What is Orthodox Hell?

What is the Orthodox doctrine of hell? I honestly do not know. I do know what many Orthodox have taught about hell during the past hundred years or so, and I know some­thing about what the Church Fathers taught about it during the first millennium of the Church’s history; but I cannot tell you what the Orthodox Church authoritatively and irreformably teaches about hell, beyond the fact that it is a horrifying possibility and therefore a destiny best avoided. As the Orthodox Church sings at the Saturday Vespers of the Sunday of the Last Judgment:

When the thrones are set in place and the books are opened, then God will take His place on the judgment-seat.
What a fearful sight! 
As the angels stand in awe and the river of fire flows by:
What shall we do, who are already condemned by our many sins, as we hear Christ call the righteous to His Father’s Kingdom, and send the wicked to eternal damnation? Who among us can bear that terrible verdict?
 Hasten to us, Lover of mankind and King of the universe: 
Grant us the grace of repentance before the end and have mercy on us!

The hymns of the Sunday of the Last Judgment might seem to give the definitive word, yet they, like the Scriptures, need to be interpreted in light of Pascha and the totality of the Holy Tradition.

My inability to present a definitive answer to the question “What does the Orthodox Church authoritatively and irreformably teach about hell?” is partly determined by the fact that a huge portion of the Eastern theological patrimony has never been translated into English. I read neither Greek, Russian, Romanian, Serbian, or Syriac. I suspect that my position is not that different from most other English-speaking Orthodox believers, including the clergy. The fact that so much theological reflection is inaccessible to us puts us at significant disadvantage. This doesn’t mean that the ordinary American parish priest does not believe that he knows what the authoritative Orthodox understanding of hell is. Quite the contrary. Over the past century a  com­pelling, construal of hell and perdition has been received as the Orthodox posi­tion; and this construal, we are often told, is dramati­cally different from what is taught in Catholicism and Protes­tantism. Archimandrite [now Bishop] Irenei Steenberg has described this view as “hell is heaven experienced differ­ently.” God does not retribu­tively punish the damned, nor does he separate himself from them. He continuously pours oug his uncreated Light upon all humanity, yet because the lost have rejected the divine mercy and love, they experience the Light as torment. God does not actively inflict anguish and pain at the Last Judgment; rather, he allows the damned to experience the suffering they have freely and irreversibly chosen. Hell is hatred of Love and refusal of communion. This view may be found in the writings of John Romanides, George Metallinos, Hierotheos Vlachos, Dumitru Staniloae, Vladimir Lossky, and Jean-Claude Larchet. Differences exist between these theologians, but they are united in pushing retributive considerations to the back­ground and emphasizing perdition as self-damnation. For popular presentations see “The River of Fire” by Alexandre Kalomiros; A Study of Hell by Nick Aiello; “Heaven and Hell in the Afterlife” by Peter Chopelas; “Hell and God’s Love” by Eric Simpson; and “Why We Need Hell” by Frederica Mathewes-Green. The “hell is heaven experienced differently” view can perhaps be traced back to St Maximus the Confessor and St John of Damascus; yet as Steenberg notes, questions can be raised whether it represents the consensual teaching of the Church Fathers: “this view has little to no grounding in either the Scriptural or patristic heritage of the Church, and in fact that heritage very regularly makes assertions that wholly deny the possibility of this view.” At the very least, we may say that the Tradition presents us with a diversity of testimonies that resist easy harmo­nization (see the patristic citations I compiled ten years ago).

Unfortunately, it is not an easy matter for an English-speaking non-scholar to assess the patristic roots of the “hell is heaven experienced differently” thesis. Search high and low but you will not find a comprehensive, detailed, and in-depth scholarly discussion of the eschatology of the Church Fathers, much less of the two-thousand-year old Eastern tradi­tion—at least not in English. I find this surprising. We can find extensive discussion of what the New Testament teaches about hell, especially by Protestant scholars, and we can find extensive discussion about what the Catholic Church dogmatically teaches about hell by Catholic theologians; but when one turns to the Church Fathers (excepting Origen, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Augustine of Hippo), we hit a wall. J. N. D. Kelly devotes a couple of pages to hell and judgment in his book Early Christian Doctrines. Jaroslav Pelikan’s first volume of The Christian Tradition is even less helpful. The best survey in English of the eschatological beliefs of the Church Fathers is The Hope of the Early Church by Brian E. Daley. Anyone who wishes to research the subject at hand should probably begin with this title. Daley’s book makes clear the diversity of beliefs about hell and damnation that existed among the Fathers. One can certainly distinguish a difference in approach between the Greek and Latin traditions; but it would be a mistake to push the contrast too far. Exclud­ing those who taught some form of universal salvation, both Greek and Latin Fathers affirm that the chastisements of hell are divinely appointed and everlasting in duration. The Latins tend to emphasize the retributive dimension, but this dimension is certainly not absent in the Eastern Fathers. St John Chrysostom, one of the Three Holy Hierarchs, is particularly vivid:

It is a sea of fire—not a sea of the kind or dimensions we know here, but much larger and fiercer, with waves made of fire, fire of a strange and fearsome kind. There is a great abyss there, in fact, of terrible flames, and one can see fire rushing about on all sides like some wild animal. … There will be no one who can resist, no one who can escape: Christ’s gentle, peaceful face will be nowhere to be seen. But as those sentenced to work the mines are given over to rough men and see no more of their families, but only their taskmasters, so it will be there—or not simply so, but much worse. For here one can appeal to the Emperor for clemency, and have the prisoner released—but there, never. They will not be released, but will remain roasting and in such agony as cannot be expressed. (Homilies on Matthew 43[44].4)

And again:

