Dumitru Staniloae presents the traditional Orthodox vision of hell and eternal damnation so forthrightly that it takes one’s breath away. He remorselessly pursues the gift of freedom to its logical end. The Son of God welcomes all sinners in love and bids all to repent; but if we die in our sins, we will find ourselves forever imprisoned in our egoism and passions. As St John of Damascus writes: “If you say that it would have been better for him [man] not to exist than to suffer eternally, we say that this is nothing other than the fire of the appetite for evil and sin. For those who have reached the changelessness of sin as passion do not desire God” (The Experience of God, VI:49).
It thus comes as a shock when Fr Dumitru suddenly suggests that perhaps not all who are condemned to hell are permanently hardened in the “changelessness of sin.” How antinomically Orthodox! Following the teaching of the Orthodox Church, Staniloae rejects the medieval Roman Catholic dogma that the particular judgment of God is final and irrevocable. Perhaps it is impossible for the damned to actively re-orient themselves to God in repentance, yet perhaps they can still be delivered from perdition through the prayers of the Church.
Why, following God’s judgment, do those who leave this life without faith in Him—and thus without any openness toward communion with Him, and through Him with other human persons—have to remain eternally in hell? … The Church’s teaching that it is possible for some to be drawn out of hell during the time between the individual judgment and the universal judgment permits a fitting response to this question.
According to this teaching, those with some faith—and therefore without an attitude totally contrary to communion with God—who go to hell after the individual judgment will be able to reach a stage at which the capacity for communion that is present in them may be actualized. Therefore this hell implies two possibilities: that for some it will be eternal, and that for others it will be noneternal.
Although we cannot state with certainty for which persons hell will be eternal and for which it will not be eternal, in principle it is possible that hell may not be eternal for some of them.
But the mystery of freedom does not allow us to say that hell will cease to be eternal for all. Those who have not been able to emerge from hell at the time of the universal judgment will never be able to emerge from it. (VI:41-42)
Despite condemnation at the particular judgment, some may yet be saved, not all but some. Staniloae cannot offer hope for a universal restoration, however, as he believes that God in fact has revealed to the Church that some human beings are and will be eternally damned. Unfortunately he does not engage the eschatological teachings of either St Gregory of Nyssa or Sergius Bulgakov, with whose writings he was no doubt well acquainted; and the eschatological homilies of St Isaac of Nineveh were unavailable to him. No doubt Staniloae believed that the 5th Ecumenical Council had dogmatically repudiated apokatastasis, and he found this repudiation confirmed in the Damascene and others. Yet he also knew that the Orthodox Church has always prayed for the release of the condemned from hades. How do we reconcile theology and praxis?
It might prove helpful at this point to examine Staniloae’s rejection of the Roman Catholic teaching on purgatory or at least what he understood it to be. According to Roman Catholic teaching, he states, “the fate of souls is definitively and completely determined at the individual judgment: the saints receive full happiness, unrepentant sinners receive full punishment, and those with sins of which they repented through confession, but whose temporal punishments were not remitted, will go to purgatory. There, after the automatic cleansing through a material or quasi-material fire that they suffer as if they were objects, they will surely overcome their suffering, for during this cleansing they are in a state of grace and are certain that they will attain the contemplation of the divine essence” (VI:81).
Roman Catholics will immediately object, “That’s not we believe about purgatory.” And they would be right, at least regarding the interpretation of purgatory that has become dominant since Vatican II. The post-Vatican II Catholic Church typically presents purgatorial suffering as a form of purification, during which the redeemed person freely detaches himself from all sins and disordered desires. Confronted with the risen Christ in the power of his love, we are transformed “as through fire.” In his encyclical Spe salvi Pope Benedict XVI speaks of the particular judgment following death. “With death,” he writes, “our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms.” He goes on to contrast those “who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love,” and are thus eternally damned, and those “who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours,” and are thus immediately given to share in the beatific vision. But many, perhaps most, fall in-between:
For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur? … Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God.
I imagine that Fr Dumitru would have found much to approve in this personalist construal of purgatory (sometimes called the sanctification model); but this was not the formulation of purgatory that he encountered in the Roman Catholic theologians of his day. My guess is that the view with which he was most familiar claimed that the sufferings of purgatory were principally retributive in nature—the temporal punishment for sin must first be endured before the soul can be admitted to the bliss of heaven (the satisfaction model). Staniloae rejects the satisfaction model because it construes the relationship between God and man in juridical terms rather than personal and relational terms. The human being is treated as a thing instead of a person constituted by the trinitarian communion of love. The material punishments imposed upon the souls in purgatory “make them similar to objects. This mentality regards everything in an objectified manner. The cleansing fire of purgatory ceases automatically when the stains are blotted out, but God does not make that fire operate the cleansing faster or slower in accordance with changes in the consciences of the souls subject to it. … Sin is considered more as an external stain than as an attitude of the conscience or a relationship between the human subject and the divine subject. It is interesting that this fire, whose action God cannot intervene in, can be made to operate more quickly through papal indulgences. Perhaps here too–to the extent to which not prayer, but a distant decree, eases the fate of these souls, without entering into a personal communion with each of them—there appears the force of a suprapersonal institution that works through the intervention of its representative” (VI:82).
I do not know if Roman Catholic theologians who lived in the first-half of the twentieth century would have recognized Staniloae’s description of purgatory as an accurate description of Catholic teaching; but regardless Staniloae’s comments express his principal concern: human beings are created in the image of God as persons summoned to communion with the Holy Trinity in the Body of Christ. Legalism, juridicism, impersonalism, individualism have no place here. Human beings are subjects-in-community, not objects.
Hence we can better understand Orthodoxy’s insistence on the provisional nature of the particular judgment:
The Orthodox teaching on the relationship between God and souls after the individual judgment is characterized by a certain fluidity, in which freedom preserves its role because love also preserves its role. Through their prayers those in paradise can help those on earth and those in hell; many souls in hell can be liberated through the prayers of the saints and of those on earth, and the automatic, purifying mechanism of purgatory does not exist. … In opposition to the juridical-objectified and motionless fixity of the state of souls, the Orthodox teaching offers a personal, spiritual, and dynamic-communal relationship between God and man, and thus between those on earth and all who have departed this life. As a result, the state of souls after the individual judgment is incompletely established in a complete happiness or unhappiness, and therefore there is a distinction between this state and the one after the universal judgment, which will make total happiness or unhappiness final. The communication between the living and the departed, between the believers on earth and the saints, is also reflected in the Liturgy. (VI:83)
One cannot but note, however, that Staniloae’s rhetoric of personal freedom contradicts his repeated insistence on the immobility of the damned in the afterlife. What marks the damned is precisely their lack of freedom. Sergius Bulgakov severely criticized his fellow Orthodox theologians for denying the capacity of the reprobate for new self-determinations. This would reduce the departed to lifeless, static things. “According to Orthodox doctrine,” he concludes, “the state of sinners in the afterlife is that of a temporary purgatory rather than that of an irrevocable hell” (Bride of the Lamb, p. 361).