The Game of Life: Risk, Zork, and Hell

I write this reflection in response to an excellent comment by one of our readers, who goes under the alias “Loup.” You might want to first read his entire comment before continuing with this blog.

Welcome, Loup, to Eclectic Orthodoxy. Thank you for your excellent questions.

If I am reading you rightly, it appears to me that your critical question is: Doesn’t apokatastasis necessarily lead to nihilism? If child molesters, rapists, thieves, and murderers are saved right along with the devout and righteous, then nothing we do ultimately matters. And if nothing we do matters, then existence has no point. Happiness doesn’t matter, misery doesn’t matter, God doesn’t matter. There is only the boredom and despair of nihilism. Does that sound like a fair representation of your concern?

Your question got me thinking about games. When my kids were young, our family loved to play a game called Risk. The goal is to conquer the world and crush one’s enemies. It is a zero-sum game. One person wins and everyone else loses. Why is Risk such a fun game to play? Because of its unique combination of strategy, luck, competition, and temporary, but always broken, alliances. In my family, no quarter was ever given to the other players. As the immortals in the movie Highlander cry, “There can be only one!” And because none of us are particularly gracious winners—with the exception of my wife, who doesn’t play board games, we are all terrible losers—it might take us days to recover, such were the hurt feelings and disappointment. Yet despite the fallout, we always kept coming back to Risk. “Maybe this time I will win,” each of us would tell ourselves. And I know each of my kids were always thinking, “Maybe this time I will destroy Dad.” “Bring it on,” I would think in reply.

The possibility of losing is essential to the zero-sum game experience. If I knew that I would win every game, then there wouldn’t be much point in playing it (despite the pleasure of defeating my kids); likewise, if I knew that I would was always going to lose, there wouldn’t be much point in playing either. Who goes to a casino knowing that winning is impossible (not improbable but impossible)?

We no longer play Risk in our family. We have graduated to safer, less volatile games, like Settlers of Cataan and British Rails.  But the competitive spirit remains!

The traditional Christian understanding of salvation sees life as the ultimate zero-sum game. There are winners (thankfully more than one) and there are losers. C. S. Lewis draws the parallel exactly in his chapter on hell in The Problem of Pain: “If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it.” Life has meaning—not just relative meaning but absolute meaning—because it ultimately reduces to two, and only two, final possibilities—the Beatific Vision and eternal perdition. The former represents the ultimate victory; the latter the ultimate failure and defeat. Everyday is a high stakes poker game, going all-in on every hand. Talk about extreme risk! What could be more exciting, more thrilling, more terrifying, more paralyzing? Everything we say and do matters. The potential loss is infinite, but so is the reward. For the blessed, life becomes meaningful in all possible fullness; for the damned, it becomes just one damn thing after another. (But if existence can terminate in utter meaninglessness, did it ever have meaning to begin with?) One might even conclude that hell is what gives life its zest and purpose. What’s the existential point in playing if I am guaranteed victory … or guaranteed defeat? Life, at least according to the traditional model, confers meaning by posing two eschatological destinations. Without hell, without the possibility of irrevocable personal decision, existence is experienced as absurd and inconsequential.

But games are not restricted to the zero-sum model. I remember decades ago gathering with my kids around our little Apple IIce computer to play the text-adventure game Zork.

You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox here.

Your quest is to find the 19 Treasures of Zork, hidden throughout the Great Underground Empire. To do this you must solve numerous puzzles, navigate mazes, scare off the cyclops, open the sluice gates of Flood Control Dam #3, and defeat the thief. You will die numerous times along the way, but as long as you have saved your place, you can begin the journey anew from the point just before you died. When you have placed all the treasures in the trophy case, you receive 350 points and are granted the rank of Master Adventurer.

Now the interesting thing about a quest game like Zork is that player-satisfaction is not dependent of the possibility of final failure. There are penultimate failures, of course—beware the grue!—but these failures contribute to the game experience, as they serve as learning moments (“oh, I guess I should have brought the lantern”). What makes the game fun, and meaningful, is solving the puzzles and navigating the mazes. Completing the quest can actually feel a bit anti-climactic. “Let’s play Zork II!” And so the adventure continues.

