Does anyone else get the feeling that Fr John’s heart is only half-convinced of his defense of eternal damnation?
It’s hard to say from such a brief clip. He’s seems to me much more heartened by the truth of the possibility of freedom to repent beyond the grave (understandably so), but he does seem to want to also firmly uphold the reality of the possibility of an habituated addiction to bondage in our passions that can also impede repentance beyond the grave and paralyze one from the inside in the torment of damnation (not that God from the outside restrains one there). There are also many accounts of those (both inside and outside the Orthodox Tradition) given visions of life beyond the grave that have shown the experience of something like a hell from which the one experiencing it expected and saw no possibility of escape for themselves and fellow occupants. That is a message of the Tradition that it seems to me we can’t outrun, no matter how we may want to. I’m not sure we should want to outrun that message, which is different, however, than saying we should not trust that through the mercy and grace of God, it may be possible to outrun the actual eventuality of a never-ending hell through prayer and repentance such that the reality end up that everyone be saved (another message equally strong in the Tradition). However, my conviction is that messages we have from the Tradition and the tensions they produce are given for us to work out our own salvation on this side of the grave–they do not allow us to penetrate beyond the grave through discursive reasoning and logical projection, which barrier may only be dissolved (and this only fully when we ourselves pass beyond that barrier) in faith, hope and love through our own theosis and real Communion with God. What seems most significant to me to realize is that my Communion with Christ is not furthered (in my experience) by resigning myself to the possibility that there may (even perhaps must) be those who will be eternally damned, but by throwing myself ever more forcefully on the mercy of Christ and the power of His Pascha to save me and all others, knowing that if I, the chief of sinners, do not despair of my own salvation, then neither need I despair of the salvation of anyone else!
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“knowing that if I, the chief of sinners, do not despair of my own salvation, then neither need I despair of the salvation of anyone else!” Amen and amen.
I am not familiar with those “visions” of people in a hell-like place seeing no possibility of escape, but I can definitely believe they are part of Tradition. Anyone who has experienced the hell of addiction probably experiences something very similar. It seems there would have to be a certain amount of despair/ hopelessness in St Isaac’s Gehenna.
Fr John Behr does say that Death is educative and that only when we’re brought to nothing can we know God’s strength. So he starts on a hopeful note. But then he implies that someone might resist God for all eternity on the basis that “The more you become habituated to things [such as smoking] the harder it is to overcome them.” While we all agree that this is true (sin is damaging to our spiritual state) we also know that things often have to get worse, even catastrophic, before they get better. Some people (maybe most, maybe all) have to finally hit bottom (the natural consequences of their sin) before they can recognize that what they are truly seeking is the transcendent God.
It seems to me the crucial issue is whether the natural consequences of sin (judgment) and the absence of the lies of the evil one are ultimately capable of bringing all to repentance. I don’t think this was truly addressed in the talk.
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As you know, Connie, I agree with you completely. I don’t know where Fr John’s thinking is on this. I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes a position similar to the “hope against hope” universalism of Met Kallistos Ware, but I may be wrong.
During my time with Fr. John (he was my confessor at SVS) he never really said much about universal salvation. Though his preference for Origen was the stuff of great rumours and there was a push from several of us that he do a one semester elective where he would either read us through On First Principles or Commentary on John he cancelled shortly before it happened. Fr. John did not strike me as a universalist at the time. In fact he seemed to oppose it at the time because “death” was “the seal on our hypostasis” and revealed or shows who we are in relation to God. If we are not “saved” by then we won’t be is what I took away from that conversation with him. Though it was a long time ago and either my memory or my understanding of Fr. John may be mistaken. Still it would be my bet – if we were in fact bettung on it – that he is not a universalist.
Thanks, Fr Gregory. Your memories support what we hear in the interview.
In what way might the lies of the evil one cease to exist and in what ways might they continue beyond the grave and beyond the Judgment (since the devil and his demons also continue to be present for those in Gehenna presumably)? I’m not exactly sure what you meant by asking whether ” . . . the absence of the lies of the evil one are capable of bringing one to repentance?”. It seems to me if we are conceiving of a life beyond the grave where a Gehenna-like experience can be present at all, we cannot assume there is such an absence of lies for those imprisoned in such a Gehenna. Since God is Truth and it is only those who hate that Truth that go to Gehenna, isn’t the fact that Gehenna exists at all for some evidence that there are those who will still perpetrate and cling to lies rather than embrace the Truth?
