The folks at Classical Christianity posted today a passage from St Justinian’s letter to Patriarch Menas criticizing universal salvation. This is the letter in which the Emperor commanded the patriarch to convene a synod to condemn the teachings of Origen. To it he appended the nine anathemas that were eventually confirmed by the 543 Synod of Constantinople. Here’s the passage:
Will render men slothful, and discourage them from keeping the commandments of God. It will encourage them to depart from the narrow way, leading them by deception into ways that are wide and easy. Moreover, such a doctrine completely contradicts the words of our Great God and Savior. For in the Holy Gospel he himself teaches that the impious will be sent away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will receive life eternal. Thus to those at his right, he says: “Come, O blessed of my Father, and inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” [Mt 25:34]. But to those on his left, he says: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” [Mt 25:41]. The Lord clearly teaches that both heaven and hell are eternal, but the followers of Origen prefer the myths of their master over and against the judgments of Christ, which plainly refute them. If the torments of the damned will come to an end, so too will the life promised to the righteous, for both are said to be “eternal.” And if both the torments of hell and the pleasures of paradise should cease, what was the point of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ? What was the purpose of his crucifixion, his death, burial, and resurrection? And what of all those who fought the good fight and suffered martyrdom for the sake of Christ? What benefit will their sufferings have been to them, if in the “final restoration” they will receive the same reward as sinners and demons? (Against Origen PG 86.975 BD)
Justinian advances four objections to the universalist hope:
First, universalism encourages moral indolence and wickedness. Why be obedient if we are all going to be saved in the end anyway? Origen was, in fact, sensitive to this criticism. He knew that the unconverted and spiritually immature might well exploit the universalist hope to justify continued sin and disobedience. Consequently he suggested that apokatastasis should only be shared with the spiritually mature, i.e., with those who already “grasp the mysteries of Scripture” and thus desire to do good out of love, not fear (Hom. in Luc. 22.5). Writing after Justinian and the conciliar condemnation of apokatastasis, St Maximus the Confessor alludes to the universalist hope as a teaching that we should “honor with silence.” St Gregory of Nyssa, on the other hand, clearly speaks of the apokatastasis in his Great Catechism and other writings, apparently believing that it belongs to the apostolic vision of the Eschaton and thus properly shared with all the baptized.
Justinian’s criticism implies that fear of damnation is a stronger motivational force for repentance than love and the hope of eternal happiness. Is this true? Perhaps so at the societal level. As emperor, Justinian had to be concerned with the order and unity of the empire. Given the symbiotic union of Church and State that existed in the sixth century, I can understand why Justinian and others might fear the proclamation of universal salvation. But at the level of gospel, we must ask, What kind of faith does the threat of eternal damnation generate? Does faith based on fear save?
Sergius Bulgakov emphatically rejected the employment of infernal terror to induce faith and repentance. Not only can it not attain its salvific goal, but “striking sensitive hearts with horror, paralyzing filial love and the childlike trust in the Heavenly Father, this idea makes Christianity resemble Islam, replacing love with fear. Salvific fear, too, must also have its measure, and not become an attempt to terrorize” (The Bride of the Lamb, p. 484).
Second, universalism contradicts the testimony of Christ Jesus himself. Our Lord expressly teaches in his parable of the final judgment that the wicked “will depart into eternal [aionion] punishment, but the righteous into eternal [aionion] life” (Matt 25:46). If perdition should prove to be only temporary, Justinian argues, then that would logically imply that the life of the Kingdom will also be temporary. Clearly the Emperor, perhaps along with the majority of his fellow sixth century Greek speakers, reads aionion as signifying eternal, unending, interminable, everlasting. But this is not what the word principally meant in first-century, as recognized by Origen himself: “In Scriptures, αἰών is sometimes found in the sense of something that knows no end; at times it designates something that has no end in the present world, but will have in the future one; sometimes it means a certain stretch of time; or again the duration of the life of a single person is called αἰών” (Comm. in Rom. 6,5). Origen’s judgment has been confirmed by recent scholarly research. Thus Ilaria Ramelli:
As for the NT, the points that could be interpreted as teaching an eternal damnation, and therefore contradicting the theory of apokatastasis, consist in the few passages that mention a πῦρ αἰώνιον, a κόλασις αἰώνιος, a fire “that cannot be quenched” and a worm that “does not die” (see, for instance, Matt 18:8–9; 25:41). Now, such expressions, rather than signifying an infinite duration, indicate that the fire, punishment, and worm at stake are not those of human everyday experience in this world, in which fire can be extinguished and worms die, but others, of the other world or αἰών. The adjective αἰώνιος in the Bible never means “eternal” unless it refers to God, who lends it the very notion of absolute eternity. In reference to life and death, it means “belonging to the future world.” It is remarkable that in the Bible only life in the other world is called ἀΐδιος, that is, “absolutely eternal”; this adjective in the Bible never refers to punishment, death, or fire in the other world. These are only called αἰώνια. (The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis, p. 26.
The words of Christ regarding eonian punishment read very differently if interpreted as meaning “the punishment of the future age.” But apparently at some point in the Greek-speaking world, the original meaning of aionion was lost and the word exclusively, or at least principally, came to mean eternal. It should also be noted that when St Jerome translated the New Testament into Latin, he used the word æternum to render aionion: “Et ibunt hi in supplicium æternum: iusti autem in vitam æternam” (Matt 25:46). Western Christians never had a chance.
Third, universalism undermines the saving work of Christ’s. If all will ultimately be saved, what was the point? I find this the weakest objection of all. Is the soteriological significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection diminished or rendered irrelevant if they ground the salvation of every human being instead of just some? Has not the Apostle Paul assured us that God our Savior desires the salvation of all (1 Tim 2:3-4)? Or are we forced in the end to admit that heaven needs hell? I suspect that Justinian believes that the Origenian doctrine of apokatastasis involves a kind of metaphysical necessity or coercion, thus negating human freedom. Perhaps this was what the 6th century Origenists were in fact teaching. If God can save all by an exercise of omnipotent will, then the Incarnation becomes mere charade. But that is certainly not what Origen or the Nyssen taught, and it’s certainly not what contemporary universalists such as Tom Talbott teach.
Fourth, universalism implicates God in injustice. Would it not be inequitable, asks the saint-emperor, if the impious were to receive the same reward as those who shed their blood in martyrdom? I wonder if Justinian had ever read the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16):
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place; and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”
Clearly the kind of justice that interests the Emperor Justinian does not interest the eternal Judge of the universe. That it does not is our salvation.