by Pastor Thomas Belt
“God has put all things under his [Christ’s] feet. But when it says, “All things are put in subjection under him,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be all in all.” (1 Cor 15.27f)
I had an Alex Grey painting in mind for this post because I like the way it illustrates the unity of all things in the Logos. But reason won out and I went with St Maximus instead. I’ve been listening in on the disagreements here over Maximus the Confessor’s eschatology. For my own part, I start at the end, with Paul’s conviction (1Cor 15.28) that God shall be “all in all.” It’s a wonderfully sobering and challenging vision to contemplate. But what exactly is Paul imagining? It’s already the case that God is “over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4.6) and that “Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3.11). Is Paul imagining something else when he speaks of God’s being “all in all”? Or does this thought simply repeat God’s all-encompassing sustaining presence in the world?
Mention was made in one conversation that Maximus’ triple ontology of nature (physis), subsistence (hypostasis), and mode (tropos) of being suggests that God is “all in all” in that God gives subsistence to all things but that this is fulfilled irrespective of their final mode of being. One may rest finally perfected in God as one’s end and fulfillment, or one may resolve oneself permanently in absolute self-contradiction and failure to rest in God as one’s end. Both modes manifest God’s being “all in all.”
I have no special expertise to interpret Maximus with any authority, but I am a fan for life, and what I have come to appreciate about (and be moved by) Maximus prompts serious doubts in me about whether it can be said that he believed God’s being “all in all” is reducible to God’s merely sustaining rational created beings in whatever mode of being finally defines them, whether they rest finally in God as their end or are finally and permanently lost. I want to suggest that this cannot be Maximus’ view of things, and I take my cue not especially from any single line from Maximus (though in my final reference from Ambiguum 7 I think he is explicit), but from the sustained logic of his cosmology, specifically his understanding of created beings as “moved by desire” (an “appetitive movement”). It seems to me that Maximus understood rational created beings as irrevocably open to God and moved by a desire for the Good which cannot rest until it is satiated in God.
Let me start with Ambiguum 7 (Constas’s translation):
From these examples we are able conjecturally to derive an image—not of that participation in goodness which existed long ago and fell to corruption—but that of which the worthy shall partake in the age to come; and I say an ‘image’ because what we hope for is beyond all images, surpassing vision and hearing and understanding, according to Scripture. Moreover, this perhaps may be the subjection of which St. Paul speaks when he describes the Son subjecting to the Father those who freely accept to be subjected to him, after which, or rather on account of which, the last enemy, death, will be destroyed.
Paul’s point in 1Cor 15.28 cannot be simply to repeat the fact that God created and sustains the world. In Paul’s argument God isn’t “all in all” until all things are under the Son’s authority and the Son himself is made subject to the Father (“so that” God may be all in all). God’s being “all in all,” then, is the consequence of Christ’s uniting all things under his rule and then submitting them, with himself, to the Father. I’m not suggesting God does not embrace all things presently, giving them being. He does. But this in itself is not his being “all in all” in the sense Paul expects.
Eschatologically speaking, then, can it be the case that Maximus believed God will be equally “all in all” both in those perfected and glorified in Christ and in those eternally perverse and forever estranged from him? If so, God’s being “all in all” would not be convertible with God’s being creation’s end or telos. The irrevocably lost will have failed absolutely to rest finally in God and in this very state God will be “all in all.” This strikes me as very unlike Maximus, for in this case creation’s intended end in God would not be God’s intended end in creation. This appears to violate Maximus’ ontology of created being grounded in God. Consider a few further comments from Ambiguum 7:
…everything that has received its being ex nihilo is in motion (since all things are necessarily carried along toward some cause), then noting that moves has yet come to rest, because its capacity for appetitive movement has not yet come to repose in what it ultimately desires, for nothing but the appearance of the ultimate object of desire can bring to rest that which is carried along by the power of its own nature.
…no created being has yet ceased from the natural power that moves it to its proper end, neither has it found rest from the activity that impels it toward its proper end….
…[rational creatures] are moved from their natural beginning in being toward a voluntary end in well-being. For the end of the motion of things that are moved is to rest within eternal well-being itself, just as their beginning was being itself, which is God, who is the giver of being and the bestower of the grace of well-being, for he is the beginning and the end. For from God come both our general power of motion (for he is our beginning), and the particular way that we move toward him, for he is our end. [emphases all mine]
Maximus’ “movement” is an “appetitive movement” (Amb. 7), a “desire” that moves us, and “nothing but the appearance of the ultimate object of desire [God] can bring to rest that which is carried along by the power of its own nature.” This “movement,” then, is not something added to the nature of rational creatures, a contingent mode (tropos) of its being. We may variously misrelate to our end. But even then, we misrelate within its invitation. We cannot misrelate out of it absolutely and so escape the God-given structures of created rationality as “appetitive movement.” This is a huge thought with enormous implications for eschatology.
