Debating Universalism: The Need to Do One’s Homework

“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.” This is the task that Fr Stephen De Young sets out to accomplish in his article “Hell (Unfortunately) Yes.” It’s quite the ambitious task. Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars have been intensely debating the topic of justification for centuries—books upon books, articles upon articles, have been published. Decades of ecumenical discussion have been devoted to the question of justification and salvation. If you are acquainted with the literature, you know that scholars cannot agree on what the Apostle Paul taught on justification, much less on what the entire Bible teaches on it. (And let’s put aside the even more difficult hermeneutical question of how a collection of ancient documents can teach anything. That is to make the critical move from the historical-critical reading of the biblical writings to the theological reading of the biblical writings as Scripture.) Yet Fr Stephen does not feel the need to tell us which biblical scholars he is relying upon, much less constructively engage those scholars who disagree with him. Instead he dogmatically advances his interpretation of the biblical witness as if it unquestionably represents THE teaching of Holy Scripture. Here is my first criticism of this article—its biblicistic hubris. How is this piece different from thousands of other internet tracts that purport to tell us what the Bible teaches about _____?

But to make matters worse, Fr Stephen has framed his article as a critique of the universalist hope, yet it’s unclear if he has read any of the universalist literature, whether Orthodox or otherwise. When challenged on this over at the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy blog, he tells us that acquaintance with this literature is unnecessary, because the Bible patently and obviously excludes universalism:

I spent so much time in the piece on the Biblical definition of justification, and the fact that God’s punishment in Scripture is only remedial within the covenant community, and then only for a certain period of time (this life on Earth), because the type of Universalism you describe, which I understand quite well, argues from a different definition of justification, and a different view of God’s punishment, than is expressed in Scripture.

Your criticism in reference to C.S. Lewis amounts to saying, “Your article is bad because it isn’t a different type of article.” As I said from the beginning, I was not writing an article to refute a set of arguments for Universalism. I wrote a piece seeking to summarize the teaching of Scripture about the final condemnation, justification, and the nature of God’s punishment. If you don’t see your view reflected there, its because in my opinion, your view isn’t the view taught by Scripture. (citation)

And again:

If my piece was intended to refute this or that view, you would have a point. My piece is an attempt to lay out positively what the Scripture teaches about the topics listed repeatedly above. I don’t need to know anything about any alternative views to make a positive case about what I believe Scripture teaches. If your view is something other than the view I laid out in the piece, then I am saying your view is not the one taught by Scripture.

I chose that approach for a reason. Simply put, I don’t have the time or interest to attempt to understand the ins and outs and minutiae of every individual Universalist’s variant on Universalism and try to refute them individually.

My piece represents what I believe the Bible teaches. Lots of people have lots of other views with all kinds of individual variants and variables. My argument is that all other views are wrong because they are not the view taught by the Bible. I don’t need to understand and individually refute all possible alternatives. (citation)

My jaw dropped when I read these two comments yesterday.

(Fr Stephen, if this is what you truly believe, if this is how you believe theological debate is to be conducted, then I cannot take your article seriously. Ignorance is not a virtue. If you want to publicly criticize the universalist hope, then you have an obligation to thoughtfully read the exegetical and theological arguments advanced on its behalf. Take a look at my universalist reading list.  I’m happy to make recommendations.)

In his article the author announces that he does not want to get bogged down debating the meaning of specific verses. He proposes an alternative approach—the identification of the controlling biblical narrative or what some scholars refer to as metanarrative. I have no objections. It is the approach N. T. Wright, for example, has taken in his writings. But it is easier said than successfully done. Few scholars can match Wright’s erudition, but many have not been persuaded that the data supports his proposed salvation-metanarrative (and Wright’s metanarrative is more convincing than De Young’s). One thing for sure, there is no way to accurately state a master narrative without engaging in the exegesis of specific biblical verses. We do not first declare the grand story of the Bible and then force the individual texts into the procrustean bed we have fabricated. There needs to be a cycling back and forth between text and the story we hope we have accurately reconstructed, with the willingness to change our reconstruction if it does not make sense of the texts.

Hence I note the conspicuous absence of the figure of St Paul in this article. How does one talk about what the Bible ostensibly teaches about justification, without directly engaging the Apostle’s letters to the Romans and Galatians? It can’t be done. Period. But Paul raises all sorts of problems for the author’s thesis. I am not claiming that he unequivocally supports the universalist hope (but check out Thomas Talbott’s universalist reading—Talbott has updated this chapter in the 2nd edition of The Inescapable Love of God); but he definitely throws a spanner into the infernalist works. The Scriptures are so much more complex and challenging than Fr Stephen is willing to acknowledge.

To my readers: if you are interested in considering a plausible metanarrative of Scripture from a universalist perspective, I recommend that you take a look at The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald. The author (whose real name is Robin Parry) has a PhD in Old Testament.  One thing I particularly like about this book is its modesty and caution.  The author presents his convictions forthrightly, but he acknowledges that his exegetical arguments are not bullet-proof and discusses alternative interpretive possibilities.  It’s a model of how these difficult questions need to be analyzed and discussed.

(Go to “The Unconditionality of Divine Love”)

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75 Responses to Debating Universalism: The Need to Do One’s Homework

  1. It’s so sad seeing how uncritically people take their own thoughts by refusing to read those of others. I have studied universalism for years now. I’ve lost rack of the number of books and articles I’ve read and studied.

    Thank you for showing us in your blog what doing our theological homework looks like. I wish more people were willing to do this. It’s so disheartening when members of both the clergy and academia refuse to do this.

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  2. Eric Jobe says:

    I think you are being a bit unfair to Fr. Stephen, and some of your criticism approaches ad hominem, such as when you state, “Instead he dogmatically advances his interpretation of the biblical witness as if it indubitably, unquestionablly, and infallibly represents THE teaching of Holy Scripture.” That’s a bit of an extreme characterization of his post. If you can point to where Fr. Stephen purports to be infallible in his exegesis, then I will stand corrected.

    But what strikes me as unfair is that you seem to require of Fr. Stephen a great deal more than can be offered in a single blog post. Unlike NT Wright, Fr. Stephen has not attempted to publish a two-volume work detailing the results of a lifetime of scholarship.

    Fr. Stephen’s work, when dealing with justification and covenant, contains a great deal of Pauline exegesis, though perhaps not in chapter-and-verse format as you might expect. Having spoken with Fr. Stephen a bit lately, I can tell you that he has done his homework, and quite a bit of it too. He is a fine scholar and eloquent writer. While you, I, or anyone might disagree with him at certain points (I offered some points of disagreement in the comments), it certainly behooves those who are more open to universalistic ideas to treat their interlocutors with greater tact and fairness.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Eric, if I have been unfair, I am happy to apologize; but all I have to go on is Fr Stephen’s article and the comments he has left over at Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy. Perhaps he is a fine scholar, but in that case I expect him to produce better work.

      I do not expect a blogger to address everything in a single article, but he has most definitely presented his interpretation of the biblical teaching on judgment and eternal damnation as THE biblical position (“the teaching of Holy Scripture is clear”), with no acknowledgement of plausible alternative construals. I am not holding Fr Stephen to a higher standard than I hold to myself in my blogging.

      Take another look at the comments thread, Eric. Can you honestly tell me that universalism is not condemned by Fr Stephen and Fr Andrew as heresy? Why is this important? Because I have Orthodox readers writing me privately expressing their doubts about remaining Orthodox and non-Orthodox readers telling me that can no longer consider becoming Orthodox.

      Hence I cannot, at this time, accept your criticism, Eric.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Eric, after a bit of thought I have removed a couple of the adverbs in order to lower the polemical volume a tad.

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  3. Fr. Kimel–thank you for posting on this topic, which I have a great affinity for, that is universal salvation. I wanted to provide an excerpt from a book that I was able to download from the internet (which I forget where I downloaded it from), called “Historical Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew” by Robert Rezeth and Ian Young. Here’s the excerpt:

    “Historical linguistic analysis of ancient Hebrew has habitually proceeded on
    the assumption that the Hebrew language of the MT represents largely
    unchanged the actual language used by the original authors of biblical writings.
    We document this assumption in the work of some key Hebrew language
    scholars in 3.4. This assumption, however, is out of line with the consensus view
    of specialists on the history of the text of the Hebrew Bible, who consider that
    the details of the biblical writings were so fluid in their textual transmission that
    we have no way of knowing with any degree of certainty what the original of
    any biblical composition looked like.

