Huis Clos

by Tom Belt

JPM1To repeat David Hart: I never get my own title. I was going to go with something a bit lighter (‘Come Hell or High Water’, ‘A Bat Out of Hell’, ‘To Hell and Back’), but in the end there was no escaping Sartre’s Huis Clos (the French title of his play, variously translated No Exit, Dead End, or No Way Out). The phrase (without meaning everything Sartre meant by it) encap­sulates Fr John Manous­sakis’s account of hell in Ch. 9 of his The Ethics of Time: A Phenom­enology and Hermeneutics of Change.[1] I was hoping the essential points of Fr John’s account would find their way into his own review here of Hart’s recent reflections on universalism, but that review, it turns out, is to be published elsewhere, and Hart has already responded to it here last week. So what I’d like to do here then is simply summarize Manous­sakis’s account of hell as he describes it in Ch. 9 in the hope of widening the discussion at bit.

In The Ethics of Time, Manoussakis takes up the challenge of recovering the goodness and beauty of temporal becoming (kinesis or movement) from “the negative Platonic and Neo­platonic views, according to which time and history are seen as the byproducts of being’s fall into materiality.” (xiii) For Manoussakis, there is no way creation can begin at the end. There can only be a beginning fitted to become, through an embodied history of change and trans­formation, what God intends. “Time,” Manoussakis writes, “is made possible by the givens of a consciousness that is eschatologically oriented” (xiii) and which is “the means to partici­pate in a process of perfection.” (25) But “no beginning qua beginning can be perfect.” (32) Manoussakis concludes we best understand evil as “a moment in the temporal unfolding of the good,” what he labels the “scandal of the good.” Defending the goodness of such an unfolding, with the contingent suffering it entails (yes, entails), without collapsing into Manichaeism, is the larger aim of the book.

Such an account obviously has to fit hell into its vision of things, which brings us to his Ch. 9. I found this account of hell particularly interesting in a couple of ways. First, Manous­sakis seeks to offer a phenomenology of hell, traditionally understood, as both punitive and eternal torment. The phenomenological approach alone placed him closer to Hart than others who have thus far responded to Hart. Secondly, Manoussakis does not attempt to ignore the transcendental givens of consciousness, the sense in which the good, the true, and the beautiful ground, shape and inform conscious experience and which play a key role in Hart’s account. Surprisingly, for Manoussakis this orientation grounds and sustains the punitive and unending torment of final judgment. Indeed, “the beginning reverberates through any act of consciousness.” (133)

JPM2Hell manifests the Self’s eschatological orientation.
In spite of creation’s precarious beginning, Manoussakis insists upon the “eschatological constitution of consciousness” (24), our “capacity to perceive beauty, pleasure, and perfection,” (26) a capacity that is our “orien­tation toward the ‘not-yet’,” an “opening to the eschatological.” (26) Indeed, this capacity for beauty and perfection “presupposes an uncon­ditional passivity” (28), an original receptivity to what is given. Not only is beauty perceived in what is “pleasing or interes­ting,” but it is mani­fest also “in what one finds unpleasant or boring,” not that everything that appears within consciousness is itself beautiful, but that all that appears addresses us as a call to beauty and perfection (28). Beauty renders every­thing visible, and indeed “is the condition of visi­bility” as such. (30) In addition, this orientation is a longing “which cannot be understood except in terms of direction, movement, and desire that stretches out to its ultimate good.” (33) If I may quote from another chapter of his,[2] Manoussakis sees both ‘intentionality’ and ‘imagination’ as defining consciousness’s eschatological orientation:

Imagination foresees the future and affords us a view that no here and now could furnish, not even at the final state of things. It is not, therefore, that through the dioptra of imagination we can get a glimpse of what lies ahead but rather that teleological imagination “opens” the present by adding along with the incomplete state of the present thing the image of its completion, that is, of its perfection. If, indeed, only the end (in the double sense of telos as finality and purposiveness) makes things perfect (teleia), then imagination keeps reminding us of such perfection amidst incompletion and imperfection It is as if the human mind were indeed made in such a way as to understand only the perfect and the complete. For even if this is lacking in the present state of things (and it can only be lacking) it feels compelled to supply it by itself.

