Apocatastasis: The Heresy that Never Was


When first presented with the universalist hope, many Orthodox and Roman Catholics immediately invoke the authority of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553), citing the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas: “Apokatastasis has been dogmatically defined by the Church as heresy—see canon 1 … case closed.” Over the past two centuries, however, historians have seriously questioned whether these anathemas were ever officially promulgated by II Constantinople. The council was convened by the Emperor Justinian for the express purpose of condemning the Three Chapters. Not only does Justinian not mention the apokatastasis debate in his letter to the council bishops, but the Acts of the council neither cite the fifteen anathemas nor record any discussion of them. Hence when church historian Norman P. Tanner edited his collection of the Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils in 1990, he did not include the anti-Origenist denunciations, offering the following explanation: “Our edition does not include the text of the anathemas against Origen since recent studies have shown that these anathemas cannot be attributed to this council” (I:106).

Who then wrote the anathemas and when? Over the past century different hypotheses have been advanced, but historians appear to have settled on the following scenario, first proposed by Wilhelm Diekamp in 1899 and more recently advanced by Richard Price: the Emperor Justinian and his theological advisors composed the anathemas and then submitted them to the bishops for “approval” before the council formally convened on 5 May 553. We do not know how long before the council this meeting took place (hours? days? weeks? months?) nor who attended nor whether there was any actual discussion of the anathemas. One thing is clear—the Emperor wanted the anathemas cloaked with conciliar authority. A decade earlier he had denounced apokatastasis in an epistle to Patriarch Menas. Regardless of the origin of the 15 anathemas, we may confidently affirm that the Fifth Ecumenical Council did not formally publish them. The burden of historical proof now lies with those who maintain that the Council Fathers officially and authoritatively promulgated the anti-Origenist anathemas.

But let’s hypothetically assume that the Council did publish the fifteen anathemas. There would still remain the challenge of interpretation. Not all universalisms are the same. Just as there are both heretical and orthodox construals of, say, the atonement or the Incarnation, so there are heretical and orthodox construals of the universalist hope. The apokatastasis advanced by St Gregory of Nyssa, for example, differs in critical ways from the sixth-century theories against which the anathemas were directed. The latter appear to have belonged to an esoteric metaphysical system set loose from the Scriptures, as even a cursory reading reveals. The chasm between the two is enormous. Scholar Augustine Casiday suggests that we need to think of the anti-Origenist anathemas as the rejection of this system as a whole, each anathema denouncing one of its particulars (private email correspondence). Met Kallistos Ware made a similar point in 1998:

There is, however, considerable doubt whether these fifteen anathemas were in fact formally approved by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. They may have been endorsed by a lesser council, meeting in the early months of 553 shortly before the main council was convened, in which case they lack full ecumenical authority; yet, even so, the Fathers of the Fifth Council were well aware of these fifteen anathemas and had no intention of revoking or modifying them. Apart from that, however, the precise wording of the first anathema deserves to be carefully noted. It does not speak only about apocatastasis but links together two aspects of Origen’s theology: first, his speculations about the beginning, that is to say, about the preexistence of souls and the precosmic fall; second, his teaching about the end, about universal salvation and the ultimate reconciliation of all things. Origen’s eschatology is seen as following directly from his protology, and both are rejected together. …

Now, as we have noted, the first of the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas is directed not simply against Origen’s teaching concerning universal reconciliation, but against his total understanding of salvation history—against his theory of preexistent souls, of a precosmic fall and a final apocatastasis—seen as a single and undivided whole. Suppose, however, that we separate his eschatology from his protology; suppose that we abandon all speculations about the realm of eternal logikoi; suppose that we simply adhere to the standard Christian view whereby there is no preexistence of the soul, but each new person comes into being as an integral unity of soul and body, at or shortly after the moment of the conception of the embryo within the mother’s womb. In this way we could advance a doctrine of universal salvation—affirming this, not as a logical certainty (indeed, Origen never did that), but as a heartfelt aspiration, a visionary hope—which would avoid the circularity of Origen’s view and so would escape the condemnation of the anti-Origenist anathemas. (“Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All,” in The Inner Kingdom, pp. 199-200)

Many scholars would now question Ware’s identification of the views of Origen with the views of the 6th-century Origenists.  The renowned patristics scholar Brian E. Daly, for example, asserts that the denounced theses “represent a radicalized Evagrian Christology and cosmology, and a doctrine of apokatastasis that went far beyond the hopes of Origen or Gregory of Nyssa. They envisage not only a spherical, ethereal risen body, but the complete abolition of material reality in the world to come, and the ultimate absorption of all created spirits into an undifferentiated unity with the divine Logos, so that even the humanity and the Kingdom of Christ will come to an end” (The Hope of the Early Church, p. 190).

But Ware’s key point stands: the sixth century condemnation of apokatastasis does not apply to construals similar to those of St Gregory of Nyssa or St Isaac the Syrian. Consider the first anathema: “If anyone advocates the mythical pre-existence of souls and the monstrous restoration that follows from this, let him be anathema.” Note the intrinsic connection between the pre-existence of souls and the universal restoration: the latter necessarily flows from the former, as further explained in anathema fourteen, which speaks of the eschatological annihilation of hypostases and bodies and the restoration to a state of pure spirit, akin to the original state of pre-existence.  But neither Gregory and Isaac advocate the pre-existence of souls. Their construals of the universalist hope are grounded solely upon God’s infinite love and the power of purgative suffering to bring enlightenment to the damned.  The 15 anathemas, therefore, do not touch the biblical universalism of St Gregory of Nyssa, St Isaac the Syrian, or more recent exponents, such as Sergius Bulgakov and Hans Urs von Balthasar. As J. W. Hanson writes in his classic, but dated, survey of the Fathers of the first five centuries: “The theory here condemned is not that of universal salvation, but the ‘fabulous pre-existence of souls, and the monstrous restitution that results from it'” (Universalism, p. 285).

We simply cannot take a dogmatic definition or conciliar anathema and make it apply to whatever views we dislike. We must interpret it within its historical, cultural, and theological context. Not to do so would be a kind of conciliar fundamentalism, akin to someone who rips a commandment from the book of Leviticus and then insists that it remains obligatory upon Gentile Christians today. Similar hermeneutical considerations obtain when evaluating the dogmatic authority and application of the eleventh-century Byzantine condemnation of the eccentric views John Italus, repeated in the 1583 version of the Synodikon. The historical exegesis of dogmatic statements is essential to our constructive employment of these statements in our theological reflection and is mandatory for the proper distinguishment of orthodoxy and heresy.

In her monograph The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis, Ilaria Ramelli argues that Justinian’s anathemas do not in fact touch the authentic teaching of Origen:

The so-called “condemnation of Origen” by “the Church” in the sixth century probably never occurred proper, and even if it occurred it did so only as a result of a long series of misunderstandings, when the anthropological, eschatological, and psychological questions were no longer felt as open to investigation—as Origen and still Nazianzen considered them—, but dogmatically established. The aforementioned condemnation was in fact a condemnation, not at all of Origen, but rather of a late and exasperated form of Origenism; moreover, it was mainly wanted by emperor Justinian—or better his counsellors, given that he was not a theologian—and only partially, or even not at all, ratified by ecclesiastical representatives.

This “condemnation” was triggered by the development of a radical kind of Origenism in the first half of the sixth century, especially in Palestine, in the monasteries of St. Saba, the “Great Laura” and “New Laura.”  … Justinian received reports about the Origenistic doctrines and promoted a condemnation of this kind of Origenism, which he mistook for Origen’s own doctrine, at first in 543 CE.

The Council that is usually cited as that which “condemned Origen” is the fifth ecumenical council, the second Constantinopolitan Council, in 553 CE. … The anathemas, fifteen in number, were already prepared before the opening of the council. Here, Origen is considered to be the inspirer of the so-called Isochristoi. This was the position of the Sabaite opponents of Origen, summarised by Cyril of Scythopolis who maintained that the Council issued a definitive anathema against Origen, Theodore, Evagrius, and Didymus concerning the preexistence of souls and apokatastasis, thus ratifying Sabas’ position (V. Sab. 90). One of these previously formulated anathemas, which only waited to be ratified by the Council, was against the apokatastasis doctrine: “If anyone supports the monstrous doctrine of apokatastasis [τὴν τερατώδη ἀποκατάστασιν], be it anathema.” Other anathemas concern the “pre-existence of souls,” their union with bodies only after their fall, and the denial of the resurrection of the body. These doctrines have nothing to do with Origen; in fact, Origen is not the object of any authentic anathema. And Vigilius’s documents, which were finally emanated by a council that was not wanted by him, most remarkably do not even contain Origen’s name. (pp. 724-726, 736-737; also see John R. Sachs, “Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology“)

Ramelli demonstrates that Emperor Justinian and his theological advisors misunderstood and misrepresented the authentic views of Origen on universal reconciliation, ensoulment, the resurrection body, and a host of other subjects; but the damage was done. Origen was named a heresiarch and his theology identified with the bizarre views of his sixth century “disciples.” However we judge their dogmatic status, the anti-Origenist anathemas should not interpreted as condemning the universalist views of Origen himself, much less those of the revered bishop of Nyssa, whom the Seventh Ecumenical Council described as “the Father of Fathers.”

The universalist hope is, of course, a minority view within Orthodoxy, but being a minority view does not make it heretical. The fact that Orthodox bishops and priests have long taught a doctrine of eternal perdition does not mean that the matter is definitively closed; it does not mean that the Church may not reexamine its popular teaching in light of Holy Scripture and the witness of the Fathers. Sergius Bulgakov describes the dogmatic status of the doctrine of everlasting hell:

The Church has not yet established a single universally obligatory dogmatic definition in the domain of eschatology, if we do not count the brief testimony of the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed concerning the second coming (“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end”), as well as concerning the resurrection of the dead and the life of the future age. These dogmas of the faith, attested to by the Creed and based on the express promises of the Lord, have not, all the same, been developed by theology. They are considered to be self-evident for the dogmatic consciousness, although that is not, in reality, the case. All the rest, referring to various aspects of eschatology, has not been defined dogmatically; it is an object of dogmatic doctrine that has yet to undergo free theological investigation.