    To summarize, the sources of data for ancient Hebrew are rather scanty
    compared to the evidence for other premodern languages, whether English or
    Akkadian or any one of many other languages.35 Additionally the non-biblical
    sources for ancient Hebrew—Hebrew inscriptions, the book of Ben Sira, and the
    non-biblical DSS—are rather inadequate “anchors” for comparison with the
    language of the Hebrew Bible because of significant differences related to
    corpora sizes, subjects, genres, registers, possibly dialects, and so on. These
    limitations have to be factored into any historical linguistic analysis. As for the
    Hebrew Bible itself, there are three principal manuscript sources: early and
    fragmentary biblical DSS manuscripts and late MT and SP manuscripts. In
    reality, however, all the textual evidence for the Hebrew Bible is relatively late.
    The oldest manuscript evidence is already quite removed from the times of the
    original authors. The Qumran scrolls date centuries, perhaps many centuries,
    and in some cases maybe even a millennium, after the origins of the biblical
    books or their constituent parts. Furthermore, results of literary and textual
    analyses, 36 and the analogy of production of other Ancient Near Eastern
    literature, show that biblical writings evolved over time through a complex
    writing and editing process. Therefore, to paraphrase Fischer’s statement,
    “because the texts of the Hebrew Bible are edited, they are, as it were, an
    interpretation of the primary material, and it could be said that they constitute
    secondary sources rather than primary ones in the diachronic study of ancient
    Hebrew.”37 In other words, from the perspective of general historical linguistic
    theory and method, there is no primary evidence for BH; the evidence is
    secondary (DSS, MT, SP) or tertiary (i.e., translational: Septuagint [LXX], Old
    Latin, etc.) or tangential (inscriptions, non-biblical DSS, etc.). In short, the
    textual witnesses are nonauthentic, composite, and largely unsituated in time and
    place.38” (pgs. 59-60;67)

    So, my question is how can Fr. Stephen Young or anyone really claim they know what the Scriptures teach? People can only claim they know what their model of the Scriptures teach, which is a secondary or tertiary source, which for us Orthodox Christians is tertiary as pointed out by the authors of the book aforementioned. Although I certainly lean in the universalist salvation position, I cannot support it based on the “original texts” of the Scriptures as they are not extant. For further discussion on original texts, please let me know and I will provide the text on that from the book. And, if you’re interested in the book, let me know as well. Thank you!

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Christian, I do not know enough to even have an opinion. Eric Jobe knows all about this stuff. Hopefully he can address the concerns raised in the article. It seems to me is that all we can do is the best we can do—the best we can do to determine the most reliable text of the Scriptures, and the best we can do to interpret these texts.

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  4. Karen says:

    I think all that is somewhat moot for us as Orthodox because we don’t rely on theories of the Bible’s “inerrancy in the original mss.” to support the weight of its authority, but rather the apostolic tradition of its interpretation handed down to us in the Church, which is largely typological in its approach to the OT narratives. So, it seems it could be argued Fr. Stephen both is and isn’t on firm apostolic ground in his post in that the basic text of the flood narrative is not in dispute, but Fr. Stephen takes an historical-critical approach to its interpretation and application (also applying it to a question it perhaps wasn’t written to addesss?) while the Fathers take (primarily?) a typological approach.

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  5. Tyler says:

    “We do not first declare the grand story of the Bible and then force the individual texts into the procrustean bed we have fabricated.” Well put. I’m currently working on a post about how everyone brings philosophical assumptions to a text. It appears that Fr. Stephen is not willing to admit this as much considering he states, “My argument is that all other views are wrong because they are not the view taught by the Bible. I don’t need to understand and individually refute all possible alternatives.” In reality, there is no such thing as a plain reading. I really wish people could learn not to be so arrogant in these matters. I am quite interested in the universalist debates and would be interested in those works you have recommended. Thank you for sharing.

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  6. Cathy Thienes says:

    On Jun 23, 2015, at 4:42 PM, Cathy Thienes wrote:

    Fr Aidan, I cannot tell you how much I appreciate this post. In fact my heart sang. We who have been so inundated with people who think they can speak authoritatively for the Church regarding apocatastasis are now confronted with Fr Stephen De Young’s implication that he is speaking authoritatively “for the Scriptures.” At least that was what I understood from his post. And I thank you for calling this out. As Fr Thomas Hopko says, “we priests need to be corrected by our congregation. They need to tell us what we are doing wrong.”

    Eric, as one who has hung by a thread to Orthodoxy because of this very issue, I breathe a big sigh of relief for Fr Aidan’s post because I can’t help thinking of all those who could so understandably be turned away from the Church if they are influenced by writings such as Fr Stephen’s. I couldn’t be Christian, much less Orthodox, if I thought I had to believe as he does. His ignorance of universalism in a post saying why he isn’t a universalist(!) needs to be called out. And the continued ignorance of universalism in the comments section made any real conversation futile. In light of this I have to admit being surprised that you are talking about the need for greater tact and fairness. It seemed to me Fr Aidan is acting with nothing but loving restraint and with his usual tact and fairness. (I can’t believe I have the temerity to disagree with you, having always respected what you have to say and knowing how very erudite you are!).

    Sometimes it feels like we universalists are fighting for our lives. To us, the infernalists take the very heart out to Christianity and the Good out of the Good News. I hate having to criticize anybody, especially publicly(!), but I can’t help thinking it is a very necessary “speaking the truth in love” for Fr Aidan to point out the aspects of Fr Stephen’s post that are unworthy.

    I wish Fr Stephen well. I’m sure nobody believes he’s deliberately being unfair, but I hope he can see the justice in Fr Aidan’s comments… And I can’t refrain from adding that I hope some day he will open up his mind to points of view outside the particular one he squeezes all Scripture into.

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  7. DeYoung: “I spent so much time in the piece on the Biblical definition of justification,”
    Kimel: “My jaw dropped when I read [this].”

    Correct me if I’m mistaken here but I was under the impression that Orthodox theology had yet to develop an absolute teaching on justification and was still in this process. Now DeYoung thinks he’s resolved it. How Protestant of him!

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  8. Nicholas says:

    Fr. Aidan, I do hope you respond to the latest salvo from the O&H crowd:

    http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/orthodoxyandheterodoxy/2015/06/23/the-pastoral-malpractice-of-preaching-universalism/

    I am not a universalist, but this is truly shoddy argumentation. And it is yet another attempt to shut down the debate before it has even begun.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Nicholas, I haven’t looked at this piece yet, but I doubt very seriously I will respond to it. I have one more article to write in response to Fr Stephen De Young’s article, and then I’m moving on to other topics. I’ve been putting off St Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses for too long. 🙂

      Like

    • Cameron Davis says:

      I said this over there as well, but I am genuinely surprised that it was even published. It relies upon poor arguments against universalism that I thought the conversation had moved beyond.

      Like

    • Michael says:

      I am not a universalist, but this is truly shoddy argumentation. And it is yet another attempt to shut down the debate before it has even begun.

      How was this article an attempt to ‘shut down debate’? And what did you think was shoddy in the argument? The overall point he makes can be summarised by his concluding comments:

      If universalism is true, yet the preaching is against it, then no harm is ultimately done, even if preaching against it may be needlessly painful for some in this life. Everyone will still be saved.

      But if universalism is not true, yet one preaches in favor of it, then one has just opened the gateway to Hell even wider.

      Let’s not do that. Let’s continue to preach: Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.

      Where is the flaw in this argument?

      Like

      • Nicholas says:

        I don’t want to get too off-topic on this thread, so I may post longer remarks over at O+H if I have time.

        The reason it is an attempt to shut down debate is that it paints anyone preaching (or even advocating for) universalism as potentially condemning more souls to Hell. Even if universalism is most likely true, he says, it should not be preached, because of the small chance it may not be.

        There are two major problems with his argument. First, preaching should be based on what we believe to be true, not a calculation of the odds for and against salvation. This kind of logic, taken to its conclusion, can lead to all kinds of nasty things.

        Second, it denies that there is any value to preaching the Good News if universalism is true. Fr. Damick says that the *only* way we can be motivated to repent is through the threat “ultimate risk.” He leaves no room for the love of God, which is, in fact, the basis of all true repentance.

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        • Michael says:

          Okay, fair enough, and I particularly agree that preaching should be based on what we believe to be true (though would add that, in the case of soteriology, we should have some exceptionally good reasons for promoting a view contrary to the traditional one, lest, as the article says, we be leading people down an irreversible path). I also agree that the love of God should be central to preaching, but I don’t think Fr. Damick was suggesting that this be supplanted by a preaching that features the threat of hell as its centre or anything like that – only that the condition of repentance, and that the risks involved with suggesting there is no risk, should not be ignored.

          Anyway, I see what you mean now, but I still don’t see this as shutting down debate personally – he has simply put forward the opinion that the preaching of universalism potentially carries great risk, an opinion which can be engaged with and possibly refuted. Nevertheless, thank you for the clarification 🙂

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            I haven’t read Fr Andrew’s article and so cannot comment upon it.