I confess that as I read through such statements I saw an irresistible (i.e., transcendental) openness to Godward becoming which to my mind logically contradicts the notion of an irrevocable foreclosure of intentionality and imagination. All the features one finds in Hart’s account – the teleological structure of consciousness, its capacity to perceive beauty and perfection, its essential openness to the future, the ecstatic orientation of desire and inten­tionality, all of which constitute, shape and inform experience as such – are present in Manoussakis. But for Manoussakis these features end up in a phenomenology of hell as irrevocable self-alienation, desire severed from all ecstatic attraction, and being’s fore­closure upon every possibility of Godward becoming. And yet this phenomenology of hell, it is argued, manifests rather than denies being’s transcen­dental structure.[3]

… in approaching the idea of judgment and condemnation, the idea of hell, we are immediately presented with a wealth of vivid images that the poetic imagination, from Homer to Plato to Dante and beyond, has bequeathed to us through the literary canon of our tradition…. These images can be summarized under two broad ideas common to them all: that of a hopeless existence of pain and suffering which is to last forever. In this chapter, we would like to discuss how these two ideas (hell’s punitive character and hell’s eternity) could be presented in a manner that is both philosophi­cally accept­able and consistent with the phenomenological tenets of our foregoing analysis. (132)

JPM3Hell as self-deception.
The first move is to secure the self-imposed nature of hell’s suffering. Hell is self-deception, “not a condition imposed on [the wicked] externally.” It is found in and comes from each one, in “the compulsion of repeating [one’s] desire.” Sin is relentless and “repeats itself almost compulsorily—although its compulsion is but an illusion facilitated precisely by its lack of continuity.” (134) This involves a (kind of) foreclosure of temporal becoming, for “in Hades time does not move forward, in fact it does not move at all; it falls back upon itself in a sem­blance of movement that is nothing else than an everlasting present.” (134)

… as a series of spasms do not make up a gesture, let alone a movement, so the repetition of sin over a given amount of time fails to make up the content it lacks.” Removed from time, sin’s static repetition emulates a bad eternity, such that we find underlining the punishments in Hades. Is it possible, then, to understand hell as a self-inflicted punishment? Kierkegaard thinks so, and he goes on to add more: not only hell is self-inflicted, hell is nothing more and nothing less than the self itself—a self that has infected itself with the sickness unto death. (134)

There follows a careful appropriation of Kierkegaard’s phenomenology of the Self and his notion of despair which provide the terms in which this final foreclosure is achieved and maintained. I shan’t attempt here to lay out Kierkegaard’s account of the Self’s transcen­dental structure. Zachary Manis also appropriates Kierkegaard in a defense of hell as eternal conscious torment, and his summary is a bit easier to follow than Manoussakis.[4] In the end:

Despairing over oneself is, for Kierkegaard, a sin: the denial of oneself is ultimately the denial my self ’s creator. Sin as the denial of God is always a refusal, that is, as much reaction as resistance over against the self ’s return to itself. Yet, since no matter how desperately one might try, one cannot cease from being oneself, damnation, that is, the experience of hell, amounts to the perpetual reminder that you are who you are: you are yourself. The self ’s very identity becomes its hell or, seen from a different perspective, its paradise. (138)

… Yet, in the illusion of his autonomy, he cannot abdicate his self-mastery to anyone else other than himself. By himself, however, he cannot re-create himself (since he did not create himself in the first place). Thus, he decides to remain an error, going even further than that: loving himself as an error, “enjoying his symptom,” becom­ing one with his sickness. What, after all, could stop a sickness that survives even death? (139)

Nothing, above all not God, could save such a self from itself, for if hell were only a place, we would be sure that God would have descended there in order to save the self from its torments. But when the self itself has become for itself its own hell, God is powerless for he cannot destroy what he has created and it is only such destruc­tion, an absolute annihilation, that could save the despairing self from its despair. It is through this perspective that we come to grasp the reality of hell. (139)

There is little that’s controversial about Kierkegaard’s basic psychology of what makes the Self the kind of thing that can self-alienate in its refusal to acknowledge its origin and ground in God. Of course, whether the Self’s ability to misrelate (itself to itself, and to God) logically implies a capacity to absolutely foreclose upon itself is the crucial question. That it does imply such a thing is central to Manoussakis’s account. That it is Kierke­gaard’s obvious meaning is debatable. That it is a logically coherent account of the transcendental nature of intentionality seems impossible.


Hell’s eternity implied in the nature of the claim laid upon the Self.
A further appropriation of Kierkegaard’s phenomenology explains the irrevocable nature of the Self’s foreclosure:

If Kierkegaard’s discussion of the despairing self reads like an existential horror story this is only on one condition that is central to the outline of despair provided so far: that eternity had laid a claim upon the self. “Eternity is obliged to do this, because to have a self, to be a self, is the greatest concession, an infinite concession given to man, but it is also eternity’s claim upon him.” This means that, for better or worse, one cannot escape oneself for all eternity. And indeed, we could add that in eternity such an escape would be impossible. For in this life, time and the body—that is, the body’s temporalization of the self—provided the anguished self with many a distraction from itself. The descent to the bodily offered the greatest of consolations to such a self that now, left to itself, abandoned to itself, has no place to go, no place to escape to, because it has no place at all. Kierkegaard’s sobering reading reveals a certain darkness in the light of the resurrection: in the end of all this, we come to realize that hell is a condem­nation to life, a perpetual insomnia…. Humanity might have had condemned God to death, but God “retaliated” by condemning humanity to life. Humanity’s dream to be like a god is finally granted, but that dream is proven to be a nightmare, for it is perhaps unbearable for a finite being, as finite, to be infinitely. (139)

