by Jordan Daniel Wood, Ph.D.
Many a wrong, and its curing song;
Many a road, and many an inn;
Room to roam, but only one home
For all the world to win.
(Eve, in MacDonald’s Lilith)
I want to put two eschatologies in conversation, that of Hans Urs von Balthasar and that of George MacDonald. The former, because I consider his the most interesting and potent eschatology on offer in modern Catholic theology. His defense of a “hopeful universalism,” which does not claim to know that all will be saved but insists it’s a Christian duty to hope that all will, has become fairly popular in many quarters. Not all, of course; not for the Thomists or the Neo-Augustinians or even, sadly, many contemporary Orthodox theologians. A keen sense of “the dramatic” in God’s dealings with humanity throughout history along with an ostensibly modest claim to epistemic humility about matters eschatological—this is the near irresistible concoction the great von Balthasar offers as antidote to the poison Augustine has injected into most of the Western tradition.
An essential though far less treated feature of von Balthasar’s polemic is his self-distancing from and criticisms of the certainty assumed not just in Augustine, but also in Origen’s view of universal salvation. I’ll consider two of his preferred allegations:
- That the dramatic character of creation’s history demands that both divine and human freedom undermine any surety about final resolutions;
- That the theological virtue of hope properly precludes any presumption of eschatological certainty.
I summon George MacDonald to respond to and meet Balthasar’s criticisms. MacDonald was at once a staunch Christian universalist (though he never claims the label)—a position carefully hewn from the hard ore of Scottish Presbyterian Calvinism—and a renowned dramatist: one of the pioneers of the fantasy genre in literature, author of numerous short stories and fairytales and novels, and frequent lecturer in theology and poetry. He was also an avid preacher. I make no pretensions here: I will not simply detail each’s eschatology. I intend to use MacDonald against von Balthasar. As such my description of the former will conform to my criticism of the latter.
Hans Urs von Balthasar
Some of Christ’s parables, a few of St. Paul’s statements, and certainly St. John’s Apocalypse all indulge the same images for God’s judgment of evil as are commonly found in the Old Testament; harsher, in fact. Von Balthasar warns that this can mislead. Under the common veneer lies a deep and significant shift: in the Old Testament God judges, in the New it is precisely Jesus the Crucified and Risen Lord who will judge the world (Acts 3, 17; Rev. 1, 5, 19, 20). Before Christ divine righteousness stood “behind” the judgment of reward and punishment. Now it is realized in the very person of Christ the Judge: divine justice is “in the judgment,” not behind it. Christ is “the Covenant personified,” party to no single side but the fulfillment of the whole by His oneness with both parties, God and humanity. More, the Son’s obedience to death, His becoming sin itself, and especially His descent into Hell have made of every distance forged by human rebellion a distance still infinitely more proximate than that of Son’s godforsakeness in dereliction. Christ’s radical kenosis even to the depths of the pit has brought the great cleft wrought by the wicked into the heart of the trinitarian relations—particularly the total self-giving between Father and Son—so that no sinner can wander where the Son is not. Von Speyr says: “even when a sinner turns to run from the Father, he will only run into the Son.” Christ’s cross and descent have made of every prodigal child God’s neighbor. Hence von Balthasar insists that while God’s judgment appears “symmetrical” in the ancient covenant, it is “asymmetrical” in the New with an evident penchant toward grace, salvation, restoration. Even so, von Balthasar refuses, from Theodrama V to his final writings, to brave the more confident claim that all indeed will be saved. Here I sketch his main reasons for hesitancy.
1. The mystery of freedom
In the Theodrama, von Balthasar’s principal approach to this question is, perhaps unsurprisingly, to locate it in the context of the dramatic interplay between God and humanity. These are the primary actors because both enjoy freedom and agency. In the second volume von Balthasar defines human freedom in fairly unremarkable terms: there are two pillars which constitute it: the autonomy of self-motion and the “freedom to consent.” Both elements are (mostly) classical. The first amounts to the simple observation that rational beings are self-moved, that is, are reduced to neither mechanical nor merely organic processes for the “mental events” that lead to action; they really can call their acts theirs. They act out of no obligation and only of their own election. The second provides the “teleological valence” of human freedom: the very power to act from oneself comes from a still greater power with still greater freedom, the infinite freedom of the Creator. As such human freedom is also oriented or tends toward its source as ultimate end. It’s not pure libertine freedom, which, von Balthasar notes, is what separates it from many modern accounts of liberty.
