Sergius Bulgakov: Bad Endings Ruin Good Stories

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Summer 2000, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina—I learned a very important lesson back then. Actually I already well knew the lesson, but it was good to re-learn it. Starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, the movie The Perfect Storm appeared in the theaters. I knew nothing about the plot. I didn’t even know that it was based on real historical events. Hence my only hope when I bought the tickets was that it would be as exciting as the trailers made it out to be. And all was going great—right up until the very end. (Spoiler alert: if you have never seen the movie, please do yourself a favor and read on. This is a movie about which you want to be spoiled!)

After taking in a historic catch of fish, captain and crew decide to return home, despite the ferocious storm that stands in their way. There’s a lot of money at stake. Time to roll the dice. The storm turns out to be worse than any of them expected. Finally they encounter an enormous rogue wave, and the boat capsizes. George Clooney decides to go down with his boat and crew, but in an act of “selfless” heroism he pushes Mark Wahlberg out the door—without a life jacket! Boat sinks. Wahlberg swims to the surface. He is alone in the ocean … in the storm … no hope of rescue … (cut!) … memorial service.

What the heck?! They all die? What kind of adventure movie is this? I was absolutely furious. I felt like the grandson in The Princess Bride after he learned that Westley is dead and that Prince Humperdinck survives. “Jesus, Grandpa,” he cries out, “what did you read me this thing for?” I bitterly complained to my wife for the rest of the day. Why did they make the movie? Why did I shell out eight dollars to subject myself to such disappointment?

So what was the lesson I re-learned? Bad endings ruin good stories. I’m sure you can think of plenty of examples of this phenomenon, both in cinema and literature.

I propose that this intuition lies at the heart of Sergius Bulgakov’s vision of apokatastasis. The story God is telling in his creation simply must conclude with a happy, indeed glorious ending. The gospel is good news! The death and resurrection of Jesus has changed everything. Death is conquered. Satan is overthrown. The Spirit is poured out. And one day he will return in glory. What kind of ending would it be if evil should continue in the form of everlasting hell? “It is a bizarre conception of the parousia,” Bulgakov declares,

to limit its power to a judgment whereby heaven and hell are separated and hell is eternalized. What virtue and justification would the parousia have if part of humanity turns out to be unprepared for it? In that case the parousia would not attain its goal, or it would even attain the opposite: the establishment of an eternal hell. But does this justify the parousia? A separation can only be accepted if, in the final analysis, it nonetheless attains the goal of the universal salvation or the sophianization of creation. Otherwise, creation would appear to be an error or failure, since it would end with the eternity of hell, even if this were accompanied by the eternity of heaven. An eternal separation of humanity in the elect and the reprobate is clearly not the final meaning of creation. One must therefore suppose that this separation has an inner proportionality of grace that assures a positive sum of all the pluses and minuses of history, a universal harmony, total and beautiful. In other words, the judgment that separates the sheep from the goat and good from evil, both in humankind in its entirety and in individual hearts, is not the definitive conclusion of eschatology. It is only the first event of eschatology, the beginning, not the end. Both the judgment and the separation must be understood not as a static unchangeability but as a dynamic striving beyond their limits, on the pathway to universal deification or salvation. Only deification is capable of justifying creation. It is the only theodicy. (The Bride of the Lamb, p. 501)

In other words, hell is a terrible ending. It would just ruin everything. And it would ruin everything even if I am one of the fortunate ones who should enter divine blessedness!

This, I suggest, is where the critics of Origen of Alexandria, St Gregory of Nyssa, St Isaac the Syrian, and Fr Sergius Bulgakov go wrong. They think that because these four men proclaim the ultimate victory of God over evil and death, therefore they must believe that God has mechanically determined everything to work out and therefore human freedom is an illusion. Or as the critics like to say, universalists confuse nature and person. But the funny thing is that’s not how the universalists understand matters. They firmly deny that their vision of apokatastasis implies any violation of human freedom, coercion, or manipulation. That’s the wonder and surprise of the gospel—against all expectation and prediction, everyone freely repents of their sins and embraces the Love that is the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Not a philosophical conundrum to be solved but a faith to proclaim. God wins, humanity wins, the cosmos wins. How does God achieve this glorious conclusion? Our universalist theologians do not know, though they have some ideas they like to throw around. St Isaac is the least speculative. Speaking from the depths of his mystical experience, Isaac prophetically announces: “I am of the opinion that He is going to manifest some wonderful outcome, a matter of immense and ineffable compassion on the part of the glorious Creator, with respect to the ordering of this difficult matter of Gehenna’s torment: out of it the wealth of His love and power and wisdom will become known all the more—and so will the insistent might of the waves of His goodness” (Discourses II.39.6). This triumph over hell is as mysterious as Christ’s triumph over death on Pascha; indeed, it is simply the consummation of Pascha.