If I understand Manoussakis here, the claim that comes to us in the gift of being presents itself as an either/or choice which we must make. But given the infinite nature of the divine offer and its claim upon us, each possibility of choice is implicated in that infinity. Equally consequential futures lay on both sides of the process by which the Self deter­mines itself relative to eternity. This just is the weight of so wonderful and awful a call. Final refusal is thus convertible in consequence with acceptance. I could be entirely misreading Manous­sakis here, but I suspect he would say that all the transcendental features of consciousness he earlier describes are here found manifest, not denied. The infinite nature of God’s free concession of being, in all its possibilities, defines what is at stake in the choice, and to be at stake in a choice is to be contingent upon that choice. If not, choice is without any real integrity.

Hell is the coincidence of salvation and condemnation.
There is another movement Manoussakis makes which renders a punitive and eternal hell consistent with being’s transcendental structure. Appropriating Florensky, Manoussakis writes:

This existential vision of damnation should be supplemented with a theory already found in Origen and later developed and radicalized by Florensky. It is a theory that offers the hope of salvation at the very place where Anti-Climacus left us with the inescapable reality of self-condemnation. This unique theory resolves the much-debated dilemma between an all-forgiving God (universal salvation) and the self-condemnation of the self (universal damnation) by upholding both positions. (139)

Florensky (as quoted by Manoussakis):

Thus, if you ask me, “Will there in fact be eternal torments?” I would answer “Yes.” But if you were also to ask me, “Will there be universal restoration in bliss?” I would again say “Yes.” The two are thesis and antithesis…. It is neither a simple “yes” nor a simple “no.” It is both “yes” and “no.” It is an antinomy. (140)

This antinomic unity of heaven and hell is explored in a comparison of Origen and Florensky’s handling of 1Cor 3.10-15 and Heb. 4.12:

In the Exhortation to Martyrdom we meet the idea of the self ’s division (διαίρεσις) and separation (χωρισμός) from itself, or at least from a part of itself. Already at this nascent stage, this theory is invoking the scriptural passage of 1 Cor. 3:10–15 on which both Origen and Florensky will exercise their exegetical acumen. Later in the same work the idea of the coincidence of salvation and condemnation is articulated with the aid of a double metaphor: that of the word of God as a sword that cuts through the self’s interiority (based on Heb. 4:12), and that of God as a purifying fire (attested in a number of scriptural passages). These two metaphors are then combined in order to support the theory that, at the end of times, the self in its duplicity will be “cut asunder” (διχοτόμησις): all that is good in us will be preserved and thus saved; all that is evil will be consumed by fire. In this image, both heaven and hell, salvation and perdition, is [sic] a common destiny awaiting every human being—they are both universal. (140)

… the whole scope of human endeavors is compared to the material we have chosen to construct our lives. Their value and truth will be tested only at the end, on the last day—if they shall endure the coming of the eschaton then they will abide, otherwise, when he appears “like a refiner’s fire” (Malachi 3:2), they will be lost, but the human person in itself “will be saved” (1 Cor. 3:15). (140)

Manoussakis notes Origen’s universalist reading of 1 Cor 3 (adopted by Gregory of Nyssa, St. Theodore the Studite, and others), but questions its logic:

At first sight, Origen’s and Theodore’s readings seems to lead to the well-known position of apokatastasis, that is, of the eschatological restoration of all, for which Origen was later condemned. However, this is not necessarily so. For one could raise two questions: firstly, “how much” of the self is lost as a result of this purification, provided that one’s life may be entirely or mostly built by the material of wicked­ness? And secondly, how long does this trial by fire last—or rather for how long may the self that undergoes such a burning purification perceive this process as lasting? Floren­sky’s treatment of eschatology offers a more detailed, though more gruesome as well, answer to these questions. (141)

Regarding the double-edged sword of Heb. 4.12, Manoussakis “agrees with Origen’s basic idea of an eschatological catharsis” but notes that “for [Florensky] condemnation takes the form of a separation that cuts the self asunder.” (142)

Every impure thought, every idle word, every evil deed, everything whose source is not God, everything whose roots are not fed by the water of eternal life and is inwardly condemned because it does not conform with the Ideal which is in Christ and because it is incapable of receiving the Spirit—all this will be torn out of the formed empirical person, out of human selfhood. (142)

What is separated is one’s ‘person’ (for Florensky, the “in itself”) from one’s ‘character’ (one’s “for itself”), and thus the self that has been cut away from itself does not perish but it endures in the pain of separation that persists forever. Manoussakis leads us to the next logical step:

