Permit Me to Hope

by Sinner Irenaeus (Brad Jersak, Ph.D.)

“That is all I ask of Orthodoxy—to permit me to hope.” — Fr. Aiden Kimel

After a decade of catechesis and struggle under the guidance of my spiritual father, Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, and godfather, David Goa, I was chrismated into the Orthodox Church in 2013. To some, the tutelage of these sages already disqualifies me, the rhetoric of unity of the Church notwithstanding. But I knew this. I proceeded with eyes wide open into the Orthodox Church despite her conflicts and dysfunctions. I proceeded because I felt drawn from my Evangelical foxhole into the harbor of Christian Orthodoxy, where I was exposed to a more Christlike God.

A key factor in the move was the assurance of some key Scriptures, catechisms and liturgies, along with a number of significant Orthodox saints, hierarchs and theologians, that Orthodoxy permits me to hope—that I could believe and teach my basic conviction (published in Her Gates Will Never Be Shut) of a humble eschatological hope, the possibility in principle of universal salvation—without being branded a heretic.

Not that I make the bold claims of St Gregory of Nyssa or St Isaac of Syria (their revised apokatastasis have never been anathematized). Nor do I insist on teaching the daring universalism of Fr. Sergius Bulgakov or David Bentley Hart as doctrine (although their arguments seem airtight).

My own project is far more modest. I ask and now assert that Christian Orthodoxy permits me to hopepermits a position elsewhere called “hopeful inclusivism.” Hopeful inclusivism says that we cannot presume that all will be saved or that even one will be damned. Rather, we put our hope in the final victory and verdict of Jesus Christ, whose mercy endures forever and whose lovingkindness is everlasting.

An incontrovertible fact of our tradition is that Orthodoxy at least permits (and may even require) us to hope, pray, preach and work for the salvation of all. Some Orthodox (usually convert priests) insist, like the shrinking majority of my Evangelical brethren, on the necessary and inevitable eternal damnation of the greater part of humanity. That position is permitted. It is easy enough to find the threat of eternal conscious torment within some of the Fathers, synods and traditions—even some Scriptures. But the infernalists cannot rightly deny the stubborn fact that Orthodoxy has and does also provide a harbor for those who ask only, “Permit me to hope.”

Those who embrace hope for a universal redemption should not be charged with heresy or a failure of Orthodoxy, given the irrepressible stream within the Tradition that runs through ancients such as Clement of Alexandria, St Macrina, St Gregory Nyssen, St Isaac of Nineveh (and other Fathers), and among moderns including Fr. Sergei Bulgakov, St Silouan the Athonite, Fr. Alexandre Turincev, Metropolitans Kallistos Ware and Hilarion Alfeyev, et al.

If Kallistos Ware, for example, is truly Orthodox, then I must be permitted the same hope he articulates in his essay, “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?” If I can be shown to disagree with his eminence on a single point of eschatology, I will gladly and swiftly repent (although he confirmed my understanding of his hope in person). Those who deny the orthodoxy of Ware’s hope are free to do so, but I will happily hide in the theological folds of his cassock. To repudiate anyone’s Orthodoxy on the basis that they hope that Christ will in fact be the Savior of all is simply not very Orthodox.

Now some of my universalist friends will say, “Yes, but ours is more than hope … we know by faith that this salvation will ultimately redeem all of God’s creatures.” I honor that conviction. I find it compelling and could even privately hold it. I’m personally just not able or allowed to teach it as doctrine. Hence my retreat to the language of hope, where I think we can make a strong case against all challenges to its Orthodoxy. My burden of proof is not that universal salvation should be doctrine (I leave that to others), or to refute strands of Orthodoxy that resist it. I need only maintain and demonstrate that hope for ultimate redemption is actually permitted.

With that long, rather defensive preface out of the way, I am prepared to give an answer to those who have asked me to give the reason for the hope that I have. Please forgive me where I fail to do so with sufficient gentleness and respect.

The Scriptures Permit Me to Hope

First, the Scriptures (still central to the Orthodox tradition) permit me to hope. It is possible that when the Bible refers to Christ as Savior of all, they may actually mean he is Savior of all. I understand that theologians and commentators of Augustinian/Calvinist descent regard all in the limited sense of all of the elect. And some Scriptures do imply that all refers only to all who believe. But some texts say clearly, without caveat, that the all-embracing redemptive love of Christ includes all humanity, the entire world (cosmos) and the whole of creation.

What follows is a catena of biblical texts that together describe the scope of God’s salvation. This is not merely an exercise in proof-texting or “text-mining,” as some like to call it. A catena, in this case, is a chain of Scriptures strung together as commentary on the theme of God’s saving work for all—the grand arc of God’s drama of redemption. When read aloud with a touch of gravitas, rather than skimmed, mentally footnoting refutations, the momentum is impressive:

And then all flesh shall see the salvation of God (Lk 3:6).

This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that through him all might believe (Jn 1:7).

Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29).

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved (Jn 3:16-17).

The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand (Jn 3:35).

We no longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this really is the Savior of the world (Jn 4:42).

For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world (Jn 6:33).

I am the light of the world (Jn 8:12).

And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself (Jn 12:32).

Jesus knew that the Father had given all things into His hands (Jn 13:3).

All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out. This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day (Jn 6:37, 39).

For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him (Jn 17:2).

Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore all things (Acts 3:21).

He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him (Eph. 1:9-10).

And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all. (Eph. 1:22-23)

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For everything was created by Him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and by Him all things hold together … and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself by making peace through the blood of His cross—things on earth or things in heaven (Col. 1:15-17, 20).

As through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life (Rom. 5:18).

For from him and to him are all things (Rom. 11:26).

He has shut up all to unbelief so that he might have mercy on all (Rom. 11:32).

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive (1 Cor. 15:22).

Then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when He abolishes all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He puts all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy to be abolished is death. For God has put everything under His feet. But when it says “everything” is put under Him, it is obvious that He who puts everything under Him is the exception. And when everything is subject to Christ, then the Son Himself will also be subject to the One who subjected everything to Him, so that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:24-28).

At the name of Jesus every knee will bow—of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth—and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:10).

He will transform the body of our humble condition into the likeness of His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subject all things to Himself (Phil. 3:21).

He desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4).

We labor and strive for this, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of everyone, especially of those who believe (1 Tim. 4:10).

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men (Tit. 2:11).

He appointed the Son heir of all things, and through whom also he made the these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things (Heb. 1:2).

He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9-10).

He Himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world (1 John 2:2).

I heard every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth, on the sea, and everything in them say: Blessing and honor and glory and dominion to the One seated on the throne and to the Lamb, forever and ever! (Rev. 5:13).

Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

Again, these passages are not random beads gathered into one convenient lump. They represent the Christotelic purposes of God from Alpha to Omega. Many of them speak of a salvation given, not merely offered, to all, not merely the elect. They are the promise of the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to seek and to save the lost sheep until he finds it (not just until the die).

In Revelation 1, we find the risen Christ, victorious over death, holding the keys of death and hades. It begs the question: if Christ holds the keys to death and hades, what do we believe he shall do with them?

The Scriptures allow me to hope that in the height, width, depth and length of God’s love for us—a love only grasped through the empowering illumination of the Holy Spirit—something more magnificent than I could either ask or imagine awaits us all (Eph. 3:14-21).

Competing interpretations and counter-texts do abound. But they do not negate the hope Scripture permits me.

The Fathers Permit Me to Hope

When referring to “the Fathers,” we cannot pretend they were of one mind on any given topic, least of all eschatology. I am sure that for every citation I offer from the Fathers for hopeful inclusivism, others can counter with a goodly list of their own, more infernalist references. My citations disprove nothing; nor do theirs. But what we can demonstrate that some of the great Fathers and Mothers either hinted at or taught publically their hope (and in some cases, their firm conviction) that all might or would be saved at the last.

I will dispense quickly with the controversies surrounding Origen, his particular account of apokatastasis and the controversies surrounding the anathemas directed as later Origenism. Suffice it to say that I have not seen a remotely convincing refutation of David Bentley Hart on the topic.[1] In fact, he seems to echo the growing consensus. Nevertheless, I will completely concede that point and proceed only with those recognized officially as Fathers or Mothers and saints of the Church.

For brevity sake, I won’t even summarize the work of others who have gathered citations from a good number of the Fathers.[2] To my mind, some are a stretch, but I would mention just a few who have impacted me.

  1. Clement of Alexandria

Clement (150-c.215) was head of the catechetical school in Alexandria. His Stromata take us to his central beliefs. He offered to initiate the educated into “complete knowledge.” The following passage is typical of his redemptive hope:

The Saviour also exerts His might because it is His work to save; which accordingly He also did by drawing to salvation those who became willing, by the preaching [of the gospel], to believe on Him, wherever they were. If, then, the Lord descended to Hades for no other end but to preach the Gospel, as He did descend; it was either to preach the Gospel to all or to the Hebrews only. If, accordingly, to all, then all who believe shall be saved, although they may be of the Gentiles, on making their profession there; since God’s punishments are saving and disciplinary, leading to conversion, and choosing rather the repentance them the death of a sinner; and especially since souls, although darkened by passions, when released from their bodies, are able to perceive more clearly, because of their being no longer obstructed by the paltry flesh.[3]

Notice the main features above: (i) the Saviour is mighty to save; (ii) through preaching the gospel; (iii) even posthumously in hades; (iv) where the ‘punishments’ are saving and disciplinary; (v) leading to repentance and conversion; (vi) because death has freed them to perceive. Clement hopes that all will respond and he permits me to hope.