We have the image of the “Toll Houses” from Orthodoxy that suggests the demons will still try to tempt us beyond the grave in that transition (at least until our place is firmly established in Paradise beyond the particular judgment) and that if there are areas where we have persistently yielded to the demons in this life, they can succeed in taking us as their captives there as well. I interpret Orthodox Tradition to teach that whatever the direction of our heart’s momentum on earth, we can expect it to continue on that trajectory beyond the grave. There are those here bound in many sins, yet whose heart is not in those sins (i.e., who have genuinely repented already, who hate their sin, but who still through force of habit and in their weaknesses in this life fall into those sins–Romans 7), who we may have confidence will finally be fully freed from those sins beyond the grave. But the Tradition seems also to clearly teach there will be those who die genuinely loving their sins and hating God, whose heart’s momentum is away from Him. The fire that cleanses the first is embraced, but that same fire simply burns and torments the latter and hardens them in their sin precisely for the reason that they refuse to embrace it. Is there the possibility of an infinite regress away from God, just as there will be infinite progress for the repentant in participation into God in the next life? I don’t know the answer to that, but many voices from within the Tradition answer yes.
Inasmuch as Orthodox Tradition doesn’t allow complete annihilation of the unrepentant in the next life to be a correct interpretation of Scripture, but affirms God’s will is that such continue to exist and not regress to complete non-existence is perhaps to allow us to posit that by God’s providence there is a “bottom” for each soul in hell-fire. What such a hypostatic soul shall genuinely be capable of willing at this “bottom” is shrouded in mystery, though we do know what would fulfill such a person’s nature. Using this analogy and looking again at the realities in this life, aren’t there alcoholics that just bounce from one “bottom” to a deeper until they kill themselves? Since alcohol actually kills many in this life, who never overcome the addition, what does this tell us about the momentum possible in the next life? We also have the story in Dostoyevky (if I recall correctly) of an evil woman whose only good deed in this life was to once give an onion to a beggar. When she died she was assigned her rightful place in torment and her angel begged God wasn’t there something to be done to get her out. God asked was there any good deed she did, and the angel affirmed her gift of the onion to the beggar. The onion was sufficient to tether her to heaven and God began to pull her out by it, but when others in hell saw she was being lifted out, they grabbed her feet and began trying to piggy back out as well. The woman looking back kicked these away lest these prevent her own ascent (self-interest still being the reigning principle in her heart), and immediately the connection to God through the onion shattered and was gone and she fell back into hell. The question to be asked to which the Tradition seems to answer “no” is, is the natural will when/while the hypostatic will refuses to align with it enough to pull us out of hell?
One (who had a conversion to a heterodox faith in Christ as a result of his experience) saw in his vision (and most of such “visions” that I am recalling here were in the context of some kind of near death experience) that there were those imprisoned in torment who when entreated to call out to God for deliverance began to say the exact same kinds of things that imprison people while still in this life in rebellion against Him. They didn’t want anything to do with “a God who allowed” what He did to happen on earth, and were persisting in regarding themselves as undeserving victims of their fate. In this particular vision, their fate consisted in being attacked by the demons in precisely the same way they sinned against others in this life. In effect, they were experiencing exactly what they put others through here on earth and in exactly proportional measure to the degree to which they were willfully inclined to do so here on earth.
Having said all that, I return to the notion you have brought up of “hitting bottom”. Is it possible for the torments of hell (or the anticipated torments of hell) to bring about such a “bottom” that actually makes repentance as a reversal of momentum eventually possible for those who don’t get there in this life? Or to ask the question another way, will the hypostatic will eventually be rendered capable to “see” and embrace the natural will and with it, God? The tricky part is that it seems to me the Tradition seems to suggest this was theoretically possible by the grace of God at any place along the route even while in this life, but it didn’t happen. It further teaches that exposure to the fire of God effectively hardens the hypostatic will in its rebellion if indeed that is fully its trajectory at physical death.