            Like

          • Nicholas says:

            I’m glad we could reach some agreement. My problem is less with the conclusion and more with how he got there. Perhaps he was not explicitly advocating for fire-and-brimstone preaching, but I do think that is where this kind of logic leads. (Or even to worse things than that.)

            Liked by 1 person

      • Mike H says:

        IMO, there are some good points in the quote that you copied in and scattered throughout the post – points that universalists should take seriously. It certainly WOULD be far worse for there to be an eternal hell and to be wrong about THAT than for there not to be a hell and be wrong about THAT. And it’s why the preaching of an eternal hell isn’t going to stop anytime soon – the slightest possibility of it is simply so terrifying that it can’t be ignored.

        And in an indirect way, it highlights my own biggest reservation with embracing universalism (I don’t find his reasoning in the post compelling at all, but I have other hold ups). As much as I see biblical and theological evidence of both God’s unchanging love for all people (as God’s essence itself is love), and God’s sovereign ability to get what he wants (and all frameworks that reject universalism must reject at least one of these propositions), the seeds of hell have been planted and there’s no ignoring them. If the writers of scripture wished to univocally and forever do away with the idea of eternal hell, why plant those seeds at all? Was there not ample opportunity to be perfectly clear on the matter? The risk of (mis)interpreting these teachings, particularly given the horrific nature of them and the understandable human inclination to prepare for the worst, would seem to be incredibly high. So while I personally have hold ups that prevent me from being dogmatic, I am not willing to sacrifice either the universal love of God for each and every person or God’s ability to realize his plans for creation in spite of all obstacles (this latter one being, admittedly, the more problematic one for me).

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        • Michael says:

          Mike,

          I pretty much agree with all you’ve written here, and whilst I do sometimes entertain a distant hope myself (and am very willing to be surprised!) my reservations are essentially the same – why plant the seeds, why not be clearer on this matter, etc.

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        • Nicholas says:

          > And it’s why the preaching of an eternal hell isn’t going to stop anytime soon – the slightest possibility of it is simply so terrifying that it can’t be ignored.

          Would you admit the slightest possibility that Islam is the correct religion? I hear there are quite dire punishments if you do not accept Islam as the true religion, just as bad as any Hell any Christian has preached. Should we then preach Islam as well?

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          • Mike H says:

            Nicholas,

            I don’t get your question.

            I’m not arguing in support of eternal conscious torment. Far from it. I think the idea that God somehow NEEDS hell to motivate repentance is a bad one. I honestly find the biblical support for ECT to be scant (while also acknowledging that it isn’t being conjured up out of thin air). Tradition is another matter entirely.

            I’m just saying that I think there’s something about the horror of it that gives it staying power, particularly with how embedded it is in the tradition.

            Like

          • Nicholas says:

            I see, I think I misread your post. My apologies. I agree with you–people love their Hell.

            Like

          • Mike H says:

            Nicholas,

            I think some people do “love their hell” but most don’t. My observation was more about the “psychology of hell” and how the sheer terror of it gives it incredible power and influence – even if a person comes to see and appreciate competing biblical, theological, historical, philosophical viewpoints. It’s something I’d like to see discussed.

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      • Mike H says:

        Michael,

        But that isn’t really a summary of the article’s argument, and all-in I think his argument is pretty poor (to me it’s Baptist revival preaching). If you’re going to write an article called “The Pastoral Malpractice of Preaching Universalism”, then understand what universalism is. It’s pretty clear to me that the original author doesn’t understand the universalist position. And he seems pretty open about the fact that he doesn’t even need to understand it because it all boils down to one thing for him: without some form of irrevocable retributive punishment, nothing matters. The gospel itself, as exhortation, cannot be preached without the threat of irrevocable eternal damnation. There can be no motivation for repentance, a life of self-sacrificial love and holiness without irrevocable retributive punishment (any ontological reasons for “holiness” are sort of nice, but ultimately insufficient on their own). There can be no “justice” without eternal hell. I have sympathy for these arguments, but I just don’t agree with them. And from that starting point, any particularities within universalist thought are dismissed all together as they’re simply irrelevant (at best) or infinitely dangerous (at worst). That’s where the conversation stoppage happens.

        Here’s some quotes:

        Universalism ultimately takes away all consequences.

        When Christ says, “Depart from me, for I never knew you,” He is talking to no one at all. There is nothing to be concerned about.”

        ”Prayer is pointless, Asceticism is pointless. Baptism is pointless. The list goes on –“

        Why bother with curing one’s wounds in this life if there’s a total restoration for everyone just around the corner in the next.

        Just how would you give a universalist sermon that includes repentance? “Repent if you want to, but you’ll be fine no matter what”?

        Does he think that these types of things haven’t occurred to people before? I don’t know of any universalists who would agree with these statements (or with much of the post as a whole). And the fact that he argues that universalism by necessity leads to these things just proves that he doesn’t understand the universalist hope. Rather than question whether Gregory of Nyssa was a universalist (as he does in the comments), I think it’d be better to understand his preaching and writing (and many others) in the context OF his universalism. He might end up with different objections, but maybe not these particular objections.

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        • Michael says:

          Mike,

          Yes I actually agree with you here too for the most part, and wouldn’t want to defend the caricatures of univeralism from the article that you’ve cited. What I meant was that the author’s overriding point (minus the exaggerations) is that the preaching of universalism, given the issues you mentioned in your other comment above, does entail a great potential danger – the loss of souls – and that on balance it is therefore safest not to do (given that the ambiguities in Scripture and Tradition are not going to go away).

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          • Mike H says:

            Michael,

            But why does the post that this entails a great potential danger of the loss of souls? That’s the real point here as the post says nothing about the variety of patristic or biblical witness.

            The only conclusion that I can come to from reading the post is the belief is that there is no REAL motivation for repentance without the threat of eternal and irrevocable damnation. It’s “irresponsible” to preach then because, presumably, people won’t repent without fear. Repentance itself is primarily conceived of as a response to a threat, not a response to love. The post (and the quotes referenced earlier) made this point ABUNDANTLY clear. I think it’s fundamentally wrong, and this is where the caricatures of universalism that are being presented matter. For example, to what degree is sin itself the result of being “a slave to the fear of death”.

            There is a distinction between “legal” and “evangelical” repentance (as I’ve heard it conceived). Legal repentance says that “if you repent properly you will be forgiven”. Evangelical repentance says “Because you are forgiven, therefore repent.” One is fear driven, one is a response to love. This is more than semantics.

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          • Michael says:

            But why does the post that this entails a great potential danger of the loss of souls? That’s the real point here as the post says nothing about the variety of patristic or biblical witness.

            Yes I know this is the real point (contra biblical/patristic witness), and perhaps I’ve given the author too much credit, but I did think (on first reading – I don’t have time to re-read just now) that he was stressing the fact that without any threat of eternal loss then many of our actions in the life of faith lose significance, not that he was saying this is the only motivation for repentance. With hindsight, and based on your summary here, perhaps I was reading my own views into what he wrote – I definitely do not believe that belief in hell is the only motivation for repentance; such motivations are complex, with many factors, and fear is active in the process, perhaps more often than we’d care to admit (especially when one has lost any sense of consolation or love and there is great temptation to quit).

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  9. Michael says:

    Also, I wonder what people here think about the first comment to the article by Fr. Damick, particularly this passage:

    One major problem I have with universalism is suffering, but not in the way you mention here. Actual pain and suffering experienced by people in the world. Why would a God make himself difficult to see for so many, allow them to suffer so greatly, and create a faith which has divided so many, simply to turn around and say, “Hey guys, you really took life a little too seriously. I would have told you sooner but hey, you are happy now that it is over right?”

    Probably not in an agreement I imagine, but would be interesting to see people’s thoughts 🙂

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Michael, I immediately thought of this riposte: Why would a God make himself difficult to see for so many, allow them to suffer so greatly, and create a faith which has divided so many, simply to damn them to eternal perdition?

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      • Michael says:

        Why would a God make himself difficult to see for so many…simply to damn them to eternal perdition?

        Hmm, good point in and of itself, but I’m not sure that it actually answers the original commenter’s (and, by proxy, my) question. The original query asks why faith should be a difficult thing for many in this life, and why Christian discipleship should make so many demands of us, if hereafter we will be in the situation wherein, having seen God in all His glory, these things are – for everybody who has ever lived – no longer necessary.

