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.