If it is maintained that the absence of an ecclesial definition is compensated by the existence of a firm ecclesial tradition, patristic and other, one must call such an assertion inaccurate or even completely erroneous. Aside from the fact that this tradition is insufficient and disparate, the most important thing here is the absence of a single tradition. Instead, we have at least two completely different variants: on the one hand, a doctrine originating in Origen and stabilized in the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa and his tacit and open followers; and, on the other hand, a widespread doctrine that has had many adherents but none equal in power of theological thought to those mentioned above. (Perhaps in this group we can put Augustine, the greatest teacher of the Western Church, but the originality of his worldview sets him apart in general, especially for Eastern theology.) As regards both particular patristic doctrines and the systematization of biblical texts, an inquiry that would precede dogmatization has yet to be carried out.

Given such a situation, it would be erroneous to maintain that the dogmatic doctrine expounded in the scholastic manuals represents the authoritative and obligatory dogmas of the Church, and to demand subordination to them as such. In response to such a demand it is necessary to established decisively and definitively that this is an exaggeration and a misunderstanding. The doctrine expounded in the manuals can by no means be accepted without inquiry and verification. It only expresses the opinion of the majority, corresponding to the current status of theological thought on this subject, not more. Characteristic of a specific period of the past, this doctrine is losing its authority more and more at the present time and at the very least requires revision. There is insufficient justification to accept theological opinions as the dogmatic definitions of the Church, especially when these opinions are proper to only one type of thought. Eschatological theology remains open to inquiry even at the present time. (The Bride of the Lamb, pp. 379-380)

We now arrive at the most “accursed” question of eschatology, that of the eternal torments of sinners. Those who understand eternity as temporal infinity (i.e., theologians of all confessions) attempt to affirm the infinite, or “eternity,” of the torments of hell in all manner of ways—apologetically, patristically, exegetically. They attempt to prove the justice of the infinite duration of punishment even for temporal sins and the conformity of this punishment with God’s wisdom and love. A whole theodicy of eternal torments is thus constructed. Of the great mass of judgments of this kind, of special interest are the opinions of Origen and especially St. Gregory of Nyssa, who are virtually the only ecclesiastical writers (besides Augustine with his rigorism) who made questions of eschatology an object of special inquiry. The Church has not issued a precise determination on this issue, although the doctrine of scholastic theology attempts to pass itself off as such a determination. But, actually, this doctrine only expresses the “opinion” of one of the two tendencies that have opposed each other and continue to oppose each other in theology. Even the definitions that condemn Origenism, which previously had been attributed to the fifth ecumenical council, have been shown by recent historical inquiry not to originate in this council. Even if they had so originated, they would still require interpretation and very careful commentary.  (p. 482)

Met Hilarion Alfeyev categorically asserts: “There is also an Orthodox understanding of the apokatastasis, as well as a notion of the non-eternity of hell. Neither has ever been condemned by the Church and both are deeply rooted in the experience of the Paschal mystery of Christ’s victory over the powers of darkness” (The Mystery of Faith, p. 271*). Paul Evdokimov concurs:

The general view of eternal torment is only a textbook opinion, simplistic theology (of the penitential sort) which neglects the depth of texts such as John 3.17 and 12.47. Can we really believe that, alongside the eternity of the Kingdom of God, God has provided another eternity of hell? Surely, this would amount to a failure in the divine plan, even a partial victory of evil? Now, St Paul, in 1 Cor. 15.55, states quite the opposite. St Augustine did indeed oppose the more generous interpretations of the tender mercies of God, but that was out of a concern to avoid libertinism and sentimentality; besides, fear would not only be useless in pedagogical argument today, but would make Christianity dangerously like Islam. A healthy trembling before holy things keeps the world from becoming bland, but real fear is driven out by perfect love (1 John 4.18). …

The Fifth Ecumenical Council did not occupy itself with the duration of the torments of hell. The Emperor Justinian (who for a while resembled Jonah, who was righteously angry because the wicked escaped punishment) presented his personal teaching to the Patriarch Menas in 543. The Patriarch used it to elaborate some arguments against neo-Origenism. Pope Vigilius confirmed them. By mistake, they have been attributed to the Fifth Ecumenical Council itself, but the teaching was only a personal opinion, and the contradictory teaching of St Gregory of Nyssa has never been condemned. The question remains open, the answer depending perhaps on human charity. St Anthony’s explanation is one of the most profound: apocatastasis, the salvation of all, is not a doctrine, but a prayer for the salvation of all except me, for whom alone hell exists. (Orthodoxy, p. 338)

One might claim, I suppose, that it really doesn’t matter whether the Fifth Ecumenical Council  formally approved the anti-Origenist anathemas. The Church subsequently came to believe that it had, and that’s what really counts. Consider the declaration of the Quinisext Synod in 692:

Also we recognize as inspired by the Spirit the pious voices of the one hundred and sixty-five God-bearing fathers who assembled in this imperial city in the time of our Emperor Justinian of blessed memory, and we teach them to those who come after us; for these synodically anathematized and execrated Theodore of Mopsuestia (the teacher of Nestorius), and Origen, and Didymus, and Evagrius, all of whom reintroduced feigned Greek myths, and brought back again the circlings of certain bodies and souls, and deranged turnings [or transmigrations] to the wanderings or dreamings of their minds, and impiously insulting the resurrection of the dead. (Canon 1)

Though it does not explicitly mention apokatastasis, the canon arguably evidences the then-held belief that the fifteen anathemas were promulgated by II Constantinople. One might then maintain that when subsequent ecumenical councils confirmed II Constantinople as ecumenical, they implicitly confirmed the fifteen anathemas.

Perhaps we might call this the “as if” theory of dogmatic reception: the Church has received the anti-Origienist anathemas as if they had been officially promulgated by an ecumenical council and as if they comprehended within their condemnation the universalist views of Origen, St Gregory Nyssen, and St Isaac the Syrian. Rejection of apokatastasis, after all, has been the popular teaching of both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches for well over a millennium. Doesn’t that qualify as ecumenical dogma, even if initially based upon a historical blunder?  If we believe hard and long enough that an ecumenical council has dogmatically condemned all forms of universal salvation, then surely it must have. “Fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong,” as the saying goes. But while one might expect an old-school Roman Catholic to argue in such a fashion, no doubt invoking papal authority and the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium, it seems odd for an Eastern Christian to take this route.  It presumes a magisterial authoritarianism alien to the Orthodox spirit, as if the Church could or would impose universally binding dogmatic formulations apart from consideration of their content and theological grounding. Even many Roman Catholic theologians now reject such a legalistic approach to dogma:

The notion that there could be doctrines immune to historical limitations and capable of being imposed by the sheer weight of extrinsic authority reflects the nonhistorical and juridical type of thinking prevalent in the Church of the Counter Reformation. The roots of this mentality may be traced to Greek intellectualism and Roman legalism. More proximately, the absolutistic view of dogma reflects the characteristics of Catholic theology in a rationalistic era. To ward off naturalistic rationalism, orthodox theology adopted a supernaturalistic rationalism in which revelation was conceived as a divinely imparted system of universal and timeless truths entrusted to the Church as teacher. (Avery Dulles, “Dogma as an Ecumenical Problem,” Theological Studies 29.3 [1968]: 400; also see Francis Sullivan, Creative Fidelity)

Unlike their Roman Catholic counterparts, contemporary Orthodox theologians have hardly begun to address the prerequisites of doctrinal irreformability or the hermeneutics of dogma (Bulgakov’s “Dogma and Dogmatic Theology” being a notable exception). Hence we probably should not be surprised when internet apologists, parish priests, and even respected theologians who should know better dismiss the hope of universal salvation with the mere wave of a dogmatic hand. “The Fifth Ecumenical Council settled that long ago,” some tell us. “The Synodikon has infallibly anathematized the universalist hope,” others pontificate. But dogma is too important to be so superficially treated.  And the universalist hope is too important to be so cavalierly and hastily dismissed.

*  In his recent book Doctrine and Teaching of the Orthodox Church, Met Hilarion appears to have moved toward a more traditional view of eternal damnation. He repeatedly appeals to the (alleged) dogmatic rejection of apokatastasis by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. This uncritical invocation of a questionable anathema severely undermines his presentation. Surely a theologian of Hilarion’s caliber is well aware of the historical debate regarding the attribution of the 15 anathemas to II Constantinople, yet he makes no reference to this debate. Hilarion also assumes that the anathema against apokatastasis accurately speaks to the authentic views of Origen, nor does he convincingly explain why the Council Fathers, if they intended to anathematize all forms of apokatastasis, did not include St Gregory of Nyssa’s name among the condemned. I am at a loss to explain the Metropolitan’s poor scholarship at this point.

(This article is a revised and expanded version of an article published here on Eclectic Orthodoxy on 26 January 2015)

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81 Responses to Apocatastasis: The Heresy that Never Was

  1. As one who has this blessed hope, I have come to the conclusion that this is not so much a dogma to hold but a prayer to behold.

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  2. Met Hilarion Alfeyev seems to me to be more “conservative” in his views and might be concerned that universalism is too much associated with “liberalism”. I personally see no association either way. I mean, I’m also not entirely convinced either way as well…I always though appreciate your contributions to the discussion on this topic. I remain in the camp that says, at the very least, with the incredible love of God, salvation for all is possible.

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  3. tgbelt says:

    I’m not Orthodox, but I’m following this particular conversation with special interest. Some things come to mind:

    1) As I read the 15 Anathemas I don’t get the feeling that apokatastasis per se is what’s being condemned. The entire litany is so qualified by beliefs that attend the apokatastasis in question as to make a blanket condemnation of all forms of apokatastasis impossible. So if the anathemas were pre-approved by the Bishops (though one has to wonder why and how they’d agree to such a thing) before the Council convened, the 6th Council could be understood as providing conciliar ratification of them (explicitly referring, as it does, to the condemnation of Origen [certain of his teachings?]). But if such a pre-approval occurred, why wouldn’t the Council simply include those anathemas in their own Acts?