        Your riposte on the other hand asks whether it is fair that some should suffer eternal perdition after having suffered and struggled with faith in this life. This is a good point, and could be used in support of an argument that the number who suffer such a fate will be very few (when, for example, we take into account just what people thought they were rejecting, prior experience shaping habits that preclude an ability to accept the Truth, etc), but I’m not sure that it counters the original query, or suffices as an argument in support of the thesis that all will be saved. There is still the possibility of genuine unrepentance, and I’m not sure what the trials of this life do to mitigate that.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          So the concern here is one of theodicy, right? How do we make sense of this life that God has given us? What is its purpose? My question for you, Michael, is: why do you believe that the threat of eternal damnation gives meaning to your life? I suppose I can see how it might add to the thrill-level, like one walking on a tightrope across Niagara Falls—one misstep and you fall to your doom; or perhaps, to pick a more biblical example, like being in a life and death race—if you win, you win everything; if you lose, you lose everything. The threat of eternal perdition does indeed raise the stakes to the nth degree, and thus gives our choices ultimate significance. But note that in this structure, what gives meaning to your life is not the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ but rather hell itself. This way of approaching life requires the threat of eternal damnation. For some this threat may energize them to do everything in their power to avoid the threatened doom; but for others it may cast them into utter despair.

          But now consider life lived in faith in the triumph of the risen Christ. How does that change your attitude toward life? Does it render your life purposeless? Does it make your daily choices irrelevant? Does it steal away the thrill and adventure? Does it undermine your commitment to a life of holiness and love? Of course not! The reality is just the reverse.

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          • Michael says:

            But now consider life lived in faith in the triumph of the risen Christ. How does that change your attitude toward life? Does it render your life purposeless? Does it make your daily choices irrelevant? Does it steal away the thrill and adventure? Does it undermine your commitment to live a life of holiness?

            No of course it doesn’t render life purposeless – in fact, I agree that it is this that gives life ultimate meaning, not hell itself – but if one is to say that His triumph precludes any possibility of my resisting or even rejecting it, then yes I would say this makes a lot of my choices lack significance and, in the final analysis, gives me a lot less motivation to make the very hard choices that Christian discipleship presents to us.

            But ultimately I do not see this as an ‘either/or’ situation (which you seem to be setting up here – either Christ gives our life structure or hell does). The life, death and resurrection of Our Lord are what give my life its ultimate horizon, and its light is the primary motivation for all I do; but if I thought that the offer of salvation in Christ was not an offer but a foregone conclusion, then it would make me see things differently, would probably have affected the outcome of a lot of the hard decisions made in the past, and for a lot of people would stop them ever even bothering to enter into that saving relationship (which is Fr. Damick’s point re the preaching of universalism). I.e.; both Christ’s offer of salvation and the possibility of rejecting it give meaning to life.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Please explain what you mean by “His triumph precludes any possibility of my resisting or even rejecting it.” What does freedom to reject Christ mean?

          And let me throw this back on you, Michael: How is my repentance in any way free, if it is driven by fear of eternal damnation? If a person puts a gun to my head and tells me to give him all my money, am I doing so freely? What meaning does repentance have if it is done under the threat of everlasting punishment?

          These are difficult questions, but I do not see how the “freedom” to irrevocably commit myself to eternal destruction has anything to do with freedom and I do not see how it gives ultimate purpose to my life. But I do see how it might fill one with dread, anxiety, fear, and despair.

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          • Michael says:

            What does freedom to reject Christ mean?

            As is well exhibited in some of your articles here, freedom of choice is not the sober and objective weighing up of clearly seen alternatives, and we have to take into account the fact that what is presented to us for acceptance is not always seen clearly, amongst other things. I know what you’re getting at here though, which is that eventually, when we come face to face with God in all His glory, we will be purged of all the attachments to self and the corollary desires borne out of inordinate self-love, and will finally be free to accept His love. This is, I agree, true freedom, but for me it begs a lot of questions, particularly whether we can, based on Scripture and Tradition, really be sure of what sort of encounter we will have with God post-mortem.

            On that basis I think it better to focus on what freedom is here and now, where the will remains bound by attachments to sin, and to assess whether, even when we have taken all our habits, encumbrances, psychological makeup, etc into account, there will not still be some cases where people will see the Truth clearly (albeit in a glass darkly) and reject it, and furthermore, that they will have become so turned in on themselves that any post-mortem encounter (which, again, we really know next to nothing about) will not be able to extract them from this state.

            The example of putting a gun to someone’s head is not one that I find helpful I’m afraid, as I think that it again presupposes an ‘either/or’ in people’s motivations, whereas most people are motivated to repent by a combination of the fear of the consequences of their sin and the offer of God’s immense love. Recognising the role of fear in people’s decision to turn to Christ does not mean reducing their decision to it.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            “The example of putting a gun to someone’s head is not one that I find helpful I’m afraid, as I think that it again presupposes an ‘either/or’ in people’s motivations, whereas most people are motivated to repent by a combination of the fear of the consequences of their sin and the offer of God’s immense love. Recognising the role of fear in people’s decision to turn to Christ does not mean reducing their decision to it.”

            I disagree. That the example is apt is demonstrated by Fr Stephen’s article. We only have a finite time (however that is construed) to repent, after which the doomsday scenario goes into effect. It is precisely this “fact” that the infernalist preacher believes he must warn his people against. All preaching is thus ultimately reduced to “repent or else.” Every preacher will, of course, frame all of this in his own particular way, but you can be darn sure that he will eventually return to it—it is his pastoral obligation. Indeed, I would argue that many of Jesus’ parables were designed to bring his hearers to this existential either/or moment (but more on that later). But I would formulate this moment differently than the infernalist.

            What is the difference between the “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” as pronounced by St John the Forerunner and as proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth? The difference, in my judgment, is dramatic and momentous.

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          • Michael says:

            Yes, of course the central point is that we only have a finite time to repent, but this does not mean that the consequences of our not doing so will be our only motivation. All it means is that, as you rightly note Our Lord Himself stresses in much of His teaching, that there is therefore an extra urgency given to that initial decision to do an ‘about-face’ with one’s life. I think that a.) the idea that people who take the traditional view are motivated solely by fear is patently untrue, and b.) that preaching with the risk of hell as part of one’s thinking does not lead to the binary scheme you suggest – again, it is merely a part of the overall picture that salvation can be lost, and a significant one, but this does not mean that it has to be or will be the overriding control on ‘infernalist’ preaching at all.

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          • Michael says:

            To put it another way, I think that perhaps a better example than the gun to the head one would be for someone to have marked out some fencing, with signs telling us that if you cross this line, there is very rocky ground beyond, and further on a sharp drop downwards; and that furthermore, this fencing is placed around a very wide and bountiful area. So a preacher need not always be talking about the fencing, and what lies beyond it, as most of his task would be to talk about the glorious country marked out within, but it would be incumbent upon them to remind people every now and then that there is a danger should one cross over the line.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Michael, with all respect I suggest you are missing the point. I am not talking about any given preacher or any given believer. I am talking about the logic of eternal damnation, whether as threat or as fulfilled reality. If I believe that there will come a “time” when repentance becomes impossible, thus condemning the impenitent to everlasting perdition, then that will necessarily inform my faith at every point and will necessarily inform how I preach Jesus Christ. True, an individual infernalist preacher may in fact avoid ever preaching on hell in his ministry, just as an individual believer may never think upon the possibility of the eternal damnation of either himself or of those he loves; but all that is irrelevant to the final eschatological truth of human existence. It all comes down to heaven and hell. This is why, I suggest, traditionalists get so upset with those who speak of the universalist hope—they believe that we are compromising a fundamental truth and putting others at ultimate risk. And I respect that concern. But I have my ultimate concerns, too, which I speak more about in the next article.

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          • Michael says:

            I am not talking about any given preacher or any given believer. I am talking about the logic of eternal damnation, whether as threat or as fulfilled reality.

            Yes, I know, but your comments above do seem (to me anyway) to be suggesting that it is something of an inevitability that ‘infernalist’ preachers will inevitably skew their preaching in ultimatum form (‘repent or else’) – I was not talking about ‘any given’ preacher either, but pointing out that this inevitable effect you are suggesting does not necessarily follow, that the logic of belief in hell need not have the effect you suggest.

            Now, you say that a hypothetical traditionalist could indeed avoid preaching on it, and that their belief will ‘inform…faith at every point and will necessarily inform how I preach Jesus Christ’. I (partly) agree with this, but do you not see that this does not actually amount to living with a gun pointed at your head (or pointing one at your congregation’s heads) at every moment, and that belief in the possibility of hell (the territory beyond the fence in my analogy) will not necessarily prevent the one who believes in that possibility from focusing on the love of God and the deepening of our relationship with Him in the life of faith (the land cordoned off by the fence)? I.e.; one does not need to be a universalist to preach hopefully and exhort positively.

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          • Michael says:

            This is why, I suggest, traditionalists get so upset with those who speak of the universalist hope—they believe that we are compromising a fundamental truth and putting others at ultimate risk.

            Yes, of course – this is true. But I don’t see how this concern necessarily means that one’s preaching/prayer life/discipleship be shaped by it in the ‘gun to head’ scenario you mentioned.