JPM5The question, however, that immediately arises is: which part of the self in this list of distinctions is saved and which is con­demned?… [I]t would seem that for Floren­sky what is condemned is precisely that aspect of the self which distinguishes our­selves from others and which individuates our selfhood. “The entire content of con­sciousness will perish to the extent that it is not from faith, hope, and love,” he writes in one instance, and he continues later in the text, “for the entire self-consciousness of wicked will is cast out, into the fiery dark­ness of the black and nonluminous fire of Gehen­na.” What is, then, saved? The “per­son,” as Florensky calls it, is the “image of God”—that which, in principle, cannot be destroyed, but also that undifferentiated characteristic which we all hold in common. Therefore, it would seem that for Florensky it is only the human nature that God saves, a faceless abstraction, but not particular individuals. Since we began this chapter with a discussion of Kierkegaard, it may be fitting to invoke at this point his warning that Christ did not come to save the human race, but rather to save us “out of the race.” (143)

In the end, then, the defining features of consciousness (its eschatological orientation, its teleology, the ecstatic movement of its desire, its intentionality and imagination) define either choice we make with respect to the eternity’s claim upon us but also dictate that what God creates, the nature which bears his image, cannot be lost or destroyed. It is saved, albeit only — and the dash should run on infinitely to introduce so vacuous a rescue of God’s image —  “as a faceless abstraction.”

Heaven undiminished by the suffering of the damned.
A final movement of closure in Manoussakis phenomenology of hell is made as he inquires into whether the final bliss of the glorified will be diminished or undermined by their knowledge of the suffering of the condemned. Florensky answers:

Do we feel any sorrow about cut fingernails or even about amputated limbs? So, the righteous feel no sorrow about eternally burning selfhoods, which exist just as little for them as the unknown thoughts of other people exist for us. (142)

Manoussakis appears to embrace Florensky’s answer but finds in it an occasion to clarify an unaddressed question about the nature of the resurrected body which he takes up in an extended critique of Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Soul and Resurrection as well as in the following chapter. But it is not clear to me how this critique of Gregory, even if valid, has anything to do with the question of how it is the saved are rendered ignorant or apprecia­tive of, or indifferent to, the torments of the eternally damned.

I should bring this to a close. These are what I understand to be the main features of Manoussakis’s phenomenology of hell. He did a vastly better job of presenting and arguing it than I have done in summarizing it, so I encourage those interested to read his book for themselves. There are insights in it which I was very happy to see proposed and defended, but I confess that his account of hell left me unconvinced.

One last parting thought, if I may. At the beginning of Ch. 9 Manoussakis says that in approaching the idea of hell we are presented with images which over time shaped in the Greek mind an understanding of judgment as unending punishment, and if we qualify away the unending nature of it, we also do away with any punishment. He mentions Sisyphus, Prometheus, Tantalus, etc. But I thought of Orpheus, that famous poet and musician who was taught to sing and play the lyre by Apollo. The story goes that one day Orpheus’s wife Eurydice fell into a nest of vipers and was fatally bitten. The grieving Orpheus mourned her through his music and song. His art was so beautiful the gods advised him to go to the Underworld and through his song beg Hades to release Eurydice. Orpheus did so. As he began to play and sing, all Hades was brought to a stand still. Sisyphus stopped rolling his boulder up the hill to listen to Orpheus. Tantalus stopped reaching for the water he was condemned to reach out for but never possess to give attention to Orpheus’s song. The Furies (demonic goddesses of vengeance) wept. Upon hearing Orpheus sing, Hades and his wife Persephone were so moved they released Eurydice.

There’s more to the story (Orpheus ends up not saving his wife due to his own fault), but my point is that within the images humanity has over time engaged to express our beliefs and intuitions about choice, consequence, and judgment, there are images of the power of love, beauty, mercy, tenderness, etc., to intrude upon suffering and rewrite our stories. Orpheus’s song interrupts tragic suffering. Love triumphs over judgment, not by making choice and its consequences false or irrelevant (which one can see clearly in his review of Hart is what Manoussakis is concerned about), but by circumscribing its terms within a larger horizon of possibilities. It’s simply false, as Manoussakis claims, that if we remove the unending nature of suffering from divine judgment “there is no punishment anymore.” (134)


[1] The Ethics of Time: A Phenomenology of Hermeneutics and Change (Bloomsbury Academic: 2017). Fr John was born in Athens, received his PhD from Boston College (2005), and has been at The College of the Holy Cross for over a decade. He is the author of three books and many articles and is co-editor-in-chief of The Journal for Continental Philosophy of Religion.
[2] “The Promise of the New and the Tyranny of the Same,” in Phenomenology and Eschatology (Ashgate, 2009), p. 87.
[3] I got the sense that teleology functions in Manoussakis’s account as it does for Feser. As I tried to show elsewhere, Feser understands the transcendental orientation of consciousness to abide in beings who enjoy no potentiality for Godward becoming. I suspect Manoussakis would agree. As long as the mind is choosing for ‘some reason or other’, teleology is operative. But this is hardly adequate.
[4] “‘Eternity will nail him to himself’: the logic of damnation in Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death.” Religious Studies (2016) 52, 287–314. Manis deals with two choice models used to defend hell as eternal torment. The first model sees damnation as the explicit and direct object of choice. This faces the challenge of explaining why anyone would choose to suffering eternally. The second model sees damnation as the natural consequence of a history of choices. This faces the challenge of explaining why God wouldn’t simply annihilate the damned. Manis means to offer a Kierkegaardian response to both these challenges which demonstrates “the means by which one’s perspective could become twisted to the point that one is blind to the most fundamental truths about God and oneself” and which also “makes it clear that the process itself is something for which the individual is blameworthy.” (291)