Apokatastasis, I suggest, is more like Zork, rather than Risk.  Is life meaningful if apokatastasis is true?  It depends, I guess, on what kind of game one prefers to play.

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25 Responses to The Game of Life: Risk, Zork, and Hell

  1. Being competitive is the Christian way. Didn’t the Christians have to compete against the Romans, Jews and other pagans ? Then at the Reformation time we began to compete against other Christians. We Presbyterians are the ones that believe correctly. Living in Florida we kids used to have wars throwing all the backyard citrus fruit at each other, Lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruit – we had a great variety of ammunition. There is no Christian feeling better that to spat a kid in the face with a rotten mango for instance and send him screaming home to his mother. We sure converted him. Hahaha. The Holy Spirit gave us superior throwing arms. You know you are one of the Elect if you have good aim with fruit.

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  2. mattkofler says:

    Universalism might rightly be nihilistic (although I doubt it), but the traditional understanding of hell is just as prone to nihilism. In fact, one of my main reasons for accepting universalism was the daily experience I would have of being in public, around people who were not believers and who by all accounts were hell-bound, and being overwhelmed by a sense that nothing these poor people did mattered, because ultimately they were going to hell. No love or goodness experienced no person growth or wisdom acquired, no suffering overcome; none of it mattered if these people were merely discarded by God upon death.
    In other words, universalism might render a person’s acceptance or rejection of God “meaningless”, but hell renders their entire existence meaningless.
    On top of that, the traditional doctrine of hell just seems to reduce God from being a person to whom we relate into merely another environmental feature around which we must adapt to survive.
    In that case, the joy of salvation is more akin to that of having successfully survived a mountain-climbing expedition, rather that the joy of having at last reached the state of joyous union with God. That, to me, sounds more like nihilism than universal salvation.
    Add to all this the fact that, according to the TDoH, all human life, whether saved or damned, ends in some degree of inevitable and irreconcilable tragedy…

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  3. Exactly. But, thinking again of someone whose god-model thought he was John Wayne or Dirty Harry, we begin life in Christ with the lives we have had. Psychological scrutiny of positions is a wise step from rationalism to realism, but carries with it a challenge to imagine how a Risk player finally comes, through faith, to playing Zork.

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  4. Perhaps it’s important too to realize that apokatastasis doesn’t negate the reality of a temporary, remedial hell. Recovery from addiction to the things of this earth is agony; just ask any recovering drug addict, pornographer, or alcoholic. Perhaps most of humanity will have to endure a postmortem experience of the hell of their making, as God, the consuming fire, burns away all self-love and attachment to creation in preparation for union with the Creator. Christian askesis is difficult even though the yoke of Christ is easy and His burden light. The wicked of this life must be conformed to Christ, if the apokatastasis is true, by a much greater askesis having passed through death. I don’t see any nihilism in this.

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  5. Karen says:

    Not sure about this, but to view the nature of salvation and its “winning” as a game at all sounds wrong to me, and seen as a “zero sum” game seems to me to be the very language and mindset of hell itself. But if it is analogous in any sense to some kind of game, it seems to me the process of salvation is a game where the “winning” is not found in some end goal separate from the game itself, but is found rather in the playing of it (much more like Zork).

    When people raise the question of “what does it matter how we live” if a form of Christian universalism is true (where universalism, in this case, does not rule out corrective and remedial suffering upon exiting this life, but in fact anticipates it as a facet/means of this very salvation), it seems to me they are incorrectly assuming that learning to live a life that expresses love for God and others is the means by which we attain to some other end, i.e., an extrinsic reward of “salvation” as life in “heaven” with God. Rather, the truth is, it seems to me, that love is its own reward and sin its own punishment. Anyone who doesn’t realize this has likely not thought long and hard enough about the nature of what the love to which the Christian is called truly is. Learning to live a life that expresses love for God and others is itself salvation,, and “heaven” is just this self-same salvation in its consummation and continuation beyond the grave.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Karen, I trust you know that I really don’t think of salvation as a game. It was just an analogy that came to me as I was ruminating on nihilism and hell. But I can’t help but quote St Paul here: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it” (1 Cor 9:24). A race perhaps ain’t a game, but it is a contest with a winner. 😉

      I agree with your thoughts about salvation and extrinsic reward.