  1. St Gregory of Nyssa

Even after the sixth century condemnation of Origenism, commonly attributed to the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553), the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787) referred to St Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-c.395) as “father of the fathers” and “divine luminary of Nyssa.”  Notably, no council ever condemned Gregory or his revised apokatastasis. In On the Soul and the Resurrection he taught ultimate redemption more boldly than Origen. And far from being a minor blemish on the fringe of his theology, Gregory’s universalist theosis permeates the whole and is central to it. For those who care to hear his blessed hope, this sample from his treatise on 1 Cor. 15:28 is typical:

What therefore does Paul teach us? It consists in saying that evil will come to nought and will be completely destroyed. The divine, pure goodness will contain in itself every nature endowed with reason; nothing made by God is excluded from his kingdom once everything mixed with some elements of base material has been consumed by refinement in fire. Such things had their origin in God; what was made in the beginning did not receive evil. Paul says this is so. He said that the pure and undefiled divinity of the Only-Begotten [Son] assumed man’s mortal and perishable nature. However, from the entirety of human nature to which the divinity is mixed, the man constituted according to Christ is a kind of first fruits of the common dough. It is through this [divinized] man that all mankind is joined to the divinity.[4]

Those who think to deny the Orthodoxy of the final editor of the Nicene Creed ought not tread where the 5th council dared not. As for me, at the least, St Gregory of Nyssa permits me to hope.

  1. St Isaac of Nineveh

St Isaac (c.613-c.700) represents a Syrian monasticism filled with love, derived from the monk’s own mystical encounters with God. When Kallistos Ware dips most deeply into the well of hope, he draws from the words of St Isaac (citing Isaac from Ware’s “Dare We Hope?”):

It is wrong to imagine that the sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God … [But] the power of love works in two ways: it torments those who have sinned, just as happens among friends here on earth; but to those who have observed its duties, love gives delight. So it is in hell: the contrition that comes from love is the harsh torment.[5]

Isaac believes the scourgings of love will come to a good end and “wonderful outcome”—for two reasons. First, because retribution is foreign to God’s nature. “Far be it, that vengeance could ever be found in that that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness!”[6] And second, God’s love is unquenchable and all-powerful, so it is able to overcome evil and extend to all creation and through all eternity to everyone: “No part belonging to any single one of [all] rational beings will be lost.”[7]

Strong words. Bold convictions. And while we might stop short of Isaac’s confidence, he certainly encourages us to hope.

  1. St Maximus the Confessor

We complete our quartet of sample Fathers with the beloved and courageous St Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662). Aside from my love for Maximus, I chose to include him precisely because he should not be cited as a universalist with certitude.[8] Maximus foresees how Christ will, at the end, restore humanity’s natural will and our capacity to desire only the good. Even so, he makes space for the necessity the humanity must, on its part, willingly engage that capacity. Thus, Maximus represents well the distinction between automatic universalism and the possibility that all will respond in the end. But listen to how confident he is of said possibility!

God will truly come to be “all in all,” embracing all and giving substance to all in himself, in that no being will have any more a movement independent of God, and no being will be deprived of God’s presence. Thanks to this presence, we shall be, and shall be called, gods and children, body and limbs, because we shall be restored to the perfection of God’s project.[9]

If Maximus was not a universalist, then he is a perfect example of the hopeful inclusivism to which I subscribe, and he definitely permits me to hope.

In fact, to those who would want Orthodox theologians to refrain from teaching hope or even to refrain from teaching precisely what these Fathers taught, as they taught it—I am pleased to simply teach that they taught it and that they permit me to hope.

The Ancient Liturgies Permit Me to Hope

While the theology of individual Fathers is their own, the liturgy of the Church is ours collectively and stands for something enduring (or why bother with it). It functions not only to give us words of worship, but also theological instruction.

Within the liturgy, we have a great many verses about Christ’s victory over death and hades, especially those referring to the rescue of those in the depths of the afterlife netherworld. Those who want to be precise like to distinguish hades from hell (gehenna), reserving the former for the place of the dead prior to Easter and the latter for the state of those in eternal torment after the Final Judgment. In the interim, between Holy Saturday and the Day of the Lord, the two words tend to get conflated. And that conflation has typically broadened to a general identification such that hades and hell are used almost synonymously.

We cannot entirely dismiss this conflation as sloppy semantics by English translators. In fact, hades and gehenna at times seem virtually interchangeable in Second Temple Judaism, into the first century and perhaps the New Testament.[10] I am beginning to see the wisdom of that move when it comes to the all-encompassing victory of Christ. The only function of a sharp distinction is to limit Jesus Christ’s saving power to the narrower era and smaller cosmology of hades, while the conflation makes Christ the Conqueror of every terrace and crevice of hell!

With that preface, rejoice with this reader in the first of two of my favorite liturgical passages:

  1. From the Oktiochos/Tone 2[11]

The Great Doxology and after it the Resurrection Troparion

Having risen from the tomb, and having burst the bonds of hades, * Thou hast destroyed the sentence of death, O Lord, * delivering all from the snares of the enemy. * Manifesting Thyself to Thine apostles, Thou didst send them forth to preach; * and through them hast granted Thy peace to the world, * O Thou Who alone art plenteous in mercy.

Typika and Beatitudes

We bring unto Thee the prayer of the Thief, and we cry: Remember us, O Saviour, in Thy Kingdom.

We bring unto Thee, for the pardon of our offences, the Cross, which Thou didst accept for our sake, O lover of mankind.

We worship Thy burial and Thy Rising, O Master, through which Thou didst redeem the world from corruption, O Lover of mankind.

By Thy death, O Lord, death hath been swallowed up, and by Thy Resurrection, O Saviour, Thou hast saved the world.

Those who slept in darkness, O Christ, seeing Thee the Light in the lowest depths of Hades, did arise.

On rising from the grave Thou didst meet the Myrrh-bearers and ordered them to tell Thy Disciples of Thine Arising.

Let us all now glorify the Father, worship the Son and praise with faith the Holy Spirit.

Rejoice throne formed of fire; Rejoice Thou Bride without bridegroom; Rejoice O Virgin who hath born God for mankind!

Resurrection Troparion Tone 2:

When Thou didst descend unto death, O Life Immortal, * then didst Thou slay Hades with the lightning of Thy Godhead. * And when Thou didst also raise the dead out of the nethermost depths, * all the Hosts of the heavens cried out: * O Life-giver, Christ our God, glory be to Thee.

 Resurrection Kontakion Tone 2:

Thou didst arise from the tomb, * O all-powerful Saviour, * and seeing the marvel Hades was struck with fear, * the dead arose, and creation with Adam seeing this rejoiceth with Thee, * therefore the world doth glorify Thee, my Saviour.

  1. Paschal Homily

No discussion on eschatological hope in the liturgy can skip St. Chrysostom’s (347-407) Paschal homily. So anointed was this sermon that the Church has chosen to preach it every single Pascha from the time it was composed in the late 300’s until the Lord comes again with glory to judge the living and the dead. It is significant that the harrowing of hades is translated into the English and published on the O.C.A. website (for example) to say that Christ emptied hell. If the distinction between hades and hell were more important theologically than the proclamation of Christ’s total victory, then they should correct the translation. Why don’t they? I suspect that they have retained the language of hell because it best represents Chrysostom’s intent: total victory by the Risen King. Here are the relevant paragraphs that we do preach as doctrine in all Eastern Orthodox Churches around the whole world on the most important feast day of the year:

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.[12]

If hell is overthrown and “not one dead” remains in the grave—if Christ is the firstfruits of the resurrection of all who have fallen asleep, then the Paschal homily of St John Silver-tongue permits me to hope and to preach that hope. If I were restricted to preaching the hope described above, I would do so with very great joy.

The Modern Catechisms Permit Me to Hope

But perhaps my interpretation of Scripture, the Fathers and the liturgies is immature and unwarranted. I doubt it; I’ve avoided interpretations in favor of letting them speak for themselves. But when in doubt, no problem. This is why we have the authorized interpretations of formal catechisms. Catechisms, as I understand them, are teaching tools formally approved as Orthodox for use in preparing catechists for baptism.

That said, not all catechisms speak in unison. They reflect their authors, regions and eras like all the other Orthodox sources. Still, when one finds a catechism that resonates, would it be fair to say the catechist can teach what it says? I will mention and quote just two.

  1. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev’s The Mystery of Faith[13]

Metropolitan Hilarion’s catechism, The Mystery of Faith (published by St. Vladimir Seminary Press), concludes with these powerful thoughts on judgment, hell and the end:

What is hell? Why Hell? many people ask. Why does God condemn people to eternal damnation? How can the image of God the Judge be reconciled with the New Testament message of God as love? St Isaac the Syrian answers these questions in the following way: there is no person who would be deprived of God’s love, and there is no place which would be devoid of it; everyone who deliberately chooses evil instead of good deprives himself of God’s mercy. The very same Divine love which is a source of bliss and consolation for the righteous in Paradise becomes a source of torment for sinners, as they cannot participate in it and they are outside of it.

… If God is love, He must be full of love even at the moment of the Last Judgment, even when He pronounces His sentence and condemns one to death.

For an Orthodox Christian, notions of Hell and eternal torments are inseparably linked with the mystery that is disclosed in the liturgical services of Holy Week and Easter, the mystery of Christ’s descent into Hell and His liberation of those who were held there under the tyranny of evil and death. The Church teaches that, after His death on the Cross, Christ descended into the abyss in order to annihilate Hell and death, and destroy the horrendous kingdom of the Devil. Just as Christ had sanctified the Jordan, which was filled with human sin, by descending into its waters, by descending into Hell He illumined it entirely with the light of His presence. … This does not mean that in the wake of Christ’s descent into it, Hell no longer exists. It does exist but is already sentenced to death.

And then, under the heading “… A New Heaven and a New Earth,” the catechism comes to its climax with this final paragraph:

Thus, according to St Gregory and to certain other Fathers of the Church, the final outcome of our history is going to be glorious and magnificent. After the resurrection of all and the Last Judgment, everything will be centered around God, and nothing will remain outside Him. The whole cosmos will be changed and transformed, transfigured and illumined. God will be ‘all in all’, and Christ will reign in the souls of the people whom He has redeemed. This is the final victory of good over evil, Christ over Antichrist, light over darkness, Paradise over Hell. This is the final annihilation of death. ‘Then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’. ‘O death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory?… But thanks be to God, Who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor.15:54-57).