    Question: if the original Greek Acts of the 5th are lost and the only surviving Latin copy doesn’t include the 15 Anathemas, where do the Anathemas come from? What’s their history?

    2) The 14th anathema refers rather peculiarly to “this pretended/supposed apocatastasis” which again suggests that it is apokatastasis as qualified and defended by these other metaphysical claims mentioned and condemned which is in view and not apokatastasis per se.

    3) Is it conceivable that the Council would condemn all possible construals of apokatastasis if this meant (and it would mean) equally condemning Gregory of Nyssa? I did hear one Orthodox gentleman make the suggestion that the Council withheld condemnation of Gregory out of their great respect for him. But that seems ridiculous—the Council has no problem condemning Origen for apokatastasis but refrains from condemning Gregory of Nyssa for apokatastasis and the Council views apokatastasis in each case equally heretical?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Marc says:

    Thanks for this post Fr. Aidan. Having had a similar exchange with the one who used the Synodikon’s anathemas to insist that eternal torment was the dogma of the Church, I appreciate this post and the recent exchange with Dr. Hart on a different thread of you blog site. When I asked my parish priest whether I was anathema because I rejected the concept of eternal torment, he assured me that this was not the case. I believe that the weight of the revelation of Holy Tradition actually supports conditional immortality, rather than the concept of natural immortality common in the pagan Greco-Roman world of the early Church. If a human being can not be redeemed in the end, they would suffer the annihilation of the second death with Satan and the demons in the lake of fire, not eternal torment. I enjoy your blog because it gives me a greater understanding of why most, or perhaps all, of humanity may escape the fate of Satan and the demons.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Several years ago I communicated with Fr Andrew Louth about the authority of the Synodikon. He made two important points. First, the Synodikon is not an independent authority for dogmatic theology. Its authority is derivative, resting completely upon the authority of the conciliar and synodical decrees that it expresses. What this means is that if one wishes to know what a specific anathema means and what authority it holds, one needs go to the specific council and exegete and interpret its dogmatic statements. Second, the only part of the Synodikon that enjoys ecumenical authority is the first version, which rests on the decrees of the 7th Ecumenical Council. As far as the remainder, its authority is relative, varying from anathema to anathema. One cannot treat the Synodikon like old-style Roman Catholics used to treat Denzinger’s Sources of Catholic Dogma. Karl Rahner used to pejoratively call it “Denzinger theology” (and Rahner was for many years the editor of the work).

      I was glad, though not surprised, that David B. Hart confirmed this view of the Synodikon in one of his recent comments: “The Synodikon is just a compendium, and at times a converses, and possesses only as much authority as what it is quoting at any point. In itself it is no more binding on the conscience of an Orthodox than the Baltimore Catechism or a Thomist manual is on the conscience of a Catholic.” Compendiums are invaluable, but they shouldn’t be treated like infallible documents.

      One of the truly helpful features of a book like Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma is the way he classifies and ranks the doctrines of the RC Church. Each receives a theological grade of certainty:

      1. The highest degree of certainty appertains to the immediately revealed truths. The belief due to them is based on the authority of God Revealing (fides divina), and if the Church, through its teaching, vouches for the fact it a truth is contained in Revelation, one’s certainty is then also based on the authority of the Infallible Teaching Authority of the Church (fides catholica). If Truths are defined by a solemn judgment of faith (definition) of the Pope or of a General Council, they are “de fide definita.”

      2. Catholic truths or Church doctrines, on which the infallible Teaching Authority of the Church has finally decided, are to be accepted with a faith which is based on the sole authority of the Church (fides ecclesiastica). These truths are as infallibly certain as dogmas proper.

      3. A Teaching proximate to Faith (sententia fidei proxima) is a doctrine, which is regarded by theologians generally as a truth of Revelation, but which has not yet been finally promulgated as such by the Church.

      4. A Teaching pertaining to the Faith, i.e., theologically certain (sententia ad fidem pertinens, i.e., theologice certa) is a doctrine, on which the Teaching Authority of the Church has not yet finally pronounced, but whose truth is guaranteed by its intrinsic connection with the doctrine of revelation (theological conclusions).

      5. Common Teaching (sententia communis) is doctrine, which in itself belongs to the field of free opinions, but which is accepted by theologians generally.

      6. Theological opinions of lesser grades of certainty are called probable, more probable, well-founded (sententia probabilis, probabilior, bene fundata). Those which are regarded as being in agreement with the consciousness of Faith of the Church are called pious opinions (sententia pia). The least degree of certainty is possessed by the tolerated opinion (opinio tolerata), which is only weakly founded, but which is tolerated by the Church.

      With regard to the doctrinal teaching of the Church it must be well noted that not all the assertions of the Teaching Authority of the Church on questions of Faith and morals are infallible and consequently irrevocable. Only those are infallible which emanate from General Councils representing the whole episcopate and the Papal Decisions Ex Cathedra (cf D 1839). The ordinary and usual form of the Papal teaching activity is not infallible. Further, the decisions of the Roman Congregations (Holy Office, Bible Commission) are not infallible.

      I’m sure Orthodoxy doesn’t want imitate Ott’s doctrinal precision, but it does properly remind us that not all churchly teachings enjoy the same authority and not all doctrines are to be regarded as beyond error and therefore irreformable. That’s just commonsense, it seems to me; but it’s apparently been been forgotten by those who feel free to zealously accuse advocates of the universalist hope as guilty of heresy.

      Everyone try this experiment: in light of Ott’s “theological grades of certainty,” what grade would you give the popular Orthodox teaching on the eternity of hell. I would give it #5: common but reformable teaching.

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      • Marc says:

        Thanks for all these good points of perspective Father. It is also interesting that even though the Holy Scriptures are at the center of Holy Tradition, we Orthodox give more weight to the four Gospels that the other books of Holy Scripture.

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      • Agnikan says:

        The Russian judge gives it a 5.5.

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  5. Ed Smith says:

    1) As a math professor, I teach a class (Intro. to Advanced Math) which was not taught in my day because its contents were assumed to be instinctual/automatic in anyone who might reasonably consider pursuing higher math. The statement “If anyone advocates the mythical pre-existence of souls and the monstrous restoration that follows from this, let him be anathema” is a kind of construct often featured in the class in which we determine precisely what a statement says and what, precisely, would be true if it were false. It would never occur to me that the statement of the 5th council was a condemnation of universalism in general and any student who thought it was would probably be flunking my class. Things become especially clear when one learns something about the Origenism in question–some restorations are more “monstrous” than others.

    2) I’ve noticed, as we cycle through our church calendar, certain commemorations which sound universalistic–the end of evil, the emptying of hell, etc. Also, Orthodoxy teaches that evil is nothing and that what God created is still there in all of us, though it may be covered over with a construct made from nothing, so that it can’t be seen by any other than God. When judgment comes and the Uncreated Light is revealed to us in full strength, can a facade supported by nothing hold up forever against it? Won’t the good creature, bearing the substance created by God, rejoice and grow in this light? Can something with no actual substance be permanent? If evil ends, can suffering endure?

    3) In contrast to how most American Evangelicals think, we Orthodox are taught that our neighbor is our self, so to love him as myself is a simple result of leaving delusion for reality. We share a common human nature which does not mean we are made of similar substance, but that we actually are connected like branches on a tree. If humans are in Hell, isn’t human nature, especially Christ Himself, partaking of Hell? In any event, God is certainly omniscient and omnipresent. Therefore, assuming there are those suffering in Hell forever, God knows precisely what it is like for them, even from their own perspective, so it seems He is fully sharing the experience forever. Something about that doesn’t seem right.

    Those are just some things which make it hard for me to imagine “eternal torment.” Now, the conclusions I’m drawn to are not direct revelation, but implication. I think C.S. Lewis was onto something in The Great Divorce when, in discussion of this question, he said it couldn’t be answered at this point in time “because all answers deceive.” How might a universalist’s answer deceive? There could be several ways, but I’ll describe one. Let’s say I happen to be one of those humans who, frankly, is a real mess. The false self is the only self I know. I’m not acquainted with the creature, whom God made, which lies beneath my facade of evil. If I learn that 1) God will never revoke my existence and 2) that I will be cast forever into the Light which will burn and torment the only self I know, “eternal torment” might be the best way I can understand my fate. I am very attached to that false self and my true self, if described to me, would be a stranger whose existence I can’t imagine. So, I understand “my” future as eternal torment, but that conception is based on a false premise: my presumed knowledge of self.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      From the parables of Jesus to the liturgical hymns of the Sunday of the Last Judgment, we Orthodox interpret everything through Pascha.

      Like

    • Great comment, Ed. Hmm . . . a mathematical mind is akin to the philosophical mind, I’m thinking’ (see my comment under the recent post on Dr. Hart’s comments.) Your point #3 is confirmed in Psalm 139:8.

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  6. Hi Fr. Aidan,
    On a different note, I am an evangelical reading “Thomas F. Torrance and the Church Fathers” by Jason Robert Radcliff. Something that seemed like an over generalization in which I would like your input is on the issue of how Eastern Orthodox read the church fathers. Dr. Radcliff basically says that Eastern Orthodox read the church fathers through Palamas. I would like to hear your response to this because this does not seem completely accurate even though I know some EO’s who have concerns about what they call “Palamism.” Any comments or other books or articles for references would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I think a lot of contemporary Orthodox theologians read the Fathers through the Palamite lens, but this has not always been the case. Palamas sort’ve got forgotten for several hundred years in the second half of the second millennium, which is more than a little odd. One of my Orthodox theologian-friends thinks very highly of Panagiotis Trembelas’s Dogmatics and complains it’s been unfairly dismissed by contemporary theologians because Trembelas does not wear Palamite glasses.

      Fr John Behr, for example, strikes me as a scholar who tries very hard to read each of the Fathers on their own terms.

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  7. How does universalism not eviscerate the necessity of preaching the Gospel? And what does one do with a verse like 1 Cor 6:9? What linguistic hoops must one jump through to make a “not” into a (delayed) affirmative? “Do you not know that the unrighteous (adikoi) will not inherit the kingdom of God?”