* * *

Tom is a happily married father of four and grandfather to four. He is a former missionary of more than 20 years to the Middle East and continues to serve the Arabic-speaking world from Sacramento where he manages a nonprof dedicated to the translation and publication of the Bible (and other discipleship material) in Arabic.

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23 Responses to Huis Clos

  1. earsofc says:

    Haven’t commented on Hell lately, but seeing Tom Belt’s name pop up as the author made me unable to resist.

    I’ve not kept up with the numerous reviews of DBH’s book, so no doubt what I have to say will appear off the mark generalities. I do not aim my words at anyone in *particular.*

    If one is satisfied with a God who is himself satisfied with any created consciousness experiencing unending torture, it appears to me useless to argue with him. What – am I to try to prove that there is a better God worth believing in? If the dog returns to his vomit and laps it up *willingly* – well, I suppose he must continue lapping until he becomes sick of it himself.

    But tradition says so and so, or a book says such and such, or there appear to be words from the God-man that teach this and that. What are all these things, but barriers between the soul and its God? Once a demon-god is a possible-god, then truly has the soul lost all its trust, all its belief, all its strength. A non-possible has become a possible – the mind entertains what could never be as what could be – and reason lies slain on the altar of fear, along with hope.

    God cannot be less than himself. If God exists at all, there must be, at the heart of things, an infinite Thought and Will and Love, the infinite Beauty and Longing and home for every heart, every consciousness, every soul. If that is not true, then religion is not worth having. The god it presents – one that can tolerate the never-ending pain and failure of that which is capable of infinite life – is not worth believing in, not worth loving; it is infinitely less than what the heart infinitely needs.

    Give me a thousand reasons why the God of unlimited salvation cannot be true – why everything he creates cannot be destined for an expanded life beyond anything we can conceive, as different as the sense of sight is from the sense of smell. Give me these reasons. I will tell you they are all themselves less than the God I will worship, the God I will believe in, the God in whose hands I will put the souls of all humanity. Your reasons, your arguments, you authorities – I will not lift a straw to take them from you; cling to them as you will. I shall cling to the necessarily perfect, infinitely concerned, humanly-divine Father of Jesus Christ.


    • Fr. Alexis Baldwin says:

      Great response. It’s the actual problem laid out here for both “sides”. Namely, one’s mind is already made up and cannot and will not be convinced.

      Either Hell is Eternal or it is not.
      One side says it’s for a time and purgative, the other side says it’s eternal.
      One side says they cannot believe in a God that would allow eternal hell, the other side says they cannot believe in a God that lets all human beings into heaven eventually.
      Bottom line, someone is wrong. So maybe we could all stop pretending this conversation is about a long line of misunderstandings.

      The Orthodox Church dogmatically teaches the eternity of hell. Some want that to change. Just be honest and admit that. It’s the real conversation people are trying to have anyways. Let’s drop the song and dance and stop having this theology by philosophical proxy “dialogue”.

      That one can point out a minority opinion is one thing. When that minority opinion, long vociferously condemned officially by the Tradition and writings of Church Fathers, becomes elevated to the level of Church dogma as an option of belief, actual Church teaching is denigrated and obscured. It’s a disservice to believers. And even worse, can lead people very much astray, right into embracing heresy.


      • Ben says:

        Once again, no the Orthodox Church does not have any dogmatic teaching on the matter at all. You can assert it over and over if you must, but you are not speaking the truth. This issue has been looked into by many Orthodox scholars over the years, including plenty who aren’t universalists, and there simply isn’t any support for this claim you keep repeating and repeating. Even Kallistos Ware has denied that there is a dogmatically binding pronouncement on the issue.

        Have you gotten around to reading Hart yet? Because if his argument is sound then you have a problem. And his argument is more than sound.


      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        I don’t see how crying “Heresy! Heresy!” gets you anywhere. If you manage to convince someone that to be a Christian they must believe something horrible, stupid or absurd, the result will generally not be that they therefore believe it, but that they therefore cease being a Christian.
        I am certain that you would regard me as a heretic, but if I were not a heretic I would not be a Christian, so I am OK with it.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Fr Alexis, every bishop and every parish priest bears the burden of the possibility of false teaching. As faithful as we may try to be in our preaching and catechesis, on any given Sunday we may be speaking falsehood. We may not discover that we have done so until years later, perhaps not until the Eschaton; but that we will speak contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ and the apostolic tradition is probably inevitable. We are fallible sinners living in history. How could it be otherwise that we might mislead and injure our congregations by our false teaching? All we can do, as you note, is ask for God’s forgiveness and correct our teaching.