Is Metropolitan Hilarion a universalist? In Christ the Conqueror of Hell, he quotes the Great Saturday Matins Canon:

Hell reigns, but not forever, over the race of mortals; for you, O Mighty One, when placed in a tomb, shattered with your Life-giving hand the bars of death, and proclaimed to these who slept there from every age no false redemption, O Saviour, who have become the first-born of the dead. [14]

But he immediately resists easy answers and insists that “the services of Great Saturday raise the curtain of mystery … revealed only in the kingdom to come, in which we will see God as he is and in which God will be ‘all in all.’”[15] Honoring free will, he acknowledges that hell reigns for as long as even one of us respond, “No,” to God … but, the liturgy says, “Not forever.”

Yes, behind Metropolitan Hilarion’s catechism stands vision informed by the liturgy that permits me to hope.

  1. Alexandre Turincev, “An Orthodox Eschatology,”[16] in Dieu est Vivant[17]

Another catechism that permits hope is the original French version of The Living God. Prior to its translation into English, the French catechism included an article by Fr. Alexandre Turincev, originally written in the 1960’s. His hope is much more fervent than we’ve encountered heretofore. Reflecting on the Paschal homily,

… how must we consider these wildly categorical affirmations of St. John Chrysostom concerning the chaining, humiliation and death of hell – its annihilation? Let us state frankly – the idea of eternal hell and eternal suffering for some and eternal bliss (indifferent to suffering) for others, can no longer remain in the living and renewed Christian conscience as it was formerly presented in our catechisms and our official theology courses. This archaic conception which claims to be based on the Gospel texts, understands them in a literal, coarse and material sense, without penetrating the hidden spiritual meaning of the images and symbols. This conception is increasingly showing itself to be an intolerable violation of Christian conscience, thought and faith. We cannot accept that the sacrifice of Golgotha has revealed itself to be powerless to redeem the world and conquer hell. Otherwise we should say: creation is a failure, and Redemption is also a failure. It is high time for all Christians to witness in common and reveal their mystical experience – intimate in this area – as well as their spiritual expectations, and perhaps also their revolt and horror before materialistic, anthropomorphic representations of hell and the Last Judgment, and of the heavenly Jerusalem. It is high time to be done with all these monstrosities – doctrinal or not – often blasphemous, from ages past, which make of our God of Love that which He is not: an ‘external’ God, who is merely an “allegory of earthly kings and nothing else.” The pedagogy of intimidation and terror is no longer effective. On the contrary, it blocks entry into the Church to many who are seeking a God of Love “who loves mankind” (the “Philanthropos” of the Orthodox liturgy).[18]

Here, Turincev not only permits me to hope, but virtually demands it (and that, many decades ago) … in a published catechism (“doctrinal or not”), no less. Lest we rush ahead, I am inclined to follow a caution—nay, a stern warning—from St Silouan the Athonite that Fr. Turincev felt compelled to embed in his paper. Is there a possibility that some should find themselves “outside” at the last? A holy monk of Mount Athos[19], a staretz who was almost our contemporary, wrote the following, addressed to every Christian: “If the Lord saved you along with the entire multitude of your brethren, and one of the enemies of Christ and the Church remained in the outer darkness, would you not, along with all the others, set yourself to imploring the Lord to save this one unrepentant brother? If you would not beseech Him day and night, then your heart is of iron—but there is no need for iron in paradise.”[20]

Yes, perhaps there are those who should yet fear exclusion from paradise. Not the pagan, the murderer or adulterer, for we find their hearts softening to the woos of the Bridegroom. But the one who perchance ought to fear is that soul who knows they are ‘in’ and someone else is ‘out,’ and insists on dogmatizing their own privileged dualism.

Far better the humility of hope for all that imagines no one in hell but oneself, yet despairs not.

The Symbol of Faith Permits Me to Hope

Finally, a word about the Creed. Does the creed permit me to hope?

Our central dogma and theological lens is the final form of the Niceo-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381. It boils down that eschatology which Orthodox Christians must confess and restricts the eschatology which may be imposed. In other words, rather than seeing the eschatology of the Creed as constrictive, we ought to regard it as an essential formulation minimizing dogmatism, preserving mystery and protecting freedom of belief.

The Creed limits what we can teach as eschatological dogma to four points:

      • He shall come again in glory,
      • To judge the living and the dead,
      • We look forward to the resurrection,
      • And the life of the age to come.

Does the Symbol of Faith permit me to hope?

Yes, in that the coming Judge is the Lord Jesus Christ, the merciful and man-befriending God who loves mankind.

Yes, in that we all face the one Judge, whose judgments are merciful, whose purpose is restoration and whose character is self-giving, radically forgiving love.

Yes, in that everyone shall be raised, every eye shall see him and every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

And yes, in that we look forward to the life of the age to come.

The life of the age to come. There is no dogma about the death of the age to come, the hell of the age to come, or the unending torment of the age to come. Even if there is an eternal hell where the damn are condemned to burn forever and ever, its existence is not acknowledged by the Creed or the Council that composed it as dogma. I do not believe for a moment that this is an accidental omission or oversight for the purpose of brevity. No, this is the strategic hand of Gregory of Nyssa (and probably Gregory the Theologian), wisely protecting in perpetuity the theological freedom of those who would hope as they did.

Yes, the Creed permits me to hope. And to the degree that the Church remains Orthodox—honors the Scriptures, the Fathers, the liturgies and the catechisms—it will always at least permit me to hope as well.


And yet, Andrew Klager reminds me,

… this permission to hope doesn’t and shouldn’t come from other Orthodox Christians anyway; although these discussions and the fine distinctions, nuances, and subtleties in them are important—clumsily putting words to what’s ineffable (and in the future, i.e., that which hasn’t even happened yet)—the permission to hope ultimately comes from partaking of the same divinity that conquered death and emptied hell.

Indeed, from where does the hope itself come? Permission or not,

My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ the Solid Rock I’m found;
All other ground is sinking sand,
​ALL other ground is sinking sand.​

If biblical hope, as one commenter claims, is ‘sure confidence,’ then that blessed Hope is not built from below on human foundations or institutions, not even Scripture or the Church, but was and is given by grace from above, through Love Incarnate, and by the transfiguration of those hearts that behold the Lord whose love is wider, deeper, higher than we could ever ask or imagine.

Glory to God, those who through the mercies of theosis have beheld that vision of Hope cannot un-behold it. ​



[1] David Bentley Hart, “Saint Origen,” First Things (Oct. 2015).

[2] For example, Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena (Brill, 2013); Thomas Allin, Christ Triumphant (Wipf & Stock, 2015); David Burnfield, Patristic Universalism (Universal-Publishers, 2013).

[3] Clement, Stromata, 6.6.46.

[4] Gregory of Nyssa, “When (the Father) Will Subject All Things to (the Son), Then (the Son) Himself Will Be Subjected to Him (the Father) Who Subjects All Things to Him (the Son).”

[5] Ware, “Dare We Hope,” 207. From Homily 27(28): tr. Wensinck, 136; tr. Miller, 141.

[6] Ware, “Dare We Hope,” in The Inner Kingdom, 207.

[7] Ware, “Dare We Hope,” 208. (Isaac, Homily 40.7, tr. Brock, 176).

[8] I am most convinced by Andreas Andreopoulos, “Eschatology in Maximus the Confessor,” The Oxford Handbook of Maximus the Confessor, ed. by Pauline Allen and Bronwen Neil (Oxford University Press, 2015), 322-40.

[9] Maximus the Confessor, Ambigua to Thomas 7,1092C. Cited in Ramelli, Apokatastasis, 739.

[10] Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009), 11.

[11] Oktiochos Tone 2.

[12] St. John Chrysostom, “Paschal Homily.”

[13] An Online Orthodox Catechism: Adopted from Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of Faith. 

[14] Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell, 192.

[15] Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell, 193.

[16] Alexandre Turincev, “An Approach to Orthodox Eschatology,” trans. by Brad Jersak et al, The Canadian Journal of Orthodox Christianity 9.1 (Winter 2014): 1-19 and Greek Orthodox Theological Review 58.1-4 (Spring-Winter 2013): 57-77.

[17] Olivier Clément, Dieu est Vivant: catéchisme pour les familles par une équipe de Chrétiens Orthodoxes (Editions du Cerf, 1979), the original French edition of The Living God: A Catechism for the Christian Faith, 2 Vols. Trans. by Olga Dunlop (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988).

[18] Turincev, “An Approach to Orthodox Eschatology,” 17.

[19] St Silouan the Athonite (died 1938, canonized 1988).

[20] Turincev, “An Approach to Orthodox Eschatology,” 17.

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55 Responses to Permit Me to Hope

  1. WOW!
    Once again you have laid out a ‘tour de force’ of insightful reflection and Patristic panache’ – there’s enough there to chew on for weeks…months….

    Again, I want you to personally know how grateful I am to you for your subtle suggestion about getting to know the work of Moltmann first, as a prerequisite to understanding potentially better where Greg Boyd has been coming from. I’m currently doubling up on “The Theology of Hope” and “The Crucified God”. Holy Impassability Batman!!!!!! – that theological ‘Manna’ just doesn’t get any better!



  2. Thank you so much for sharing this! It has deeply encouraged my heart, as this is a subject with which I have struggled all my life and which I have recently started investigating more fully (thanks also to your earlier writing on Isaac of Nineveh). Blessings!


  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I wish to thank Brad for contributing this article to Eclectic Orthodoxy. Dr Jersak is the author of several books (most recently, A More Christlike God. His webpage can be found at He has a Ph.D. in theology from Bangor University in Wales.


    • Carol Sadosky says:

      I just finished reading A More Christlike God. It was beautiful. And made me cry at points, and filled my heart with more love for everyone in the world. Once again I needed the healing of this hope that all will be restored to wholeness one day. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut is next on my list!


  4. Mike H says:

    Wow. Thanks to Dr Jersak for this thoughtful article. There’s so much to chew on here. Does my heart good today.

    And thanks to Fr Aiden for posting it.


  5. Agnikan says:

    “It is possible that when the Bible refers to Christ as Savior of all, they may actually mean he is Savior of all.”