For when you hear of fire, do not suppose the fire in that world to be like this: for fire in this world burns up and makes away with anything which it takes hold of; but that fire is continually burning those who have once been seized by it, and never ceases: therefore also is it called unquenchable. For those also who have sinned must put on immortality, not for honour, but to have a constant supply of material for that punishment to work upon; and how terrible this is, speech could never depict, but from the experience of little things it is possible to form some slight notion of these great ones. For if you should ever be in a bath which has been heated more than it ought to be, think then, I pray you, on the fire of hell: or again if you are ever inflamed by some severe fever transfer your thoughts to that flame, and then you will be able clearly to discern the difference. For if a bath and a fever so afflict and distress us, what will our condition be when we have fallen into that river of fire which winds in front of the terrible judgment-seat. Then we shall gnash our teeth under the suffering of our labours and intolerable pains: but there will be no one to succour us: yea we shall groan mightily, as the flame is applied more severely to us, but we shall see no one save those who are being punished with us, and great desolation. And how should any one describe the terrors arising to our souls from the darkness? For just as that fire has no consuming power so neither has it any power of giving light: for otherwise there would not be darkness. The dismay pro­duced in us then by this, and the trembling and the great astonishment can be sufficiently realized in that day only. For in that world many and various kinds of torment and torrents of punishment are poured in upon the soul from every side. And if any one should ask, and how can the soul bear up against such a multitude of punishments and continue being chastised through interminable ages, let him consider what happens in this world, how many have often borne up against a long and severe disease. And if they have died, this has happened not because the soul was con­sumed but because the body was exhausted, so that had the latter not broken down, the soul would not have ceased being tormented. When then we have received an incorruptible and inconsumable body there is nothing to prevent the punishment being indefinitely extended. For here indeed it is impossible that the two things should coexist. I mean severity of punish­ment and permanence of being, but the one contends with the other, because the nature of the body is perishable and cannot bear the concur­rence of both: but when the imperishable state has supervened, there would be an end of this strife, and both these terrible things will keep their hold upon us for infinite time with much force.

Let us not then so dispose ourselves now as if the excessive power of the tortures were destructive of the soul: for even the body will not be able to experience this at that time, but will abide together with the soul, in a state of eternal punishment, and there will not be any end to look to beyond this. How much luxury then, and how much time will you weigh in the balance against this punishment and vengeance? Do you propose a period of a hundred years or twice as long? And what is this compared with the endless ages? For what the dream of a single day is in the midst of a whole lifetime, that the enjoyment of things here is as contrasted with the state of things to come. Is there then any one who, for the sake of seeing a good dream, would elect to be perpetually punished? Who is so senseless as to have recourse to this kind of retribution? (Ad Theod. 1.10)

Jonathan Edwards, stand aside! The Eastern Church can boast a fire-and-brimstone preacher as terrifying as you! Perhaps one might explain such passages as rhetorical enthusiasm; but still, it’s hard to see how they express a hell that is “heaven experienced differently.” Whatever the fire of hell may be, it is retributive, punitive, tormenting, destructive, and everlasting. “It is impossible,” St John insists, “that punishment and Gehenna should not exist” (In 1 Thes 8.4). In this world divine punishment is intended for our correction; in the next world, for vengeance (In Rom. Hom. 3.1). The damned are forever punished by God because they deserve to be punished. St John Chrysostom is not St Isaac the Syrian. The teaching of the Golden Mouth is important, as it provides weighty counter-evidence to the popular Orthodox view. I am unaware of a scholarly work that explore’s Chrysostom’s view of perdition in-depth, but do take a look at the chapters on judgment and hell in The Mystery of Death by Nikolaos P. Vassiliadis.

The Latin and Greek Fathers are largely united on the retributive nature of hell: God justly punishes the reprobate. A minority report does exist, however—represented by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St Gregory of Nyssa, St Ambrose of Milan, St Isaac of Nineveh. Accor­ding to this report, God punishes principally to teach, correct, convert, purify. When this purpose cannot be achieved, the infliction of suffering serves no further purpose—hence the incoherence and pointlessness of everlasting divine retribution (see Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis; John Sachs, “Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology“; also see the now dated Universalism The Prevailing Doctrine of The Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years by J. W. Hanson). Tragically, the retributive views of Augustine in the West and the Emperor Justinian in the East pre­vailed, and the minority report was filed away. The emergence in Orthodoxy of the “hell is heaven experienced differently” doctrine might be seen as the report’s partial recovery. Doctrine develops and is still developing.

The question of differences between the Greek and Latin Fathers raises an interesting dogmatic question: If the Latin Fathers are in fact Church Fathers, by what authority do we dismiss their views about perdition whenever they happen to differ with Eastern Fathers? Does East always trump West?

But can we not at least agree that the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553) dogmatically defined the eternity of hell and rejected all forms of universalism? My quick answer is no, but rather than rehearsing the arguments, I refer you to “Apocatastasis: The Heresy that Never Was” and “The Dogmatic Status of Apokatastasis.” Let’s just say that because of the significant differences between the condemned universalism of the sixth-century Origen­ists and the universalism of St Gregory Nyssen and St Isaac the Syrian, the question of duration is still open. Met Hilarion Alfeyev submits that an Orthodox formulation of apocatastasis may still be legitimately advanced:

There is also an Orthodox understanding of the apokatastasis, as well as a notion of the non-eternity of hell. Neither has ever been condemned by the Church and both are deeply rooted in the experience of the Paschal mystery of Christ’s victory over the powers of darkness. (The Mystery of Faith, p. 217; also see Andrew Louth, “Eastern Orthodox Eschatology“)

Is there a binding and irreformable dogma of hell in the Eastern Church? A diversity of beliefs about the last judgment and perdition existed in the patristic period, and this diversity continues to the present: eternal retribution, eternal self-damnation, and aeonic purgation. The Orthodox Church has yet to speak its definitive word.

(6 May 2013; rev.)

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44 Responses to What is Orthodox Hell?

  1. Reblogged this on Where wisdom meets The Modern World and commented:
    Most excellent post.

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  2. Deacon Nicholas says:

    Hell is reading extremely long paragraphs, word bricks that seem to go for eternity.

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  3. Greg says:

    Well, let us certainly hope and pray the Church never does attempt an irreformable and dogmatic statement on a mystery which it cannot know and of which it should remain in fear. On the flip side, we can’t seem to convene a council to deal with even trivial matters, so in our lifetime I think we need not worry.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Yep, I don’t think we need fear Orthodoxy gathering in general council to settle a controversial theological question in our lifetimes. At the moment the pressing issue is getting Moscow and Constantinople back into full communion. Hopefully that will happen in our lifetime.

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  4. Unless one has actually been across the divide of death and seen the torments of hell in full bloom, I find the ruminations of even such Church Fathers as St. John C. to be personal ideas and interpretations of Scripture and nothing more. And those “seers” of the Roman Catholic Church with their lurid descriptions of visions of hell I reject entirely. It seems they are more influenced by the Roman law-court mentality of a vindictive God than the God of Scripture who, we are told, is love.