Well Karen, I guess I am on shaky ground when it comes to all lies ceasing in Gehenna. Of course what happens in Gehenna is all conjecture on our part. I somehow can easily imagine that when a wretched sinner entrenched in hatred finally meets Love face to face he will be confronted forcefully and possibly very painfully with what he has really become, how he has hurt those who were in reality his hope, how he has succumbed to the lies of the Evil One. But you’re right in that there must be some sort of truth withheld for him to experience despair. While I firmly believe lies do ultimately cease, I clearly don’t know what I’m talking about on that front. 🙂
But I stick with the rest of what I said. I know it is easy to imagine that once one becomes so incapacitated by sin he is beyond healing. But it is just as easy to imagine that however incapacitated one is with hatred toward God, an all-loving God in His infinite resourcefulness will find a way to healing. George McDonald in Lilith illustrates precisely how one so completely hardened in her hatred toward God can be turned around. Fr Aidan has written wonderfully about this: https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2015/10/25/george-macdonald-and-the-salvation-of-lilith/ So what I’m trying to say is that the simple fact that one can be thoroughly besmirched, even incapacitated, through long practice, by sin and hatred does not support a conclusion in either direction.
That there are many in the Tradition who assert the possibility of an infinite regress away from God means nothing to me. And their arguments and “visions” and tollhouses and stories mean nothing to me. I can only consider it providential that there are also the saints (perhaps many, according to Ilaria Ramelli) who set themselves against this line of thinking. I’m with them. That spark in man that desires the transcendent and makes him human cannot disintegrate into nothing. I have only to look at a child to know that. God will fan the flame. To speculate how is sheer conjecture. But I must conclude from the very nature of Love that the judgment from the Father of all Creation is reparative. And, according to the multitude of verses that affirm a final reconciliation of all things, wildly and gloriously successful.
“knowing that if I, the chief of sinners, do not despair of my own salvation, then neither need I despair of the salvation of anyone else!”
Might it also work in reverse?
YES! I can’t answer for Karen, but at least for me, as I think about it, it works better in reverse — much better. This I know: Only if I have confidence that God saves all others can I have confidence that He will save me, chief of sinners.
It was in interesting video to be sure. I have not heard Fr. John explain his thoughts in these terms before. But are indeed entirely consistent with how he spoke back then. He took great pleasure in pointing out the paradoxical meaning in the subtitle to his book “The Mystery of Christ” (which was required reading in one of his courses) namely “Life in Death.” When asked he admitted once (this was rare) that his thought was not simply derived from patristics & Scripture – again based on mere memory – but also from George Lindbeck and Heidegger. I remember that there was a discussion where Fr. John mentioned he incorporated some of Heidegger’s philosophy of death into his thought of “the seal of the hypostasis.” I never read up on Heidegger though. Perhaps this provides you – who are much better read than I am – with a deeper understanding of Fr. John’s thoughts as expressed in the video above?
Yes, it might work in reverse (and perhaps even better in reverse for some, as Connie is convinced is the case for her), but with caveats (the first option has caveats as well, IMO).
One danger of the original construal is that I will be so overwhelmed by the reality of myself as the chief of sinners and/or of Christ as the Righteous Judge that I will despair altogether of my salvation and instead become the prey of the wolf of souls. (IMO, it is a strength of the Orthodox Liturgical tradition that it continually emphasizes the mercy of God in His unchanging “good will toward men and desire that all men be saved” and Christ’s overwhelming victory in “trampling down death by death.” This is as opposed to some of the more dour Reformed and Protestant liturgical and preaching emphases on “total depravity”, God’s “just judgment/condemnation of sinners”, etc.). The danger of the second is in basing my confidence on a theoretical/philosophical construction of why/how God shall save all, rather than a real, experiential and progressively deeper Communion in God Himself, I shall become complacent about or blinded to the real ongoing concrete effects of sin on my own (and others’) heart and cease striving for salvation as I otherwise might, only to discover (too late to make the correction) what I have done to myself and against my Lord at my own particular judgment beyond the grave, which shall be a type of Gehenna indeed!