    Uh…reading the Bible literally is what fundamentalists do. 😉


  6. elijahmaria says:

    If hope is a virtue or power given to man by God, which allows us a sure expectation that the Word of God is true, and if Scripture is a manner of expression of that Word, then Scripture denies us a sure expectation of universal salvation. It is something devoutly to be wished, but should not rise nor be elevated as a sure expectation, as a hope, for it fails to conform entirely to the Word. Wish on!! Pray that it be!! But don’t be maudlin about it or proud.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The more I study, the more I feel that the Scriptures are terrifically elusive in laying out a definitive theology of the nature of life after death. Subsequent theologies have certainly filed in the gaps with speculation, much of which has risen in general consciousness to be dogma. But from a reading of the Scriptures alone (an always dangerous task), I do wonder what can be definitively stated about either heaven or hell.

      Further, it seems to me that a life lived in the fervent hope for universal reconciliation, far from a maudlin expression, is fundamentally the most genuine way in which to live the life of love to which we are called in Christ, for in each creature—from the most wretched to the most angelic–we see the unconditional love of the Father.


  7. bradjersak says:

    I don’t wish. I hope. Wishing is typically a delusion of the flesh. Hope is a manifestation of divine love, according to 1 Cor. 13. LOVE (agape) HOPES ALL THINGS. But Elijah must not have read the article, for I expressly say that I am not arguing for ‘sure expectation,’ but rather, that Scripture, the fathers, the liturgy and the creed *permit hope.* It’s an excellent exercise in self-control to read an article before posting a comment, but I admit to the same failing myself on more than one occasion.


    • elijahmaria says:

      Hope is a sure expectation. That is how the ancient Church understood it. It is how I was taught to understand it both as a Catholic and in my journey to Orthodoxy. I read your article. I think it has its weak spots. This is one of the more glaring ones, though I do not reject it all outright by any means.


  8. It seems your issue is with whether some will be confined for eternity in ‘eternal conscious torment’ or, in a word, ‘Hell’.

    But ‘hell’ simply is not the teaching or concern of the Church, from the Scriptures up. It’s a rather late Western preoccupation, sorta like ‘Heaven’.

    The problem of humankind is not sin and condemnation, but Death. Jesus Christ has conquered death. All will be raised, without exception. On that day we will take whatever place in glory we have chosen and accepted.

    You quote, for example, Metropolitan Hilarion, in *Christ the Conqueror of Hell*, who in turn himself quotes the Great Saturday Matins Canon:

    “Hell reigns, but not forever, over the race of mortals; for you, O Mighty One, when placed in a tomb, shattered with your Life-giving hand the bars of death, and proclaimed to these who slept there from every age no false redemption, O Saviour, who have become the first-born of the dead.”

    But the text simply does not say that!

    It says, “Hades reigns, but not forever, over the race of [those who die]…”.

    Notice how, when you replace the mistranslation ‘Hell’ with the correct translation, ‘Hades’, the troparion comes into focus. The story it is telling is not about sin and judgment, but about Death, the common problem of the human race, and of our release from it by the Resurrection.

    I don’t know what it’s going to take to correct our liturgical books, but if you read them in the original, you will recognize that Hell is simply not an issue in the Orthodox Church!

    Christ has freed us from Death. We will receive as much or as little glory as we want, in the Age to Come. And it will not be in ‘Heaven’, but in our risen bodies, on a renewed earth.

    That’s Christianity; that’s Orthodoxy— but nobody teaches it any more.

    Btw, I’m willing to bet that if Metropolitan Hilarion wrote *Christ the Conqueror of Hell* in Russian, the word translated as ‘Hell’ even there actually means ‘Hades’, which is Greek for She’ol— the land of the dead.


    • Nicholas says:

      Just on your last point, whether Met. Hilarion wrote the book in English or not (and he does write quite well in English), he has used “hell” and “Hades” interchangeably. See, for example, this lecture given in English in Minneapolis:


      • Nicholas says:

        Actually, never mind, that link was in fact translated from Russian. Now I’m kind of curious about what word he did use.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “Btw, I’m willing to bet that if Metropolitan Hilarion wrote *Christ the Conqueror of Hell* in Russian, the word translated as ‘Hell’ even there actually means ‘Hades’, which is Greek for She’ol— the land of the dead.”

      My guess is that you would lose that bet. Though I do not read Russian and therefore cannot compare the English translations with the Russian originals, I have been told that Slavic Orthodox theologians tend not to make a clear distinction between Hades and Hell (Gehenna). This is confirmed in volume 2 of Hilarion’s Orthodox Christianity (which was written, so I am told, for the education of seminarians):

      Many Old Testament images and ideas are present in the New Testament teaching on Hades and eternal torture. Jesus Christ speaks of Gehenna is an “unquenchable fire”: where “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mk 9.48), where “there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 8.12, 22.13; Lk 13.28). The term “Gehenna” (geena) is used in the New Testament as a synonym for the term “Hades” (hades). The term “prison,” “underworld,” and “nether region” were also used synonymously. (II:552-553)

      Hilarion may well be wrong about this, but it does show, John, that not all Orthodox bishops and theologians believe the distinction between Hades and Gehenna to be significant.


      • that’s interesting, father. It would only be an indication of how confused we’ve gotten even in Orthodoxy by the story of “heaven” and “hell” that we’ve learned to tell mostly from developments in the west since the middle ages (for as florovsky says, we’re all westerners now). It was actually a simple Greek monk who first pointed out the distinction to me. Which is not to say that all greek monks are aware of it either— but the way he said it, it did seem like a commonplace, just by-the-by.

        Anyway, by conflating Hades and Gehenna, the Metropolitan would have Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, the Prophets, John the Baptist, and all the rest of the righteous waiting in a place of fiery torture until Jesus came. That has simply *never* been our story, and it isn’t the one in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man either.

        So, not to put too fine a point on it, Hilarion seems a little confused.


  9. J Clivas says:

    Please get rid of these little flying things in your website. Very distracting.


  10. bradjersak says:

    John Burnett, I do track with your point to the degree that technically, hades just means death and hades and is best left transliterated as hades, rather than translated into the English hell. That’s what I would have done. My point is that they DID translate it hell, and not merely by accident. By translating it hell, they accomplished two things, even if unintentional. First, they conflated hades and hell in the same way the 1st century Rabbis were conflating hades and gehenna. While gehenna meant ‘Valley of Hinnom’ and represented temporal destruction in the time of Jeremiah, by Jesus’ day, gehenna was used for an afterlife fiery judgement (borrowing from the popular non-canonical intertestamental Jewish literature). They then also blended that version of gehenna with the kind of hades cosmology you see in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. In other words, the mistranslation of hades as hell serves to replicate accurately the sloppily blended cosmology of 2nd Temple Judaism. Why is this okay? Because when the liturgy translates hades into hell, it pushes back against those who see Christ empty hades but unable or unwilling to empty hell. By conflating them, the liturgy actually extends Christ’s victory across the board. So when I am reading or chanting the above, I smile because it reflects how his utter defeat of death (surely the original Greek point) also reflects his descent into and harrowing of even the lowest ‘hell’ (the message our Infernalist friends need to hear).


  11. Brad,
    Thank you for your thoughtful insights and diligent study on this important subject. I’m wondering if you think its possible to simultaneously hold to hope for the salvation of all while also preaching that the trajectory of continual rejection of Author of Life may lead to the Second Death?


  12. brian says:

    Should one limit one’s understanding of Christ’s victory to Hades, rather than include Hell? Is Hell a spurious projection that falsifies the intent of those who witness to the gospel of Christ? I think the matter of interpretation is similar to the question of the place of historico-critical scholarship in biblical exegesis. Should one simply try to pinpoint the conceptual range of a particular cultural, historical moment and use that as a limit to what revelation can properly address? Or should one suppose that revelatory truth has a “vertical”, eternal comprehensiveness that is the center from which every historical moment converges as a source of mystery? If one opts for the latter interpretation, it will not seem illicit to propose that Christ’s victory authentically includes a harrowing of hell.

    There are many questions one should ponder. If death is the final, ultimate enemy, what is included in the mystery of death? If Life is actually more than simply biological functioning, then perhaps death is more than the cessation of such. If “heaven” is participation in the triune life, the full flourishing of life, then “hell” is a state or condition of privation where nuptial existence is lost or deferred. One can, of course, reject these gestures towards a proposed definition, but the thing to grasp is that when one speaks about death and life, heaven and hell, one is trying through language to approach ultimate realities which resist conceptual closure.

    Personally, I interpret Hell as a hyperbolic expression of death – not in the sense of a linguistic exaggeration, but as the pushing of death to its ultimate limits. Hence, victory over hell is the necessary proof of love’s power over death. An ecclesial sensibility that would be content with something less seems deeply inadequate to me.


    • The question isn’t whether one may “personally interpret” the word “Hades” as meaning “Hell”; rather, the question is, What exactly is the story that the Scriptures are telling?

      As i said, for the Bible and the fathers, Adam’s problem is death, not sin. Sins can be forgiven just by forgiving them, as we all know and as we’re taught to do. As i think i mentioned (somewhere, anyway), in Mark’s gospel forgiveness is part of the *healing* ministry of Jesus, not his crucifixion. For Mark, crucifixion is enthronement, not atonement.

      It is we post-Plague, post-Dante, post-Reformation Westerners who invented the story about “hell” and the terror of hell that suffuses our piety. As i said, look in the liturgy of the Church— especially in Orthodoxy but even in the earlier Western rites— and you just don’t find it. The Church sings about Christ’s victory over Death and Hades. Because even if you’re forgiven, if you’re still dead; so what difference does the forgiveness make? But if you’re raised from the dead— !!

      By the way, both Lazarus and the Rich Man in the parable are in Hades. We usually read “Abraham’s bosom” as a metaphor for “Heaven”, but it’s not. Abraham too was lying in the grave, and the Rich Man too was awaiting resurrection. But apparently— though i stress that mining the parable for a map of the afterlife is an abuse of Jesus’ words— there are different comfort zones in the condition of the dead. But they are all still dead, and still awaiting the Resurrection.

      We have manufactured a problem that’s just not there in the Bible, and then we have to “personally interpret” (i.e., distort) what it says in order to answer our manufactured problem!

      Let’s just knock it off and try to find out what the Bible *itself* is actually talking about!

      What is the story that the *Bible* is telling, as distinct from the story *we* are telling?