    Unfortunately for me, theological musings such as this drive me to despair. If God is like this, then how is He love? How does love create sentient beings with the foreknowledge that the great majority of them will fail and ultimately wind up in torments forever? Aquinas’s description of God and the saints looking over the parapets of heaven and enjoying the torments of the damned haunts me. How does one love such a fearful Being? How does anyone do any such thing other than grovel in fear and hope and pray that he is not among those to be roasted forever?

    But if the Church is not right in their eschatology, then ultimately how do I trust anything She teaches? And if this is truth, why were both the OT prophets and Jesus Himself so utterly quiet about it?

    I’m rambling. Sorry. This is maddening.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Take a deep breath, fix a cup of tea, and then sit in your favorite chair and read a bit of George MacDonald or St Isaac the Syrian. ☕️ 😊

      Liked by 2 people

    • Petrus says:

      Faith, even Chrsitian faith, means very little if it cannot undergo tests from time to time. What you could do is to take a good lengthy break from the Christian way, explore some Tibetan Buddhist texts, especially something like the Bardo Thodrol (also known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead) — which lays out a very succinct view of both death process experience and afterlife experience. Such a view can be clarifying. Also, skip the Pali Canon level stuff (a lot of which is morality-based teachings most of which a Christian already possesses) and look at more high-end of the spectrum TB teachings that would include non-dual views of dzogchen, say.

      Then come back and see what’s what. This has been part of my own experience, and after many years away from a theistic framework, I am finding it (still) very difficult to reconcile myself to my Christian roots (if I might even presume they exist in such a way that awaits my return), not to mention dogmas which can be relentless, opaque, unmoving. Still, it gives me some hope that someone such as Bernadette Roberts, an ex-Benedictine nun, could make her way through studying the early Church Fathers, see where they went wrong, and still proceed to her own experiences of theosis…

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      • Jack says:

        I have read all if Bernadette Roberts work. Much of it is insightful, and should be food for thought for theologians. However, in many instances, especially her interpretation of the fathers of the church, is just plain wrong. She is not a scholar, and probably should not have attempted a work like “the real christ”. She is basically a Nestorian Christian. She cannot really accept the Chalcedonian definition of Christ as fully God and fully Man, with no admixture or separation. She believes Jesus was totally human, a mere “instrument” to reveal Gods plan. I am not qualified to explain why a correct understanding of that dogma is necessary to uphold the faith. But quite frankly, a lot of her fans are new age flakes who think one school of orthodox Hinduism is at the heart of every religion. Those folks are not really looking for the truth. They are relativists who want as little to do with genuine religion as atheists.

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        • Petrus says:

          As to the character of Roberts’ fans, she herself was not interested in anything New Age, so it seems somewhat disingenuous to bring that up for the sake of an easy disqualification. As to her interpretation, I will have to look into it again, although I should clarify that I am not in any position to deny Nestorianism, because these kinds of theological questions don’t show up on my radar so to speak. What strikes me about Roberts is that, regardless of her theological views, it was her practice that helped her towards her apparently profound spiritual attainments.

          And that has at least allowed me to suspect that my own salvation depends much more on what I might take on successfully, and integrate as part of, and within the scope of, my own limitations, and to owe whatever realization I am able to attain to grace, rather than an adherence to any particular orthodoxy, with all of its various contingent demands as a priori necessity.

          Like some who have spent much of their lives away from their Christian birth roots, only to hear their soul being called back later on, my return from Buddhism was actually motivated by a return to the Father, and not so much the Son, whom I have had endless trouble with, largely because the Trinitarian scheme has been insisted on as something more concrete than a kind of metaphor, and therefore remains too difficult to own or integrate. (At least I can agree with Roberts on that point.)

          What reconciliation I can manage involves my attempts at worshiping the Father by recitating the prayer of the church: the daily offices… as for the Son, I am also more attuned to the worship of His name (in hesychasm), which appears more meaningfully for me than His Body or Blood. Hence, I’ve stopped trying to attend mass, since there’s not much point if I am not receiving the Eucharist. For me if the the Body exists it must exceed the Host, how could it be otherwise? I may eventually come into a greater degree of knowledge about any of these matters… but for now, the Name is all I need.

          I will probably not post again, since I can’t really contribute at the level of exchange here, but I will continue attempting to work out my own difficulties. Thanks for your time.

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    • I’m confused. You said, “theological musings such as this drive me to despair.” To what are you referring? It does not make sense to me that you could be referring to your previous paragraph, where you write of what you reject.

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      • Well, the next sentence defines the despair. Listen, I’ve been in a Western, God-Is-Hate mindset for about 60+ years of my life. Even though I am starting to see God as love, understand the philosophical basis of Patristic Universalism, and have come to understand how some of the Western Church Fathers were deeply influenced by a Roman Law Court mentality, I still can’t quite shake that bogeyman leaning over my shoulder saying, “And if the Roman Catholic Church is right, you are going to burn in hell forever.”

        Poison, once induced into a system, is not easily purged. The longer it resides within the system, the more entrenched it becomes. But I find that I am on a different course now and slowly the sun of God’s undying, unending, immense love is rising in my heart, warming my soul, and purging the poison .

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        • Okay. Thanks for explaining.

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        • The focus on hate and hell in many circles saddens and distresses me, to the point where I think many may not even think they believe in Jesus. I saw someone say that if there is no hell, then there’s no reason to believe in Jesus. But, Jesus is good enough, wonderful enough, lovely enough, for us to believe Him and seek Him and desire Him and know Him without any threat. It’s such an insult to His goodness to suggest that no one can want Him for Himself, that only for the threat and fear of hell can He be wanted.

          I don’t know why, but I felt like responding to you with these thoughts.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I guess I’m still revising my revision. I just added the following phrase to describe the three views of damnation that existed in the patristic period and still exist today in the Orthodox Church: eternal retribution, eternal self-damnation, and aeonic purgation. Unfortunately, only the first two exist in the Roman Catholic Church today, though the Balthasarian hope (hope against hope, as it’s been described) occasionally gets voiced through the dogmatic cracks, as it were.