The trouble with discussions like this, as I see it, is that the Tradition, having never been established in this way in the first place, is not very amenable to mere abstract theorizing and logical projection based on the data of the Scriptures (considered in this merely discursive way)! Orthodox Tradition is, first of all, a concrete experience of Christ through the Holy Spirit, which concrete experience is only imperfectly translated into the language of the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church. This experience for the believer the Tradition seems to promise is only realized through concrete efforts to practice all Christ’s commands and by its nurture in the sacramental life of the Church (i.e., by the grace of the Holy Spirit), and my experience is that, although at points necessary in the sense that our discursive reason does play a role in our decisions and desire to practice our faith, discursive reasoning about such things can also become a powerful distraction to this process and threaten to become a substitute for it even. I think you will probably agree, it is only through our real, practical experience of God that this question of whom God can/will save will ever be resolved in a fully satisfying way.
For me all the above prompts the question, what direct role does our discursive reasoning about what is written in the Fathers and the Scriptures play, if any, in our ability to internalize and assimilate (and practice) a real experience of Christ in His Church and thus be transformed/healed by it? At what point does it threaten our salvation and become a distraction to what it truly important for us to do/believe right now?
“Discuss amongst yourselves–I’m verklempt!” 🙂
I do not share the antithetical opposition placed between theory and practice, between philosophy and experience. That is to say, Scripture/Holy Tradition/Ecumenical Councils/Church Fathers/Philokalia/etc. sans philosophy is myth, a rhetorical myth. Take metaphysics, philosophy, reasoning, theo-logizing out of Christianity and one will be left nothing. Well, nothing worth keeping. In short, not only is reasoning is not a threat, it is absolutely necessary for healing, transformation, salvation.
True opposition however is between the different approaches to metaphysics, theology, philosophy. One such approach is by means of analogia fidei, and another is approach via the analogia entis. If we see reason (and subsequent faith) as the only possibility of any relation to God, the role of reason and our view of God and salvation is going to be understood quite differently from an ontological approach to existence.
I should clarify, perhaps, that I don’t see an antipathy between reason (or philosophy) in the full biblical sense and practice/experience, so much as a reversal of a spiritual hierarchical order or severance of a necessary connection between them as a result of the Fall, and especially of the modern nominalist/rationalist mindset of what “reason” actually entails.
I’m not well read enough in academic philosophy and theology to easily understand what is meant by analogia entis vs. analogia fidei to appreciate at a glance the distinction you make here (though I’m sure Fr. Aidan has discussed these at his site). Likely, I speak from much more common, popular notions of what is under discussion than from the more technical and refined philosophical distinctions of meaning the more educated folks who can read and understand at that level would make. From my background in developmental psychology, I also frequently resort for an analogy to Piaget’s description and explanation of the careful observations he made about how the human being learns and develops in stages from infancy to maturity. The infant forms very basic conceptual frameworks from sense experience that widens as he grows. These frameworks become increasingly complex and able to accommodate a greater breadth and depth of sense experience as the child develops and interacts in his environment. What I notice is the very integral relationship between the conceptual paradigm and concrete experience. In our contemporary setting in the wider intellectual and spiritual climate (not necessarily referring to educated and devout Christians here, but these are also impacted), it seems to me those two aspects of learning have been very much separated from one another, and what is often under discussion in the realm of philosophy and metaphysics in the abstract is little more than delusion, and the connections being made to concrete events and relationships in the world that are truly present are more “magical” than real (we have rationalism and nominalism on the one hand and New Age and occultism on the other). That is, the conceptual connections being made are wholly erroneous or seriously deficient in some way or another. I don’t mean to disparage, however, our efforts to improve the quality and accuracy of those connections.
Reason is no more subject to delusion than practice. The two are indiscerptible. Separation of reason from experience is a rhetorical slight of hand.
My objection is to the juxtaposition and the characterization made between Tradition and ‘abstract theorizing and logical projection.’ To the point in the conversation – of the two diverse interpretations of the ‘chief of sinners’, neither interpretation is more or less according to Tradition than the other. Neither is more or less ‘abstract theorizing’ than the other. Without ‘abstract theorizing’ there would be no Tradition, no Trinitarian theology, christology, protology, etc.