The orthodox prophets of the universalist hope do not ground their confidence on some kind of ontological determinism: they ground it on the extraordinary and miraculous power of crucified Love. How very strange to think that the divine Author, foreknowing that many or even most human beings would fail to achieve heaven, would go ahead and begin the human story anyway. “Sorry, guys. It’s the best I can do. You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs (in this case billions of eggs). I’m restricted by what you call ‘freedom.’ I’m really not sure how your decision for me can be said to be truly free, since the only real alternative you have is endless torment—talk about intimidation, coercion, and lack of freedom!—but it appears I have to let you damn yourselves for all eternity. But please know that I love you. I really, really do. It’s just that my love is impotent before your choices. I discovered that on the cross. I’m free to write the story of creation; but I’m not free to write a happy ending. Only you can do that; but unfortunately you don’t and probably won’t.” (Big divine sigh from heaven. Lots of screams from the depths of Tartarus.)

The gospel is good news, my brothers and sisters! Do we believe this? Can we preach this? Or do we find ourselves imaginatively paralyzed before our rationalistic, nonmysterious, nonantinomic idol of freedom?

I’ll give Bulgakov the penultimate last word: “In revelation, it is said not that God is freedom but that He is love” (p. 128).

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But the ultimate last word belongs to God:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” (Rev 21:1-5)

Amen. Amen.

P.S. Bad endings ruin good stories; but the obverse is also true: good endings rescue bad stories!

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17 Responses to Sergius Bulgakov: Bad Endings Ruin Good Stories

  1. First off, I hope for and believe in the restitution of all things. Since March, I have been pondering http://robbellcom.tumblr.com/post/69088463619/what-is-the-bible-part-19-the-verse-that-blows-the from Rob Bell’s tumblr(My wife found it). In it, he was commenting on Ephesians 2 where it says “bring unity to all things… under Christ.” He uses the word recapitulation (think of a bad vacation and how later one laughs about what previously was not good!) as a possible translation of the word unite – although I cannot find which translation it is from! Anyway, what exactly I have been pondering is how since nothing that is done can be undone, then in some measure, God will have to re-tell all that has gone on, but in such a way that brings all things under Christ, and then He will be all-in-all.

    I think one of the common objections (To the idea of God getting the end right for every story) is that people cannot conceive of how if so-and-so is going to eventually be in “Heaven” with them, how in the world will they be different! (Forget for a moment just Hitler or someone like that, think of some specific individual that hurt them) Maybe they do not even want it to be so! Perhaps we just cannot admit the truth about ourselves that we want everything to be all right for us and our loved ones, but not so much our enemies…

    Thanks for the posts!
    Keep writing,

    Bill

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  2. StephenUSA says:

    Perhaps not unlike the prospect of unrelenting divine mercy? As perhaps foretold by Salieri in “Amadeus”.
    “I heard the music of true forgiveness filling the theater, conferring on all who sat there, perfect absolution. “

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  3. Agni Ashwin says:

    “The end is important in all things.” — The Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

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  4. brian says:

    Amen!!!

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  5. Michael Bauman says:

    Their moon was cardboard, fragile.
    It was very apt to fray,
    And what was last night scenic
    May seem cynic by today.
    The play’s not done.
    Oh no – not quite,
    For life never ends in the moonlit night;
    And despite what pretty poets say,
    The night is only half the day.
    So we would like to finish
    What was foolishly begun.
    For the story is not ended
    And the play is never done
    Until we’ve all of us been burned a bit
    And burnished by the sun!
    The Fantastiks

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  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I was hoping someone might take Bulgakov to task for his alleged determinism, but I guess everyone is tired of this long blog series. As I read him, Bulgakov refuses to be locked-in by the typical way the debate is presented, viz., freedom vs determinism. He believes that when the parousial glorification occurs all will (at least eventually) freely repent because they will see in Christ the truth of their lives and the fulfillment of all their right desires. Perhaps he is wrong, but this is where the debate needs to be joined.