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  6. Fr. Barnabas says:

    Fr. Kimel, I am no theologian. Just a preacher. But one of the endearing qualities of Orthodoxy that drew me to it was the refusal of the Church to settle many, if not most, issues. There are a relatively small number of dogmatic positions of the Church that have a “period” at the end.

    For me, this humility calls me to focus more on repentance and contemplation of God’s mercy and grace.

    What do I believe about hell? I’d rather not be there, and, I suspect, that if I allow the wisdom of the Faith to keep me attentive to that wise desire, I suspect that God will have mercy. As for everyone else in the world, I have a great deal more confidence in God’s love for them than in my ability to conceive the limitless ocean of eternity.

    Thanks for the article.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      In his essay on “Dogma and Dogmatic Theology,” Bulgakov complains about dogmatic maximalists. Like you, he thinks a dogmatic minimalism best characterizes Orthodoxy. I suppose some might acerbically reply, “Of course he would.” 🙂

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      • Fr. Barnabas says:

        I always get concerned when some seem to know more than God. 🙂 And, pridefully, I get a bit of impish pleasure at finding some of my thoughts like Bulgakov. I’m also a bit of a troublemaker myself.

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        • You? Troublemaker?

          Naaaaaaaaaaaaaaa……..

          On a lighter note, I love listening to your podcasts. That Southern drawl told me the minute I heard it, “This boy’s a convert! Probably an escapee from Southern Baptistry.” I hope some day I have the pleasure of meeting you. Boy, what fun that would be!

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    • I think that is a good position. We don’t know everything, cannot know everything about everything, and should be content with that. Trust in God’s love and seek His mercy. Undoubtedly, infinitely more confidence is due God’s love than our ability to conceive eternity. Yes, I like the attitude your comment expresses very much.

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  7. Ed says:

    I attend a traditional Catholic parish which celebrates only the Extraordinary Form of the liturgy (the pre-Vatican II liturgy). Last Sunday, one of our priests gave a homily in which he unequivocally affirmed that the salvation won by Christ is universal in its scope.. He then openly asked the question, “does this then mean that all will be saved?” His answer, of course, was a resounding “no”, using as his Scriptural basis, the final line of the gospel reading for last Sunday, “for many are called but few are chosen.” What is interesting to me about this is the juxtaposition of two ideas:
    1. God’s purpose is to save all men without exception. and 2. In spite of this, not all will be saved.
    Now it seems to me that these two ideas are contradictory. The only way we could know that (2) is true is if it were revealed to us by God. In other words, God knows that, in the end, some or many will find themselves in eternal misery. But if this is indeed the end of all things, it must be the end directly willed by God. If it were not, then there would have to be some other end which God would continue to work towards. So, if the end of all things includes the eternal damnation of some or many, then it cannot be the case that God’s purpose is to save all men without exception. This leaves us with only two theological possibilities: universalism or Calvinism. I stand to be corrected, but, at present, this is how it looks to me.

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    • I believe we can say with confidence that God loves and wants to save all men. With regard to the end – or rather the eternity – of all things, I think that it has not been revealed to us. I’m rather certain that it has not been revealed to most of us. I think we don’t need to know, and it is one of those secret things of God into which we should not look.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Ed, scholastic theologians explain the contradiction you cite by appealing to God’s antecedent and consequent will (or active and permissive will). The distinction is also found in St John of Damascus: https://afkimel.files.wordpress.com/2017/01/bouteneff-on-john-of-damascus-and-the-two-wills-of-god.pdf

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      • Ed says:

        Father,
        I don’t think the distinction between active and permissive will really works when we are talking about ends. If the end of all things leaves us with many eternally damned and a few saved, then this was the end that God actively willed in the very act of creation. The final cause is not called the cause of causes for nothing. In an intelligent being, the final cause is first in thought and last in execution. It is the final cause which sets everything in motion and the motion will continue until the end is attained. If then, God’s purpose and end in creation is the salvation of all, He will not rest until that end is achieved. If,on the other hand, God’s creation comes to rest in a state in which some or many are damned and some saved, then this must have been the end willed by God (otherwise, motion towards His primary end would continue).
        The article you cited states quite clearly that God’s permissive will is ordered to the attainment of his active and essential will,
        “For John, providence can be called the secondary will of God, one which is brought to the service of his primary will. This latter is effectively God’s essential will for universal salvation, while the secondary will permits things to happen which may seem quite contrary to that goal of salvation. They are ‘willed’ nonetheless, in the full knowledge that they may become the very means of return and growth God-ward.”
        If this is so, then it would seem that the permissive will of God cannot “trump” his active and essential will. At most, it can only set up road blocks and detours that God, in His providence, can and will overcome.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          At the very least, when applied to God’s desire that all should be saved, the active/permissive distinction resolves into something like: “God desires that all should be saved, if they assent to his summons to faith” or “God desire that all who accept his gift of salvation should be saved.”

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    • Cyranorox says:

      That phrase looks, to us, like a cattle call: a few *out of* the many, a small subset. However, it’s the comment on the story of the unwilling guests and the hall filled with the poor: two *disjunct* groups. Therefore, it might read [scholars welcome to correct my sketch] “A few were chosen [and didn’t go in], but many others were called in”. I can’t imagine how it could be that i alone see this, against the whole tradition, but there it is.

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    • Your last comment is how I have often felt looking at the world, its history, and the people who have inhabited it. Either God is going to eventually bring all to repentance and their proper teleology, or Calvin was right and the vast majority of people are basically screwed. As I see it, there’s just no inbetween.

      The thought of God’s immense love (which I am still trying to assimilate into my anthropological view as being victorious) along with His ability to come up with ways that we couldn’t even imagine to bring even the most hardened sinner to repentance, gives me hope.

      The alternative is unthinkable and highly depressing.

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  8. Cyranorox says:

    I’ve written about this as White Hell, or Drawing Room Hell. It’s a dodge. Eternal misery without relief or hope, whether in the costume of fire and horror, or in white robes among the ranks of the blessed, is the same thing.
    And it always titrates to the same thing: God might allieviate it, but for the rule He set for Himself. He might shield the poor souls, and offer an an approach they might be able to understand, but for the deadline He has set as an end to all such shields and offers. It’s more plain, if such a thing could be, that He would have to intend such a Hell.
    I, for one, cannot accept it: Love, I hear, cannot, either.