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    • tgbelt says:

      AD, just a thought…

      A few years ago my daughter met a guy and fell in love pretty quickly. When things got serious, she approached me and said, “Dad, when can I bring him over for you to meet?” We agreed on a dinner at our place a couple of weeks out. So—it was set; we were going to meet him. In spite of that, every day during those two weeks she continued to call me and ask “Any chance we can make it earlier? You free tonight?” I was like, “Hunny, we’re gonna meet him already. Relax!” to which she’d reply, “I can’t stand a day going by without you knowing him.”

      So the question is, how beautiful do we think God is? How wonderful, really, is it to know him? Wonderful enough to motivate us to seek to bring others into relationship with him even if we know that eventually, they’ll meet God anyhow? To the extent God is seen to be the alternative of hell, and hell motivates us in that, I think we’re missing the point. The worth and beauty of God are the motivation for mission. And even if God is already the only ultimate final resting place for our hearts, that doesn’t remove the necessity of missions for those absolutely captivated by the beauty and goodness of God.

      1Cor 6.9 is still true. The “not” defines the context in which the Kingdom is inherited, not a final line which when crossed closes the door to all future possibilities. If it meant the latter kind of foreclosure, it would have meant that when Paul said it, which of course would mean no person who was unrighteousness when he wrote the words could possibly inherit the Kingdom. Not good news.

      Tom

      Liked by 1 person

    • Agnikan says:

      Love God leads automatically to preaching the gospel — whether one, none, or all are saved.

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      • Anonymouse says:

        One who has had an encounter with this Divine Love–even for a moment–does not even need to ask this question. A second without Him for anyone is torment they must be rescued from ASAP through the preaching of the gospel (if necessary using words).

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  8. Marc says:

    And at Pascha we Orthodox celebrate the Harrowing of Hades. If St. John Chrysostom’s paschal homily is correct, and the only ones left in Hades were Satan and the demons, we have a powerful witness to the capacity of our Lord Jesus Christ to heal those human being who enter the intermediate spiritual state.

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  9. Priest John Wehling says:

    Fr Aidan,

    Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!

    Let me start by saying that I believe universalism to be untenable given then vast biblical and patristic witness to the contrary. Pray for the salvation of all? Of course. How could we not? But in my opinion we should not teach such a thing.

    Much more promising from a biblical and patristic point of view – something not only conceivable but quite defensible – is the belief in degrees of punishment and reward in the Kingdom. The NT often use this type of language. For example, our Lord speaks of the judgment being more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah than for the cities that rejected Him during His ministry (Matt. 10.15; 11.24). Similarly, regarding the righteous, St Irenaeus, referring to Matt. 13.8 and the parable of the seeds producing different yields, writes that “…there is this distinction between the habitation of those who produce an hundred-fold, and that of those who produce sixty-fold, and that of those who produce thirty-fold….” (St Irenaeus, Against Heresies, V.36).

    Likewise, commenting on Luke 12.47-48 (“And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few.”), both St Gregory the Theologian and St John Chrysostom state that there will be those who will not be “excessively condemned” (St Gregory the Theologian, In Defense of His Flight 40).

    It is very common in the fathers to see in the “many mansions” of John 14 degrees of glory and reward in the Kingdom. Numerous fathers, including St Irenaeus, St John Chrysostom, St Basil the Great, St Gregory the Theologian, St Cyril of Alexandria, and St Athansius the Great understand the many mansions in this way.

    The same is true of St Paul’s discussion of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.41: “There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differs from another star in glory.” St Basil and St John Chrysostom indicate that this refers to the differing degrees of glory the righteous will attain in the Kingdom.

    In short, the consensus of the fathers readily supports an understanding of degrees of glory and punishment in the resurrection. If we trust in the mercy of God and believe that everyone will experience the glory of God to the degree that they are able, this gives us hope for our own souls and for all men. And what else could we believe of our merciful God who is the philanthropos?

    Wishing you the joy of the Feast,
    Priest John Wehling

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Welcome to Eclectic Orthodoxy, Fr John. Thank you for your comment.

      I do not find your “many mansions” suggestion promising. If the doctrine of eternal perdition is true, then, for those so condemned, it is the greatest tragedy, loss, and suffering humanly imaginable. There can be no minimizing the horror of eternal separation from the communion of the Blessed Trinity. Perhaps among the damned there are degrees of suffering, as we find in Dante’s Inferno; but regardless, there is for the damned no happiness, no joy, no love, no future—only the sin that utterly consumes the sinner.

      And what is the point of this interminable punishment and suffering? By definition, it does not rehabilitate or purify or sanctify. The older answer is that its purpose is retributive, which raises the question of the justice of everlasting punishment for finite sins. Contemporary Orthodoxy, however, prefer the free-will defense of hell: the damned bring the suffering upon themselves by their refusal to accept God’s love and mercy, but this defense has serious problems of its own, as discussed in previous articles.

      I agree with you that the huge majority of post-Justinian Church theologians supports some form of eternal damnation. For them the real question is, How many will be damned? Traditional answer: bunches and bunches. But the testimony of St Gregory of Nyssa remains. If you read Ramelli’s The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis, you may be surprised by the strength of the universalist hope in pre-Justinian theology.

      The point of this article was not to persuade anyone of the truth of universal salvation—I’ve addressed that subject in many of my articles, listed under “Eschatology,” but to simply argue for the permissibility of having this argument. Friends have pointed me to some of the nasty things some of my Orthodox brethren have said about me and David Hart on Facebook and elsewhere. It’s really quite shameful.

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      • Isaac says:

        “Friends have pointed me to some of the nasty things some of my Orthodox brethren have said about me and David Hart on Facebook and elsewhere. It’s really quite shameful.”

        Indeed. I find it sad that this of all issues gets people worked up to the point of vitriol. I guess some people really want a god that lets people suffer eternally.

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      • Priest John Wehling says:

        Thank you for your reply, Fr Aidan.

        You dislike the fathers’ “many mansions” theology and the attendant view of degrees of punishment saying, “There can be no minimizing the horror of eternal separation from the communion of the Blessed Trinity.” This, though, is precisely what such a view does minimize. It indicates the mercy and goodness of God to save people as “far” as He can save them.

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  10. Christopher says:

    Fr. Aidan,

    I found this interesting:

    ” The historical exegesis of dogmatic statements is essential to our constructive employment of these statements in our theological reflection and is mandatory for the proper distinguishment of orthodoxy and heresy.”

    Quite apart from any specific application to universalism, this strikes me as perhaps an overstatement or a misstatement. Are you making a hard distinction between “dogma” and “revelation”, and if so how do you do so (or how does the Church do this)? For example, is this a “dogmatic statement”:

    Christ is risen (or in creedal form: “..on the third day he rose again…”

    If so, in what way is it historically conditioned? What does a “historical exegesis” add to our understanding and what part does it play in “theological reflection” which I take you to be saying is necessarily historically conditioned. I probably don’t understand (well, no doubt I don’t) what exactly is Revelation and what is “Holy Dogma”.

    Christopher

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Christopher, take the statement “Christ is risen.” What the heck does it mean? I imagine it might mean lots of different things in different cultural and historical settings. Someone might, for example, think it means something along the lines of resuscitation. Another might think it means the survival of the soul after death, etc., etc. But interpreting the statement within its 1st century Jewish context, as, e.g., N. T. Wright does in his Resurrection of the Son of God allows us to understand what it must have meant to the apostles and the early Jewish Church.

      Think of an undated letter that you wrote twenty years ago. They do not know you. They do not know the person to whom you sent it. They do not know what part of the country either of you lived in. In the absence of any kind of historical context, do you think they will interpret it accurately?

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      • Christopher says:

        I think I see your point. Even the Apostles themselves did not “get it” (i.e. much/most of what Jesus was telling them, even who he was and is) until after the Resurrection/Pentecost, and even then they needed to come together to work things out (first council).

        Would you say then that “revelation” is not really such until it is “breathed into you” by the Holy Spirit – and only then is any “interpretation” fulfilled, or left behind, and as such it is not “historically conditioned”? Or is everything historically conditioned and this is always the (colored) lens through which we view the Truth?

        I ask because I believe the common “piestic” way of thinking of Revelation is that it is a “breaking into” this world and thus not conditioned by the world in the same way as other things, and I have more or less accepted this thinking. I also have believed that dogma, while a “reaction” of sorts to history, is itself simply an explication of revelation and thus has that sort of non-conditioned element in it.

        All this brings to mind the “what if we meet intelligent beings from another world” scenario – in this case, what of our history (specifically “revelation history”) is specific to us? In what way has revelation come to them? In what way is revelation “universal” and going beyond, non-historical?? Speculative musings fer sur.

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  11. jesseevans says:

    Have you been able to read Steve Gregg’s book “All you need to know about hell”? Its really good and helpful for seeing these different angles more clearly.

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  12. mkenny114 says:

    The universalist hope is, of course, a minority view within Orthodoxy, but being a minority view does not make it heretical. The fact that Orthodox bishops and priests have long taught a doctrine of eternal perdition does not mean that the matter is definitively closed; it does not mean that the Church may not reexamine its popular teaching in light of Holy Scripture and the witness of the Fathers.

    Fr. Kimel, what you write here is true – being a minority view does not make something heretical, and the longstanding teaching of Orthodox bishops and priests on a given matter does not necessarily mean that it is definitively closed. However, for a topic such as this (our eternal fate), does not its deep seriousness give that consistent teaching more weight?

    What I mean is that, if one believes (as I am fairly sure Orthodox do) that the Church is in some way the voice of Christ in the temporal sphere (c.f.; Luke 10:16, John 16:13, etc), then is not a long-standing and widespread tradition of teaching on a topic of great significance something that must preclude us from making overly-confident suggestions to its contrary. Such teaching would not prevent us from making the case that universal reconciliation might be hoped for, but to promote it with confidence and assurance must surely be a little dangerous given the great weight of the teaching to the contrary.

