“Holy Scripture shows that life on earth is the arena in which the human person decides his fate for eternity, for after death he cannot change his fate” (The Fulfillment of Creation, VI:30)—this is a foundational premise from which flows much of Dumitru Staniloae’s reflections on salvation and damnation. He grounds this conviction on the explicit teaching of Holy Scripture and the Church Fathers but also on a philosophical understanding of libertarian freedom he believes to be implied, if not explicitly authorized, by the Orthodox tradition.
Only in the body is the human person a truly active being. It is in the body that “he works toward his perfection by spiritualizing the body, that is, by the fact that he makes the body a medium for the senses and for good works” (VI:30). In the body he is given the opportunity to praise and serve God, to love his neighbor, to give alms to the poor, to preach the gospel. In the body he is given the opportunity to cultivate a virtuous character, repent of his sins, alter his behavior, fight against his disordered desires, and freely join himself to the living God in the sacramental and ascetical life of the Church. Precisely because man is made a unity of body and soul, his life in the world is decisive for his ultimate salvation.
God has a cosmic plan of salvation; He does not save singular spiritual monads. The human person cannot fulfill this unique mission except in a body intimately connected with this world. This is why the Son of God Himself became a man in soul and body, so that through His humanity He might gather the entire creation in Himself. How then could man become perfect as a spiritual being if the did not act upon the world, if he were not strengthened as a spirit—with God’s help—in relation to the visible world? Moreover, only in this bodily life does man have needy fellow men whom he can help through his body. St John of Damascus says, “When the market day is over, there is no more trading of goods. For where are the poor? Where are the liturgists and the psalmody? Where are the good works. Before the hour of death, we can help each other, and we can offer manifestations of brotherly love to God, the lover of mankind.” (VI:30-31)
We are neither saved nor damned as discarnate spirits but as embodied beings who share a world with other embodied beings. As the Apostle declares, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body” (2 Cor 5:10).
That our earthly existence possesses an absolute significance for our eschatological destiny may seem to us, who fear the divine judgment both for ourselves and those we love, as an arbitrary, even capricious, decree of the Creator. Why such a short time? Why no second chances? The stakes, after all, are so high. At least the reincarnation of Hinduism gives the individual multiple opportunities to get things right. But Staniloae argues that if our earthly life lacked absolute significance, then we would be trapped in an endless cycle of ascents and descents. Life would lose all meaning, and genuine happiness would be impossible:
St Maximus sees the meaning of movement in the fact that we tend toward the final goal: the created beings rest eternally in the divine infinitude. Without the inner tension toward such a goal—absolute perfection in the infinite divine plenitude—movement has no meaning. It deceives us with immediate goals that in fact do not take us out of the plane of relativity, whether we advance further in this plane or we continuously rotate in a circle. In this case, time, in which this movement is produced, has no final goal within eternity, and therefore no meaning. … That is, God’s creation has value because it is a departure point from the state of “being” (εἶναι) that the created being has as a gift from God, through the state of “well-being” (εὖ εἶναι) that he obtains through the movement implanted in him but positively actualized by his will, and to “eternal well-being” (ἀεί εὖ εἶναι) as God’s ultimate and eternal gift.
In this way our existence on earth has a unique, decisive importance. Time is its exclusive form, and this gives time a decisive value, a value that corresponds to that of eternity. Historical life on earth is raised above relativity if obtaining the absolute life in God depends solely on it. It becomes absolute through participation, to translate the patristic expression “deification through participation.” Thus time is also a grace. Eternity cannot be transformed into gradual new decisions and acts; this would mean it was transformed into time.
On the contrary, if time is eternal, if it continues eternally like an infinite pool, it loses its decisive significance, and every historical act loses its unique importance. Anything can be done anytime; anything can be repaired anytime, in a relative sense. Nothing is bound to a certain historical moment, to a certain person. There is no real progress; everything becomes a tiring uniformity. There is no rush to respond to any appeal. One can postpone responding as long as one likes. With the knowledge that there is an endless time to decide, one can keep postponing the decision. Eternity is not a setting for new decisions, nor is endless time a setting that requires a pressing decision. This is why eternity is only the setting within which we reap the eternal benefit of decisions in time. Eternal time is no longer a setting for real perfection.