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  9. Steve says:

    I added a link to this as a comment on my blog post on a similar topic Go to Hell!.

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  10. stmichael71 says:

    My own suggestion is that it is problematic to contrast Orthodox and Catholic views on this subject. We Catholics have just the same divide among theologians. However, I’d suggest there is a distinction that might be fruitful, and that is that retribution need not be exclusive with the “hell is heaven differently experienced” thesis. You contrast the latter view with retribution by saying that the primary purpose of hell, for the latter folks, is correction or repair. But that seems incorrect, as for the minority (like Maximus) hell seems no less eternal; God’s love of the damned, while experienced as torture, does not ever correct any of them. I don’t see then why these latter theologians might not agree with the retributive on the main contours of the same view, as the purpose of God’s love of the damned is not obviously to repair them if God knows that He cannot (i.e., it is metaphysically impossible at that point to) correct them.

    So to get to universalism, you need a further claim: people or spiritual creatures in hell can change their minds after death. Nevertheless, I find that implication very problematic, because it should be symmetrical for people/spirits in heaven as well (that creatures can also sin in heaven if they can merit in hell). Otherwise, we need a good and solid justification for asymmetry. I don’t see one forthcoming.

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    • Grant says:

      We I think that is implicit in the universalism as advocated by such people as St Gregory of Nyssa, St Issac of Nineveh (or the Syrian), Gregory MacDonald, David Bentley Hart etc (a numerous others) is exactly that post our deaths we can and will change our minds. That the suffering of Gehenna is in part at least (if not in whole) the awareness of our betrayal of love and it’s deficiency in ourselves, and therefore of ourselves, and that clarity in the light of Christ Himself brings true sorrow and awareness (this seems pretty clear in number of places such as the sheep and the goats etc). This awareness and clarity is part of Gehenna, and the clear implicit understanding is that awareness and sorrow will lead to repentance and response to Christ’s life and love, no matter how long it takes (no different then it can right now). And God is quite able (infinitely able) to bring all to freely embrace the Good and Love without in any way compromising the free will and desire of all noetic beings (their very being and consciousness is rooted, exists and is directed towards him, and their desire, any thought, urge or desire is towards the good, no matter how confused or twisted it is, it already towards their good with is in God and all things, only choosing and acting lesser through ignorance and confusion).

      In fact, in this view (which I clearly agree with 🙂 ) freedom is to understand and know the Good clearly, and to know and understand Love, in God and with Him in and towards and with all things, and so to know ourselves truly, and our will and choices are free only in so far as we truly (not even just intellectually), in our whole being and selves perceive and live in and towards the Good, only then can we truly live and choose freely. And someone that lives fully and truly in Love, in the Good cannot sin, since to do so would imply a confusion remains, that they remain unfree, much as someone who as had had been paralyzed by injury who is healed and is whole and able to walk and live freely, and is free from that injury is no longer nor cannot be in a state of paralysis again (unless injured and thus no longer free), or someone cured of sever mental illness (if possible) cannot return of their own choice to that delusion of mind. Their very freedom from those limitations eliminates those problems. Equally the very clarity that is found in the light of Christ and understanding of truth frees all from the illusions that hold them captive form truly perceiving the Good, in all things, including themselves and in and towards God who is the God.

      Another thing to consider is that Christ has defeated death, for all, therefore on this view death does not and cannot hold anyone, there is not cut-off point arbitrary set by God and which he binds Himself and His own desire to save all, and metaphorically shrugs and lets death defeat Him and those he loves and just gives up resigns those who didn’t by the complex and arbitrary various of life come to perceive the truth and respond to Him in the arbitrary limits of time and space in this word. Quite clearly here it seems that death is neither then defeated, nor will it be destroyed, but it’s effects, and evil itself will be eternal. Not all tears shall be dired and suffering, lost, pain, fear and desolation will will forever (whether one commits to infernalism or anihilationism) and God will certainly not be all in all. While I know answers are attempted to this, they remain wholly unsatifactory to me, particularly in light of who God is, both His trancendence, who He is revealed to be Christ, what freedom is classically understood, and the claims made for Christ’s victory (such as those by St Paul) which ring hollow and clearly actually not so under the other two positions. These are things those positions need to deal with but seem not to do so statisfactory in my perception.

      Finally there is the problem that all secondary causes are enfolded, bound up in and are intended and accepted within the primary cause. Therefore all secondary causes such as are fallen choices and actions, those of angelic and spiritual agencies, of all creation is bound up in God’s primary act of creation, and is intended by Him. And if such evil is not healed and stretched into infinity, this is also intended by God as a clear logical consequence, even without affirming a Calvinist understanding, you are essentially stuck in the same place and understanding. God here intends for some to be tormented forever, and are essentially created for this purpose (secondary causes being enfolded, and intended in the primary cause). God creates freely under no constraints, and brings into being what He intends, whatever the freedoms we give to secondary causes they are bound up in the eternal and logically prior primary cause to which they are founded and bound upon, are indeed dependent upon or all their actions. And all those actions are bound up in that primary cause, this causes troubles even with evil as it is, but with a belief that the intended end of all things will reveal the full understanding of how and why is worked out as it has, and that healing of all things will justify the limited suffering that is now. However this is made infinite with eternal suffering and beyond any calculus of healing or repair, it raises the stakes to the infinite, and it strikes at the very heart of the claim that God is good, the Good as such, since this is intended and accepted from creation. It also does great violence to the Incarnation (including in this the Cross and Resurrection) because now, the full salvation of creation depends on the suffering of those in eternal torment, they become the saviours of all, it becomes on their suffering all redemption and bringing of God’s purposes into fullness depend. In the end, under this view, they become the ones suffering in the blessed stead, intended as so by God, and so are our Christ. That also is not acceptable.

      For more on this concept you can follow a much better presentation by David Bentley Hart:

      https://hooktube.com/watch?v=3dOsKzh7Kyw

      While you likely disagree with much of what I’ve said (and I have probably not done it justice at all, I’m very much a layman in such matters and hope those better qualified could give a more adequate response), since you open the question to necessary requirements and universalist understandings on issues such as post-death repentance and so forth I had a stab at it. At least in terms of universalism as advocated and held by a number of church fathers and saints (and St Paul at least I believe but that is not doubt a point of contention 😉 ).