I think what I am picturing are the kind of arguments common among the more rationalist Protestant types where the goal of the argument is to score the most points in the debate and come up with the most airtight theological “system”. The one who scores the most logical points wins. Period. Theosis has nothing to do with it. Too often those thus engaged do not notice their m.o. distracts them from the one thing most needful and that their heart remains dark. That’s the kind of detachment of “reason” and experience I don’t like. Diligent attention to the one thing most needful, however, brings fruitful reflection with it as we see in the Fathers.
I am, when it comes down to it, a very concrete thinker. I get very lost when there is too much abstraction going on.
Can you explain to me a little more what you mean by reason being no more subject to delusion than practice? A concrete example would be helpful.
Sure Karen, the NT is rife of examples of practice turned delusional: the various pharasaical ritual obsessions, Saul’s murderous zeal, rampant sexism and racism couched in religious terms, and so forth. There’s absolutely no justification whatsoever to suppose practice is intrinsically more or less prone to delusion than is reason. I understand what you are picturing, all too well, and it is all too facile. For every Protestant delusional debate about theological points we can pose the equally delusional Orthodox debates about old vs new calendar.
I am not entirely unsympathetic to your point – yes of course we must be careful with how we use and approach reason, philosophy, metaphysics. My point however is that we must be equally vigilant, certainly no less so, with our use of and approach to practice and experience.
Thanks, Robert. I thought that’s what you might have in mind, but don’t wrong practices flow from wrong beliefs? Pharisaism, racism and sexism, etc., are beliefs before they are practices, right? “Delusion”, by definition, belongs to the realm of belief and concept, doesn’t it? Practices are only “delusional” in a secondary sense. Of course, if we are habituated to delusional practices because we are raised or indoctrinated in them, this may also influence our beliefs. There is this integral connection. What I am wondering is don’t practice and experience have the potential to bring us up against reality in a way that philosophy per se doesn’t? To take what is probably another “facile” construct, we may believe attaching wings to our arms may give us the ability to soar aloft, but if we jump off a cliff this way, we will encounter the laws of physics and biology in a way we did not expect and learn something that changes our belief. Experiential reality has this potential for correcting wrong concepts. On the other hand, perhaps rigorous logical examination of our beliefs has the same potential to correct them? Maybe I just have an undue faith in the value of a sort of spiritual empiricism?
I think you are right that in one sense, and strictly speaking, practices do stem from beliefs. This of course strengthens my contention. Even still not all that we do is consciously done, with deliberate understanding of ‘why’ it is done (someone else is doing the thinking). In that sense also, what we do can hardly be seen to be exempt from delusion. The status quo behavior, practices, customs and so forth, all these become the de facto accepted standard against which normality is judged. It is when practices are questioned by thinking, brave souls that the underlying beliefs can be shown to be based on false assumptions. The point being with all this is that merely relying on experience is no more or less a safeguard against delusion than is our thought life. Recall now the juxtaposition you proposed favoring experience over theory, ‘The danger of the second is in basing my confidence on a theoretical/philosophical construction of why/how God shall save all, rather than a real, experiential and progressively deeper Communion in God Himself.’
In traditional circles it is of course all the rage to downplay philosophy, theory, metaphysics. It is perceived as a threat, prone to delusion. This is passed of as a ‘given’ – but this is a rhetorical move to which I strongly object – it doesn’t hold up to life, Scripture, the Fathers, the Christian faith en toto.
I haven’t been following the conversation closely (sorry!), but I thought I’d jump in with two thoughts (actually, one thought and one question; actually not one question but a couple):
1) The now established Orthodox understanding of eternal damnation (God loves us but the damned eternally rejects his love) is itself grounded in a philosophical construal of free will and synergism. It’s not as if it’s simply read off the surface of the biblical text.
2) What is the purpose of the threat of hell in the discourse of the Church? It’s there. There’s no denying its presence. But what does the preacher who employs it hope to accomplish at that moment? Is the threat diminished if, on another occasion, the preacher declares the unconditional love of the Father who never abandons his children?
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