        Is it possible that the Church has rightly wrongly about eternal damnation for the past 1500 years? Why not? The Church has taught falsely on other matters. Why not this one? But 1500 years seems like such a long time. Surely God would have acted my quickly to correct error, we say. But how can we objectively judge what is too long? A year, ten years, a hundred years, five hundred years, a millennium? As far as we know, we are still in the early days of the Church. Consider, for example, how long the Church (both East and West) has wrestled with the question “Can children who die without baptism be saved?” The question has been felt more acutely in the Latin Church than the Eastern (thanks to the clear teaching of St Augustine), yet only until fairly recently have Churches either felt comfortable about answering yes to the question. Why has it taken so long for the Spirit to bring clarity to the Church on a question that is pastorally pressing to every Christian parent who has lost a child before baptism? How many people have been emotionally damaged by the claim that the unbaptized cannot be admitted into the Kingdom of God?

        Every theological question, every teaching, has its own time within the life of the Church. Suddenly the question becomes pressing. The most famous example is the Arian controversy in the fourth century. For two hundred years the Church seemed comfortable with the ontological subordination of the Son to the Father, yet suddenly there was a crisis and doctrinal clarity and resolution became necessary. Now is such a time, I suggest, for the question of eternal damnation. Is the standard teaching reconcilable with the Church’s affirmation of the absolute love and mercy of God? David Hart’s book has the merit of placing this question directly before us. We cannot retreat to appeals to Church authority because the precise way the question is now posed has never been genuinely been considered, analyzed, debated, and assessed. The Church had the opportunity to do so when Origen advanced his apokatastasis thesis, but unfortunately Origen’s more controversial theses (whether understood rightly or not) dominated the Church’s attention. Curiously, and importantly, one does not find the universalism of St Gregory of Nyssa subjected to serious examination and critique by anyone (at least as far as I know). I find that very strange. After Constantinople II it appears that every expression of apokatastasis was swept into the Church’s condemnation of (6th century) Origenism, and eternal damnation became standard doctrine. But is the standard doctrine true? That is the question now before us.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    For the interest of the brethren: Tom mentions philosopher Zach Manis and his Kierkegaardian defense of eternal damnation. Readers may recall that I reviewed Manis’s recently published book Sinners in the Presence of a Loving God last summer. One article in the series touches on Kierkegaard’s demonic despair: “Despairing into Gehenna.”


  3. Ben (contrite for losing his temper in the past) W. says:

    Belt: “There are insights in it which I was very happy to see proposed and defended, but I confess that his account of hell left me unconvinced.”

    That’s because there’s nothing convincing about it. There are more words in Manoussakis’s version of it, but no deeper ideas.

    I’ll try to stick by the rules of this website. But I have to be honest. Nothing I have read by Manoussakis has ever really impressed me. I thought his first book was just a series of empty assertions, a bad reading of philosophical history, and a really really silly phenomenology “of the kiss”. I have never seen him really argue anything through. It’s always just statements.

    Now I’ve read this book on time and I have come away with exactly the same sort of “meh” reaction. There’s a straw-man reading of neoplatonism, and then a lot of assertions that really never hold together. There’s an incompetent critique of Gregory Nyssen. There’s a deep misreading of Florensky. For Florensky, the “self” is never what is conscious or capable of intentionally seeking the good. It really is just like an amputated limb.

    Especially unsatisfying is the absence of any believable and cogent account of freedom. I read this book after reading Hart’s TASBS, and it seemed to me that Hart had already dismantled Manoussakis’s case very simply. Deciding to remain in error cannot be a free choice, can it? It cannot be a choice at all, really, except in the sense that a person falling down a slight of stairs could choose to surrender himself to the fall rather than trying to stop it. But that’s still not a free intention. JPM simply cannot find a way of inserting real freedom into his account in a way that makes eternal damnation morally possible. This book is just the same old bad arguments made in a more grandiose style.

    I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be insulting. I just don’t think Manoussakis is a very talented philosopher, and I’m not sure why anyone else does. Assertions heaped on top of assertions and then topped with more assertions are not arguments. He has a gift for obfuscations and fake profundity, but the actual content is always pretty feeble.