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    • Ed says:

      Apart from the question of universalism, it seems to me that the reason for the asymmetry is quite apparent. The blessed in heaven are unable to sin, not because they don’t have the possibility of doing so, but rather because they are in possession of the absolute good. Since human nature is ordered to the good, it will always choose it when it is presented to the will in an unobscured manner, which is what happens when one enjoys the beatific vision.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Michael (or should I address you as St Michael? 🙂 ), I agree with you that the three types of Orthodox eschatological positions sketched in my article also characterize modern Catholic theology (as well as modern Protestant theology). I have tried to remind my fellow Orthodox of this point on several occasions over the years (e.g., “Orthodoxy and the Damnation of the Damned“). Unfortunately, Orthodox apologists have been loath to give up the caricature. It’s as if we need to cast Catholicism in the worst possible light.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Regarding the eternality of damnation in the “hell is heaven experienced differently” position, I would agree that a retributive dimension must be retained for the sake of theological and moral coherence. If the damned suffer everlastingly, then they justly deserve that punishment; othewise, we end up with God permitting, or perhaps even committing, an eternal injustice. I raise this point in my article “Hell and the Torturous Vision of Christ.” The question then becomes whether retributive punishment can ever be just when repentance is impossible?

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      • stmichael71 says:

        It seems to me God, in the OT, often punishes people not because He does something special but because He allows sinners to experience the “normal” outcome of their sins. If we think God is trying to repair His relationship with the damned, and this causes those sinners pain because their wills are opposed to God’s (i.e., they don’t want His love), then it seems to me the pain the damned feel is no less retributive even as that same pain is a mere consequence of God’s love. The pain is a “normal outcome” of the fact that the sinner’s wills are not aligned with God’s.

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        • stmichael71 says:

          I should note I am working on a paper on just this topic. Eleonore Stump has a book on the Atonement where she argues Aquinas rejects retributive punishment. I think she’s wrong in that, but that her account is almost correct. Thomas thinks of retribution in hell as repairing a relationship, where a side-effect of that repair is pain to the damned. But it seems to me you could still think this pain is a good for the damned, as it results from God’s love and is nothing other than their limited contact with God’s love (it is all they are able to feel of God’s love, we might say).

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Fr Rooney, thanks for introducing yourself to me on the FB Thomism group. Welcome to Eclectic Orthodoxy. I look forward to substantive conversation with you. This is a topic that is dear to my heart and has been the occasion for extensive conversations here on EO.

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          • I wonder how we might square retribution with Thomas’ teaching that God does not punish the damned as much as they deserve. He teaches (somewhere in the Supplement) that God relieves the pains of the damned to a certain degree. If they deserve those sufferings because they continue in their blasphemy, how can God justly diminish them? His kindness is for the sake of repentance. And if no suffering will lead them to repentance, as Thomas held, why not relieve the damned of all suffering, or at least external punishment?

            Maritain took this idea a bit further claiming that it is possible for the damned to repent through the prayers of the saints which would lead all the damned (including the devils) into the natural beatitude of Limbo wherein they would attain the good and the beautiful. (Incidentally, Avery Dulles in his famous article The Population of Hell wrongly dismissed Maritain’s view as apokatastasis which it clearly is not.)

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    • Tom says:

      St. Michael71: …you need a further claim: people or spiritual creatures in hell can change their minds after death. Nevertheless, I find that implication very problematic, because it should be symmetrical for people/spirits in heaven as well (that creatures can also sin in heaven if they can merit in hell). Otherwise, we need a good and solid justification for asymmetry.

      Tom: I love the conversations over here!

      Michael71, the asymmetry, as Ed pointed out, is grounded in the teleological structure of the God-World relation, a relation that is asymmetrical because all things are from, through, and for God, while God is not (symmetrically) from, through, and for the world. We participate in God (and not visa-versa). So the asymmetry is ontological in that sense. Final rest in an end is has to do with teleology (and with that: promise, participation, mode of being, fulfillment, beatitude, etc.). When you ground that teleology in infinite/unconditional love that creates ex nihilo, the asymmetry is clear. Creation is always free to move Godward toward its ‘natural’ fulfillment in God because God is its end. We can always ‘rest finally’ rightly related to God (that possibility *is* the creation’s being) without this finality logically grounding the possibility of creation’s resting finally outside of being rightly related to God. The former does not entail the latter; it rather precludes the latter precisely because teleology supervenes upon the asymmetry of the world’s (teleological) relation to and grounding in God. There need not be a symmetrical-abiding-equivalent ‘alternative possibility’ to resting in God for it to be possible for us to rest finally in God.

      Tom

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      • stmichael71 says:

        I am not going to reply extensively, but I do not see how what you said would be a good reason for that asymmetry. While it is true that God does not depend on the world, this fact does not imply (as far as I can see) that angels or humans after death can change their minds. I cannot follow the rest of the argument you offer. My idea was the following: if you offer a general reason that people can change their minds after death, that general reason should naturally apply to all such people whether in heaven or hell. This seems to me how people who are universalists typically argue. But then we would have to reject the view that people in heaven, who experience the Beatific Vision, would will that vision of necessity. John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham take this route quite explicitly in their attempt to save freedom after death. That is to say, the person who thinks angels can change their minds should then have a tough time explaining how the necessity of the Beatific Vision (which I think is perfectly reasonable) is at all possible.

        My point about universalism is that every argument for universalism argues that creatures can change their minds in the next life (i.e., are free) and that God will persist in offering them chances to turn to Him in conversion. But neither of these truths entails of necessity that all creatures will be saved/be converted. This is because of the first premise: that creatures can change their minds freely. If that premise is true, then there is no necessity that all creatures DO change their minds in conversion, no matter what God does.

        In other words, the universalist is stuck with an inconsistent triad as long as they accept libertarian freedom. The only way to save universalism, it seems to me, is to reject the premise that creatures are truly free, and then to say that God can convert all creatures with or without their cooperation. Then you can draw a true and necessary conclusion that, if God wants to save all and people can change their minds after death even if they die in sin, then God will save all because He will eventually convert all people with or without their cooperation (or in some other compatibilist way). But I find this very problematic for doctrinal and philosophical reasons.