    Similarly, the length of time that the Church has taught something contrary to UR is also noteworthy. If UR is true, and the Church has been teaching something to the contrary for such a long time, and in a way that at least very strongly gives the impression that this is the orthodox position, where is the Holy Spirit in this? He certainly would not be in the position of leading us into all truth.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Michael. Good to have you back. A thoughtful comment, as always. I started to type a response, when I realized that I really needed to take some time to compose it. It may take me a day or two or three. Heck, it might even end up on page 1. 🙂

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      • mkenny114 says:

        Many thanks Fr. This issue is the principal one that I have with the argument that we can have a strong hope in or can even confidently assert universal reconciliation, so I am more than willing to wait for your response🙂

        Like

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Michael, would you also take a sanguine position regarding the absolute and unconditional love of God? I believe that one can look at Church history and question whether, for periods of hundreds of years, the Church did not in fact teach the unconditionality of the divine love. This is certainly true in those parts of the Latin Church that came under the strong predestinarianism of St Augustine: clearly God does not love the reprobate. But it is also true in the Eastern Church, where the love of God is effectively conditioned by our synergistic cooperation: at some eschatological point God ceases to remember the damned, as we saw in my series on Dumitru Staniloae’s eschatology.

        How could unclarity persist in the Church on such a decisively important matter? Should the preacher remain silent because he finds himself in the minority?

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        • mkenny114 says:

          Hmm, this is a very good point, which I will have to have a good think about. My immediate response would be that in such cases any neglect of the unconditional nature of God’s love in preaching (and I am not sure, historically speaking, how widespread this was or for how long it persisted) is mitigated by the very clear dogmatic statements about God’s nature made previously. I.e.; in such cases one could appeal to ecumenical councils and a majority of patristic writing on God’s essential nature as love and on that basis clearly call out such preaching as a divergence from orthodoxy.

          When it comes to UR though, a.) there are no such clear universal statements to appeal to, and b.) the teaching and preaching of the Church contrary to UR was sustained over a much longer period (though again, I am not quite sure which periods you are referring to, and therefore unsure of how long this went on for).

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            I raise the matter of unconditional love, as I really believe that this, not apokotastasis, is the real issue. I think a lot of Orthodox preachers give lip-service to it, yet ultimately undermine it through the stipulation of various conditions. Inevitably we end up with an eternal hell.

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          • mkenny114 says:

            This is also a very good point, but a tricky one, as I’m sure you are aware given the response to some of your (excellent) posts on that topic. Briefly I suppose, the trickiness comes down to the fact that we almost can’t help but introduce some conditions (like repentance and faith for example) without giving people a false impression of what is required of them re discipleship. As soon as one says that God love is absolutely unconditional, our fallen nature leads us to see it as a ‘get out of jail free’ card, and the message is undermined. And can we preach one thing to the baptised and something else to the world without being guilty of misleading one or both?

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          • Marc says:

            I think Fr. Aidan’s focus on the matter of unconditional love is truly the real issue. Although a parent would subject their child to tough love to correct them, and allow a physician to inflict pain to enable healing, no parent would subject their child to eternal torment. If the child is given every opportunity to recover and enjoy eternal life, yet rejects the therapies of love and life itself, then the second and eternal death is their choice.

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          • mkenny114 says:

            Marc,

            Yes it is. But I am not arguing against the philosophical/theological aspect of UR here. Incidentally though, the fatherhood image does tally with what I’ve been asking a little, as one might ask why our heavenly Father would allow us to be misled to such a great extent on the issue of our eternal salvation – if universal reconciliation is the truth, why would He allow His children to think otherwise (on such a very important issue) for so much of the Church’s history?

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          • Marc says:

            Michael,

            You raise a very important question as to why the Holy Spirit has allowed internal torment to remain the predominant teaching in the Church for so long. Given that the Holy Spirit never moved the Church to make this teaching a dogma, and that the weight of the Holy Scriptures support either eternal life or eternal death, I am convinced that eternal torment is a tradition of men who believed in the pagan concept of natural immortality of the soul and let this perspective distort their understanding of the revelation of Holy Scripture. Perhaps this is a reminder to us not to consider Holy Tradition as closed. The boundaries of Holy Tradition do allow for us to grow in grace and knowledge, as the gifts of the Holy Spirit are still active in the Church.

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          • mkenny114 says:

            Well Marc, this is fair enough, but one has to remember that it is not at all obvious that the weight of Scripture supports either eternal life or eternal death. This is what you have come to decide, but both the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox have tended to see it otherwise. Sacred Tradition is not closed no, but there are some ways of reading Scripture that have been endorsed (on the whole) for such a long time that we would have to have very compelling reasons to overturn them. For me, even if I were personally persuaded of what you have convinced yourself of, that weight of Tradition would still hold me back from committing to it.

            Like

    • tgbelt says:

      Michael,

      I’m rather interested in your question too. I hold to a few beliefs which, though not explicitly embraced by any ecumenical council, have always been minority views.

      I think in a general sense you have a point—disagreeing with majority opinion ought to be considered more serious the more consequential the issue is. At the same time however, the Creeds are carefully worded, narrow summaries of the faith not made lightly (i.e., as thoughtful in what they don’t say as in what they do say). If they leave some theological question untouched, then that also is to be considered seriously, i.e., that ‘is’ the majority opinion about where we should agree in conviction. Majority opinion on outside matters may have a certain academic weight behind it, but it can’t constrain lively debate or contrary convictions.

      But it might be said that universalists, by nature of being a minority view, tend to take the matter of human destiny more seriously than the majority view which, one could argue, might sometimes tend to assume the truth of its position without serious thought for the very reason you mention—viz., it’s the majority view and is probably right.

      I suppose I’d want to ask, What do you see as being the danger of holding a firm conviction (though not dogmatically) of final apokatastasis? It does concern weightier matters (human destiny), as you say. But in what way would holding universalism with conviction propose a threat to or undermine anything relevant to the seriousness of human destiny?

      As for where the Holy Spirit is in our disagreements outside the Creeds (Why would the Spirit allow the majority to be wrong on something as important as human destiny?), I’m eager to hear Fr Aidan on this too!

      Like

      • mkenny114 says:

        But it might be said that universalists, by nature of being a minority view, tend to take the matter of human destiny more seriously than the majority view which, one could argue, might sometimes tend to assume the truth of its position without serious thought for the very reason you mention—viz., it’s the majority view and is probably right.

        I must insist on a clarification here, as it is a very important point. I am not merely arguing for ‘majority rules’ here, but rather that the consistency of the non-UR position being taught and preached over such a long time (and yes, by a majority of churchmen) on something as serious as our eternal fate presents a problem for anyone who believes that the Church speaks truthfully on faith and morals.

        That universalism has been and is a minority position does not necessarily mean that people holding to it would take it more seriously. It might do in some cases, but it does not necessarily follow, and one could also argue that accepting the possibility of eternal loss is something that one would naturally not want to accept (contra universalism, which I am fairly sure most people would want to be true – not saying that is a reason to believe it, but it is a much more attractive position), so one would give it a good deal of thought on that basis too.

        As to the dangers of promoting (not just believing it personally) final apokatastasis, the obvious danger is that if it turns out not to be true, a lot of people may not have changed their lives as they would have done otherwise, and thereby run the risk of damnation. I am aware that universalism, if properly understood, should not lead one to lead a morally lax or irreverent life, but unfortunately, due to our nature, a lot of people, if told there is always another chance after death, will do so, and if UR is false, they will not get the further chances they were promised.

        Very good point about what is or isn’t left out of the creeds. My first response to this would be to refer back to the different degrees of revelation listed in the excerpt from Ludwig Ott that Fr. Kimel posted earlier. The issue of our eternal fate could then be placed in class no.3 (or perhaps even no.2, depending on where one is coming from).

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        • tgbelt says:

          Thank you Michael. Appreciate the help.

          I haven’t met a traditional believer in hell as irrevocable conscious torment who wants universalism to be true. They might be out there. Just saying I haven’t met any. Traditionalists on this issue don’t want people to suffer irrevocable torment, of course, but I’ve yet to meet a non-universalist who wishes universalism was true. In my circles (not Orthodox), most are hostile to the very notion. They don’t like the idea of its possibly being true.

          I suppose I don’t agree that the possible dangers that universalism might pose to faith are properly conceived. If, as you say, universalism “properly understood” doesn’t pose the danger you’re concerned about, what’s the point? The traditional view on hell “improperly understood” poses grave threats to faith as well. I don’t see how the conceived dangers of the options (improperly understood) weigh in favor of the traditional view at all, as if that’s obviously the best view to be wrong about.

          I’d love to hear more on the relationship between not arguing for a simple ‘majority rules’ (on the one hand) but believing the Church speaks truthfully on faith and morals (on the other) and how the two converge on questions outside the Creeds. I just don’t see “the Spirit shall lead you into all truth” as suggesting unanimity in all truth-claims. It might just mean agreement on the essentials (understood as conciliar agreement on the non-negotiables), and perhaps the essentials can be equally proposed by both universalist and non-universalist views ‘properly’ understood. That seems to be implied in the Creeds (given Fr Aidan’s reading of the 5th Council). I think that’s his point.

          Tom

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          • mkenny114 says:

            I haven’t met a traditional believer in hell as irrevocable conscious torment who wants universalism to be true. They might be out there. Just saying I haven’t met any.

            That’s interesting, I’ve met quite a few. I would count myself as one as well actually! Most people I’ve spoken to on the matter like the idea of universalism, but are put off it by either a.) the weight of Tradition against it, and b.) a sense that if it were true, justice would not be done (e.g.; how could people like Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot ‘get away with it’ in the end). But more generally I was speaking of the appeal to everybody that is in some way in contact with the Gospel, and not just confirmed believers – I just think a lot of people (that I haven’t met) naturally see universal reconciliation as a better option – it’s a ‘happy ending’ so to speak🙂

            If, as you say, universalism “properly understood” doesn’t pose the danger you’re concerned about, what’s the point? The traditional view on hell “improperly understood” poses grave threats to faith as well. I don’t see how the conceived dangers of the options (improperly understood) weigh in favor of the traditional view at all, as if that’s obviously the best view to be wrong about.