      • brian says:

        Well, any theological interpretation is a story being told. It’s nice to tell those who are telling a different story than our own that it has nothing to do with the Bible. I do not understand the Lazarus parable as actually giving one details of an eschatological geography, as it were. I have a high view of Scripture. I am inclined to accept Origen’s view that the Bible is a sacrament of the Body of our Lord. Nonetheless, revelation is a broader subject than the Bible. While one would not want to limit the scope of interest to whatever is existentially compelling for a particular era or society, I don’t see the concern with hell to be illegitimate or merely a false projection of later generations upon Biblical narrative. One doesn’t have to pigeon-hole the concept of hell to the realm of twisted, modern efforts to discipline and punish recalcitrant individuals. In any event, few people will find the argument that it is simply a “bad question” that misses the point persuasive. I adverted earlier to the conflict between adherents of the historico-critical method and traditionalists. The more rationalist of the former would find anything outside the scope of the original historical setting and audience as an imposition and distortion.

        Anyway, if you find all this offensive, you may dismiss my voice as maudlin or ill informed or anything you please.


      • Mike H says:


        Like you, I was a bit surprised at Brad’s assertion that the terms Gehenna and Hades were used interchangeably. I don’t doubt it, but I’d also come to see the distinction as important.

        But language is a dynamic thing. Even if looked at apart from an “infernalist” point of view, the idea of “hell” as relating to the lived experience and eschatological destiny of human beings is a very real and pervasive theme, no? Whatever combination of Greek or English words or images a person prefers to use, and whatever eschatological location one refers to (whether a “spiritual” place or a resurrected physical existence on a restored earth, etc), that question remains within the story of the Bible and tradition.

        Perhaps you were even hinting at this by saying that “there are different comfort zones in the condition of the dead.” or “we’ll receive as much or as little glory as we want”?

        Either way, I personally see the real substance of eschatology as being about the nature of “justice”, the degree to which it is or isn’t purely retributive, the nature of love and evil and sin and if they exist eternally, the nature and scope of Christ’s victory, and the eschatological experience and destiny of humanity in relation to these things (which encompasses things like eternally experiencing “love” as “wrath”). These surely aren’t manufactured problems.


        • Mike, it’s not a question of “whatever combination of Greek or English words or images a person prefers to use”, but of what terms the text itself actually uses, what it means when it uses them, and what the broader perspective is, in which it does so.

          Gehenna and Hades and Hell are interchangeable in the KJV. I suspect the KJV translators didn’t particularly understand the distinctions, and hence weren’t critically concerned about their usage. But as it turns out, Gehenna and Hades (as you note) do refer to two different things in the original Hebrew and Greek, which are not interchangeable; and the original texts don’t collapse them into a third thing called “Hell”, in the sense we use it today. (Apparently, in its original sense, “Hell” was just a kind of Teutonic “Hades”, but no one uses it in that sense any more at all.)

          The Church therefore does not sing, “Today, Hell cried out groaning.” No, “Today, Hades cried out groaning”, and if you read the rest of the troparion, you’ll see why: Death is overcome, and Hades, the prison of the dead, finds itself suddenly bereft of inmates. It’s not about the end of “Hell”, or even of “Gehenna”. In fact, “Gehenna” is a word that practically never occurs in our liturgical texts, at all. Gehenna is just not the theological issue that our liturgical texts address.

          But can’t we still say that “the real substance of eschatology” is “the nature of ‘justice’”? No, not if Adam’s main problem is the existential-ontological issue that he’s dead, and not the ethical-moral issue that he sinned, as I keep hammering.

          Certainly, when God raises us, he will manifest his justice against all those imperial sins like oppression and violence, fraud and usury, judicial corruption and sexual exploitation. But to make justice into the “real substance of eschatology”, is to make morality the primary issue that God is dealing with. Our preoccupation with morality then takes precedence over the real issue of mortality. And it even becomes hard to see quite what the rich man loses, or Lazarus gains, by being raised from the dead at all— for doesn’t the parable itself suggest that they’re already enjoying their respective rewards? What further advantage is there, then, in resurrection?

          The “real substance of eschatology” is Life. Justice is only part of that, just as morality is only part of life here and now. Our preoccupation with eternal rewards and punishments comes from looking through the wrong end of the telescope.


          • Jonathan says:


            As I see it, you’re after a God, or at least an eschaton, that is in some sense ‘beyond good and evil.’ I like how you put the problem: mortality, not morality. Assuming I’m getting this right, I can say that I, too, have a problem with a kind of hyper-moralism that is visible in many areas of modern western life, not just the religious. I do think one has to take into account the immeasurable complexity and mysteriousness of language, especially when interpreting a text as enormous and multifaceted as the Bible. But that’s in fact besides the point I want to raise, which is actually a question, basically the same one that Mina just asked at another post (“We may evade the blows. . .”) and which frequently haunts me: How would you interpret, eschatologically, the advent of technological immortality? If death is the problem, suppose scientific and technological advance solve the problem of death. Feel free to imagine this development however you’d like, it’s only a thought-experiment. What, in that instance, would you do with the Gospel?


          • Jonathan, there isn’t going to be a technological solution to death. There may be vastly improved technologies for prolonging life, but nobody is going to survive the universal heat death of the entire space-time universe, the eschatology predicted by our technology itself. The universe of cause and effect itself is mortal, and we’re not going to stand outside cause and effect. As St Paul says, all creation itself was subjected to futility because of Adam’s sin (cf Rm 8.20).

            But in any case, you’re confusing “endless” temporal duration with God’s mode of being, which in the Bible is sometimes called ‘eternity’. Hebrew and Greek already distinguish `ad or aiotēs (‘eternity’) from `olam or aiōn (age). We belong to this `olam/aiōn, and we await the `olam/aiōn to come— or rather, as the Greek has it, the ‘oncoming Age’ (ho aiōn ho erchomenos. (The latter is usually translated ‘Age to come’, but the participle suggests something already happening, not something in the distant future). That Age is already crashing into ours, in Jesus the Messiah.


          • Mike H says:


            Your argument that Hades & Gehenna are distinct words with distinct meanings (and if a purely historical-critical exegetical method can indeed conclusively provide finality) and have absolutely nothing to do with the concept of a “hell” of eternal torment may very well be correct. And the same with your reference to Hades in the liturgies.

            So perhaps a return to a time before these terms became loaded with such uninformed theological baggage is necessary (if such a return is possible)? Clearly the conception of “hell” has a history of development…. so just deconstruct the image.

            But I’m skeptical that that alone resolves anything. The concept of an unfavorable (or favorable) eschatological destiny for humanity exists outside of the usage of these particular terms or images.

            The way that I read this post, I recognize that there are a number of eschatological themes that can be aimed at an eschatological target that seems to move – some of the underlying context changes as we get better info on historical context, or manage to strip away centuries of baggage.

            Your context just leads me to ask the same set of questions, it’s just about the resurrected experience of humanity.

            If your conception of eschatology as being about the complete victory of Life (being more than physical life….and which makes a lot of sense to me BTW) over death (being more than physical death), there still remains the issue of how that victory – Christ’s victory – is experienced by humanity. Or how humanity participates in that Life.

            The same themes of life, love, free will, “punishment” and “wrath” (whether self inflicted or not), the nature of “justice”, etc. that are present in the original post are all still acute.

            And I didn’t make “justice” into the sole component of eschatology nor am I here referring to “justice” in terms of “social justice” or tit for tat hyper moralism and punishments/rewards, but rather as “the setting right of all things”. And certainly whether justice is retributive or restorative – even in the context of life vs death – has a part in how it’s framed.

            This isn’t to argue for or against any particular thing in the original post. I just fail to see how the entire exercise is misguided.


          • Mike H, that that Hades & Gehenna are distinct words with distinct meanings is not a matter of the “historical-critical method” but of dictionary and context— ‘death’ and ‘punishment’ are two different ideas, even in everyday life. Moreover, the Liturgy, as i said, simply never uses the word ‘gehenna’. That is not its interest.

            I’m not suggesting a return to some ‘time’ before these terms became ‘loaded with such uninformed theological baggage’, for the problem is not ‘baggage’ but conflation. And a return to proper usage is both necessary and highly possible, and requires only that we be mindful of the actual meaning of these terms in Scripture and Liturgy, and use them accordingly. As they say, How hard is that?

            Since our choir is fairly large, i can sometimes get away with misbehaving. I’ve taken to substituting the word “hades” (albeit with one syllable, not two— ‘hādz’) somewhat under my breath whenever the printed words say “hell”. Accordingly, I’ve been struck by how much the troparia have come into focus. The Church really does tell a consistent story throughout its services— a story about death and hades, not about “eternal conscious torment”.

            Gehenna is a separate issue from Hades. The term itself is found only in the NT (Mt 5.22, 29-30; 10.28; 18.9; 23.15, 33; Mk 9.43-47; Lk 12.5), but arguably may be inferred from a couple of OT images like Isa 66.24. It always refers to a judgment of condemnation. I don’t deny that the Bible talks about condemnation— indeed it does!— but my point here is that it is illegitimate to reify and hypostatize what is a metaphor.

            Let’s take Mt 5.22 for an example. NASB95 has, “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.” (ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ὀργιζόμενος τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει· ὃς δ᾿ ἂν εἴπῃ τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ· ῥακά, ἔνοχος ἔσται τῷ συνεδρίῳ· ὃς δ᾿ ἂν εἴπῃ· μωρέ, ἔνοχος ἔσται εἰς τὴν γέενναν τοῦ πυρός, if you read Greek.)

