Hell (Unfortunately)?

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.

and

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.

(Go to “Universalism and the Deluge of Condemnation”)

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18 Responses to Hell (Unfortunately)?

  1. Cathy Thienes says:

    Thank you so much for beginning to address Fr Stephen de Young’s post. We who can see or simply sense some of its flaws (such as straw men as well as ad hominem) but don’t have the ability to express ourselves easily (or well) are depending on you to “set the record straight” with your usual fairness and eloquence. 🙂 So looking forward to the next installment(s).

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  2. Cameron Davis says:

    Thank you for weighing in on this article, father. I am planning to write my own exploration on universalism’s acceptibility in light of the church’s tradition, beginning with as much of a “blank slate” as I can manage, and I am sure yours will be one of the resources u visit along the way.

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  3. Marc says:

    Fr. Aidan, I am trying to understand what the weight of the revelation of Holy Tradition really is regarding Orthodox Christian eschatology. This is one area where the predominant belief in the Church, eternal torment, does not agree with the weight of Scriptural revelation. Even though I have been labeled a heretic for not believing in eternal torment because it is the prevalent belief in the Church, I cannot accept a teaching that has so little Scriptural support. I see far more Scriptural support for the possibility of eternal death and annihilation, or the possibility of eventual salvation of all human beings, than eternal torment. It seems to me that the teaching of eternal torment does great damage to the good news of the Gospel, so why has it become the prevailing teaching of the Church?

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  4. What is a theologoumenon if it’s not “one acceptable view among many”?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Point taken. I suppose it depends on what “acceptable” means in the given context.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I have inserted the word “equally” into the text. Don’t know if this makes any difference. I was responding to a sentence in the article, which, as I took it, suggested that universalists think of their position as just a preference.

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  5. Eric Jobe says:

    I do believe that Fr. Stephen put the cart before the horse, so to speak. Instead of presenting relevant biblical evidence and then arguing from it, he argued from the evidence (i.e. biblical authority) before arguing from it. That is a bit rhetorically underhanded, IMO, and something I was initially disappointed in. If we boil down the argument to hermeneutics, then we will get lost in the quagmire of sola-scriptura-style biblical polemics. You can argue almost anything from scripture, as the Arians demonstrated, so something else is needed.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      In my next article I will argue that the interpretation of Scripture as Scripture is a hermeneutical spiral, as we move from the specific texts to the metanarrative and then back to the texts and then back to the metanarrative, and so on. While Fr Stephen’s proposed metanarrative appears to be grounded in the biblical story, it is in fact uninformed by the writings of the Apostle Paul—at least so I maintain.

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      • Eric Jobe says:

        I think Paul has to be given a nuanced treatment. I think it is unfair to characterize him as a universalist or even as an infernalist, as you use the term. In my opinion, Paul is doing theology “by the seat of his pants” so to speak. He is completely overcome by the ineffable glory of Christ which he saw on at least two occasions (Acts and II Cor), and I think he has trouble articulating such glories when he wants to. At certain points, namely Eph 1 and the end of Rom 11, Paul seems to lapse into complete ecstasy. But, Paul is still beholden to certain classical theologies of covenant faithfulness and judgement. This seems to be the default, though his “universalist” tendencies are characteristic of his more “ecstatic” or doxological speech. I don’t think Paul had everything quite sorted out, and I think it should be okay for us to say that without undermining his apostolic authority. I think he would say that himself (and likely did in 1 Cor 13:12). One of the most egregious error in all of biblical theology is the attempt to try to systematize everything into a neat and tidy package. The NT is messy, varied, and diverse, and we need to treat it as such.

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        • No Man's Land says:

          A lot I agree with here.

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        • Mike H says:

          Really thought provoking dialogue. Coming from a protestant background myself, I can recognize the tension that you’re speaking of here. I don’t find the tension within the Orthodox “quoting of the Fathers” to be all that dissimilar, but that’s a separate conversation.

          To Father Aiden’s comment, I think an apt image is of a photo mosaic – a set of hundreds or thousands of tiny pictures that combine to form one larger picture. The pieces can be (and in fact are) put together in different ways. While the individual pictures themselves remain static, they can (and in fact do) create different (sometimes profoundly different) larger pictures depending on where they pieces are placed. When these individual pieces combine to make an incoherent picture, the larger picture itself forces the individual pieces to be used differently, to be used in a way that doesn’t screw up the larger picture, which simultaneously changes the way that the picture looks. Certain pieces can (and in fact do) figure in more prominently in defining the overall picture than others. And so on. It’s circular. Pieces forming a meta-narrative, which in turn provides a context for the pieces. It ends up being a question of primacy.

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        • Mike H says:

          To Eric, I think that the need (or at least the inclination) to systemize comes from presuppositions about Scripture (as a whole) that necessitate that Paul did, in fact, “have it all figured out”. Such presuppositions seem to inexorably lead to the conclusion that all of the pieces CAN fit together in a perfectly coherent system. To your comment, are we forcing Paul to answer questions that he didn’t intend to answer (so the messiness is the result of asking the wrong questions)? Or do we see a “messy, varied, and diverse” set of Scriptures that is, in fact, multivocal on a range of very important doctrines (of which this topic would seem to be one)?

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  6. J Clivas says:

    Presumptuous for anyone to say what God will or won’t do.

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  8. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have added two sentences to the conclusion of the article that hopefully clarifies what I mean when I say that the universalist hope is a theologoumenon.

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