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    • brian says:

      One would have to clarify what is meant by freedom as well. Modernity has notions that derive from nominalism and voluntarism that produce both bad theology and anthropology (strangely enough, the two are connected.) In any event, I think one of the strengths of Bulgakov’s approach is that he espouses and ontological understanding of salvation. So much bad Christian theology is rooted in concepts that derive from psychological or ethical categories that produce subjective pietism, individualistic moralism, or a kind of school catechism approach that lacks the depth and cosmic scope that the Gospel requires.

      Bulgakov’s eschatology really simply refuses some contradictions as built upon false premises. A properly Christian understanding of paradox starts with a recognition that human freedom and divine freedom are operative on different planes of existence. Granting liberty to humans does not require taking it away from God. Alternatively, God’s action may be capable of fully redeeming “every grain of sand” as Berdyaev would say, without thereby taking away from human initiative and capacity.

      Certainly, Bulgakov allows for a long eschatological delay between death and ultimate salvation for some. Conceptually, even granting modern misunderstandings of freedom, it is difficult to understand how one could have certitude about universal salvation. I think if one follows Bulgakov and some poets like Peguy, one can begin to see an answer, but it requires faith. Faith is a risk, even if it is, perhaps, also, a kind of gnosis.

      Alright, Father, there’s a gesture towards a response 🙂

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Thanks, Brian, for this response. It reminded me of a passage in The Bride of the Lamb:

        God is Love, and this definition of Revelation is applicable, first of all, to the divine trihypostatic Person. In the mutual love of the three hypostases, the hypostatic principle is exhaustively revealed and hypostatic limitation is overcome. In revelation, it is said not that God is freedom but that He is love. Therefore, He is higher than freedom in its indissoluble connection with necessity. In love, there is no place for freedom and necessity; there is only freedom, as free necessity. In love, there is also no place for personal self-assertion, although there is a place in it for personal self-revelation. Love is beyond freedom and necessity, because perfect fullness belongs to divine love. In divine love, all is given in order to gain all. (pp. 127-128)

        I think David Hart would agree with this.

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    • William says:

      As another response, I’m reminded of this passage (with much edited out here, but still long — sorry) from David Bentley Hart’s “The Doors of the Sea”:

      God has fashioned creatures in his image so that they might be joined in a perfect union with him in the rational freedom of love. For that very reason, what God permits, rather than violate the autonomy of the created world, may be in itself contrary to what he wills. But there is no contradiction in saying that, in his omniscience, omnipotence, and transcendence of time, God can both allow created freedom its scope and yet so constitute the world that nothing can prevent him from bringing about the beatitude of his Kingdom. Indeed we must say this: as God did not will the fall, and yet always wills all things toward himself, the entire history of sin and death is in an ultimate sense a pure contingency, one that is not as such desired by God, but that is nevertheless constrained by providence to serve his transcendent purpose. God does not will evil in the sinner. Neither does he will that the sinner should perish (2 Peter 3:9; Ezek. 33:11). He does not place evil in the heart. He does not desire the convulsive reign of death in nature. But neither will he suffer defeat in these things.

      Providence works at the level of what Aquinas would call primary causality: that is, it is so transcendent of the operation of secondary causes — which is to say, finite and contingent causes immanent to the realm of created things — that it can at once create freedom and also assure that no consequence of the misuse of that freedom will prevent him from accomplishing the good he intends in all things.

      Providence, then — and this is what it is most important to grasp — is not the same thing as a universal teleology. To believe in divine and unfailing providence is not to burden one’s conscience with the need to see every event in this world not only as an occasion of God’s grace, but as a positive determination of God’s will whereby he brings to pass a comprehensive design that, in the absence of any single one of these events, would not have been possible. It may seem that this is to draw only the finest of logical distinctions, one so fine indeed as to amount to little more than a sophistry. Some theologians — Calvin, for instance — have denied that the distinction between what God wills and what he permits has any meaning at all. And certainly there is no unanimity in the history of Christian exegesis on this matter. … When all is said and done, however, not only is the distinction neither illogical nor slight; it is an absolute necessity if — setting aside, as we should, all other judgments as suppositions, stochastic, and secondary — we are to be guided by the full character of what is revealed of God in Christ. For, after all, if it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.