            There are several problems with this translation, and addressing some of them helps us to see the point more clearly: The Greek speaks of liability to ‘judgment’ (not ‘the court’), to the ‘sanhedrin’ (not ‘the supreme court’), and ‘unto the Gehenna of fire’. NASB turns ‘judgment’ into ‘court’ and then illegitimately turns ‘sanhedrin’ into ‘supreme court’— thus inserting an escalation that’s not implied by the text— and ‘unto the Gehenna of fire’, not to ‘hell fire’. ‘Judgment’ is a general word; it could mean judgment by any court, and is the word we get ‘crisis’ from. But contrast with ‘sanhedrin’, the Jewish court, it would imply either judgment generally or perhaps the civil court— and remember, Matthew is writing this for a mixed community in Antioch. So the picture here is that a man who goes around getting angry at his neighbors all the time: somebody’s going to punch him and, as the one who picked the fight, he’s going to end up in court for brawling, a serious charge in an unfriendly and threatening context. Or he keeps on calling even his fellow Aramaic-speakers (Jews), ‘stupid fools!’— where again, somebody’s going to punch him, and he’s going to end up before the Jewish court for brawling, a serious offense which may lead to loss of protection by his own community. Or again (Matthew is writing for a mixed audience, and the point applies to more than the Jews only, he switches back to Greek), he says, ‘You idiot!’— and Jesus’ point is, if you keep on going off on people like this, you’re going to end up in the ‘Gehenna of fire’, a person rejected not only by men but by God, think of Isa 66.24.

            Jesus is not teaching or, I submit, even particularly implying, a doctrine of “Eternal Conscious Torment” here. We do need to read this against the anti-imperial apocalyptic literature of the day, but his point is metaphoric. He’s saying that despite the unbearable burden and violence of the urban and rural poor of an occupied land, going around brawling is only going to lead you in the direction of trouble and rejection not only by men but even by God. It’s not the direction to be going. Instead, one needs to actively practice reconciliation and peace (Mt 5.23-26).

            Remember that symbols have a kind of bottomless or infinite quality to them. They are not reifications, like road signs where a curved arrow has a 1:1 correspondence with a curve in the road ahead. They point in a direction and say, this is what that direction is like, and indicate a mystery— in this case, the mystery of God’s judgment and rejection of empire. But a metaphor is not a definition. It does not give us warrant to say, Aha! We now know the Fate of Sinners! We can only talk about the direction that sin takes you. The finality of the mystery belongs only to God, whom we also know to be merciful. That, too, is Jesus’ point, and he urges us therefore to acquire habits of participating in God’s mercy. To do so is to embark on the opposite metaphor— to ‘enter the regime’— not! the ‘kingdom’, but the ‘regime’, the ‘reign’— ‘of heaven’.

            I have to go and chant a baptism so there’s no time to edit this. I’m sure someone may remind me of its flaws!


          • Mike H says:


            I don’t want to take up too much of your time as I think we’ll just be rehashing the same things. Apologies for the length.

            Ultimately, it seems that your biblical and liturgical exegesis leads you to want to eliminate any substantive eschatological talk at all, a lack of specifics meaning that any talk is speculative and “misguided”. I still want to argue that it’s not misguided.

            Once again, I don’t wish to debate anything you’ve said about Hades, Gehenna, or an intermediate state, etc. (though my own studies reveal far more ambiguity about the dynamic meaning and symbolism of Gehenna in 2nd Temple Judaism and on than is shown in your dictionary). I can also concede that there are plausible interpretations – particularly in the Gospels – in which the commonly viewed context actually doesn’t speak to an afterlife. And even when the scope is cosmic and “eternal”, the Bible still isn’t a pocket guide to life after death.

            The interpretation of Gehenna (or Hades for that matter), or any of your other exegesis, is valuable in it’s own right and may address a particular (and common) (mis)representation of a final eschatological existence and experience of humanity, but it doesn’t eliminate an eschatological vision all together. It may change the way that particular images and words are used, but there remains the question of eschatological destiny and resurrected existence, even after terms like Gehenna, Tartarus, Hades have been deconstructed, put in their proper context, or shown to be hyperbole to illustrate some other point, no? This is remembering that you’ve contextualized eschatology as about resurrection and the victory of Life over death.

            You seem intent on proving that no biblical passage or liturgy should bear too much weight in nailing down the specifics of the age to come. I don’t think this post or anyone else is arguing otherwise, but fair enough.

            So what now? Since you can exegete virtually any verse and argue that it is NOT a roadmap of the afterlife, what is left?

            You said:

            “The finality of the mystery belongs only to God, whom we also know to be merciful.”

            Again, I don’t think the original post would disagree with that statement.

            The question is, how concrete a statement is “God is merciful” or does it only provide for a sort of vague “wish”? If theological language about the character of the God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is equivocal (as eschatology often makes it) or has no bearing on eschatology at all, then I’d agree that we should just stop talking.

            Even in the absence of specifics, I’d agree with DB Hart who said “the moral destiny of creation and the moral nature of God are absolutely inseparable”.. God is the beginning and end of all things.

            There is also the substance of the numerous biblical, liturgical, or patristic citations – all in the context of the grand arc of God’s drama of redemption as the post so aptly states – even though much of that content has nothing to do with Gehenna or Hades or any other direct eschatological idea.

            Bottom line for me, even with the vagueness/misinterpretation of language and the vast Unknown, I don’t think that what Brad does in this post can be shown to be misguided based on what Gehenna or Hades does or doesn’t mean eschatologically.

            Also, I will not type the word “eschatology” again anytime soon. Too much. Yikes.


  13. brian says:


    The possibility you broach is perhaps the sort of thing N.F. Fyodorov anticipated.
    There’s no question that victory over death is paramount. Progressive ideology is always blind to this — because basically nihilist and heartless, for all it’s talk of compassion. This is how Balthasar puts it in The Glory of the Lord:

    “When history’s vanguard penetrates into the Kingdom, this does not involve forgetting what it has been, as if this were ‘building materials’ now lost to sight. The solidarity that no form of socialism can know, and which is likewise forgotten or undervalued by an existential and a merely historical interpretation of Scripture, hopes for those who belong hopelessly to the past, and only then for itself” (Vol VII, pp. 508-509).

    I would add that I am also ardently opposed to moralism. Berdyaev has gnostic tendencies and his theology is not always sound, but I still find him sympatico. He sought the Good “beyond good and evil” and there is certainly something correct in his instinct. In any event, my whole series of meditations was directed towards the understanding of Life that John appears to prioritize.


  14. bradjersak says:

    John Burnett, I do understand there are distinctions between hades and gehenna in particular times and particular dictionaries. I point them out at great length in Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, esp. in terms of Jeremiah’s use, where Hinnom is always obviously the valley south of Jerusalem and a symbol of the physical destruction of Jerusalem. And I’m quick to point out that for the LXX, ‘hades’ is the word they chose to translate ‘sheol’ into Greek. And that when Jesus refers to ‘gehenna’ he is usually following the Jeremiah tradition rather than the more popular intertestamental tradition (of the fiery torment afterlife), except in those cases where he is using and subverting it to make his own point. Probably you would like what I’ve done there as it is very similar to NT Wright.

    That said, what you’re not hearing is that it’s NOT just a matter of picking up a dictionary. You have to look at the usage in particular eras. In 2nd Temple Judaism, ‘hades’ is not just death … and ‘gehenna’ is not just destruction. The point is that ‘hades’ and ‘gehenna’ often gets conflated … you don’t see this in a dictionary created by modern scholars. You see it by reading what the rabbis actually wrote. My point is that whether ‘hades’ is death or ‘gehenna’ is destruction or ‘hades’ and ‘gehenna’ have transmogrified in their worldview (and it had), Jesus’ victory is proclaimed over both in Greek and English. And the wonderful thing is, YES, Hades is overcome in the hymns AND even if the Rabbis of Jesus era wrongly imported Greek and Babylonian cosmologies of hades and then wrongly called it gehenna … whether they are the same or different, Jesus enters, conquers, empties and transforms the place with divine radiance (in last week’s Troparion). The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus can no longer be read as if Christ never crossed the uncrossable chasm, entered Hades and emptied the place. Holy Saturday and the Resurrection are the punchline to the Parable.

    What’s amazing, too, is that Christ does his own thing with ‘gehenna’ as well. In Mark 9, he seems to contrast gehenna with the kingdom as the two alternative destinations of the wicked and the righteous (which the Rabbis assumed during that period … with a 1 year to 18 month time limit, by the way) … but then immediately he says (right after mentioning gehenna), “FOR [gar] you will ALL be salted with fire [everyone, not just the wicked], but salt is good [not just retribution but restoration] … therefore have salt [on purpose, now!] in yourselves [internalize the salting of fire].” In other words, he starts with their notions of an afterlife torment called gehenna and then completely subverts it into something like theosis. I don’t know what to make of it entirely but it’s very much like what you see St Macrina teaching Gregory in ‘On the Soul and the Resurrection,’ which is neither the Catholic purgatory of punishment, nor an absolute soul sleep as some imagine it. Whatever ‘there’ is, ‘there’ the journey continues, and the struggle is directly proportional to one’s resistance to letting go of fleshly attachments to the world. But that’s for another day.


    • Brad, you wrote, “the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus can no longer be read as if Christ never crossed the uncrossable chasm, entered Hades and emptied the place. Holy Saturday and the Resurrection are the punchline to the Parable.”

      The way you speak of this “uncrossable chasm” (or “great gulf” (χάσμα μέγα), as Luke has it) sounds as though Abraham and Lazarus are on one side of it, already with Christ, or he with them, presumably “in heaven” or in “paradise” or somewhere, while only the rich man is in Hades or perhaps rather Gehenna.

      But that can’t be the picture. To be sure, Jesus specifically says the rich man is suffering “tortures” (βασάνοις) and “flame” (τῇ φλογὶ) in “Hades” (though not Gehenna) (Lk 16.23-24)— and that, by contrast, Lazarus was “carried off (ἀπενεχθῆναι) by the angels to Abraham’s bosom” (16.22). Yet even so, they are all still awaiting the resurrection, and hence they are all in Hades, which by definition is the land of the dead. That’s true even if you conflate the gospels and point out that Abraham is one of the “living” that God is God of, as Jesus puts it in Mark (Mk 12.27). As the icon shows, Christ descended to Hades to raise not only Adam but Abraham, David, John the Baptist, and everyone else as well.