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      • Karen says:

        I understand you were using the game analogy to make another point, Father. I was just reflecting on the analogy and I do, of course, recognize the Scriptural metaphors. In fact, when reading your description of the game of Zork, I flashed back to the end of an outdoor endurance college course I took at the beginning of my college career. There was a half marathon we had to complete at the very end of a grueling and life-transforming three weeks of outdoor roughing it. We were all bearing wounds from those three weeks (dirty clothes, scratches, a heightened sense of one’s acute vulnerability to the forces of nature, and sore muscles, if nothing else. One had a stress fracture in her foot. Not a few had multiple blisters from brand new hiking boots bought for the course. Others were malnourished because their group lost food in a canoe flip over. There were even a couple who had gotten sick enough to have to be evacuated before they could complete the course.) The real competition was with oneself, and the real joy of that finish line was not just finishing the race yourself; it was cheering every last member of the group across that finish line as well, from the strongest to the weakest and most broken of the bunch! The win was the finish, but it wasn’t a truly sweet victory until the last beaten-down, broken and blistered racer limped across the finish line, even if they ultimately had to be practically carried the last few miles by fellow racers (and for the girl with the stress fracture in her foot, this was the case). I confess that race is the only picture of the nature of our salvation in Christ I can get excited about.

        I do have to add, though, if you don’t think Settlers of Catan can be as cut-throat competitive as the game of Risk, you haven’t played it with some of the members of my extended family! 😛

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  6. Mike H says:

    Love Settlers of Catan.

    Eurorails and Ticket to Ride, couple of other great games.

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  7. Justin says:

    Fr. Kimel,

    I come to the intersection of apokatastasis and nihilism in a similar way, but from the opposite direction, to Mr. Loup. As simply as I can put it, I came to the realization that, if God was going to punish the unfaithful eternally (however that would look), I was not going to be saved, no matter what I did. It was hopeless for me; I could not meet the standard. If God was “just”, then his justice weighed heavily against me, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus notwithstanding.

    In other words, in the end, it just didn’t matter. God or no, hell or no, Jesus or no, I end up doomed. I gave up. Isn’t that the very definition of nihilism? Long story short, I resolved to love my neighbor, anyway. If it didn’t matter, why not make this short life as pleasant and meaningful, to me and those around me, as possible?

    Apokatastasis, though, flipped that script. If Jesus’ death and resurrection meant anything, it meant everything. A world, and it’s inhabitants, doomed from the start, are now rescued from that certainty. A light switched on, and the darkness lifted. God was good and just to deal with me–and murderers, rapists, thieves, etc.–in a way that is restorative of the lost relationship. The world would be set to right. Pedagogical punishment, while painful, is much easier to “look forward to” than abyss of retributive punishment.

    I hated Risk, as a kid.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, Justin, for your honesty. I wish pastors and preachers could read it—alas, few of them read my blog. Few understand, it seems, the spiritual and theological damage that is done by the preaching of eternal perdition. Ultimately it calls into question the absolute love of God and therefore calls into question the meaning of existence itself.

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    • Mike H says:

      Justin, I’m with you on this. Whatever arguments exist for hell, the idea that existence is meaningless without it doesn’t seem like a good one. I think the exact opposite is true.

      It certainly “raises the stakes”, but the nihilism of eternal torment (or annihilation for that matter) is far worse. There are billions of lives that simply don’t matter (or only matter as objects of wrath). Any love that they’ve given and received doesn’t matter. It seems that the irrevocable loss of a person serves only to either increase the joy of the “blessed”, or the “blessed” will forget that they ever existed. What could be more nihilistic?

      Sticking with a free will theodicy of hell, God’s ultimate defeat is simply staggering. And of course then, the same defeat applies to humans. And the defeat becomes the deepest truth.

