I have been asked by several readers to respond to the recent blog article by Orthodox priest Fr Stephen De Young: “Hell (Unfortunately) Yes.” I’m happy to do so, especially considering that Fr Stephen has given us something different from the typical Orthodox reply to the universalist hope. Instead of bludgeoning us with conciliar anathemas, he directs us to the testimony of Holy Scripture. While I disagree with Fr Stephen’s interpretation of the biblical witness, I am grateful that he is at least inviting us to reflect together on the Word of God.
But before getting to the biblical substance of the article, I wish to say something about its “rhetorical strategy.” Consider these two passages:
The way forward, however, is not to debate the correct interpretation of each of these verses. In reading and interpreting Holy Scripture, we are compelled by the authority of Jesus Christ, to Whom the Scripture witnesses, to listen for His voice in a positive manner. Anyone can take the Scriptures and through selective quoting and other maneuvering cast enough doubt on this or that issue to make their own view look, at the very least, like an acceptable alternative among several others. There are not, however, a few Christs amongst whom we can choose the one who best suits us. Nor did the Apostles preface any portion of their teaching with “If you prefer…” Therefore the question that must be asked is what, positively, do the Holy Scriptures in their fullness teach regarding the nature of the final condemnation and its duration.
We as Orthodox Christians are called to obedience, not only in the moral sphere but in that of faith as well. We do not choose what we would like to believe, then attempt to rationalize it with the Scriptures, the Councils, and the Fathers arguing that it is a ‘permissible option’. Rather, we are called to, in humility, seek the teaching of those authorities, and then accept and believe that teaching, whatever it is, whether it is pleasing to us or not.
The polemical thrust of these two passages is clear: the universalist puts an idiosyncratic construal upon the Scriptures that they cannot bear, whereas the Orthodox infernalist reads them according to their divine intent. The universalist picks and chooses between the texts in order to advance his idiosyncratic, non-Orthodox opinions; the infernalist courageously embraces the teaching of God, no matter how unpopular and difficult. The universalist rationalizes and distorts; the infernalist interprets rightly.
This kind of ad hominem argument hardly advances constructive discussion and debate. It seeks to persuade by attacking the motives and character of the universalist, as if the infernalist miraculously stands above rationalization, eisegesis, and textual cherry-picking. Let the debate be vigorous, but let’s also do our best to avoid argumentum ad hominem.
I also want to contest the charge that Orthodox universalists understand their position as being one equally acceptable view among many, as if everyone gets to construct their own private theology by picking items from an à la carte doctrinal menu. I do not know a single universalist, Orthodox or otherwise, who presents their views in such relativistic fashion. But I cannot speak for everyone. In my writings I have advanced two propositions in support of the universalist hope: (1) the majority teaching of everlasting damnation is not irreformable Orthodox dogma; and (2) the minority teaching that God will effectively save all human beings is an Orthodox theologoumenon, submitted to the Church in the form of dogmatic proposal. Perhaps we might say that the Orthodox universalist hopes that the Orthodox Church as a whole will eventually come to fully embrace and confess the universalist hope. The Orthodox Church has yet to definitively determine whether the universalist hope, as expressed in the eschatologies of St Gregory Nyssen or St Isaac the Syrian (or Met Kallistos Ware), faithfully state the apostolic faith. The question is still open.