            Because there is a world of difference between the doctrine as properly understood, and the impression people get upon hearing it (perhaps just the once, from a pulpit, or in conversation with a friend). It takes a while, as I’m sure you know from discussing the matter on the comment boards here, to explain to people how UR doesn’t result in a denial of free will, how it doesn’t mean that we can do what we like in this life because it’ll all come good in the end, etc, and we often don’t have time to do that. Furthermore, people are often, unfortunately, not motivated by wholly good intentions, and are more than likely to hear the message that God will bring all to reconciliation and renewal in the end to read as an excuse for them to carry on the way they are – upon hearing the UR message, a lot of people will ask ‘why convert?’, ‘why change my lifestyle?’, why repent of my sins?’ We’re very often a selfish lot, as sad as that is to admit.

            Conversely, although the traditional view on hell can cause problems when ‘improperly understood’, the fear caused by any understanding of the possibility of damnation can often be the catalyst for the falling to one’s knees in contrition and repentance which precedes faith, and which is very often followed by a desire to serve God out of love, not the initial fear which brought us to Him. Many great saints have trod this very path.

            As to your final point, I think I’d like to wait and see what Fr. Kimel has to say in his later response to my initial query first, if you don’t mind. This will a.) give me a bit more time to think the matter through, and b.) allow what light I am sure he will shed on the matter to better inform my answer. One thing to note though – I am not claiming that there should be unanimity in all truth claims, just on the most important matters. Some examples of very important matters not mentioned in the creeds are any explicit points of Mariology (all that is said is that Our Lord was ‘born of the Virgin Mary’) or anything about the Sacraments, aside from Baptism; neither is there anything about the inspiration of Scripture. Yet all the historic churches would agree that these are first-order issues.

            Thanks for your replies btw Tom, they are interesting and thought-provoking, as always!

            Like

          • Marc says:

            Michael, If Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot had to be reconciled to all of their victims in the intermediate state of souls by experiencing what they had done to their victims and seeking forgiveness to experience eternal life, is it possible? Perhaps it is more likely that they would prefer to share eternal death with Satan and his demons in the lake of fire.

            Like

          • mkenny114 says:

            Marc,

            My point about Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot was not one I was arguing myself, but giving as an example of why others often find it hard to accept universal reconciliation.

            Like

        • “As to the dangers of promoting (not just believing it personally) final apokatastasis, the obvious danger is that if it turns out not to be true, a lot of people may not have changed their lives as they would have done otherwise, and thereby run the risk of damnation. I am aware that universalism, if properly understood, should not lead one to lead a morally lax or irreverent life, but unfortunately, due to our nature, a lot of people, if told there is always another chance after death, will do so, and if UR is false, they will not get the further chances they were promised.”

          I think this is the strongest point in favor of allowing as an opinion a *non-dogmatic* Universalist hope (a la St. Isaac), while still preaching the more traditional view (I mean just in the way we present the Last Judgment in our services, etc.), and allow that to stand on its own without overemphasizing one way or the other (except in known circumstances as appropriate in Confession depending upon the state of someone’s heart–whether it is callous and unreflective, needing a reminder of the reality of hell’s torments, or soft in the manner of St. Silouan’s, and more tempted by despair of God’s mercy). I don’t believe pedagogically there is a dogmatic one-size-fits-all for this issue.

          Like

          • mkenny114 says:

            Karen,

            Excellent assessment! Whilst I think it would be dishonest to privately assert the truth of universalism (perhaps even keeping it as something only to be divulged to those ready to receive it – which would result in a spiritual elitism*) and publicly preaching the contrary, I certainly agree that it is okay to allow universalism as a theologoumena, whilst continuing to preach the traditional view. I don’t think UR is something that should be blacklisted as heresy, but I think it should be made clear that this is not what the universal Church has come to believe is the best interpretation of the data of revelation, as well as her experience of preaching and living the Gospel throughout the ages.

            *N. B. Certainly not suggesting anyone here would be in support of this – just putting it forward as a possible consequence of the private universalism/public traditional view on hell scenario.

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    • Marc says:

      The fact that the Holy Spirit has not guided the Church to make eternal torment a dogma sends a strong message. Before the fourth century, there was no clear majority in the Church regarding the eschatological concepts of universal salvation, eternal death, and eternal torment. With the beginning of the Imperial period, the Church was more influenced by the Greco-Roman concept of natural immortality of the soul. This led to the large scale rejection of the concept of eternal death, even though there is far more Scriptural support of eternal death and universal salvation, than eternal torment. The clericalism that grew out of the new Church State relationships also favored eternal torment as a means to coerce and control the masses.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. evagrius says:

    With regard to the argument that the majority view regarding universalism should be correct since it has been held for so long and by so many….I suppose the same argument could be, ( and was indeed!), held regarding the morality of slavery, ( the inferiority of some human being due to skin color or financial condition)…one can even point to the still ongoing debates regarding the status of women, ( a lesser male?).
    Mr. Smith makes an interesting observation regarding the self of the human person as a sharer of the common human nature. I would add another point. It seems to me that what we call the self is a dynamic activity composed of all the relationships, good, bad, neutral, we have had with other persons, animals, plants, indeed all of creation as well, of course, with the Triune God which is Relationship par excellence. It seems to me that, given such a situation, the question remains as to what relationships would remain if some were “eternally” lost. Mind you, this is only an inchoate intuition that needs quite a bit more thinking.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Evagrius, if either my wife or any of my children or anyone I love were eternally damned, my self would be completely undone. This, for me, is the decisive argument for the universalist hope.

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      • tess says:

        Father, bless,

        I feel the same way about my precious ones. I’ve sometimes had the thought that my failure to love every person I see in this same way, as unrepeatable and precious acts of God, is my failure of love. It’s a high standard, and I suppose it is one of those weakness that is God’s strength and mighty glory, yes? Either way, I think it underscores that “decisive argument” for universalism. 🙂

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    • mkenny114 says:

      With regard to the argument that the majority view regarding universalism should be correct since it has been held for so long and by so many….I suppose the same argument could be, ( and was indeed!), held regarding the morality of slavery, ( the inferiority of some human being due to skin color or financial condition)…one can even point to the still ongoing debates regarding the status of women, ( a lesser male?).

      I don’t think so no. For starters, these are cultural issues, with little or no explicit statement either way in terms of official statements, dogmatic pronouncements, etc. Also, whilst the time it took for slavery to die out is an embarassment for Christians, it gradually did so, and precisely because of Christian teaching on the human person. When it reared its ugly head again, after many centuries, due to contact with the New World, it was immediately condemned by several popes. That people continued to ignore these condemnations is not the fault of the teaching Church. Here is a good article on the subject:

      http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14036a.htm

      Your comments about the status of women are a little imprecise (I’m not sure if you are referring to women’s status in Christian societies in general, or the issue of women’s ministry) so I can’t really comment. But this too is not an issue that the Church has actually taught anything on (well, the case of status in society anyway).

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      • evagrius says:

        Well, slavery, ( and serfdom, and therefore the notion of more “noble” and less “noble” human beings), were, ( and still are in many ways), the majority viewpoint held by Christians, ( and many other religions). You’re correct in pointing out that the more egregious notions, such as slavery, serfdom and peonage, are no longer held by most Christians because of the development of understanding regarding the human person though a strong residue still remains, ( the notion that a wealth person implies a “better” person due respect is still quite strong). As for the status of women, I urge you to think a bit deeper.

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        • mkenny114 says:

          slavery, ( and serfdom, and therefore the notion of more “noble” and less “noble” human beings), were, ( and still are in many ways), the majority viewpoint held by Christians,

          Erm, not sure I agree there, and it seems neither do you, as you say the exact opposite directly afterwards.

          As for my thinking ‘a bit deeper’ about the status of women, it might help if you clarified what exactly it is you mean here – as I wrote before, this could be a ministerial issue, or one in society at large; but I don’t know which one you mean until you say so.

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          • evagrius says:

            The “more noble” and “less noble” are, obviously, the rich and the poor or less rich. There are quite a few Christians who, despite what the Gospels and tradition teach, believe that wealth is a sign of grace, ( the “prosperity gospel” comes to mind. There are also quite a few who still think the ancient nobility is worthy of respect.

            As for women, the answer is both areas- that of society at large and the ecclesiastic ministries.

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          • mkenny114 says:

            The “more noble” and “less noble” are, obviously, the rich and the poor or less rich.

            I was not querying any oblique reference that this part of your prior statement might have been making to economic inequality, I was drawing attention to the fact that your previous statement broadly stated that slavery and serfdom still are positions endorsed by many Christians. One could make the rhetorical point that economic inequality is in itself a kind of slavery, but that is by no means clear in and of itself, nor is it explicit in what you wrote.

            As to the question of the ‘prosperity gospel’, this is, again, not something that has been taught by either the Orthodox or Catholic churches, nor by any of the more longstanding confessional Protestant churches – it is a legacy of American-style evangelicalism, and is more of an argument against sola scriptura and the principle of private judgement than it is against the failure of the institutional Church.

            Regarding women, thank you for filling me in there – it is now clear though that you see the issue of women’s ordination as being a question of social inclusion. This is an opinion that I most definitely disagree with, so I cannot agree that the non-admittance of women to the sacramental priesthood represents a failure to increase the social status of women (in fact, I think pro-WO arguments along these lines profoundly misunderstand the role of the priest as one of power and rank, instead of service). As to women’s social status in general, the same points apply as to the other issues you’ve raised – that this is not a question of the Church having formally taught against anything here, and that it was and is precisely in a Christian society that women’s social status has improved.

            P.S. I would recommend David Bentley Hart’s ‘Atheist Delusions’ for a good survey of the difference Christianity made in these respects, contra the status of both slaves and women in the pagan world.

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          • evagrius says:

            It seems to me that we are discussing notions past one another. You wish to defend the Church from the charge of advocating “mistakes”, as it were, while I wish to point out that many Christians, including many in the hierarchy, haven’t really followed the Church’s teachings and therefore advocating “mistakes”.

            The civil rights struggle in the U.S. over segregation might illustrate this. While official Church teaching strongly denounced it, in practice many Christians defended and practiced it. One needs to look no further than the recent revelations about Baltimore to verify the point.

            All this may seem to be away from the realm of discussing universalism but it seems to me that universalism implies a definite practice in this temporal world.

