Some of the outstanding theologians and hierarchs of the Christian Churches speak today a language totally different from the one heard during the past centuries. In his conversations with Patriarch Bartholomew I, a French Orthodox theologian, Olivier Clément, summarised his views in the following words:
Current intellectual revolutions have been in progress which discover and develop the most outstanding intuitions, such as those of Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor and Isaac the Syrian; they oppose the sadism of the expiatory conceptions of salvation by paschal joy, hell conceived as an eternal concentration camp — by prayer for universal salvation.
Elsewhere, Clément mentions his meeting with the great contemporary mystic, Father Sophronius from Mount Athos, whom he asked what would happen if a person does not agree to open his or her heart and accept the love of God. The old monk answered: “You may be certain that as long as someone is in hell, Christ will remain there with him.”
These words appear to echo those from the Book of Revelation: “Here I stand knocking at the door” (Rev 3:20). God stands at the door of the human heart even if the latter is closed and rebellious. He is ready to wait, if the need arises, for a whole “eternity”, until resistance is finally overcome. This is the ultimate consequence of the paschal belief in the overwhelming and all-embracing power of the risen Christ.
The time is coming for the revalorisation of the universalism of hope. One should not rest satisfied with concern for one’s own salvation since we are all responsible for each other. Universal hope is the duty of every Christian. Traditional eschatology perceives only two ultimate possibilities: heaven or hell. It does not take into account the great synthesis of the history of the world in God. It also excludes all thoughts about the universal reconciliation of the lost creatures with God. It does not hear the voice of hope resounding in numerous biblical statements, nor does it heed the patient cry of hope which has not vanished from Christianity throughout the ages. It prefers to remain an eschatology of the ultimate dualism of the creature torn apart, the dualism of good and evil, of light and darkness, of love and hatred, and of heaven and hell. Is this the ultimate logic of being? After all, there also exists the logic of goodness and love, discernible in such evangelical parables as that about the shepherd and the lost sheep, or about the prodigal son, or rather two sinful brothers (cf. Lk 15).
By preserving his or her freedom and the possibility of negating God, the human being is never left alone. Not to leave the other alone is, as I said earlier, a truly divine attribute. God helps even the most sinful creature attain the ultimate purposefulness of freedom, and not remain in a state of split, contrary to its inner nature. Beyond death, the rebellion of a rational and free being may last for an indefinitely long period of time. The term “long” signifies the intensity of experience rather than the quantitative extent of duration and evil, of light and darkness, of love and hatred, and of heaven and hell. Is this the ultimate logic of being? After all, there also exists the logic of goodness and love, discernible in such evangelical parables as that about the shepherd and the lost sheep, or about the prodigal son, or rather two sinful brothers (cf. Lk 15).
By preserving his or her freedom and the possibility of negating God, the human being is never left alone. Not to leave the other alone is, as I said earlier, a truly divine attribute. God helps even the most sinful creature attain the ultimate purposefulness of freedom, and not remain in a state of split, contrary to its inner nature. Beyond death, the rebellion of a rational and free being may last for an indefinitely long period of time. The term “long” signifies the intensity of experience rather than the quantitative extent of duration. Thanks to this hope, I can trust that freedom is incapable of rejecting God irrevocably, definitively, and once for all. Such a possibility may appear rather as a theoretical hypothesis as long as one does not reflect deeply on the very nature of freedom, which is created towards God and for God. Whoever speaks about the hope of universal salvation cannot remain indifferent towards such categories as beauty or goodness, which attract and persuade human freedom. “And I shall draw all men to myself (πάντας ελκύσω προς εμαυτόν), when I am lifted up from the earth” (Jn 12:32) — Jesus said shortly before His death. Special emphasis is due to the words of universal significance: “draw all people”. Let us repeat once again: this is an astonishing and amazing promise! Attracting by means of beauty and goodness constitutes God’s way of persuasion, which does not destroy the freedom of rational creatures.
Hope for the universality of salvation should not lead to ethical cynicism, nor destroy responsibility for one’s own life and the life of others. Nonetheless, it demands a different pedagogy than that of fear. The great wisdom of life is not shaped in an atmosphere of fear of condemnation, but in a calm and trusting view of the whole course of life in which, despite various falls, the experience of eternity continues to mature. What matters most is the fundamental option of one’s life for God, illumined from the inside, permeated with a feeling of inner meaning, stronger than the fear of sin, futility, void and hopelessness….
Those who speak about hell as a provisional and transitory state of perdition do not, by any means, ignore the gravity of evil. They simply indicate that evil is not universal and everlasting, that it has to be exhausted, and cannot gain the ultimate victory. Victory belongs to God who does everything possible to free His creatures from the bondage of their own guilt. Such hope for an ultimate reconciliation with the Creator is not only the voice of the “vagabonds of the Church” nor of figures from the margin of the faith.
The words of a Jesuit, Karl Rahner (+1984), one of the most outstanding Catholic
theologians of the 20th century, are close and dear to me:
Therefore we know (!) in our Christian faith and unwavering hope that despite all the dramatic and open character of freedom of individual people, the history of salvation as a whole will lead humanity to a favourable end under the action of God’s overwhelming grace.
I can see no reason why we should be less courageous than many wise teachers of such a hope in the history of Christianity whom we call saints, the Fathers of the Church, great mystics and theologians. Certainly, no words about God’s victorious and overwhelming grace will ever instill in a concrete human person presumptuous confidence in his or her own salvation. They introduce an atmosphere of trust and hope. The most courageous expectations in the Christian tradition are expressed in such a hope. This is also a hope for all non-believers. Such hope becomes a strong ally of inter-human solidarity and Christian ecumenism. The hope for the salvation of all teaches us a lesson of universalism. The deep experience of inter-human unity allows the believers to understand the meaning of life more deeply than can the mere logic of reasoning. The mystery of the ultimate destiny of the world and of humankind is one. We have to know how to discover it in ourselves and in others.