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          • Karen says:

            Father, I find this analogy to be apt. It is just intuitively obvious to me. How is making an apology for the preaching of the fear of (a deterministically understood) eternal hell in this manner really any different than a member of ISIS putting his knife to my neck and demanding I confess the creed of Islam or die? That it may be much less sudden and obvious doesn’t change the spiritual dynamic it sets percolating beneath the surface that will erupt at some point when we realize exactly what it is we are being taught about the nature of God by this notion that God’s retribution (even if it doesn’t effect repentance has value in itself and that hell’s punishment originates from God, whatever the variations on how that is understood). Most of us former Protestants have gotten this teaching in the form of a double whammy with the penal part of Penal Substitution and a deterministic retributive eternal hell for the wicked.

            I have just been listening to the hymnody of Lent on my CD player. and asking myself, Why do the services of Lent, Bridegroom Matins, Sunday of the Last Judgment, etc., not affect me in the way reading this recent series at O & H and modern apologists like Fr. John Whiteford, for “eternal hell” do? Of course, I believe we all know the answer to that and would wish that all could see it. As you know, I basically can go with, “The River of Fire” understanding of the nature of hell whatever its “duration” (as do my parish Priests) as long as I can also cherish the hope engendered by the prayers of the Saints like those of St. Porphyrios I listed at O & H and the Kneeling Prayers as well. All of this together with Pascha has a wonderfully salvific effect.

            This is the question I really wanted to ask you: Regarding the issue of fear of hell vs. love of God in effecting our salvation, somewhere some time ago, I read a quote from the Fathers something to the effect that the love of God is the only thing that can truly effect our salvation. The fear of hell is only useful in the very lowest of spiritual stages and in itself contributes nothing to our salvation (as transformation). It contributes only by instilling good habits which than can expose us to the chance to develop the love of God, which is what then transfigures us. If we never embrace the love of God, our fear of hell, regardless of the external habits it has instilled, will have contributed absolutely nothing to our salvation. Do you know where to find this teaching in the Fathers? Actually, I’m just now thinking it may be in Wounded by Love. I’ll have to look.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Karen, please keep us informed on what you find.

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      • Michael says:

        Or perhaps to put my point a bit more clearly, the original query is a question about whether, if universalism be true, any of the trials that we all must go through in this life make sense; whereas your reply is a question about whether those trials, taken together with the fate of the unrepentant on the traditional view, are fair.

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      • Marc says:

        Perhaps it is the great suffering from evil in this life that is required to ensure that we are forever free of evil in eternal life. The assured destruction of the demonic sources of evil in the lake of fire seems to confirm this.

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    • Mike H says:

      Michael, in regards to your question, I’d post the same question in reverse (as I just saw that Fr. Aiden did). “Why would God make himself difficult to see for so many, allow them to suffer so greatly, and then irrevocably torture them forever?” Either way, it doesn’t answer the question of suffering. I think that the point of the quote was that if universalism is true, then it must imply determinism (God could instantly wave his magic wand and make thinks right at any moment) so why doesn’t he? Since there is suffering, people must be free, which means that people must necessarily have the “freedom” to irrevocably damn themselves. I find that argument to be flawed, but I do understand it. Universalism doesn’t necessarily imply determinism or a lack of “free will”.

      “Hey guys, you really took life a little too seriously. I would have told you sooner but hey, you are happy now that it is over right?” is simply not an accurate portrayal of what universalists believe. There seems to be a belief that universalists believe something to the effect of “Welcome to heaven, Hitler. Pearly gates are right over there. God doesn’t take your genocide seriously. Wink, wink”. This is a caricature of the universalist position and demonstrates why it’s important for people to understand what they’re debating. Doesn’t mean that the universalists are correct, but their position should be addressed in the context of what it does say.

      The underlying assumption in the post is that the non-existence of IRREVOCABLE and UNENDING perdition is the very thing that gives life and the Gospel any meaning. It’s absence would mean that God is indifferent to the reality of sin (since there’s no REAL consequence) and that life and the Gospel are meaningless without the possibility of God ultimately being unable to get what he wants, of God being powerless to stop us as we ultimately destroy ourselves. That’s where the conversation needs to go in regards to this particular conversation as it’s not directly about the biblical, theological, or patristic support for or against eternal perdition.

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      • Michael says:

        “Hey guys, you really took life a little too seriously. I would have told you sooner but hey, you are happy now that it is over right?” is simply not an accurate portrayal of what universalists believe.

        I don’t think the commenter was saying that this is what universalists believe at all. I think it was more of a reference to how the trials of life might look to a great many people in the light of univeralism.

        It’s absence would mean that God is indifferent to the reality of sin (since there’s no REAL consequence) and that life and the Gospel are meaningless without the possibility of God ultimately being unable to get what he wants, of God being powerless to stop us as we ultimately destroy ourselves.

        Hmm – again, I don’t think it would mean the God is indifferent to sin or anything like that. I think the concern of the author (no matter how badly expressed at times) is that without the possibility of loss then it does deny any real significance to the decisions we make in this life. Granted, he assumes that it is decisions in this life that are decisive here, but given that we know very, very little of what our post-mortem encounter with God will be like, and the New Testament tends to frame things in terms of earthly decision making, I think we have to make that assumption. Otherwise we risk placing hope in speculation (albeit very well reasoned speculation, informed by gospel imperatives), and as you mentioned in one of your comments above, this is not enough of a guarantee to put one’s faith in universalism. At the end of the day, if we want to be sure, we have to turn to biblical and patristic support, because that is all we can be really sure of, and the weight there seems to be in favour of the traditionalist position.

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  10. Julian says:

    I describe myself as a “hopeful universalist,” since it’s not clear to me that Universalism is true. My reading of the Bible reveals what appears to be contrary views: some universalist; some annihilationist; some eternal perdition.

    What I think is absolutely clear is that repentance is a necessary condition of salvation. This would seem to involve some act of the human will. If our wills are ultimately determined by God, then I have no doubt that He will make sure that everybody repents. But if we have truly free wills, then it’s not clear that Universalism could be made to happen by God without human cooperation. Unless, of course, our wills have been so created that eventually they will choose the good. Or even if this is not the case, perhaps it is still the case that eventually everyone will repent. I hope one of these alternatives turns out to be true, and thus I am a hopeful universalist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Julian, virtually all universalists with whom I am familiar agree with you that repentance is a “condition” for salvation. A gift must be opened in order to be enjoyed. All of us need to be spiritually transformed to be made fit for the kingdom. So there’s no disagreement on this point. Thomas Talbott spends a great deal of time discussing this topic in his book The Inescapable Love of God. I’ve speculated on the question in a few articles on my blog, but I do not rely on these speculations. For me personally, it all comes down to faith in Christ and the power of his love.

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  11. Three distinct differences are apparent–

    (I) Wrath. Strict universalism aside, the two sides tacitly disagree on a psychological schema of great importance to American Christians– the wrath of the biblical God. This is the great fault line that divides American churches, folk religions, and ethnic subcultures– and, some say, the Confederacy from the Union. Orthodoxy appears to most contemporary apologists to be firmly on one side of it, but scarcely any of these writers are American. Along the fault line, one hears antithetical thoughts about God–

    (1a) who is not vengeful;
    (1b) who avenges Adam’s sin on all humankind;

    (2a) whose demands on believers complete them, making them more authentically themselves;
    (2b) whose demands on believers are signs of his dominance over all things;

    (3a) whose behavior models the motivations that should guide the conduct of believers;
    (3b) whose behavior is inimitable, reflecting his hierarchical prerogatives;

    (4a) whose hard mercies are healing medicine rather than retributive punishment;
    (4b) whose left hand hurts the non-compliant as a worthy end in itself;

    (5a) who created hell as a default consequence for those freely opting against heaven, but
    (5b) who created hell as a logically necessary means of inflicting harm greater than the wrong done (just as heaven inflicts beatitude greater than the good done by the saints), and so

    (6a) who does not need hell for his new creation to complete his creative project.
    (6b) who needs hell in his new creation for it to complete his domination project.

    If the (a) series reflects settled Orthodox teaching, as most apologists say, then it is not at all hospitable to the straightforward Western infernalism of the (b) series. This is a problem for those committed both to Orthodox authority and to that ol’ time hellfire religion.

    When Father De Young says that he just cannot believe that God became a “pacifist” after the flood, he is giving voice to a current in American religious life with roots that go back centuries. O&H don’t care that they cannot engage EO’s arguments for universalism, because the latter is only their pretext for speaking out; their true target is the Orthodox majority for whom God’s wrath is, less an expression of his power and rank, than a metaphor of his love for his creation. Before Americans can get to a good discussion of universalism, we need a good discussion on this.

    (II) Heterodoxy. O&H appears to substitute a reformed gestalt for a patristic one in reading scripture and presenting doctrine. To those aware of the long and continuing struggle to retrieve patristic categories for the expression of Orthodoxy, this substitution is precisely what the word ‘heterodoxy’ was coined to describe.