So we have two actors in the drama of created being, divine and human (demons and angels also play important roles, but I leave them aside for now). The dénouement, as with the play itself, consists in the tangled and at times impenetrable actions of bothactors. There is no easy or guaranteed resolution in a good drama. This is what, incidentally, makes Christian history and eschatology something resistant to Hegelian “epic,” where, supposedly, the Absolute Spirit will eventually accomplish the pre-disclosed goal of history, will attain, that’s to say, its total self-realization in the whole of what is. The Spirit’s self-consciousness is present in history not only as the terrible engine of its progressive march, but as the inevitable goal of all human science and striving. True, von Balthasar does not make explicit mention of Hegel in the relevant texts here. But so much of his language is haunted by the latter’s specter. We’ll see how especially in the next section.
For now I note only that even the End must come about as the conjoined actions of both actors, and that this seems a radical rebuff of any sort of Hegelian resolution posited beforehand as the inevitable goal. And so von Balthasar constructs, as it were, two sorts of “theory” concerning universal salvation. First he delimits what he thinks we can say with certitude; then he offers something like a “hypothetical approach,” at least in Theodrama V. The first part details what we can say of the two agents’ action. “Man judges himself,” says von Balthasar. He means much the same as what C.S. Lewis meant about locking the door from the inside: God casts no one into the Lake of Fire against her will. Each person has the “capacity” to so cauterize her own heart, so despoil her soul of love, that she might will her own persistent and torturous separation from the sole source of her life, love, and bliss. Von Balthasar speaks of “The Serious Possibility of Rejection,” which, in the gloomy abyss of the human person, might indeed come to pass. Then there’s God’s final act as the judge of such persons—always the final action. He will certainly spare no means to save such a person since the one who judges is the very one who came to save. But again, in the face of that black hole called the human heart—which God created, recall—God himself might fail to bring that heart to rest in Him. Apparently the index of a decidedly anti-epic view of history is the real potential of final tragedy: “This possibility once again raises the idea of a tragedy, not only for man, but also for God himself” (TD V, p. 299).
Personhood resists all calculation. The final judgment of persons therefore resists all speculation, all systems, all confident or absolute verdicts doled out prematurely. We must then “proceed by way of hypothesis,” von Balthasar cautions. He does so in four points. First, he registers doubt that human freedom has the capacity after all to reject God finally or permanently. This is because the person who demands, in her autonomous self-motion, to be utterly independent and cut off from God can only do so in a perpetual state of formal contradiction, since the freedom by which she requisites total freedom must itself be exercised precisely in a state of being given to her. You can’t logically atomize yourself without depending on God in the very act of “autonomous” rebellion. Put otherwise, human nature is irreducibly dependent and so can’t act in freedom without God (indeed, von Balthasar further specifies that this “nature” actually bears the indelible mark of Christ’s own eternal relation to the Father, which makes a finer point here). Second, the timelessness Christ experienced in His descent to Hell far exceeds any “timelessness” of Hell itself. The sinner’s atemporal state is the very state of self-elected separation, and it expresses only that rebellion. Christ’s pure obedience to the Father unto cross and descent is actually an expression of His own eternal and immanent mode of possessing divine being; it enjoys all the infinity of divinity itself rather than just the near-indeterminate “nothingness” of hardened hatred. Third, this excess of Christ’s obedience is what allows Him to “accompany” any and every sinner to whatever depths of depravity into which they plunge. Here we have “the ineluctable presence of Another,” which is the condition of the possibility of anyone’s eventual repentance. Fourth and last, all this grounds the real Christian duty to hope for the salvation of all. Hope, as we’ll see presently, is not the presumptuous certitude of either Augustine or Origen, but is most properly the “blind hope” of St. Thérèse de Lisieux (though, it must be admitted that Thérèse’s expressions, especially in Récréations pieuses, blind or not, are hardly lacking in absolute confidence that “every soul will find forgiveness”).