      In low theologies, hell is invariably the deepest truth, and the love of God is not so deep as hell. –George MacDonald

      I dread the day when my 2 year old is first presented with the concept of an eternal hell. I fear what it will do to her innocence, her view of the world, and her view of God. That’s a seed that, once planted, grows deep and is difficult (if not impossible) to rip up.

      Maybe we need to “become like little children” with this. A child’s sense of joy, curiosity, exploration, and play doesn’t need the future threat of eternal hell to fend off nihilism and give meaning to their existence. There’s no concept of a “zero sum game” yet. Their concept of justice is naturally restorative – they want to be comforted and to see things set right. Seeing little Billy smacked in the face for stealing sidewalk chalk isn’t going to make them feel better, it’s going to freak them out. A small child who cries out for retributive justice or feel genuinely satisfied at the punishment of another child who stole their toy needs some serious therapy. It’s only later in life that we come to think that retributive justice actually makes anything better.

      Anyone who has experienced any kind of tragic loss – whether the untimely death of a loved one or something else – knows the desire for someone to be punished. For someone to pay, hoping that their pain and loss will cancel out my pain and loss and/or prevent the same thing from happening to someone else. It’s understandable. But it doesn’t right any wrongs and never will. The only true and complete “justice” is restorative.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Mike, you will not be surprised to hear that I am in full agreement with your comment. I appreciate your quotation from MacDonald, which I had forgotten.

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  8. Grant says:

    I don’t understand this need or longing some have to make sure others will be suffering forever (or any length of time really) or the feeling that their own future and life has meaning if someone else is or will suffer for it. It is quite a horrific picture that so many Christians have, and worse, seem ro need to have, that is profoundly disturbing. It is akin to the rational of an abusive parent/spouse or thug whise is only able to gain a sense of worth or importance in hurtung others and feeling piwer over them, or the cutthroat businessman/woman who only feels achievement and joy in the destruction and triumph over rivals and in naking tgemselves feel superior and special, one of the gifted and chosen over the mass of ‘them’. It speaks of the darkest attitudes in us all, and that Christians in such numbers have made it into a virtue, so much so it is known as the ‘traditional’ view, and it is regarded as immoral or dangerous to even think that it might be incorrect is troubling and frankly frightening to consider, and something when you realise was taken as descriptive of total reality makes allot of things through the history of Christian life and action much more understandable how such atrocities could happen, once you have already accepted this as your image of reality the ability and path to make the terrifying rationalea and arguements for such actions that shame the cause of Christ to this day make sense as an extention of the logic already embraced. What you belief reality to actually be effects you actions in life, and hiw society orentates itself, ideas have direct consequences.

    To me, there has been, along with the acceptance of violence as a legitimate action for a Christian, there has been nothing more damaging to Christian life, influence and acticenturieshe centuries. And how do people square this with the Messiah who is the Image of God, who instructed Christians to be like their Father in heaven who sends rain onto the good and bad equally because He loves them, who says we are to always forgive and reconcile with our enemues and love them always, never returning harm for any slight, to turn the other cheek when struck, to give when asked, even by those oppressing us, and that in this way we become like Our Father, this is what Jedus is like. Is this a lie, is God really telling us to be utterly unlike Him, that when it comes down to it He isn’t reafy to forgive and doesn’t love all, enemies even and is instead willing and reafy, and indead will see many uffering eternally and will one way or another (however sone conjecture eternal perdition He is God, total Reality, whatever happens to people final is because of Him and who He really is and is down to Him). Then isn’t anything like the Lord revealled Him to be, or how Jesus is, nor is the judgment of God that was pointed to by St Paul the Cross and the Ressurection reconciling all things to God a true picture of justice. Only violent, vindictive voilence that wae already happily embraced is true.