    (III) Authority. Both sides are careful about Orthodox authorities insofar as they know them, but authority means different things to them. If Orthodox authorities are the scaffolding that enable EO to explore safely with ‘fides quaerens intellectum’, they are the powers that reassure O&H, not so much by being right as by being in accord with their own sentiments, utterly unchanging, and a license to ignore other views.

    http://www.businessinsider.com/sorry-haters-derp-isnt-going-away-2013-6

    Among American converts to Orthodoxy are some who are strongly attracted to the domination and submission of its hierarchical authority, but who have not as yet worked through all the tensions between their inherited beliefs and those of the wider tradition. They differ from other American converts who are attracted by the theology and spirituality of the East, and who warmly appreciate the traditionalism that conserves them, but who have little interest in authority for its own sake. Despite adhering to the same religious tradition, these tribes stand on different sides of the Great American Divide. From time to time, they will disagree.

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  12. And a fourth–

    (IV) Justinian & Joe Sixpack. Quite aside from the search for truth, we have some responsibility for its representation to the least motivated. There are two views in the threads on this that do not wholly coincide with the differences between EO and E&H. Universalism could move some who believe it (but not all *) to shout a well-motivated call from the rooftops ** that all should begin an eternity of transformation now. *** Others– I have in mind Justinian (and some universalists) worry that this call would be heard by lazy Joe Sixpack in the alleys below as undercutting his sense that it is urgent to make a timely decision to repent. This disagreement over rival calls for Joe Sixpack to repent is over, not their truthfulness, but their psychological dynamics, as well as the ethics of disclosing a truth that is inevitably misunderstood.

    * Some C18 pietists in America, such as the Schwarzenau Brethren, maintained a fides silentii on universal salvation. They were convinced that all would be saved, but they regarded this as knowledge to be closely held from those outside the Body of Christ who could only misunderstand it to their disadvantage.

    ** One could preach some universalisms precisely because they better strengthen the sinner’s motivation for repentance. All occasion for despair is removed; spiritual effort is not diverted into anxiety about retribution; hellfire purging sin is shown to be inevitable; a relish for the freedom to progress is encouraged. In contrast, an infernalist call for repentance endangers the motivation to repent much as harsh childhood discipline distracts a child from the work of learning self-control.

    *** I’ve posted this in the other place– “Actual universalist pastors in C19 New England preached plenty of hellfire. They believed that (a) God’s punishment is correction rather than vengeance and that (b) all without exception will face more or less of it, and this encouraged them to preach repentance. Such preachers emphatically urged *all* to repent in this life lest God purge their sinfulness with fire in the aeon to come. Yet they were also able to reassure those who struggled against backsliding that God’s fire would give them victory in the world to come. Importantly, they seem to have had no difficulty keeping the penitent’s focus off of paralyzing fear and on disciplined self-regulation, which (as effective parents will know) is the key to strengthening a child’s capacity for self-control. Would it not be interesting to empirically compare the effectiveness of divine correction preachers and divine vengeance preachers?”

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  13. (V) Ecclesiology. Following the discussion of (IV), which we see both in history and in the threads, it may be that the constantinian sort of church that seeks to impart a certain morality to all the pious peasantry cannot give up the threat of hell, even if universal salvation is certain. A church charged with gathering in the drifters on the edge of the village, exhorting them to practice at least ordinary virtue, and warning them that God will punish them for breaking their oaths needs something that will excite the amygdala. A universalist gospel that, ‘in the long run, one has nothing to worry about’ is plainly not that something. In that way, the social role one prefers for the church may influence one’s view of universalism.

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  14. Although I have not read all the comments and I made a comment before concerning historical linguistic analysis of Biblical Hebrew, I’d like to make a comment concerning eternal punishment as the Church teaches. I never understood, really, how it is that God can punish any of His creatures for finite sins for an infinite amount of time, with the lake of fire into which the wicked are thrown being a state of utter misery for those thrown in it, because they feel God’s love as torture. The reason I never understood nor will I ever understand such a concept is because God asks us in some of the Gospel passages in the New Testament to bless and pray for our enemies. Why would God expect something quite noble of us, and not of Himself with regard to His enemies?
    Is it because God’s ways are higher than those of men? But, if it is higher, then, it seems to me that with regard to justice, they are not higher, because it seems that the evil is so strong that there’s no amount of love that can be offered by God or His messengers to sway the hard-hearted to conform to the image of Christ. This is extremely hard for me to believe, indeed!

    Furthermore, for those who are granted entry into the Kingdom of God, it seems that there would be few because we’re told that the gate is narrow that leads to eternal life and wide that leads to eternal destruction. Accordingly, I’ve asked myself how it is that those who become a part of the kingdom of God can rejoice when some or perhaps even all of their loved ones are confined to a lake of fire? What sort of rejoicing goes on? The only way I can see those who are in the kingdom of God rejoicing is if their memories are completely erased of their loved ones who are consigned to the lake of fire, but that’s not something that I’d find to be just or benevolent, either. How could it be just or benevolent to wipe out a person’s memory of their loved ones no matter what their spiritual state?

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    • Marc says:

      All good reasons to reject the teaching of eternal conscience torment. A more traditional understanding of the narrow and wide gate is the entry into the intermediate state and the particular judgment that takes place at that time. For those Christians who lived faithful lives in communion with God in His Church, the particular judgment is a confirmation that they are already a part of the first resurrection. The angels take them to join the saints in the Church in Heaven. This is the narrow gate that few find in this life. For nominal Christians and unbelievers, the particular judgment is an illumination of the truth about God, and their lives in relationship to Him. It is made clear to them that they have entered the wide gate that leads to destruction and are in need of repentance and forgiveness. For many this illumination will begin a process of repentance and reconciliation leading to the first resurrection into the Church in Heaven. The unrepentant will be held in the prison of Hades until the time of the Last Judgment. This understanding stems from the early Church’s view regarding the Harrowing of Hades by Jesus Christ and the salvation of most of humanity including Adam and Eve (see 1 Peter 3:18-20).

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    • brian says:

      It isn’t just and it’s built on an improper notion of the person.
      A person is not a modern individual with elective, external relations.
      A person is only properly indicated by the Triune God, in which relation is constitutive. We are not there yet, approach it only asymptotically in this life. Theosis will fulfill this vocation eschatologically. (Or, given the vagaries of the relation between time and eternity, we may always already be eternally what we are temporally journeying towards. It’s a paradox . . .)

      What is largely happening in all this discussion is an application of modern concepts to Biblical teaching. It is complicated by the fact that the pre-modern understanding had its own limitations. There is something sui generis about the Christian understanding of personhood and it’s still only slowly being worked out by thinkers like Yannaras and Zizioulas, for example.

      In any event, that theory about memory being wiped out is reprehensible if you think about it long enough. It also badly deforms the nature of God’s agapeic love.

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  15. (VI) Emotion & Epistemology. They are not unrelated; emotion primes the self to respond to circumstances, including mental ones. Comments about universalism, for example, are often differentiated by their priming emotion, usually either fear or love. These emotions shape the way we appraise the act of assent as either external (mostly trust; test of witnesses) or internal (minimal trust; direct personal verification), and as extending either a web (the coherence of probable facts) or a pyramid (a certain foundation and validated additions). Moreover, these emotions prime the virtues (and correlate vices) that we seek in the human activity of thinking (eg steadfastness against temptation, openness to disruptive ideas). Nobody on either side of this discussion is ever simply ‘being logical,’ for there are several patterns of reasonableness.

    Interestingly, the same emotion– say, fear– can lead to more than one of them. The O&H writers write as fear-driven externalists who solve theological problems by weighing authorities and adding the result to a pyramid. From our own perspectives, we may judge them to have succeeded or failed in any given article, but that is what they try to do. In contrast, I know a Calvinist infernalist who writes as a fear-driven internalist solving theological problems by testing proposals against the coherence of his system. He would recognize the ideas in Father De Young’s article as a lemma in that system, but would find the article itself rather poor in the explicit exegetical reasoning that might enable him to verify those ideas for himself. But both O&H and the Calvinist approach universalism with an overriding emotion of fear priming vigilant resistance. One wonders whether an argument for universalism motivated by fear would be more persuasive to them.

    Might it be that proportionally more universalists than infernalists can acknowledge this God-given relation between emotion and reason? I am undecided.

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    • Karen says:

      I concur with Tess, Bowman.

      Having been a psychology major in college and having undergone therapy myself (as well as the therapy the Holy Spirit provides helping us to more deeply understand ourselves and our own motivations), I really, really, really, appreciate your highlighting this reality of the role emotion plays in the way we reason and what we want from others when we reason.