      For, unless the world is truly set apart from God and possesses a dependent but real liberty of its own analogous to the freedom of God, everything is merely a fragment of divine volition, and God is simply the totality of all that is and all that happens; there is no creation, but only an oddly pantheistic expression of God’s unadulterated power. One wonders, indeed, if a kind of reverse Prometheanism does not lurk somewhere within such a theology, a refusal on the part of the theologian to be a creature, a desire rather to be dissolved into the infinite fiery flood of God’s solitary and arbitrary act of will. In any event, such a God, being nothing but will willing itself, would be no more than an infinite tautology — the sovereignty of glory displaying itself in the glory of sovereignty — and so an infinite banality.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Thank you, William, for the citation from Hart. It was precisely Hart’s discussion of providence in this book that persuaded me to recently obtain a copy of his essay “Providence and Causality,” which is included in a book titled The Providence of God. In this essay he surveys the predestinarianism of Bañez and his successors and argues that the Christian God transcends the “dialectic of existence and non-existence,” thus making genuine creaturely freedom possible. I do not know if Hart has ever addressed the universalist hope as advanced by St Gregory Nyssen or Bulgakov.

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        • William says:

          There’s much of Hart’s work that I haven’t read, but it does seem he hasn’t addressed the universalist hope head on … which is somewhat interesting, given that he has said that St. Gregory is a primary influence in his thought. But among the things I edited out of the passage above does touch on the matter, generally following the lines and limitations left by St. Maximus (but using language that strikes me as just a bit more hopeful than that of Maximus). Hart invokes Maximus’ distinction between natural and gnomic will, pointing out that the gnomic will depends on the natural will and that “every free act — even the act of hating God — arises from and is sustained by a more original love of God.”

          Hart says a few lines later: “This original vocation of the creature — which is the very ground of our existence — is heaven in us, and indeed hell. As Zosima tells Alyosha (again following Isaac the Syrian and a larger Eastern Christian mystical tradition), what we call hell is nothing but the rage and remorse of the soul that will not yield itself to love. The natural will must return to God, no matter what, but if the freedom of the gnomic will refuses to open itself to the mercy and glory of God, the wrathful soul experiences the transfiguring and deifying fire of love not as bliss but as chastisement and despair. The highest freedom and happiness of the creature (in keeping with the definition of freedom given above) is the perfection of the creature’s nature in union with God. And the highest work of providential grace is to set our deepest, “natural” will fee from everything (even the abuse of freedom) that would separate us from that end, all the time preserving the dignity of the divine image within us.”

          I would bold that last sentence, but I don’t know how. That sentence seems to suggest (stopping short of a positive declaration) that even that stubbornness of the gnomic will that “refuses to open itself to the mercy and glory of God” will in the end be done away with by providence. Maximus also expects that the natural will to be set free, but he specifies that it will be free but will lack participation in God, and this will be its torment. Maximus neither confirms or denies, as far as I know, whether this will be a temporary condition, but he seems to take a more negative view in this regard; Hart, however, still sounding a lot like Maximus, seems to suggest a more positive view.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            William, you might want to take a look at Ilaria Ramelli’s discussion of St Maximus in her book Apokatastasis. As you know, there’s an ongoing debate on whether Maximus leaned toward the universalist position or not. She happens to believe that he might have but remained less than explicit about it because of the anti-Origenist anathemas.

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      • brian says:

        Very apt quote from Hart, William.

        I’d like to add that Hart strongly opposes Hegel in The Beauty of the Infinite and it is really Hegel’s justification of history that is implicitly attacked in the conflation of God and the history of creation. As one can further gather, the implications of such a theology are odious indeed.

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  7. Michael Bauman says:

    I put much hope in the parable of the paralytic whose friends lowered him through the roof to Jesus. For their faith Jesus healed the man and forgave his sins. Thus we offer one another up in prayer, even those who have hurt us and the prayer of the whole Church throughout the ages continues for the salvation of all. Surely there is a mustard seed in all that somewhere.

    Free will vs determinism is just another false dichotomy. The conversion of the heart is antinomical in nature so that we are one and no more divided.

    By your prayers, Father.

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  8. kimfrank says:

    Thank you for this series, Father, and especially for this post. It makes my heart sing.

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