commit sins are bound for hell.”

    Having said that, I do think that there are verses of Scripture which are difficult for universalists to explain. For instance, when St. Paul states that people who commit certain kinds of sins will not inherit the kingdom of God, or when St. John in the Book of Revelation speaks about those thrown into the lake of fire which continues “unto the ages of ages.” Given all of this, I don’t believe that the Church has been wrong in teaching the possibility of eternal perdition. Where I think some may have gone wrong over the centuries is in overemphasizing the power of evil and de-emphasizing the hope we have in Christ — even a hope for the salvation of all. I find this hope echoed even in the visions of Fatima. Are we not told to pray at the end of each decade of the rosary: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins and lead ALL SOULS to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy.” ?

    Ed

    Like

    • coffeezombie says:

      “For instance, when St. Paul states that people who commit certain kinds of sins will not inherit the kingdom of God…”

      I assume you mean stuff like:

      “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor. 6:9-10)

      That wouldn’t be difficult at all for a universalist–at least, not one in the line of St. Isaac of Syria’s thinking, which Fr. Aidan just spent a number of posts digging into if you’re curious (I keep forgetting the current post isn’t about St. Isaac–to explain. Obviously, St. Paul is not saying anyone who has committed fornication, or idolatry, or adultery, or theivery, or reviling, etc. will never inherit the kingdom of God. If that’s what he was saying, then there would be simply no point for us to repent at all! And Christ, Himself, says there is only one unforgivable sin: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

      Now, for those “pie in the sky” universalists, who say there is no Hell and all will go to heaven, I would say this is a difficult verse. However, I would also say they don’t understand salvation itself. As Fr. Stephen has said in one of his posts, “I am dying and corrupted, and were I to go to heaven, I would still be dying and corrupted.”

      And that, ultimately, gets to the heart of the matter. For St. Isaac of Syria, Hell is terribly real, but it is not eternal. It is a state of punishment, or of purgation, where God, in His love, continues to try to heal the unrighteous. They experience God’s love (if I remember correctly) as a burning fire because of their own wickedness, but, when they eventually repent, they will no longer burn, but experience God’s love as a wondrous light. That is, it is not a universalism that denies the need for repentance. It is a universalism that believes that, in the end, everyone will repent.

      Like

  52. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

    In fear & trembling–yes!
    This is not a command to be afraid, but rather this is a warning lest we depart from the way of salvation because salvation is neither instant nor irreversible.

    In terror & despair–no!
    We have been saved in the past, we are being saved in the present, & we will be saved in the future unless we willingly cease working out our salvation (in fear & trembling–in absolute awe & utmost humility).

    God is not looking for just any ol’ reason to eternally damn us. He is “Our Father” looking for our salvation. Furthermore, just as we are working out our own salvation, so is God. God is on this journey of salvation with us, so much so that He is even in us!

    Just 2 chapters later St. Paul also writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” He exhorts us to rejoice far more often than he admonishes us to be in fear & trembling. In Romans 12 St. Paul even lists rejoicing as one of the hallmarks of Christian behavior along with charitable works, prayer, serving God, brotherly love & etc.

    When I was a child I angered my mother through misbehavior & I was punished accordingly. Afterwards for hours I kept asking her, “Are you still mad? Are you still mad? Are you still mad?” Each time she answered no, but I kept asking anyway, not believing her despite her assurances otherwise. Eventually in exasperation she said, “No, honey, I stopped being mad hours ago. I I love you & what you did is over & done with. Don’t do it again & it will all be forgotten. Please believe that & stop worrying. But also believe this: If you ask me that question one more time, I will be mad…very mad.” I stopped asking 😉

    Like

  53. Juan Carlos Torres says:

    Reblogged this on Jesus, Image of the Invisible God.

    Like

Comments are closed.