      Where this is not acknowledged by an interlocutor, attempts at communication can be not only frustrating, but also relationally and emotionally hazardous, because the *only* thing that is valued is the (apparently unassailable) logic of the point and a computer logic-style evaluation of its relative merits, and not the way the subject may touch on a myriad of actual whole-person relational and spiritual issues (i.e., pastoral concerns), which may be as important, if not more, to resolving what is perceived as a problem of facts and logic and the mysterious (and even seemingly “obstinate”) refusal of some to conform themselves to what the facts and logic show. (I think it may be fair to characterize one of the drivers for this sort of m.o. as having made an idol of some aspects of Aristotle’s philosophical system–perhaps a very common idol in our modern culture, which also has a plethora of other idols to be sure.)

      For the believer (and even for many who aren’t), the topic at hand–the nature of final judgment and how our perception of what that means shapes our understanding of the nature and character of God and thus our capacity to enter into communion with Him, is about the most relationally, spiritually and emotionally-charged subject imaginable. To harshly or cynically rebuff anyone’s attempt to point to various elephants in the room inhabiting such a discussion (i.e., theodicy, personal experiences, pastoral concerns) and their protestations of not being heard as has happened repeatedly in the recent threads at O & H is simply cruel. It may be a blindly ignorant and unintentional cruelty, but is a deeply inhuman barbarism all the same. Needless to say, I don’t believe it is the fruit of a genuinely Orthodox mindset (a.k.a., humble, merciful love) either. That is one reason I rarely comment at O & H and only have this time because this has been such a hugely pressing issue for me (like that of Abraham in Genesis 18:16-33). This cruelty is unfortunate because I believe there is a very necessary and potentially very fruitful discussion to be had around this issue–even one which could validate the point I believe Fr. Andrew and others want to make, but are making rather poorly, and allow it not to be such an obstacle to salvation for some.

      Unlike some, and because, well, I have had to learn this the hard way, I am always aware on some level (based on my experience–not of the gnostic variety, but the experience we all gain from our personal interactions with God, ourselves, and others over the course of our lives, whether we allow this to rise the level of consciousness, or not), of many of the spiritual, emotional and reasonable connections likely being made by both by the writer of such posts and the others who are reading and interacting with what is communicated there (which is NEVER only what the author consciously intends, as I’m sure you well understand), and I am wired to deeply, deeply care about how all those things are impacting mine and others’ capacity to trust and move toward God. And, obviously, since my experience is not God’s omniscience, I can perceive what is likely going on more accurately with some situations and people than others and never perfectly.

      It seems to me there are two kinds of people in these discussions, those who cannot ignore the elephant in the room (the whole-person concerns I have just described) and those who believe the elephant should just leave. In this metaphor, there actually is no door through which the elephant could leave, thus he can only be ignored (which is a deeply disordered thing to do if it becomes a habit and not a temporary economy for the sake of another).

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      • Thanks for your kind words, Mike, Tess, and Karen. The O&H series has been a teachable moment, and many responses at EO and elsewhere have risen to it.

        Yes, Karen, we’ve all heard this– “When you stop being a human being, then we can have a sanely robotic conversation.” You sum up the problem well.

        If your college psychology ventured near the clinical, then you likely know some life reasons why persons might both adopt a robotic mind-set and also seek out internet controversy to test it. Apart from those, some men identify with power as an escape from complexity, and emulate a laconic swagger that is especially absurd in matters this existential. It can be hard to want to do good but to have too limited a vision of it to avoid ironic wrong. We can empathize with them while engaging the wiser voices.

        Thank you again for being so generous with your own.

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        • Karen says:

          “We can empathize with them while engaging the wiser voices.”

          Yes, thank you so much for this wise word, Bowman. I think you are a more generous soul than I in that I attempt to engage the not-so-wise voices sometimes, not so much out of empathy for them I fear (though, there may be a tiny seed of that) as to attempt to protect those with whom I truly can most easily empathize (those precious souls I know–and all whom they represent–who have repented of Christian faith rather than serve such a monstrous “God”), and one cannot but get mauled in that process, which I think benefits no one very much.

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  16. tess says:

    Bowman, I just wanted to chime in to thank you for your series of comments. Very helpful.

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  17. Karen says:

    I also have a HUGE problem with the fact that folks who propose their understanding of the Church’s teaching on hell, if not preached, will condemn souls by failing to awaken them to their need for repentance, do not recognize that if, paradoxically, a strong universalist hope is also warranted by the Tradition, and this is not preached, there is also a loss of opportunity for early repentance and avoidance of terrible suffering both here and hereafter for those who find it impossible to love and trust a “God” who deals with the lost in the afterlife in the way this determinist understanding of the plight of the soul in hell teaches He does! I should know–I would be the poster child for this kind of casualty (and cannot say my salvation is yet unaffected–frankly, I am still fighting for my spiritual life against this lie) had I not been so utterly convinced of the truths proclaimed in the Nicene Creed. I knew Peter’s confession, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life,” was the only confession I would ever be able to make.

    Which of the Fathers was it that taught the whole gospel could be effectively proclaimed on the basis of the Parable of the Prodigal Son alone? No retributive eternal hell there. From that Parable, it’s certainly obvious the prodigal son would have continued to suffer, languish and would have perished by his own foolishness had He been too despairing of his father’s generosity or too proud to take the initiative to make his journey back to his father, but it’s just as clear his father would not have been anything but heartbroken by this outcome and would certainly never have failed to mourn and remember his son and long for him (undoubtedly scanning the horizon daily in hope against hope for his son’s return until his own death!). Can anyone seriously doubt had such a father known this could be the only outcome of his son’s decisions and his son would have accepted and truly been able to benefit from his help, he would have marshalled all his abundant resources to rescue his son and prevent this? If we can imagine a son in such destitute condition to ,out of shame or sheer stubborn obstinate pride perhaps, to successfully refuse his father’s help, that might be another thing, but how realistic is that for most of us? If we can imagine he would have but left again after being rescued and nursed back to health as soon as he was able (like a hard-core addict is wont to do), again that’s quite another thing, and here I do believe there is a real insight into the nature of how hell can exist and continue to exist, but it is never quite clear in most of the preaching on hell (and “traditional Christian” apologies for it) that this is what may be occurring because the focus is usually on defending God’s right to retributive justice, having duly warned sinners of this possible outcome, or just on the brute fact that this is the reality that the Scripture and/or Tradition “unambiguously” teaches! The explanation of the nature of hell proposed in “The River of Fire” is the first real concrete way I could grasp what deeper spiritual reality all the metaphors about hell’s torment in the Scripture might be pointing to, and how hell’s doors could be “locked from the inside” (as our dear Clive Staples wrote)–how its state could be perpetuated without God’s directly willing it. It’s still not really clear to me how even a hard-core addict could essentially “hit bottom” permanently, be aware of this, and not achieve a measure of sobriety that would make him capable of receiving and benefitting from help to achieve recovery (not that anyone believes such a one could recover unassisted).

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  18. (VII) Analogy & Ideology. Analogues have a double life. We use analogy to speak about God, But the analogues that we choose (or reject) for God are often obliquely legible as demands that others suffer for (or resist) dark social order. If God himself resorts to retribution in Hell, then how wrong can Gitmo be? If God only corrects sinners for their own ultimate benefit, are not parents obliged to spare the rod and enlighten the child? If God’s new creation is itself a gentrified New Jerusalem with undesirables in New Projects away from the center of town, then what is wrong with gated neighborhoods and citizens’ watch patrols in the here and now? In practice, few accept arbitrary suffering in God’s order but deny it in some earthly order. Many on both sides seem at least as deeply concerned that their god-language make just demands as that it truly describe God. An abusive parent may have a loyal child with a firm sense of privilege who prays to a God who puts the wicked in their place, and a critical child who sees abuse of power everywhere and prays to a God who reconciles even his most ruthless rebels with love. If this double-reference is a property of god-language itself– is it?– then their minds are in the same place, wherever their hearts may be.

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  19. Karen says:

    From Wounded by Love (pp104-105), St. Porphyrios writes:

    “We should regard Christ as our friend. He is our friend. He asserts this Himself when He says, you are my friends. . . Let us stretch out to Him and approach Him as a friend. Do we fall? Do we sin? With familiarity, love and trust let us run to Him–not with fear that He will punish us, but with the confidence which we derive from the sense of being with a friend. We can say to Him, ‘I have fallen, forgive me.’ At the same time, however, let us have a sense that He loves us and that He receives us with tenderness and love and forgives us. Don’t let sin separate us from Christ. When we believe that He loves us and we love Him, we don’t feel strangers and distanced from Him, even when we sin. We have secured His love, and however we behave, we know that He loves us. . . .

    “Certainly the Gospel tells us in a symbolic language that the unjust man will find himself in a place where there is ‘grinding and gnashing of teeth’–because that is what it is like far from God. And among the Fathers of the Church, who teach vigilance and prayer, there are many who speak about the fear of death and hell. They say, ‘Have constant remembrance of death.’ If we explore these words deeply, they create in us the fear of hell. In our attempt to avoid sin, we invoke these thoughts so that our soul will be filled with fear of death, hell and the devil.