In his book The Christocentric Cosmology of St Maximus the Confessor (esp. ch 3), Torstein Tollefsen speaks at length of Maximus’ view of the divine logoi (God’s loving designs for created things, convertible with his sustaining act within them). Tollefsen argues they are both “irreducible and God-willed.” Being uncreated, the logoi and the Logos are one and the logoi are thus “open” to the Logos. Pseudo-Dionysius identifies them as “divine acts of will” intended individually. In his contribution to The Oxford Handbook of Maximus the Confessor, Marius Portaru describes them as “created essences marked by a Godward movement” and argues that they define our “existential scope.” I love this last description. The existential connection is crucial because it bridges the logoi as God’s sustaining act in creatures to the whole realm of their future possibilities. The logoi delimit the scope of possibilities for creaturely becoming. They are our ‘eschatological essence’ if you will, and as such they speak to the question of whether or not an irrevocable foreclosure of appetitive movement is imaginable within Maximus.
Tollefsen comments on Ambiuum 10’s metaphysics of prepositions:
In Ambiguum 10 Maximus employs the three prepositions εκ, εν, and εις to characterize the relation between created beings and God. Everything has come to be from (εκ) God, is held together in (εν) Him, and ‘everything will convert to Him’ (εις αυτον τα παντα επιστρεφεσθαι).
My interest here is to bring this aspect of Maximus’ thought into relationship with the question being debated, namely the possibility that Maximus held to an understanding of hell as irrevocable and absolute privation of created being sustained by God with no “capacity for appetitive movement.” This would seem to be a real violation of the logic of his overall cosmology and specific claims he makes about created nature. One would have to suppose Maximus to have believed (in spite of all that is explicit in his writing on the matter) that created rational beings may:
- irrevocably foreclose upon themselves all “appetitive movement” toward the Good,
- permanently revoke the transcendental orientation of their being,
- reconstitute themselves without reference or openness to the divine logoi,
- be sustained by God while being void of God’s logoi,
- become those for whom God imparts existence but who are no longer constituted for God as their end—in other words, a non-teleological act of God.
Such an end state is, as far as I understand Maximus, impossible even to conceive.
Allow me one final quote from Ambiguum 7 (around 1076C):
I am not implying the destruction of our power of self-determination, but rather affirming our fixed and unchangeable natural disposition, that is, a voluntary surrender of the will, so that from the same source whence we received our being, we should also long to receive being moved, like an image that has ascended to its archetype, corresponding to it completely, in the way that an impression corresponds to its stamp, so that henceforth it has neither the inclination nor the ability to be carried elsewhere….
Where does his thought end? It ends with our longing to receive being moved, our corresponding to the divine will the way an impression corresponds to its stamp so that henceforth we have neither the inclination nor the ability to be carried elsewhere. What is he describing? Our irrevocable conformity to the divine image. Those who freely surrender themselves to God finally become incapable of willing otherwise (“having neither inclination nor ability to be carried elsewhere”), finally and unchangeably disposed to willing God in all things.
So far so good. But where does the thought start? What is it about us that gets us there? Maximus is explicit. It is “our fixed and unchangeable natural disposition” (την κατα φυσιν παγιαν τε και αμεταθετον) to be at liberty to voluntarily surrender ourselves to God. We are, if I may rephrase things, irrevocably open to God. He cannot suppose this fixed and unchangeable disposition to be a fixed openness both to surrender to and to reject God. On the contrary, Maximus explicitly says this unchanging natural disposition exists “so that” we might in fact become irrevocably fixed in willing God alone, finally having “neither inclination nor ability to be carried elsewhere.” The capacity to choose other than God is ours presently, but it does not define what Maximus believes is “fixed and unchangeable” about our nature. Rather, it is the irrevocable openness to move freely (if even precariously at first) toward God so that eventually, having freely “longed to receive being moved,” we come to have neither inclination nor ability to will anything but God.
What of the claim that Maximus explicitly declared his belief in the traditional view of an eternal hell? I don’t pretend Maximus is easy to interpret. But I think the texts in which he appears to affirm an irrevocable torment are plausibly understood otherwise, while I see no plausible alternative to understanding him here as claiming that our “natural disposition” (Constas), or simply our “nature,” is “fixed and unchangeably” (irrevocably) open to God. We can end our journey in God. We cannot end it anywhere else. The ‘traditional’ view of Maximus on this question must suppose him to have believed human nature capable of irrevocable dispositional foreclosure against God. But then what could he possibly mean in the above passages?
However silent Maximus may have chosen to be regarding the possibility of final apokatastasis, it seems impossible for the logic of what he does say not to betray him. As I say, I’m no expert on Maximus, but if he was a consistent thinker who took his own metaphysics seriously, it seems to me he could not have anticipated the final, irrevocable privation of rational beings.