    In the end how God views others, the guy you don’t like at work, the apparently horrible or obnoxious woman down the road, the saints if great and holy piety, or tge people seen to exemplify evul, Hitler, Stalin, the people of struck the twin towers, Jack the Ripper, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the peodophile etc (I’m sure everyone can continue and fill the pet ‘most evil person ever here’) or how He is at work to restore their humanity and bring about the healing and reconciliation of being and relationships to destroy the effects and warping of death in them isn’t your business, how He works to bring new life and repentance that leads to true justice and healing for all isn’t your business, your only business is to love and learn to love others and thereby love God and participate more in the Life of God, and pethaps to be aware that your own salvation and humanity depend on the downtrodden and on those you regard as enemies and wicked, that your salvation and personhoid is connected to theirs, that no person is saved alone. In truth you don’t know the compkex and connected interacting variables that kead to how each of us find ourselves, genetic inheritance, family, environmental dynamics, physical effects, poverty, cultures they are linked to, and si many other things that for the context and trajectory in which people grow, a most small kindness of someone in a dark pkace that has lead to a lufetime of seeing the achievement of their humanity un cruelty and impossing power over others, in hating over love, that action or move of love however small may just mean far more and is a far greater participation in the love and Life of God in Christ than the most holy and sacrifical action of the greatest of saints, and in the great release and revealing of the Ressurection when it is completed when death is destroyed we and they will see and understand perhaps just how much.

    In the end the answer the father of the prodigal son to the elder brother is telling, peading with him for his anger and his outrage at his brother’s return and restoration, the father reminds him that all he has has always had his father and all the father has is his, but remains him his brother who was dead and under death is alive again, is found again, and pleafs with him to join in the very feast that he claims he never had (but as all was his and he had thebfather was always open to him) revealling in the end ofvthe two the elder brother is further away for the father than the younger brother was, and had not yet responded to the love of his father and all he has from him, and holds himself still away from the feast and salvation that awaits him, because he has to maintain his sense of superiority over his brother and needs hum to suffer, rather than rejoicing in his return to lufe again, and enjoy the feast that is for both of them, that his happiness and salvation is tied to his brother, that the feast he hoped for is awaiting him if only he could see it and recieve the love waiting for him.

    Rather than needing murderers, rapists (as if that is all they are) to be punished or insisting that ypur salvation has no meaning, I suggest listening instead to the pleading of the father and rejoice in knowing that your brothers and sisters will be alive again and whole and back, and don’t let the need for revenge twist your heart and outlook, and commit to the path of love.

    And if you need hell, just ooen your eyes, it is all around you, not just in the tertible situations in the news but down the street, in your neighbour, family, workmate, steangwr in the street, the homeless, depressed, mentally ill and suffering, and yes, in those trapped in hatred and destruction and your enemies. You don’t have to wait, Gehenna is around you, reach out and begin to learn to love and see the Kingdom of God come in and conquer the realm of death anticipating what is to come.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, Grant, for your comment. In response, I need to say that the thoughtful defenders of eternal perdition do not defend it because of a “need or longing some have to make sure others will be suffering forever (or any length of time really) or the feeling that their own future and life has meaning if someone else is or will suffer for it.” Rather, they maintain that human freedom necessarily implies, as Karl Rahner might put it, the ability to determine oneself irrevocably in relationship to one’s Creator. Personhood is only finally achieved by this irrevocable and irreversible decision.

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      • Grant says:

        Thank you Father,

        While I understand that some do think along these lines, I don’t think the resultant image on f reality is any better. Besides my problem with freedom constructed as it often is in this form of thought, nor that people are or ever have been like the autonomous beings unconnected and influenced by the world, society, culture, worldview, family, physical effects, environmental effects, genetic and other physiological and mental effects, of different personalities and intelligences, wh can analysis choices and decisions equally with Vulcan like logic. Life and people just aren’t like that, two people looking at the same issues come to very different and very committed views and convictions. The truth is we are influenced by a whole host of different interacting factors and phenomenon that the myth of the impartial observer and decision making is just that, a myth. So much of what we are and do is influenced and directed by these diverse factors, such freedom is impossible to achieve in reality, and to have such consequences in light of it should be profoundly troubling and certainty has no justice I can see, just the fairness of chance and chaos.

        The bigger problem is that the image given is one similar to many the deplorable horror films of recent years (particular often found in the so-called ‘torture-porn’ genre, whose popularly I find a little depressing) where the sadistic villain sets up a maze of situation were the victim is given a choice to get out, one they might get to live, the other they die horribly.

