I have received several emails and text messages from fellow Orthodox Christians who share the universalist hope but who are now asking themselves whether they can, or even may, remain in the Orthodox Church. Over the past year, several parish priests and lay apologists have publicly declared the teaching of apokatastasis heretical, and even those who have distinguished between apokatastasis and hope have intimated that the hope will likely prove empty. Thus the wonderful Frederica Mathewes-Green:
So I don’t think we can assert with any confidence that everyone is going to be saved, and certainly we have not, throughout Christian history, throughout the history of all denominations until recent centuries, and of course in our Orthodox Church. The assumption has always been that some people are going to spend eternity in torment, because that’s what Jesus says, that there will be an outer darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. There’s got to be somebody there making those noises. It’s not like it’s a “Halloween sounds” cassette. Those noises are being generated by someone in agony, and as horrible as it is to think about, that’s where our faith has always come down, and that we have been under tremendous pressure not to say that in the last few centuries as evident, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t still true.
So we can’t assert with any confidence that all people are going to be saved. It might be things actually turn out that way, though; maybe they will. Nevertheless, we can’t say for sure, but it might be the case. I think it’s possible. I think about “God wills that all be saved,” and if God wills something, is his will ultimately done? Is his will going to be done? I don’t think we can rule it out. I see very clearly that we’re not allowed to assume it. We cannot assert that this is the case, but some people approach this, as we say, as we are allowed to hope; we are allowed to hope that hell will be empty; we are allowed to hope that no one will suffer eternal torment; we are allowed to hope.
I just sound like I’m being cranky, but I think it’s pretty clear that we’re not allowed to hope that. We’re not allowed to hope that.
At this point I think we have to be honest and admit that if Frederica is right (and Brad Jersak therefore wrong), then it is improper for Orthodox Christians to speak of a universalist hope. Perhaps we might speak of a universalist wish, but there is a difference between the truth and what we wish were true, a difference between hoping for an outcome based on solid grounds, such as the character of God and the paschal victory of Christ, and wishing for an exceptionally improbable, if not impossible, outcome, given the logic of libertarian freedom and the incorrigible wickedness of so many. Fr Patrick Reardon has gone so as to virtually forbid hoping for the salvation of all: “No, we do not dare to hope for such a thing. It is a delirious fantasy, not a proper object of Christian hope, or a proper subject for Christian speculation.” Fr Andrew Damick describes the preaching of universalism as “pastoral malpractice,” though he admits the permissibility of hope, for “hope admits the possibility that it may not happen but that we desire it anyway.” Again I have to wonder whether we talking about hoping or wishing.
Fr Lawrence Farley, pastor, author, and podcaster, has recently published several critical articles on the greater hope:
Fr Lawrence writes clearly and well. His articles invite substantive engagement and at specific points rebuttal. I intend to blog on them in the near future. I hope I can do so in the same thoughtful spirit in which these articles have been written.
May Orthodox Christians hope and pray for the salvation of all? Yes, I say, yes! If we believe that God is absolute love, if we believe that by cross and resurrection Christ Jesus has conquered death, emptied hades, and given birth to a new creation, then we may, and indeed must, hope for the salvation of all. The gospel of Pascha invites such hope, commends such hope, demands such hope. Not mere wishing … but confident hoping and bold praying.