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        • Grant says:

          I’m not sure I understand which form of universalism you are referring to, as the universalism that tends to be discussed here, one exemplified for example in the theology of St Gregory of Nyssa (or more recently Sergei Bulgakov or David Bentley Hart) doesn’t appeal to libertarian freedom whatsoever, nor compatibilism freedom either.

          Libertarianism is incoherent, proposing that the will is capable of spontaneously proposing an end for itself and perusing such an end, yet there is no coherent phenomenology of any act that does not have a transcendental fixed end that reaches beyond the act itself. Any thought or choice under libertarianism is no more free than embolism or a number given by a random number generator or dice roll. We have no free will under such a system, your choices conceived as purely random, we have as much will as leaves in the wind, the same as a purely determinive universe (which is incidentally how many materialists see choice and will).

          And compatibilism tends to start with libertarianism and show how compatiblist non-libertarian determinism is compatible with libertarian freedom so it is a false choice.

          The freedom advocated here as I tried to allude to above is the intellectual and classical understanding and tradition of freedom, going back into antiquity. This is certainly the only conception of freedom Fathers such as St Gregory of Nyssa or St Issac the Syrian understood and worked with, and is the only view that is coherent.

          This freedom understands that all things, and all noetic beings are both grounded upon, participate in and are inherently orientated towards the Good (which is God) prior to any choice or desire or desire, and that is the very grounds of our being, mind, will and of any free action of choice. Therefore any desire, choice or urge is towards the Good as comprehended by that noetic being (with ever action, even the smallest reaches beyond itself to the transcendental Good, and the Beautful, and to Love), and such a being or choice is only free to the degree it understands the Good. Any choice of ill is not a free choice but a misguided and disordered choice towards the Good incompletely, with the will prohibited and bound (and certainly not free), lacking true vision and understanding moving the will towards the Good in a lesser and damaged manner. Such as a person having cloudy vision, they (and indeed none of us right now) perceive the Good clearly, but such limitations prevent them acting fully freely as their perception is clouded, and so their actions towards their desires and ends and the end in the Good is disordered and incomplete.

          As suggested above once the illusions and distortions are removed and perception is clearer, and we particulate more clearing in God and perceive the Good are choices and selves become ever more free. And seeing and understanding Christ clearly, stripped of any illusions that distort our vision we would be free and choose the Good since we ever do choose the Good and Existence itself. All our existence and choices are forever towards and founded in the infinite unity that is God, and there would be not choice against God, that would be nothing, and being and thought, and orientation that is our being and existence it toward Existence, there is no choice towards nothing since it is nothing (it doesn’t exist), such an action is neither possible nor comprehensible. All actions are choices are ever towards the Good, the Beautiful, towards and in Existence and Love itself.

          And as I suggested above, the removal of limitations such as the paralyzed person being healed or a person suffering delusions whose mind is healed (where such a thing possible) cannot choice to be paralyzed or have that delusion of mind again. Their very freedom again from such limitations which prevented and restrained their free action and being, eliminates such problems. Once free we cannot choose to be unfree in such a manner, our very freedom of being and perception prevents making disordered choices (anymore then someone with 20/20 vision is ‘free’ to be blind).

          I believe that if you are under the impression that universalism or apokatastasis as viewed here is based on libertarianism concept of freedom that I’m afraid that an understanding that is in error, so your issue you raise does not pertain to here to it (as it might to one where libertarianism freedom rather than freedom as understood classical in the intellectual tradition).

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  11. brian says:

    I won’t reiterate what Grant has pointed out. Universalism is not only not tied to libertarian conceptions of freedom, sed contra, its best exemplars derive from entirely different premises. I will add three separate elements to the argument, though for the sake of brevity I am leaving out complexities and nuance.

    1) God’s agapeic freedom is directed fully on the good of creation. Creation is “whyless” in the sense that it has no ontological necessity. If TriUne bliss is limitless plenitude without need for creation, then God is utterly free to “choose” to create or not. One must then ask if the Goodness of God is compatible with risking that any creature would suffer irreparable harm, even if self-chosen. As David Bentley Hart has pointed out, implicitly one makes the eternally damned the “enduring sacrifices” that purchase the blissful enjoyment of the saints. Wouldn’t Love simply abjure from creation if such a price without ultimate remedy were entailed? Theologies in the wake of voluntarism notoriously have no problem with such an economy, though one should ask if the apparent agreement of premodern Christian thinkers has fully thought through the implications of creatio ex nihilo.

    2) Personhood is not individualism. The modern individual is treated as primarily separate, an atomized being who then adds on relations electively. There are many erroneous presuppositions in such a conception, not least the inattention to prior dependence on a communally constructed language employed to think the thought of radical independence, as well as the biological and cultural nurturing necessary for the emergence of an individual. Further, I think Heidegger’s critique of ontotheology may come into play here, for the coming into being, Desmond’s “passio essendi” is forgotten. As a result, there is a tendency to comprehend the being of the creature in terms of “conatus essendi.” Hence the totalizing focus on certain notions of mind and choice that leave out the mysterious Good unless domesticated to a reason moving towards instrumental inanity and justice far from the shock of the gospel. This is a fundamental error, for it includes ignorance of the porosity of the soul and of the radical intimacy of divine transcendence. There is an “otherness” constitutive of one’s unique, irreplaceable being. Blindness to agapeic nurture that patiently abides “horrors” marks further blindness. Eschatologies that easily separate out the fates of individuals are akin to those who would unbind the tares from the wheat in terms of what finite, temporal beings can imagine. One can cogently argue, however, that the archetype of what it means to be person is love itself, the unique divine life. We approach the depths of personhood the more we enter into theosis. So, divinization is necessary to properly judge. It might be a failure to fully think through the implications of revelation that allows one to embrace a sensibility in which my own ontological perfection is separable from the well-being of others. If, indeed, to be is (as Norris Clark avers) to be “substance-in-relation,” one makes a critical metaphysical error if one treats relation as secondary to one’s essential being. Gregory of Nyssa was perspicacious in his understanding that the Whole Humanity was involved in the victory or failure of salvation.