    Plus, the God he appears to worship turns out to be evil (see Hart’s First Meditation). That is a problem. The God who would permit the reality that JPM describes as part of the price of creating would be a malevolent demiurge. Satan almighty.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Iain Lovejoy says:

    “Florensky answers:
    Do we feel any sorrow about cut fingernails or even about amputated limbs? So, the righteous feel no sorrow about eternally burning selfhoods, which exist just as little for them as the unknown thoughts of other people exist for us.”
    I am not familiar with him, but is this Florensky a psychopath? This is a serious question. Other people apparently do not exist for him as real people and he views with equanimity the suffering and destruction of others as simply discarded matter. I can only view the above quotation with utter horror. Its indifference to other selves is worse to me than revelling in the destruction of an enemy or vengeance on the cruel or sinful: that at least retains human emotion and a recognition of them as beings worthy of attention, whose fate actually matters.
    It is chilling to think that there is someone out there purporting to expound Christianity in saying this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ben says:

      It’s a misreading of Florensky. For him the self is a shadow, not a subject. The psychological ego destroys itself. But it doesn’t have an internal world. It’s like the old skin of a snake. Florensky uses paradoxical language to make a point, but you have to read him carefully to get the point.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        Well, I’m glad it’s a misreading, because on the face of it it’s pretty ghastly. The passage quoted would only not be ghastly though from a universalist perspective, with that which is being discarded being the husk from which the kernel is preserved. If used to support eternal hell what is being discarded is the sinner as a whole. (It still worries me to read of him saying the thoughts of others not existing for us to support his argument, for me a worrying sentiment.)


    • earsofc says:

      Some “christian beliefs” are far worse than atheism.


  5. Fr. Alexis Baldwin says:

    If the Church teaching about Hell is wrong; if Hell is not eternal, everyone who ever taught that or believed it must repent.
    I’m a priest and if I am not teaching the True teaching of the Church, I need to repent for leading people astray. I need to repent for teaching a false teaching. Every Bishop must come out and publicly repent!

    Any one who teaches something false should repent. They should apologize to those they’ve led astray. Same goes for teaching universal salvation. If it’s false, repent.


    • William says:

      Certainly if a teacher comes to believe he or she has been teaching something false, he or she should do what is possible to correct the record. The question of the limitlessness or limitedness of the experience of hell, however, is not dogmatically defined. So teachers on the wrong side of this question, while they may be mistaken and causing their hearers to be mistaken, they are not therefore heretics or false prophets in this regard, all else being equal. This is not at all to say the question doesn’t matter and doesn’t make a significant difference, but this is one of those topics of which Gregory the Theologian says “to hit the mark is not useless, but to miss the mark is not dangerous.”


      • Ben says:

        Exactly. Which is why, for those who are unsure, it is no vice to say it is a mystery, but that we must place our faith in God’s goodness and mercy.


      • Fr. Alexis Baldwin says:

        Great, so the Church should just continue teaching that hell is eternal. Cus if that’s actually wrong, no worries then.

        And, if someone doesn’t want to hear this, they shouldn’t get upset or worried or write a book against eternal hell because it’s not dangerous to be wrong about that.


        • William says:

          I did say that “this is not to say that the question doesn’t matter and doesn’t make a significant difference.” That’s why this discussion is happening right now. So, no, if the teaching is wrong, it should be corrected as teachers are pressed by controversy to consider the matter more acutely than they may have been able to do or been wont to do heretofore. There are various reasons that could be conjectured to explain why the question perhaps couldn’t be adequately considered between, say, the 400s and more recent times (problems with the so-called “Origenist” system was probably the main issue at the beginning and then further on it probably became more of a sense that the matter didn’t need much consideration because countervailing voices dissipated as a result of the “Origenist” controversy … perhaps things like “Western Captivity” and “Turkish Yoke” could be tossed in as factors quashing a more robust theological discussion as well, insofar as those things can be considered real factors).

          One thing about Christians who believe in a limitless hell: If in the by and by they discover that they were wrong, rather than disappointed they’re more likely to be joyously astounded and full of praise at “the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God.” This is one way in which to have missed the mark regarding this question is not dangerous. On the other side, if hell were to turn out to be limitless, all the Orthodox universalists I have read still have been asserting, just like their “infernalist” brethren, the need for faith/repentance/ascesis/dependance on the Spirit. They still have been affirming the awful reality of hell as something to be avoided. It’s not as though any of them were teaching people that there were no such thing as the “dread judgment seat of God.”

          Liked by 1 person

          • William says:

            … And yes people, hearing an Orthodox teacher propound universal salvation, might get from that nothing more than a sense that they don’t need to concern themselves with faith/repentance/ascesis/dependance on the Spirit because they can just skate through hell and be saved in the end. But if that’s their takeaway, you have to wonder whether a full-on “infernalist” message really makes a bigger dent in the hardness entailed in that kind of lack of love for Christ.


        • Ben says:

          I’m glad you don’t let reason upset your prejudices. I assume you have reasons for believing that Christianity is true, however, and reasons for being Orthodox. I assume you could tell us those reasons. If that’s so, then I don’t think you would endanger your soul by taking a deep dive into the reasoning in Hart’s book. But you just keep repeating that eternal hell is Orthodox teaching, and that it’s wrong to say otherwise, and you never give any sign that you’ve examined the arguments you’re rejecting. And that makes me think your faith might not have reasons after all. Maybe it’s just irrational belief in what you want to believe. But then that’s not really faith, is it?