        And this idea suggests this is reality, that this what God is like, He creates and is that which sustains this context and the situation is how it is from Him, and is part of what true reality is. And that is frankly terrifying.

        And freedom and personhood gained from such a terrible and blind gamble with such horrific system running the show is really not worth it, and indeed if winning means becoming more like God as seen in this scheme doesn’t seem worth becoming, but itself seems to become something inhumane

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  9. Karen says:

    I totally agree with you, Grant, that hell is all around us even in the suffering of this life.

    Regarding your earlier paragraphs, though, to be fair I believe many so-called “Infernalists” struggle inwardly with traditional hell as much as the most ardently hopeful Trinitarian universalist. It’s just their commitment to being faithful to what they understand to be the received Tradition of the Church makes them fearful of articulating the fullness of their heart in that area, lest they lead another astray into a false hope. The true “SadoCalvinist” (as another commenter dubbed the mentality you describe in your first paragraph) is, I trust, more the exception than the rule at least among more thoughtful and mature believers regardless of the Christian tradition in which they find themselves. Ultimately, though, because Justin’s experience is mine as well (and I don’t believe we are exceptions to the general rule), I believe the the Infernalist’s fear of leading others astray by placing any kind of emphasis on the (fully realizable through the grace of God) desire, hope and prayer of Christ and the Church that all be saved is misplaced.

    As others have said here and elsewhere in the blogosphere in posts and comments covering this topic, the real underlying issue driving this discussion is theodicy–it is how to understand the reality of suffering and evil, given the will and nature of God as truly good (in an unequivocal and meaningful sense). The hopeful Trinitarian universalist also has a fear (validated by his or her own experience and the testimony of many others) that the typical modern presentation of the traditional nature of hell distorts and misrepresents the nature and motivation of God in our salvation and has driven as many to despair of the goodness of God and of salvation altogether as it may have encouraged spiritual sobriety in others. As the Fathers have rightly pointed out, there is always the possibility of two equally dangerous and destructive mindsets in response to the teachings of the Church and the ascetic nature of the Christian life: one is to “succeed” in externals of ascetical discipline and become deluded one has thereby attained to spiritual achievements one has, in fact, not and to become callously complacent in prideful spiritual delusion (like the Pharisee), and the other is to be so overwhelmed by one’s obvious failures in the struggle to live up to the purity of life to which one has been called in the Church that one despairs altogether of the grace of God.

    The problem in the present age (and perhaps also in many ages past) is an undo emphasis (at least in the more public expressions and emphases of what is deemed “traditional” Christian teaching) on avoiding the first danger coupled with a woefully inadequate appreciation for the destructiveness of the second danger. Certainly, especially in the austerity and pessimism of Reformed Protestant anthropology and its expression in popular teaching, this tendency to recognize the first danger and not the other seems to me to be markedly heightened.

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    • Grant says:

      Hi Karen,

      While I agree with pretty much all you are saying, the people who advocate the traditionalist/infernalist view and feel that any suggestion it might not the case leads people astray seem to be using the kind of logic seen with abusive parents, guardians and spouses, not please note they might themselves do this in any other area of life, but essentially it boils down to the same logic where the abusive parent thinks they must use beating and terror to beat the evil out of them or keep them from it and on the straight and narrow.

      It’s the logic and attitude of fear and control, creating an atmosphere of terror and uncertainty for centuries and affecting people’s actual lives, relationships and actions and whole worldview beyond the attitude to hell itself. It is one of fear of others, of what they might be given freedom, and is not love, perfect lobe casts out fear and has no place for it, the gospel itself should have no place for fear.

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      • 407kwac says:

        I agree, Grant, that the logic of the love and freedom to which we are called in Christ is antithetical to that of the kind of fear and need for control often exhibited by those dominated by concerns resulting from what is deemed to be the traditional Christian teaching about the nature of hell.