There is no longer anything wrong with postponing the fulfillment of a decision as much as possible; there is no longer anything wrong with not doing the requested good now. In this case the philosophy of torpor appears as the wisest course. In the eternal dominion of this sort of time, there is no decisive period of existence.
But if there is no longer a time for obligatory decisions, then there is no importance attached to any one human person or another, nor to the totality of persons who are being perfected. That is, there is no longer any person who has a unique character linked to his own time. If we can still speak of persons, they are uniform. Any person can be killed because any other one can replace him. Neither one person nor all together can move time from its relativity, and such persons do not move toward the absolute so that they might become suitable for it. (VI:32-33)
I have quoted Fr Dumitru at length because the above represents his decisive objection to both reincarnation and universal salvation. In his judgment both render life relative and thus meaningless; both render God irrelevant. Authentic freedom requires the dimension of absoluteness; otherwise, it becomes vacuous and ceases to be freedom. Another important, and lengthy, passage:
But a freedom that leads all souls to salvation, or that makes it possible for all of them to pass eternally from good to evil and vice versa, is properly speaking no longer freedom. If all attain salvation either by the will of God or through a law of intrinsic evolution, where is the freedom? Likewise, if souls are led against their will to one incarnation after another, or to one fall after another, where is the freedom? Again, if no one ever reaches perfection in the infinity of divine life, and all continue moving within the plane of eternal relativity, what is freedom good for?
Christian freedom presupposes an absolute that the human person can fight for or can refuse. Without this absolute the human person lacks all support and any cause for affirmation. In a plane of eternal and universal relativity or of strict nature process, the fight for freedom, which on one hand is presupposed by freedom and on the other hand promotes it, loses any incentive. That is why freedom has two forms: freedom obtained by fighting to achieve the absolute good, to impose its victory, and to unite with it; and freedom obtained by fighting to liberate the person from enslaving passions, so as to enter into loving communion with the supreme Person, with God. It is in this communion that the true and complete good is found. He who has attained this has the true freedom (identical with the true and infinite good) from which he no longer wants to depart and from which he can no longer depart, in the sense of an acquired powerlessness. In this communion the person has an unceasing and unending newness, through the good that shines forth from the supreme Person and is manifested in interpersonal communion. (VI:37)
Imagine playing a game in which violations of the rules have no consequences and in which no one wins or loses. It just goes on and on … in monotonous endlessness. What is the point? Why play well? Why obey the rules? Why try to win? Why play at all?
Perhaps we might say that the possibility of eternal damnation is the necessary cost of forging authentic persons. Without the possibility of failure, the achievement of personhood is an impossibility. “If the human person knew that by using his freedom against God’s will he would one day be destroyed, he would be limited in his freedom,” asserts Staniloae. “He is truly free only if he knows that he can eternally oppose God. He is free and has complete dignity only if he knows that he is eternally unconditioned, that is, eternally free” (VI:49).
Why else the presence of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden? Why the command to not eat of its fruit, “for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen 2:17)? “Freedom, as a sign of spiritual power, is more than just a gift,” states Staniloae; “it is also a result of effort” (The World: Creation and Deification, II:166). If Adam were to become a true partner with God in an eternal communion of love, he needed to be confronted with the tree and given the opportunity to resist the temptation it presented. He needed to exercise his freedom through trusting obedience and begin the journey into the personhood of theosis.
God breathed spirit into man, but the spirit breathed into him was in great part a potency that man needed to make pass into act. By commanding man not to eat from the tree of consciousness before he was guided by freedom of the spirit, God, in fact, commanded him to be strong, to remain free, and to grow in spirit, that is in freedom. This very commandment made appeal to man’s freedom. (II:166)
What is freedom good for? For nothing less than becoming saints who forever enjoy the living God.