          For me it’s kind of an existential question. I don’t know if I still believe that Christianity is true, precisely because I’m afraid that you might be right and eternal hell is essential to the faith. But the idea of an eternal hell is so ridiculous to me and so obscene that to me it would show Christianity to be self-contradictory and so false. I don’t respect anyone for believing things just because lots of other people over lots of centuries have claimed its true. It has to be rational to be true. If I ever conclude that what you say is right, I guess I’ll just renounce my baptism and go looking for God elsewhere.

          So maybe for some of us what’s dangerous is the faith you preach.

          (By the way, the idea really is ridiculous. It really is false. So there’s no danger in not believing it. To believe it you have to sacrifice your reason or your conscience.)

          My last post.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve read very little of Manoussakis, but I think he misunderstands Florensky’s account of damnation and salvation. According to Florensky, an individual can both be eternally damned and eternally saved. He does not think, as Manoussakis suggests, that only the abstract human nature of an individual might be saved while his person is tormented. That solution is too rational for Florensky who holds that truth does not rest on the law of non-contradiction but on the antinomic mystery of the Persons Who are Three and One. Thus, God both saves and damns the individual, saving the person and destroying his evil character or false/shadow-self. Florensky writes:

    “A creature of God is a person and must be saved. An evil character is precisely what prevents a person from being saved. It is therefore clear that salvation postulates a separation between person and character. What is one must become disparate. How does this come about? In the same way that the trine is one in God. In essence one, ‘I’ splits apart; that is, remaining one, ‘I’ stops being ‘I.’ Psychologically, this means that a person’s evil will, manifested in the lusts and pride of the character, is separated from the person himself. This ‘will’ thus acquires an independent non-substantial position in being and is absolute nothing ‘for another’ (according to the mode ‘thou,’ which is the metaphysical synthesis of the ‘I’ and ‘He’ of the fragmented person). In other words, the essentially holy ‘in itself’ of a person (according to the mode ‘He’) is separated from the person’s ‘for itself’ (according to the mode ‘I’) insofar as the latter is evil.” (PGT, 156)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Tom Belt, I want to thank you for this fine summary. I know you’ve been working on this for a couple of months. I

    In this piece you have focused on describing Manoussakis’s views on eternal damnation. Having now read both Hart and Manoussakis, how would you describe their major differences? And if you were going to write a critique of Manoussakis, what points would you advance against his position?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Tom says:

      Thank you Fr Aidan, although 2 months is only how long you’ve been after me to write something!

      Comparing/contrasting Hart and JPM is beyond my pay scale.

      Hart has talked about the 5th Ecu Council, so we know how he addresses that question, but I’d love to hear JMP talk about the relationship between whatever ‘dogmatic’ constraints he adopts re: universalism and his philosophical account of hell. How do those relate in his thinking?

      I don’t see why dogmatic constraints shouldn’t be part of a phenomenological account of why/how one believes a certain doctrine. One typically doesn’t integrate the two (that I know of), but to the extent dogmatic commitments define how one identifies oneself (in relation to a community), and the question of identity formation is a concern of phenomenology, why not a ‘dogmatic phenomenology’ (a phenomenology of how dogmatic positions of a community are integrated into one’s self-understanding in light of competing beiefs)?

      If I were to respond, I’d definitely focus on how he understands the transcendental structure of consciousness. I noticed ‘transcendental’ is not a word he uses a lot, if at all. But it’s there – as his opening chapters make clear. But I’m mystified by how admits them early on, then ends up foreclosing upon it all. To my mind, the transcendentals are just that – transcendental. They can’t be foreclosed upon. And if JPM feels an irrevocable hell isn’t foreclosing upon the transcendental/teleological structure of being – then I have no idea what transcendental and teleological mean. It seems Florensky will not help him out here if I’m following the comments thus far.

      Given JPM’s critique of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, I’d have to guess he thinks Hart is too Neo-Platonian, but honestly, those issues don’t really bear upon the question of final salvation. JPM brings them up when he’s objecting to the idea of a double-creation (two creations), an original rupture/fall, the goodness of the body and temporal becoming (as opposed to our having fallen into embodied, conscious becoming). But none of JPM’s views on these questions requires his view of hell.

      I honestly don’t understand why JPM is not a universalist. The pieces are all there. So I’m guessing it’s the 5th Ecu Council.

      I’m not Kierkegaard authority. I did ask a couple acquaintances of mine (one a recognized authority on SK and the other a life-long student of SK) and their answers were surprisingly similar. They essentially said that while there is a sense in which SK’s context (a dead Danish Church) required a good bit of “bad news,” but generally SK was averse to speculations and theoretical systems, and nothing about his philosophy entailed the possibility of a final, absolute foreclosure of the Self to God.


      Liked by 1 person

  8. Tom says:

    For what it’s worth, I was wondering myself if I was accurately following JPM’s points in Ch. 9. But he was good enough to confirm that I was, and that the above accurately represents his account of hell.


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