    3) One can highly prize Thomas’ metaphysics, his significant wisdom, the robust quality of his thought, without being tied to every aspect of his eschatology. His view of unbaptized infants as well as the fate of the bulk of the natural world is cavalier — Balthasar accused him of cruelty in his indifference to the beasts. Interesting where folks emphasize a literalist interpretation of scripture. Is the God who knows the fate of every sparrow indifferent to the suffering of innocents, or does the lack of a rational soul make that a nugatory consideration? In short, there are callous aspects to Aquinas, as well as remarkable insight. I see no reason, in any event, to take him as beyond questioning with regards to eschatology.

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  12. Tom says:

    Fr Rooney, I’m sorry for the back and forth structure. It helps me track where the convo goes. Forgive the typos! I’m convinced Fr Al inserts typos in my posts just to mess with me and keep me humble and prayerful. :o)

    Fr Rooney: While it is true that God does not depend on the world, this fact does not imply (as far as I can see) that angels or humans after death can change their minds.

    Tom: A change of mind with respect to God presumes the possibility of such a change, i.e., an openness of the mind and will to moving in God’s direction. Where’s that openness, that possibility, come from? Not from us. If we don’t constitute it as such, we can’t foreclose upon it as such. It comes from God, and its limits are the limits of God’s love for us. If that love is unconditional, then we are equally unconditionally open to God as our final end. So it’s not in our power to foreclose irrevocably upon that possibility.

    Fr Rooney: My idea was the following: if you offer a general reason that people can change their minds after death, that general reason should naturally apply to all such people whether in heaven or hell.

    Tom: I don’t know of any ‘general’ reason for thinking people can change their minds after death. Not sure what a general reason would be. I was suggesting a very ‘specific’ reason for thinking we can be irrevocably open to God but not irrevocably closed to him. Logic does not impose upon us a final symmetry between these two possibilities.

    Fr Rooney: …we would have to reject the view that people in heaven, who experience the Beatific Vision, would will that vision of necessity. John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham take this route quite explicitly in their attempt to save freedom after death. That is to say, the person who thinks angels can change their minds should then have a tough time explaining how the necessity of the Beatific Vision (which I think is perfectly reasonable) is at all possible.

    Tom: If we don’t suppose angels were in the possession of the beatific vision from which they fell, there’s no problem. One who beholds God in the mode of what we name the ‘beatific vision’ is perfected, has come to rest, irrevocably so, because the very means by which the mind and will choose are freed from the epistemic distance/limits that create the possibility of misrelation in the first place. As God’s love sustains angelic nature as its final end, angels in principal remain open to choosing rightly. (Some thoughts on that here from a very annoying guy here on Fr Al’s blog: https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2017/03/02/u-turns-and-transcendentals/).

    Fr Rooney: My point about universalism is that every argument for universalism argues that creatures can change their minds in the next life (i.e., are free) and that God will persist in offering them chances to turn to Him in conversion. But neither of these truths entails of necessity that all creatures will be saved/be converted.

    Tom: True – they don’t entail the ‘necessity’ of anyone’s positive choice for God, but they do entail the ‘possibility’ of such choice, and thus they preclude the possibility of final, irrevocable foreclosure upon such choice.

    I don’t think there’s a terminus ad quem, a line in the sand out there, at which point God says, “Enough already!” and determines our choice for him through a kind of necessity. We have to choose our way – perilously, consequentially – into right relationship (I’m a libertarian (properly understood). I’m just saying, ‘irrevocable foreclose upon the possibility of choosing rightly’ isn’t among the consequences of choosing wrongly. If God’s love is unconditional, then love will pursue us – ‘as long as it takes’. There’s no need for a timetable or a terminus ad quem.

    Fr Rooney: This is because of the first premise: that creatures can change their minds freely. If that premise is true, then there is no necessity that all creatures DO change their minds in conversion, no matter what God does.

    Tom: The premise (that the liberty of the will is, I agree, necessary to a person’s coming to rest finally in God) is not the absolute-voluntarist power to define one’s own teleology (one’s final end). All our choosing is circumscribed by an antecedent and transcendental end which (at minimum) constitutes the irrevocable openness (however free we are to misrelate “within” its limits) of our natures to God.

    I don’t bother myself with figuring out ‘when’ God will finally get it all done. I simply rest in the irrevocable openness of the will to God and trust that infinite love will never give up. That’s enough. Just that is amazingly good news if folks would ponder it. Annihilation is not an option, nor is the traditional view of hell as ‘irrevocable’ conscious torment. What options are left? Exactly. God’s got all the time in the world and we’re not going anywhere.

    Tom

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    • Tom says:

      Fr Rooney,

      If you have Gregory of Nyssa’s ‘On the Making of Humanity’, you’ll see that in Ch. 21 he proposes the asymmetry of which we speak. In the first two sections (particularly the 2nd) he writes:

      1) Wickedness, however, is not so strong as to prevail over the power of good; nor is the folly of our nature more powerful and more abiding than the wisdom of God: for it is impossible that that which is always mutable and variable should be more firm and more abiding than that which always remains the same and is firmly fixed in goodness: but it is absolutely certain that the Divine counsel possesses immutability, while the changeableness of our nature does not remain settled in evil.

      2) Now that which is always in motion, if its progress be good, will never cease moving onwards to what lies before it, by reason of the infinity of the course to be traversed: for it will not find any limit of its object such that when it has apprehended it, it will at last cease its motion [Gregory’s doctrine of epektasis here reflected]: but if its bial be in the opposite direction, when it has finished the course of wickedness and reached the extreme limit of evil, then that which is ever moving, finding not halting point for its impulse natural to itself when it has run through the lengths that can be run in wickedness, of necessity turns its motion towards good: for as evil does not extend into infinity, but is comprehended by necessary limits, it would appear that good once more follows in succession upon the limit of evil; and thus, as we have said, the ever-moving character of our nature comes to run its course a the last once more back towards the good, being taught the lesson of prudence by the memory of its former misfortunes, to the end that it may never again be in like case.
      __________________

      A thing may rest finally in its God-given end; but it remains in motion with respect to that end so long as it has yet to come to rest in it. Humanity can solidify itself (character, goodness, virtue, etc.) as irrevocably at rest in the good but (here’s the asymmetry) not so in evil, for the good can satisfy our natural desire and bring it to rest whereas evil can never slate or eradicate our natural thirst for God. Hence, we move and wander until we come to rest – eventually, as long as it takes – in God.

      Tom

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