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          • mkenny114 says:

            Evagrius, I do not wish to defend the Church from advocating ‘mistakes’ – my point is that the things you are saying provide evidence of inconsistency in Church teaching are not actually things the Church ever taught on, except in the cases of papal condemnation of slavery in the New World, which is evidence of the Church remaining consistent to its teaching on the human person, not going against it.

            That many Christians have ignored Church teaching on this matter is not something I dispute – in fact, many Christians have ignored the Church on a whole lot of other matters as well, but one cannot use this as evidence that the Church was leading them astray. If everyone in the Church perfectly followed the actual teachings of the Church, we would be living in a paradise on earth, but alas, this will never happen. All the Church can do is recommend in her official teachings, and that she has done consistently.

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        • mkenny114 says:

          P.S. I should have put the ‘(and still are in many ways)’ in bold there. As to these things having been the majority view held by Christians, one of my points was that this stopped being the case, precisely because of Christianity, and then when it resurfaced again, statements and movements made against it, to its eventual detriment, came from explicitly Christian sources and motives. Nevertheless, the overall point remains that any supposed good of slavery was never actually promoted by the teaching Church.

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          • evagrius says:

            It seems to me that the teaching Church held to a “natural law” theory that did not question slavery, or later, peonage, ( where serfs were tied to the land held by a noble). The Orthodox Church in Russia opposed the freeing of the serfs, ( being tied to the land owned by a noble which could, of course be sold), when the Emperor proposed it in the 1860’s.

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          • mkenny114 says:

            Yes, and the Catholic Church (for example, as it has a more prominent place in her tradition) still appeals to natural law. What of it though? All you are saying here, again, is that the Church (and/or the Christian culture shaped in great part by her) has often-times not practised what she preached. This does not amount to the Church actually teaching that slavery was/is a good thing, and whilst criticisms can be raised about how long certain issues were ignored, or to what extent the Church did not see the full implications of its teaching on a given issue, this is not the same thing as the formal teaching of the Church being in error or leading the faithful astray.

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  14. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Michael, it seems to me that you are struggling with the same issue with which John Henry Newman struggled—the question of magisterium. One might pick up any of the important theological heresies and wonder why God allowed the Church to suffer under it for as long as he did. Whether it be 100 years or 1500 years, does the length of time here really matter? Yes, I know that 1500 years seems like a long time to us, but we may still be in the early days of the Church.

    In any case, if magisterium is the real issue (how does the Church effectively authoritatively identify the truths of revelation?), then that needs to be brought to the fore and addressed on its own terms.

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    • mkenny114 says:

      Thank you Fr. for another generous and thought-provoking reply. Yes, the fact that we may still be in the early days of the Church is a very good point indeed. Nevertheless, 1500 years is still a very long time, and certainly not a negligible amount of time for the Church to have taken the wrong path on an important issue.

      As for the question of magisterium, yes this is a very significant one. Newman did, as you say, wonder why in the early days of the Church (I think this is what you are alluding to) it took many years for things like Arianism to be rooted out (and in this case of course a simple majority rules approach would leave one firmly in the Arian camp at some stages!) but he also came to the conclusion (wisely I think) that what was entrusted to the Church at the beginning could, when brought to fruition over time, bring about certain knowable results, and that such development of doctrine could not admit of mutually exclusive results.

      One would then have to ask oneself, in the case of any given doctrine, if the position we hold on it would make more or less sense to the Apostles than its contrary, despite the fact that the Apostles of course would not have put it in such well-developed terms themselves. Distinguishing between authentic and other developments is, of course, the task of the Magisterium. For me, this conclusion is not a problem (nor for Newman). For the Orthodox, I do not have any other answer than to look to the weight of Tradition, which is why I put my original question the way I did. In looking to Tradition though, I suppose one must still ask the question ‘does the flower resemble the branch, the stalk, the seed from which the whole plant sprung?’ – in the case of eternal salvation we go back to the words of Our Lord and the first preaching of the Church.

      On this last point actually, I was reading through the first few chapters of the Acts of the Apostles yesterday, and it made me think about your earlier question re the preaching of the Church not paying enough attention to the unconditional love of God. Basically, it seems to me that the preaching we see in Acts very much is conditional – would you agree?

      Also, on a completely unrelated note, have you ever seen the film Ostrov (trans. The Island)? It is about a community of Orthodox monks on a remote Russian island, and if you haven’t seen it I highly recommend it.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Michael, what about the salvation of infants who die without baptism? It’s only been until fairly recently that people In the Latin Church have been willing to speak of possibility of their eternal salvation. St Augustine and his successors have been convinced of infant damnation. St Thomas Aquinas and many of the scholastics placed the infants in Limbo. How could God allow such confusion and uncertainty for over 1,600 years on a question that is burning concern for every parent?

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        • mkenny114 says:

          A very good example indeed Fr. I’m not quite sure how to answer this one as I don’t know just how influential Saint Augustine’s teaching in this area was (anecdotally, I would assume quite influential indeed, but I don’t actually know the reality of the situation) as opposed to a variety of cautious precursors to the eventual development of the Limbo theory. With respect to Limbo itself, I don’t see this as so much of a problem, as what the Catholic Church has pronounced much more recently on this does not actually deny that unbaptised children might experience only a natural happiness (as opposed to the Beatific Vision), but rather makes more clear that Limbo is only a theory, and that ultimately we entrust such children to the Mercy of God – in which case it might turn out that a state of natural happiness is more fitting for the infant soul (it might turn out, for example, that such a soul would not be able to receive the full glory of God’s presence and would be happier knowing Him in a different way).

          On a similar note, what do you make of Augustine’s idea that there are degrees of perfection in Heaven? It seems reasonable to me, as not everyone will have reached sanctification in the same way, and that process could well be reflected in the ‘role’ they have in the hereafter, without diminishing their relationship with God. Would this fit in with the universalist view though? I am thinking perhaps it might, based on Gregory of Nyssa’s idea that Heaven is a continual and never-ending expansion of the soul into God, and would allow for different types and even ‘levels’ of theosis even if we were all brought to our salvation. A bit rambly this, sorry, but would be interested in your thoughts.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        On the question of preaching and unconditionality, I think that preaching the gospel to the nonbaptized will always include an important element of unconditionality: “Repent of your sins, confess Jesus Christ as Lord, and be baptized; and you will receive the Holy Spirit.” The problem arises when this conditionalist rhetorical structure comes to dominate the preaching to the baptized, for it inevitably throws people back on their own moral and spiritual resources to achieve salvation and thus leads to legal-repentance and works-righteousness. But that is a topic for a different post.🙂

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        • Amen to preaching the gospel as unconditional promise!

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        • mkenny114 says:

          Yes, I see what you mean, and I certainly agree that for the baptised there should be an emphasis on God’s unconditional love (indeed, a very heavy emphasis), but I must admit to having very big issues with preaching one message to the non-baptised and another to the baptised – it just seems disingenuous to me.

          Also, whilst I believe the testimony of Scripture and Tradition to point to a God who is, in the final analysis, unconditional Love, it actually seems more immediately apparent (to me anyway) that the same data speaks of the way we freely enter into relationship with God and His gracious offer as involving conditions. Not just the initial one’s of repentance, faith and Baptism, but the various conditions involved with perseverance in the Faith – it seems fairly clear from the NT witness that it is possible to lose that relationship with God. The universalist might well argue that this relates to the temporal sphere and it is not, finally, possible to lose one’s salvation, but the conditions are definitely there. Anyway, yes, a topic for another post🙂

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Regarding preaching to the baptized, the specified condition is baptism because it is in and through baptism that one participates (normatively) in the blessings of the gospel.

            As far as conditions you mention—faith, repentance, perseverance, etc.—the challenge is how one preaches them. Does one preach them legalistically or in the mode of promise? I’ve addressed this (no doubt inadequately) in some of my articles catalogued under “preaching.”

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          • mkenny114 says:

            Regarding preaching to the baptized, the specified condition is baptism because it is in and through baptism that one participates (normatively) in the blessings of the gospel.

            Yes, I guess I just don’t see how you could say to the same person ‘the one condition here is your being baptised’ (and I would include repentance and faith here too, but that is by the by), but then tell the same person after their baptism that there are no conditions. It seems to me it must be either one or the other.

            The preaching issue is a delicate and important one, and I have to say that I very much enjoyed your series on this topic – though obviously I didn’t completely agree with all your conclusions!🙂

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Of course, it is also possible to formulate the condition of baptism in the form of promise: because Christ has died for your sins and risen to everlasting life for your salvation; therefore, believe on him and be baptized and you will receive the Holy Spirit.

            But now let me turn the tables back on you, Michael. How do you preach all these “conditions of salvation” without throwing the sinner back on his own resources, generating either works-righteousness or despair?

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          • mkenny114 says:

            I don’t think it does (or doesn’t have to) generate these things, as all these conditions can be summed up as cooperation. You write above that the condition of baptism is in the form of promise, which is true, but that promise still involves the condition that we receive that offer – ‘…therefore believe on him and be baptised and you will receive the Holy Spirit’. The preaching is not in the form of ‘Christ has died for your sins and risen to ever lasting life for your salvation; therefore do nothing and the Holy Spirit will be given to you’ – our response, our cooperation, is involved, and this is a condition of our receiving the gift of the Spirit within us.

            Similarly, all the ways in which we persevere in the life of faith are just different ways of cooperating with that gift that is given us – learning to live more in consonance with the will of God could also be described as realising more and more the true depth and breadth of that initial gift. That we have to cooperate in this way is not a burden leading to despair (though of course it is possible to see it in this way – often due to bad preaching!) but an inevitable consequence of God seeking our free involvement with the process of our redemption. If we are to maintain the truth of the freedom of our wills, then the condition of cooperation must always be involved in a synergistic process of salvation, and so must be included in the preaching of the gift. I think it is possible to do this in a way that does not undermine the undeservedness of that gift or give the impression that we have to earn salvation ourself – in fact, part of the beauty of the gift of salvation is that our freedom will be truly awoken and given the chance to flourish as was always intended – I think a focus on the way in which God’s grace liberates our will from slavery to sin allows for the preaching of the graciousness of salvation alongside the one condition of our own cooperation therein.