      It’s not a question, then, of “confining ourselves to the language of fifteen or twenty or thirty centuries ago”. I’m not arguing anything of the kind! Rather, we need to grasp and to start thinking of our modern questions of death and judgment in terms of the structure of thought, or rather, the implicit narrative underlying not only the Scriptures, but above all, the Church’s liturgical life and theology— and to abandon the narrative of “heaven and hell” that we carry around with us by default from our culture, and try to (re)interpret in ways that make sense. We need to be converted to the story that the Church actually tells! That is, we need to bring our personal and cultural cosmology into line with the Church’s Liturgy— not just figure out ways to make the cosmology we’ve inherited by cultural default, plausible. To paraphrase Prosper of Acquitaine, “Let the rule of worship establish the rule of faith.”

      The uncrossable chasm that Christ crossed was not the one between Abraham and Lazarus on one side, and the rich man on the other; he crossed the ever-crossable chasm from life to death, where all three of them lay, so that he might cross with them all, the uncrossable chasm from death to Life. Your intuition is correct— he came to raise all the dead— that is, all three men in the parable— not just Abraham and Lazarus. But he had to raise Abraham and Lazarus too!

      I mentioned that i had to chant a baptism this afternoon. Thus i had an opportunity to note a rare appearance of the word Gehenna in the liturgy. Addressing Satan, it’s found in the Second Exorcism of the Reception of a Catechumen: “He shall come and not tarry, to judge all the earth, and shall punish you and all your host in the Gehenna of fire”. That’s about the only way Gehenna ever appears in the liturgy— as the eschatological end of the demons who hate God and oppose his works. Everyone else goes to “Hades” and awaits the resurrection. For some, like Abraham and Lazarus in the story, it’s an easier wait than it is for others.

      When it comes to Gehenna and Gehenna-like imagery and human beings, though, the Scriptures usually speak in rather general terms of the broad, sweeping contexts of Empire. Gehenna, the Lake of Fire, and so forth are reserved for kings, armies, merchants, bankers, slave-traders, and oppressors. Neither the Scriptures nor the Liturgy ever contemplate any specific person in Gehenna; not even Caesar. It’s the Empire that will be destroyed, not this or that person. The question is always, whose reign, then, will you be part of— God’s reign, or Caesar’s? But Jesus makes this question personal, because he comes “proclaiming the good news of God’s regime and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and God’s regime has arrived; repent and trust in the good news'” (Mk 1.15). So we have to make a choice of which “regime”, which Empire we’re going to be part of. And that’s the burden and thrust of all his teaching.

      Now it’s interesting what you’re trying to do with Mark 9.42-50, which has been called one of the most difficult passages in the entire NT. You write that Christ—

      seems to contrast gehenna with the kingdom as the two alternative destinations of the wicked and the righteous… but then immediately… “FOR [gar] you will ALL be salted with fire [everyone, not just the wicked], but salt is good [not just retribution but restoration] … therefore have salt [on purpose, now!] in yourselves [internalize the salting of fire]” (9.49).

      Note, however, that the word ‘but’ is not in the text, and therefore the expression ‘salt is good’ etc does not present an exception or modification of the preceding statement. So before we discuss why “salt is good”, you might enjoy reading W.W. Fields, “‘Everyone Shall Be Salted with Fire’ (Mark 9:49)” (Grace Theological Journal 6.2 (1985) 299-304).

      Fields notes that Mk 9.49 is one of a number of passages that can be translated word-for-word back into Hebrew without even changing the word order: hen, kol ish b’esh yumlaḥ (הן כל אישׁ באשׁ ימלח; Delitzsch does this slightly differently but with the same effect), and suggests, with Alcalay, that “salted” here refers to the practice of “sowing a place with salt” to completely destroy it (see Jg 9.45; the practice was known to the Romans as well). Thus the root “to salt” comes to mean “be destroyed”, as we see in Isa 51.6, where “the heavens shall vanish away like smoke” is literally “shall be salted like smoke” (כִּֽי־שָׁמַ֜יִם כֶּעָשָׁ֤ן נִמְלָ֙חוּ֙). So, “everyone shall be salted by fire” means “everyone shall be destroyed by fire”.

      But— “everyone”??

      Well, Fields goes on to observe that Jesus has just warned in the preceding verses about offending “these little ones” and says that one would be better off getting rid of hand, foot, or eye than to be cast into “Gehenna”, “where the fire never goes out and their worm does not die”, a reference to the fate of the trash hauled out of the purified Jerusalem in Isa 66.24. He then points out that it fits the context perfectly to understand 9.49 as concluding those foregoing warnings about ending up in Gehenna with the trash. The explanatory “for” (gar) is the tip-off: “Everyone (that is, everyone sent to Gehenna) will be salted— that is, completely destroyed— by its fire”. So don’t go there!

      And this is in complete accord with the rest of Jesus’ campaign, which is not to give explanations about the afterlife but to set people on the right path and to get them going in the right direction.

      But why then does he say that “salt is good” (Mk 9.50)? A fairly large number of manuscripts and, following some of them, the KJV and similar English translations, insert the explanatory phrase, “and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt” (9.49b) between “for everyone will be salted by fire” (9.49a) and “salt is good” (9.50a). This bridge (whether original or not) apparently aims to expose the transition to the idea of salt as good. There are, in other words, the salt and fire of destruction, but also the salt and fire of sacrifice, which are good. So Jesus urges us not to let the latter kind of salt become worthless (9.50b), but to “have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (9.50c). In other words, judge and purify yourselves, and thereby avoid Gehenna. Either way, apparently, God will provide the fire.

      Again i want to stress that symbols have a kind of bottomless or infinite quality to them. Symbols like “Gehenna” or “God’s Reign” are not about particular “concrete things”, like road signs in which a curved arrow (symbol) has a 1:1 correspondence with a curve in the road ahead (concrete thing). They point out a direction and say, this is the kind of thing you find in that direction. They indicate a mystery— in this case, the mystery of God’s reign and his rejection of human empire, and the judgment that separates them. But a metaphor is not a definition. It does not give us warrant to say, Aha! We now know the Fate of Sinners! We can only talk about the direction that sin takes us— to “Gehenna”, iconified in Isa 66.24, for example.

      The finality of the mystery of Gehenna belongs only to God, and him we also know to be merciful. That, too, is Jesus’ point, and he urges us therefore to acquire habits of participating in God’s mercy. To do so is to embark on the opposite metaphor— to “enter into” and to become part of “God’s Empire”, the “Empire of Heaven”.


  15. Jonathan says:


    I did an exceedingly poor job in my comment. Sorry about that. I’m a bit harried at present. Anyway, suffice it to say that I’m aware of what contemporary cosmologists think about the end of the universe. And as a matter of fact I think technological “immortality” or extreme longevity would be a kind of Hell, a death-in-life. That is not what the Gospel promises, for all the corporeality of resurrection. What I’m getting at is that it’s very useful and true to speak of Hell. Perhaps the term does not belong in the liturgy. But Hell is a valid linguistic resource. In any case, we are not confined, nor would it be wise to confine ourselves, to the language of fifteen or twenty or thirty centuries ago, important as it is to understand that language. When people in the present day speak of Hell, they are not talking about nothing. I suppose I have in mind mostly non-Christians who are not referring to some theory of eternal conscious torment. Hell is an aspect of *this* life. I’m all for your emphasis on life, but the terms life and death aren’t as clear as we might think. Hell might be understood as term denoting their confusion.

    There can be no doubt that for the Christian the Incarnation glorifies this universe. But since it is a fallen universe, it’s subject to entropy and all life requires privation, predation, competition, death. Imagining an endless attenuation of that state of affairs can hardly be a new heaven and a new earth. There was a really great thread about this going on here a little while back.


  16. Luke says:

    I would love to be able to believe this is true. However, does this require me to hope the 9/11 hijackers and San Bernardino terrorists are saved?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      It requires you to hope that they will repent of their sin and turn to Christ for mercy and forgiveness. Would that not be glorious?


    • brian says:


      It’s easy to hope for people one likes. The hard part is extending hope to the truly vicious and loathsome. Universalism is not a saccharine teaching, nor is it rooted in an easy dismissal of the horror of wickedness. The Cross is literally beyond the capacities of our nature; it is a grace to be able to love as God loves.


    • our fear, our refusal to forgive, our desire for revenge, for getting even, for retribution and ‘justice’— will lead us to do to others many, many times what has been done to us.

      we are not thereby justified, nor will we find peace.


    • we have to forgive even hitler, even stalin, even (this is hard for me) ‘caesar’.


  17. brian says:

    This may be tangential, but Dr. Jersak’s article and this discussion somehow reminded me of a poem by Robert Lax, so I’ve added it below:

    reading of lovely Jerusalem,
    lovely, ruined Jerusalem.
    we are brought to the port
    where the boats in line are
    and the high tower on the hill
    and the prows starting again
    into the mist.

    for we must seek
    by going down,
    down into the city
    for our song.deep into the city
    for our peace.
    for it is there
    that peace lies
    like a pool.

    there we shall seek:
    it is from there
    she’ll flower.

    for lovely, ruined Jerusalem,
    lovely, sad Jerusalem
    lies furled
    under the cities
    of light.

    for we are only
    going down,
    only descending
    by this song
    to where the cities
    gleam in darkness,
    or curled like roots
    sit waiting
    at the undiscovered pool.

    what pressure
    thrusts us up
    as we descend?

    pressure of
    the city’s singing,
    pressure of
    the song
    she hath withheld.

    hath long withheld.

    for none
    would hear


  18. Edward De Vita says:

    The fire mentioned by St. Paul in I Cor. 3:15 is a fire of destruction. But it destroys,not the sinner, but his/her worthless works. How does this fit with our Lord’s statement that everyone will be salted with fire? Or, is it even about the same thing?



    • With all due respect, I think it’s Brad Jersak (and of course others, historically) who make the fire of Mk 9.49 into a fire of purification, and who might thus be tempted to identify the fire of Mk 9.49 with that of 1Co 3.15. Let me quote at some length the introductory comments of that article by Fields which i mentioned above, because the history of interpretation is instructive:

      Bratcher and Nida have counted at least 15 different explanations of the verse, and Gould calls it “one of the most difficult to interpret in the New Testament.” He connects the saying not with the fire of judgment in the [immediately] preceding context, but with the idea of purification as in the fire of a sacrifice. This is because both fire and salt were used by the Jews in their Temple sacrifices. According to the Mishnah, salt was put into the carcass of the sacrificial animal in order to soak out the blood…. “The priest. . . . dried it by rubbing salt on it [the carcass of the sacrificial animal] and cast it on the fire” [Mishnah]… the interpretation that the salt and fire have something to do with purification or with dedication is in general the same one taken by Montefiore, Rawlinson, A.B. Bruce, Alford, Calvin, Meyer, Lange, Lane, Fudge, and F.F. Bruce. It is evident as well in TEV’s translation, “Everyone will be purified by fire as a sacrifice is purified by salt.”

