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