    “Everything has its meaning, its time and place. The concept of fear is good in the initial stages. It is for beginners, those in whom our ancestral fallen nature lives on. The beginner, whose sensibility has not yet been refined, is held back from evil by fear. And fear is essential since we are men of flesh and blood and earth-bound. But that is a stage, a low level of relationship to the divine. We think in terms of a business deal in order to win Paradise or hell. But if we examine the matter more closely we see that is governed by self-interest. That’s not something that appeals to me. When someone progresses and enters into the love of God, what need does he have of fear? Whatever he does, he does out of love, and that is of infinitely greater value. For someone to become good out of fear of God and not out of love is not of such value.”

    I also like the prayer of the hours:

    Thou who at every season and every hour, in Heaven and on earth art worshipped and glorified, O Christ God; long-suffering, merciful and compassionate; Who lovest the just and showest mercy upon the sinner; Who callest all to salvation through the promise of blessings to come. O Lord, in this hour receive our supplications, and direct our lives according to Thy commandments.

    Sanctify our souls. Purify our bodies. Correct our minds; cleanse our thoughts; and deliver us from all tribulations, evil, and distress. Surround us with Thy holy angels; that, guided and guarded by them, we may attain to the unity of the faith, and unto the knowledge of Thine unapproachable glory. For Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen. (Emphasis mine)

    If we were to incorporate this belief in the power of the threat of hell for repentance as some would like us to believe is necessary, this prayer would read “Who callest all to salvation through the fear of the torment of hell.”

    Now, I’m sure there are penitential prayers for confession that incorporate the language of the fear/mindfulness of death and hell, etc., but I think it’s significant to note that this mentality really isn’t part of the daily prayers of the Church, but really plays a fairly small role in a much, much bigger picture that is centered on the overwhelming attraction of the beauty of Christ.

    Oh, and with experiments on the effect of punishment vs. reinforcement/reward on learning and behavior, reward was, of course, much more effective (at least for lab rats!).

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  20. Taken as a whole, Karen, your comments seem to contrast two ways of thinking about the Church’s witness–

    (VIII) Constraints & Transformations. On one hand, this witness is information about the Father-set constraints within which one might navigate one’s life; on the other, it is the Spirit-used influence that transforms one into a truly inspirited ‘little christ’ (Luther). The former seems to be a ‘first approximation’ for beginners who have just turned to Christ and who still see things in a worldly way; the latter seems to be what those who have been transformed by grace are thereby enabled to see. One can see more or less difference between them, but it is unimaginable that one should follow the Way without taking a first step or arriving in a different place.

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  21. Karen says:

    Wonderful, Bowman! Thanks. Yes I recognize my thinking here.

    And viz. how I use the tension of the truth of “The River of Fire” vs. the hopefulness of our prayers for the dead to keep me dynamically in the correct spiritual posture (actively trusting God and internalizing His love), it’s not that I don’t also in the Spirit-used-influence sense also see the truth that is in the “constraining” aspect of “The River of Fire”‘s vision, if that makes sense (and perhaps this was a given in what you describe here). Properly understood, these really don’t contradict each other. One doesn’t move beyond (following the Spirit who has now begun to be truly internalized) by now dropping the teachings that are those of constraint in terms of how they are used and needed in the whole Church (as Fr. Stephen says, this is not theological liberalism), but only by properly applying them in one’s own personal ascesis with Christ and in our counsel of others insofar as God allows us to discern or help them discern their own true spiritual state. Isn’t this the observation that St. Porphyrios is making in his comments here? And, indeed, even in our personal ascesis we still use the constraining teachings as the anchor or reference point by which to stretch the dynamic spiritual tension between where we are now and where we started that keeps us moving deeper into the Spirit’s meaning. We are not dropping the constraints; we are just using them for ourselves in a different way. St. Porphyrios is pointing out (and which is helpful to me) we don’t now need the crutch of fear if we have begun to love Christ. This is what I so need to be reminded of (an intuition of my own even from childhood which, in my tendency to be distrustful of that still, small Voice in my own conscience when it moves me toward freedom, I allow the too-loud plea from the traditionalist voice or authority figure to drown out, such that I am tempted to pick the crutch back up and use it in a way that is improper for myself and actually impede my own growth and healing. My personality is one of a high desire to comply with authority, but also of a strong need for control (following the Spirit) over the management of my own spiritual life.

    Thank you so much for offering the words that allow us to express all this more clearly!

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  22. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    This has become a very interesting comment thread! Well done!

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  23. “…those who find it impossible to love and trust a “God” who deals with the lost in the afterlife in the way this determinist understanding of the plight of the soul in hell teaches He does!”

    From me, just two more notes, both obliquely related to Karen’s concern above–

    (IX) Anthropology & Motivated Reading. Casual discussions of universalism have often followed a two-step pattern: (a) initial discussion of religious sources of a given position, (b) citation of anthropological reasons why that position is to be preferred to the others. So– (a) “Jesus often says that souls will be lost in the Last Judgment,” and (b) “Those other explanations of the scriptures cannot be right, because then there would be nothing to terrify people into good behavior, and we know that people do good because they fear not to.” A bit of scripture opens the door to discussion, but when one actually tries to discuss alternate readings, one’s fellow seeker after divine truth chooses to discuss anthropology instead. Please note that the work of persuasion is not being done by the (a) but by the (b) step. Indeed, one senses that the conviction at (b) has motivated a search for confirming scripture that yielded (a). Our psychological friends call this ‘motivated reasoning,’ and view it as a cognitive limitation, which it clearly is. However, it may be that part of the Holy Spirit’s accommodation of divine truth to the capabilities of sinners is that it is open to initial approaches that are motivated by unhealed passions. The later healing of those passions does not depend only on scripture, of course, but as it progresses the riches of the canon also confirm less disordered ways of being. One can give thanks for the misreadings of others insofar as they have led them into that Way.

    (X) Pacifist Infernalism. The most persuasive scriptural case for infernalism relies not on references to hell etc, but on the expectation that the new creation, when fully realized, will only be inhabited by those who have acquired the peaceable ‘second natures’ of those who actually live the Sermon on the Mount. That is, persons who did not in this life free their souls from worldly hatreds will not be capable of living in a world defined precisely by that absence of cruelty. This is the most persuasive form of infernalism for five reasons– (a) It is wholly free of the implicit social engineering that uses hell to frighten peasants into submission; (b) Its criterion is an intelligible choice of a self– Do you choose hatred in all its forms or renounce them for the peace of Christ?–rather than a miscellany of misdeeds that somehow tip the scales one way or the other; (c) It is a promise to those who love God– Your choice of Love will continue to transform you and bring you nearer to others in that Love in the world to come– rather than an abstract speculation about the nature of justice; (d) It is motivated by God’s creativity through time rather than than by an eternal law that binds him to destroy creatures he has made; (e) It is no more concrete about hell than the apocalyptic metaphors of scripture, but does situate it in the central NT concern for the new creation. This is, of course, the infernalism of George Fox and the first Quakers, who believed that the mass of conventional believers lived somnambulistic lives of complicity in worldly cruelty, but would each encounter a moment, when the soul was able to bear it, when “the Light that enlightens every one who has come into the world” would pose the question of destiny– Do you choose hatred in all its forms or renounce them for the peace of Christ? Those who chose the peace of Christ would thereby be led into tensions with the world, but also to the experience described by James Naylor–

    “There is a spirit which I feel, that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations: as it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thoughts to any other. If it be betrayed it bears it; for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned, and takes its kingdom with entreaty, and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, or can own its life. It’s conceived in sorrow, and brought forth without any to pity it; nor does it murmur at grief and oppression. It never rejoices, but through sufferings; for with the world’s joy, it is murdered. I found it alone, being forsaken; I have fellowship therein, with them who lived in dens, and desolate places in the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life.”

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  24. Tess, would you mind if, later in the summer, I sent an essay to you and Karen at the address you gave here?

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    • Karen says:

      Dunno about Tess, Bowman, but this is permission for Fr. Aiden to email you my email address should you care to send one of you essays to me.

      Karen

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      • Thank you, Karen. I’d love to get your criticisms of it when it is done. I’m not sure how to contact Father Aidan to contact you, but we can cross that bridge when we get to it. That will be toward the end of July, unless my schedule gives me a break. Have a blessed summer!

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  25. On (X)– The short road to hell would appear to be refusing water, food, shelter to the christ of the poor, and yet most presentations of infernalism seem to lose God’s passion for social justice in a vague moralism. It is worthwhile to examine how both univeralisms and infernalisms relate this-worldly concern for the poor to next-worldly outcomes.

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