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          • mkenny114 says:

            P.S. I would also add that this condition of cooperation is one of the bases for the universalist hope, is it not? According to my understanding, the way God would achieve universal reconciliation is precisely via the liberation of our wills, making them (eventually) more and more free from selfishness and sin, so that they are truly free to cooperate with His grace and be capable of perfect love. If we say there are no conditions to our salvation, even our own response to/cooperation with God’s grace, then does that not undermine one of the central premises upon which universalism is based?

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Michael, I don’t think “cooperation” is going to save you here. First of all, it’s almost impossible to explain what it means. We inevitably end up reducing God to a being on the same metaphysical plane–God does his part and we do ours. Secondly, if you tell me that in order to be saved, I must cooperate with God, how do I know if I am cooperating sufficiently? What exactly is my part? What if I’m at a point of my life where even the demand to cooperate casts me into despair? At some point, I promise you, Pelagianism is going to rear his ugly head.

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          • mkenny114 says:

            Hmm, I sort of see what you mean, but I think it is plain enough that if we are free creatures, we choose to act and react, we respond to things, we believe things – these are all freely chosen (although I realise the degree to which we are actually free, given the mass of influences both malignant and benign, is far from simple to assess) acts. and what I mean by cooperation is any time we do such things. The question of ‘am I cooperating sufficiently in a given circumstance’ is something different to ‘I am part of this process insofar as I am making an act of the will, to repent and believe the Gospel’.

            I know it is very difficult to say to what extent our actions are operative in the whole process of salvation, and I fully agree that priority always must be given to God, as well as the fact that our freedom is only properly grounded in God’s being the ultimate ground of everything we do, but I think that if we remove ourselves from the equation altogether (which is effectively what we do if we say our cooperation with grace is not a condition), then we have a problem, and, as I wrote in my previous comment, one of the main foundations for the universalist hope is undermined.

            Sorry Fr., but I have to dash now. Thank you very much for taking the time to engage with me on all these issues, and I hope I haven’t bored you with all my follow up questions! Anyway, shall resume tomorrow🙂

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  15. Jonathan says:

    Some thoughts from two authors I happen to be reading, may or may not be worth anything. . .

    About universalism as a hope, precisely because it is a hope I don’t think it’s best understood or presented as an argument. Of course we can do that, and it can be intellectually stimulating (obviously, viz. these excellent comments). But I increasingly think that in this modern life of possibly harmful plenty, one thing we have plenty of, i.e. too much of, is argument. Whereas something we’re in desperately short supply of is actual hope. I believe Patriarch Athenagoras said the age of dogma has passed. I suppose that can mean various things, and I don’t think it should be an excuse for intellectual sloppiness, but I do read the statement as in some way sensitive to the fact that for every argument there is a counter-argument; for every scriptural passage there is another which seems to say just the opposite; for every “scholarly consensus,” there is the consensus of the next generation of scholars, which will refute that of the previous generation just because it was that of the previous generation of scholars: this last is a law more certain than gravity.

    I’m riffing a bit on the ideas of Jacques Ellul. I wonder if anyone else has encountered his work and profited from it. For my part, it’s a while since I’ve read a book as good and needful as his Hope in Time of Abandonment. Ellul was a universalist, though his denominational affiliation was with the Reformed Church of France. He didn’t have a high opinion of hermeneutics and exegesis, although he was himself an excellent Biblical interpreter and exegete (especially considering that by profession he was a sociologist and professor of law). I think Ellul was right about the futility of dogmatic debate, insofar as intramural squabbles within institutional Christianity, propped up by this or that argument drawn from Scripture or (somebody’s) tradition, seem irrelevant in late modernity, an epoch that harbors almost no reverence or understanding of tradition and is more apt to find Holy Writ in the opinions of a New York Times or a Supreme Court (or perhaps, among the more conservative crowd, in the Constitution) than in the pages of the Bible. But more importantly, more disturbingly perhaps for some, Ellul cared nothing for the idea that the Holy Spirit guides the institutional Church throughout history. He could not see how the Spirit guiding us into all truth amounts to the constant infallibility of this or that group of a handful of Christians, or this or that fellow sitting in Rome, etc., no matter how prophetic or inspired these could occasionally be. (Another great universalist thinker who might be helpful here, and who had problems with authority – a common problem, it seems, with universalists — was S L Frank.) Ellul thought God could be silent, and that it was precisely when He is silent (or with respect to the questions on which He is silent) that hope is possible. Of course this only opens up onto a deeper question of authority, i.e. how do we know when God is speaking? Who can prescribe the Logos or forecast the Spirit? There is no scientific way to answer the question; we can only trust that we recognize true charism when we encounter it, whether in the form of preaching or art or speculative thought or what have you. In any event, certainty just isn’t a big part of this life, and the bulk of our experience suggests that God is more likely to be putting questions than dishing out answers. I agree with this attitude; it is why I have always thought that dogma is more like prayer than proposition.

    Sigrid Undset somewhere made the obvious but apparently necessary point that in the bad old days when everyone in western Europe was taught eternal punishment for the wicked, lots of people weighed the immediately available, illicit and certain pleasures of this life against the distant and less certain threat of unending punishment and opted for the former. Some say that preaching universalism would lead to higher instances of naughtiness. To anyone who holds such a view, I would only like to say: read more history and more novels.

    One more quick takeaway from Undset (Catholic convert, by the way). A monk character in the early chapters of her epic, Kristin Lavransdatter, set in 14th century Norway, has this to say which seems germane to something I think Ed Smith and some others have written above.

    “There is no one, Kristin, who does not love and fear God. [. . .] if a man knew no yearning for God and God’s being, then he would thrive in Hell, and we alone would not understand that he had found his heart’s desire. Then the fire would not burn him if he did not long for coolness, and he would not feel the pain of the serpent’s bite if he did not long for peace.”

    I take the implication to be that the experience of Hell as Hell is predicated on the salvageable core of the human person, which no hellfire can destroy and which must ultimately turn or return to the one by whom all salvation comes.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, Jonathan, for this comment. I find myself in strong agreement with most of it. Your first paragraph explains why I do not see much of a difference between between strong and weak universalists the former presumably declaring that they know all will be saved and the latter declaring that they hope all will be saved. I don’t even know that God exists, but I believe and hope he does and have chosen to live my life in that faith and hope. But I could be wrong. If I am, I suppose I’ll never find out, extinction being the other option.

      But I strongly believe that God, if he exists, is a God of absolute Love, a God who raises the dead and grants new life. It is on the basis of this Love that I believe that God will eventually conquer all disbelief and bring all to glorious consummation. I did not reason myself to this hope, in the sense the sense of being presented with a convincing argument or set of arguments (though of course there were and are such arguments). I think of the universalist hope as grounded in God’s own self-revelation in Jesus Christ. If one knows Jesus, one will become evermore confident that his saving will will triumph.

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      • brian says:

        As often, I find myself largely in agreement with Jonathan and Father Kimel.
        Coincidentally, I just recommended S L Frank’s The Meaning of Life to a friend yesterday.
        I simply don’t see the non-universalist understanding of the Gospel and God as compelling and persuasive. It is a lesser god. This is taken out of context (it’s in the thread on universalism that D.B. Hart took part in,) but it is germane.

        “It used to trouble me, as a young aspiring student of Asian religions, that the typical way in which the work of Christ was preached from pulpits made it seem not only that our God is morally inferior to the bodhisattva, but that in fact Christianity was burdened by a thwarted moral imagination, and that the Mahayana made this obvious. Gregory of Nyssa and George MacDonald and Isaac of Ninevah (etc.) prevented me from abandoning the faith as an ungainly alloy of the ennobling and the barbaric.”

        Obviously, those who hold to the dominant traditional view feel and judge differently.
        I think there is a necessary place for Councils and some form of magisterium, for philosophical and theological thinking. As I grow older, however, I find I am more persuaded by suggestions, half-light, whispers of the Spirit that I discern in poets, artists, saints, yes, and my own, frequently anguished and difficult existence. Too much authority seems to me extrinsic, humorless, lacking imagination, wonder, missing much that is truly important. Surely the life of Christ far exceeds the limits of catechetical definition? This is not to deny the value of dogmatic affirmations or the harm of heresy, yet only a fool or a pedant thinks that God is contained by the former. The latter, I surmise, sometimes arise because a sclerosis and rigidity has set in or themselves are a form of stubborness that refuses the mystery and novelty of the Spirit.

        I don’t believe I can imagine a better God than the true God. The God who is unable to bring all of creation to victory is less than the God I can imagine.

        Today is Sigrid Undset’s birthday, btw.

        Like

        • Jonathan says:

          I had no idea today was her birthday. Excellent! Speaking of birthdays, western Pentecost this year falls on Bob Dylan’s birthday. I find the coincidence beautifully appropriate.

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        • Brian says: “I think there is a necessary place for Councils and some form of magisterium, for philosophical and theological thinking. As I grow older, however, I find I am more persuaded by suggestions, half-light, whispers of the Spirit that I discern in poets, artists, saints, yes, and my own, frequently anguished and difficult existence. *Too much authority seems to me extrinsic, humorless, lacking imagination, wonder, missing much that is truly important.* Surely the life of Christ far exceeds the limits of catechetical definition? This is not to deny the value of dogmatic affirmations or the harm of heresy, yet only a fool or a pedant thinks that God is contained by the former.”

          Amen and Amen (especially to the asterisked sentence–my emphasis)! Well said.

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  16. aka says:

    If God is Love, and if the difference between heaven and hell is our experience of God as Love, and if the ground of our very nature is to rest in God, then however we might experience God as Love (or perceive how we might feel in eternity, which is distinct from our actual experience of it then/in eternity/outside of time, then whatever we happens when we die and are raised again is our ‘salvation’, our reunion with God, our living beyond death. That’s maybe a little S&M or a little Calvinistic sounding, but who is to say salvation is necessarily enjoyable in an earthly sense?

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    • Marc says:

      Aka, When we enter the spiritual realm upon the death of our bodies, we enter the realm of truth. We are forced to see ourselves as God sees us. This process can be illuminating and purifying, or a caustic and burning experience.

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