      Such connection of the verse with sacrifice also appears in its textual variants… ‘for everyone will be salted with fire, and every sacrifice will be salted with salt’). … Several other versions of the verse, which appear in only one manuscript each, also seem to be the result of scribal attempts to make some kind of sense out of the verse. …

      Most modern interpreters of the passage have not advanced much beyond these ancient scribes. In fact one gets the feeling that many commentators are not happy with their own conclusions; yet the absence of a better alternative, coupled with the fact that in the Temple sacrifices salt and fire were found together, has led most interpreters to apply the purificational and dedicatory objectives of the sacrifices to Jesus’ statement…. It is as though many of the commentators knew intuitively that the verse cannot say what it seems to say in Greek, for a figure of speech based on these two features among the many elements of a sacrifice hardly seems to fit the immediate context of Mark’s narrative, even if Jesus’ statement is purely metaphorical. Yet Mark or Mark’s source must have felt that it made sense of some kind, even though the sense is not now obvious….

      Fields then goes on to the discussion I summarized above— essentially, that ‘salted’ is a Hebrew idiom (or rather, a ‘dead metaphor’, like when we speak of “dialing” a number on a cellphone) for complete destruction. The metaphor is based on the action referred to in Jg 9.45, but already in the OT the expression has come to function as a general term for destruction or vanishing, as we see in Isa 51.6, where it’s applied to smoke— even though it’s harder to imagine smoke being “salted” than to imagine a rotary “dial” on a cellphone! Or again, we native speakers of English know what it means to “kick the bucket”, but a literal translation might not make much sense to someone who spoke only Kalkutungu. We seem to be in a similar case with “salted” here.

      So, yes, I think what Jesus is talking about in Mk 9.49 and what Paul is talking about in 1Co 3.15 are two different things. Jesus is talking about destruction in Gehenna, and Paul is talking about salvation after a fiery ordeal. It is we who need to make Gehenna into salvation-by-ordeal, because we have an ungodly fear of Gehenna. Maybe we could sorta conflate them on the basis of Mk 9.50 (“have salt in yourselves and be at peace”)— and as Fields points out, people have tried to do so from early times— but that’s about salt, and in Mk 9.49, the fire Jesus is talking about is still only the fire of Gehenna, which has figured in his discussion throughout 9.42-48. We’d have no trouble seeing 9.49 simply as a further statement about Gehenna, except that the idea of something being “salted with fire” is opaque to us. I’m fully satisfied with Fields’ explanation, though, and Jesus doesn’t seem to share our fear of Gehenna! So let’s not allow our need for a certain interpretation actually generate our interpretation— and keep in mind that difficult passages can all too easily become hooks to hang our favorite ideas on.

      Again i want to stress that Jesus’ topic in 9.42-49 is not Gehenna! He is talking, rather, about correcting ourselves so that we avoid Gehenna. And that’s the point he comes to rest in, at the concluding verse, 9.50. That really is a huge difference! For as I said earlier, in that context, “Gehenna”, “fire”, “torment”, and so forth are merely symbols for a direction he wants you to avoid. Jesus is saying, “Don’t head towards Gehenna”, just as we might say, “Don’t head towards the North.” The point is not about whether there really is a “thing” called “The North”, or all the features of “The North”, or anything else we could say about “The North”. The point is to avoid that direction, because you’ll find yourself somewhere you don’t want to go. In this case, not a very nice place.

      We need to stop insisting on asking the wrong questions and looking through the wrong end of the telescope! Let’s pay closer attention to what the narrative is about— the actual story that the biblical writers (and the characters in their book, like Jesus) are telling!

      That might be a new way of doing theology for us, though. For I fear we’re so used to mining the Scriptures for mere information that satisfies, confirms, or allays our curiosities and fears that we actually fail, I think, to hear, much less trust the “good news”— “God’s good news”— that Jesus proclaims (Mk 1.14-15)!


  19. Mike H says:

    John Burnett,

    How do you approach the hymns for the Sunday of the Last Judgment?

    Whether Hades, Gehenna, Tartarus, or something that exists outside of these specific words, it’s simply hard for me to wrap my mind around the claim that Orthodoxy has no interest in “hell” (accommodating to whatever word or image you prefer to use) and that the content of the original post is therefore “misguided”.

    Certainly there is ambiguity here, but it seems clear to me that the original post is addressing a theology that does exist, as opposed to a fabrication, caricature, gross misreading or projection.


  20. The comments on here are so lengthy (reminds me of myself … and why I perhaps shouldn’t do that) that I would like to only add a link to my chapter on Orthodox eschatology and the afterlife in St. Gregory of Nyssa’s ‘De Vita Moysis’ in ‘Compassionate Eschatology: The Future As Friend’ (Wipf & Stock, 2011) as the backdrop to why we should be permitted to hope:

    Of course, this permission to hope doesn’t and should’t come from other Orthodox Christians anyway; although these discussions and the fine distinctions, nuances, and subtleties in them are important—clumsily putting words to what’s ineffable (and in the future, i.e., that which hasn’t even happened yet)—the permission to hope ultimately comes from partaking of the same divinity that conquered death and emptied hell.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, Andrew, for sharing with us this paper on St Gregory Nyssen.

      I agree with you that “permission to hope” is given to us by the gospel itself and our participation in the life of Christ. Within this life, we cannot but hope absolutely. The positing of eternal damnation for others is thus to step outside the circle of faith and to approach the matter from a purely philosophical-logical viewpoint, as if we had not already heard and known the gospel.


  21. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Brad has added a postscript to his article. Do take a gander.


  22. Karen says:

    Once again, we have a challenge even to the “hope” for universal salvation–a challenge given in the name of “what Christians have always believed up until very recently”. That can be found here:

    The podcast seems to make reference to this article:

    I would love to see a careful and informed critique of Kh. Frederica’s assertions and conclusions. Many of her claims certainly have a sort of down-to-earth “common sense” appeal. Certainly, I would agree with her there is a strong argument for upholding Christ’s warnings of Final Judgment and the possibility of hell as the Tradition has consistently done. I would note we can hardly avoid this if we are faithfully following the Church lectionary and Feasts and Fasts, and I have never heard an Orthodox Universalist, of the convinced or hopeful variety, who would advocate for anything else. That said, I found myself suspecting her representation of Met. Kallistos’ discussion in the above article wasn’t quite accurate. And after reading the article, my impression was her claim to be representing the gist of Met. Kallistos falls short in a few areas–primarily because she draws conclusions from Met. Kallistos’ admission that we ought not conclude that God’s desire for the salvation of all makes this salvation “automatic” or “inevitable”, that go beyond those of Met. Kallistos himself. Her argument also contains an emphasis that many facets of the Metropolitan’s exploration of St. Silouan’s mindset (such as the inherent unity of humankind and of the cosmos in salvation–our personal salvation is linked to the salvation of the entire world) would tend to work against. Nowhere to be found from the lips of St. Silouan or Fr. Sophrony or Met. Kallistos are the claims of Kh. Frederica that Trinitarian Universalism is absent from the early history of the Church and is “recent” and that it necessarily results in a lack of zeal “to go out of our comfort zone” to proclaim the gospel (among other things) either. Finally, I do not see how one can pray for the salvation of all without a real hope there is the possibility, through the grace of God, such prayer can be answered–indeed, a hope that is stronger than the philosophical and logical certainty that seems to be exhibited in most writing or preaching that claims to represent traditional orthodoxy on this subject today that Christ and the Scriptures teach an unending/irreversible torment in hell can be the only end for those who obviously reject Christ in this life. Also, given our knowledge (if we are discerning and honest) of our own relative (in)capacity to lay hold of and attract the grace of God coupled with our manifest lack of ability to see anything but the external appearance of the vast majority of those who would seem in our estimation to be Christ’s enemies, the counsel of the fathers that we ought only entertain the thought, “All will be saved and I alone will perish” would seem more prudent than the call for the faithful to abandon all hope for those who enter hell!


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      If someone (hint, hint) will sponsor the transcription of Kh. Frederica’s podcast, I will attempt a response. Perhaps Brad might also be prevailed upon to compose a response.


    • Connie says:

      Thank you Karen! It would be great if Kh. Frederica could see (and really hear!) what you are saying. And I too would love to see Fr. Aidan’s response to her. I might possibly even make the time to transcribe the podcast to that end if nobody else does. But I have to admit it would be quite a sacrifice on my part. When I saw this podcast come up on Ancient Faith I couldn’t bear to listen to it (and still would rather not have to), knowing how in a previous article of hers she saw Kallistos Ware’s “hope” only through a deeply entrenched infernalist lens. It was extra disappointing because I really do enjoy her take on things generally.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Connie, if you go to the podcast (, you will see on the right an option to donate $10.50 to sponsor the transcription.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Connie, do you recall the article in which Frederica addressed the universalist hope? I remember seeing it (I think), but I did not save the URL.


        • Connie says:

          Fr Aidan, I read it from a link you posted on your facebook page – or it could have been Eclectic Orthodoxy’s fb page. But I just now googled and found it. Here is the link:

          This was the paragraph I specifically remember which in my opinion betrayed her ignorance:

          “So we should not assert with any confidence that all will be saved. Might things actually turn out that way? We have no way of knowing. But it seems clear that we are not supposed to assume it. We are nowhere even invited to hope it. I think that is because, if we dwell hopefully on the likelihood that all will be saved, it greatly undermines our motivation to preach Christ to unbelievers.”

          It was so odd because she begins her piece by telling how immensely helpful Kallistos Ware’s article was and yet all throughout his article Met Ware does indeed invite us to hope.


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