        Karen

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  10. tgbelt says:

    Fr Aidan: If I am reading [Loup] rightly, it appears to me that [his] critical question is: Doesn’t apokatastasis necessarily lead to nihilism? If child molesters, rapists, thieves, and murderers are saved right along with the devout and righteous, then nothing we do ultimately matters.

    Tom: I wish Loup would chime in, because his conclusion is dangerously off. But it’s easily fixed. I agree that your italicized question is Loup’s concern. And I think you correctly restate it immediately afterwards: If sinners are saved right along with the righteous, then nothing we do matters.

    If by “saved” Loup means salvation is to be the end of both sin and faith in the same way (namely, irrespective of the sin and faith in question) then I don’t think there’s any arguing against Loup. The only way I see to avoid his conclusion is to expose his premise as mistaken, because there’s no way of digging out of the hole that accepting his premise puts us in.

    But nobody really accepts his premise. That is, it is not the case that rapists and murderers are saved “along with” the righteous if “along with” means both sinners and saints inherit eternal life irrespective of their sin and saintliness (which is how both sinners and saints inherit the atheist’s ‘final’ end). Loup’s problem is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what the universalist is saying when she says all are finally saved. The finality to which atheism submits all things is nothing like the finality that a Christian universalist submits us to because child molesters, murders, and rapists shall not inherit the Kingdom of God. Loup sees both atheism and universalism as nihilistic because both posit an all-inclusive ‘finality’ to things. But the similarity between atheism and universalism ends with the coincidental use of a similar word (“final”). Loup just stops there when he should inquire more after what really each is saying.

    Tom

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  11. Loup says:

    I would like to thank you very much, father. Your response means a lot to me. I really enjoyed the analogies and I learned more about the universalist hope.
    I would also like to thank the other readers who took the time and responded, but sadly I must admit that the theological debates held in the comment section pass my capacity.
    Ultimately my position on the matter would be best described by a quote that you gave from fr. Dumitru Stăniloae :“[The human person] is truly free only if he knows that he can
    eternally oppose God” (VI:49)
    I enjoy reading your blog. Greetings from Romania!

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hello, again, Loup. I wondered whether Staniloae had influenced your thinking here. I just went took a look at my copy of volume 6 and saw that I had underlined the passage to which you refer.

      The critical question is, is Fr Dumitru right? Is my dignity and freedom compromised by my hope in the final victory of Christ? Is it enhanced by the God-given possibility of eternal perdition? I do not see why this should be so. It seems more likely that Staniloae has taken eternal damnation as a dogmatic given and is offering a speculative explanation as philosophical justification of the dogmatic given. But what if eternal damnation is not a dogmatic given. What if, as Bulgakov believed, the question is still open to theological investigation? If this might be the case, then Staniloae’s (very philosophical) argument loses its existential force–at least so it seems to me.

      Instead of asserting that human freedom requires the necessity of irrevocable self-damnation, is it not more reasonable to ask whether an infinitely loving God would impose such a burden on a finite creature born into a fallen, broken, corrupt, death-ridden world? If your child was threatening to jump off a cliff, would you stand by and allow this to happen out of respect for your child’s freedom? Is your child’s freedom and personal integrity enhanced by his freedom to condemn himself to eternal, unremitting suffering? Does this freedom outweigh all other considerations?

      These are the kinds of questions that Staniloae does not address in his dogmatics. I commend to you the third volume of Bulgakov’s dogmatics for a different Orthodox view.

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      • Jonathan says:

        Father, which publications in English do you (or would anyone) mean by Bulgakov’s “dogmatics”? Would that be the the so-called major trilogy?

        This is a totally straight question, by the way. I am hoping, this winter, to finally do justice (within my very limited ability) to Bulgakov. My own interpretation of the term “dogmatics,” in case it matters, is fairly minimal, although binding as far as it goes.

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    • Mike H says:

      Loup,

      From that foundation, would you say it naturally follows that the same “freedom” is given to children who die in infancy? Or do you see a different set of “rules” at work?

      Not intended to be a trick question, I just find that the answer(s) can be revealing. It creates a moral and theological dilemma that I couldn’t ignore, and often makes “freedom” seem more like a curse (it can damn us but can never save us) than a blessing.

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