2. Hope against certainty
I discern a clear shift—not so much in logical content as in polemical form—between TD V (1983) and Dare We Hope ‘That All Men be Saved’? (1986), A Short Discourse on Hell (1987), and “Apokatastasis: Universal Reconciliation” (1988). If in the Theodrama von Balthasar emphasized the final indeterminacy of human freedom, now he wishes to brandish God’s absolute prerogative to exercise free and final judgment. From 1986 onward this becomes the refrain: “we stand under judgment,” we’re not spectators to the Final Act of this judgment. So a new charge, or at least a new urgency of an old charge, emerges: the charge of double presumption. Von Balthasar argues that Origen and Augustine share a common presumption. Both had the audacity to presume to know the final outcome, though, of course, each elected opposite certainties—but certainties nonetheless. Behold von Balthasar’s great and shrewd polemic: everyone who disagrees with him are “knowers,” from Origen to Augustine to Aquinas to Bonaventure to von Balthasar’s own right-wing critics. Only he and his like practice and properly maintain the theological virtue of hope. This obviously courts enormous rhetorical power. It amounts to saying that whoever claims to know whether anyone is in Hell—an affirmation conspicuously absent in magisterial teaching—is not only wrong but sinful, since such a claim betrays the vice of presumption. Hope opposes such illicit certainty, and “hope” happens to name von Balthasar’s view.
So now we find at least two reasons you must not claim to know whether all will be saved. For one thing, such certainty evacuates human freedom of meaning. If I know that no matter what I do, I’ll still end up at the same destination, how can my particular choices bear ultimate significance? If the final word of my own existence falls not to me, then do any of my words matter? The realization of every personal destiny is as impenetrable to the intellect as a personis to herself. This much already surfaced in Theodrama, and it’s still operative here. But, second, the principal problem with eschatological certainty is that it dares too much. Such audacity undermines the other great factor in the Final Act—that Christ alone gives the last word. Once again this is a fundamentally anti-Hegelian affirmation. Christ the Logos does indeed stand at the ultimate precipice of history, but not as some discernible principle realized at last. He stands as a free actor, the free Actor, whose judgment is his alone to deliver. Because He is the slain lamb (Rev 5) we can certainly “have confidence” (1 Jn 4.17). But we cannot have certainty. A proper hope repels the presumption of every certitude. This is the one merit von Balthasar can credit to Augustine: at least his presumption was a pastoral attempt to curb the “presumptuous hope” of other Church Fathers such as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa and other misericordes. These apparently succumbed to the temptation of constructing great “syntheses” and engaged in illicit “system-building” at the expense of genuine hope. “We stand completely under judgment and have no right, nor is it possible for us, to peer in advance at the Judge’s cards. How can anyone equate hoping with knowing? I hope that my friend will recover from his serious illness—do I therefore know this?” (Dare We Hope, p.131).
There lurks in fact a corollary reason why no one can know the final outcome. Near the end of Dare We Hope, von Balthasar admits that what comes along with the divine prerogative to judge, what makes it still more impossible to know the verdict here and now, is that God does have the power, after all, to save all. The grace that flows from the Son’s self-sacrifice into the world (2 Cor 5.19) could “grow powerful enough to become his ‘efficacious’ grace for all sinners.” “But,” he quickly adds, “this is something for which we can only hope” (Dare We Hope, p.167). He agrees with St. Edith Stein that God can indeed “outwit” even the very worst antics of human freedom, and that there are “no limits” to how far He can descend into the human heart. We’re just to be positively unsure as to whether He’ll really take the trouble.
Von Balthasar’s last writing, to my knowledge, was a talk he gave in 1988 on “Apokatastasis.” In it he takes his familiar line. Now, though, he appears even more sure about scripture’s indeterminacy on the question, alleging that anyone who claims eschatological certainty takes neither scripture nor faith seriously. Alas, “we must resign ourselves” to the possibility of ultimate tragedy, “our feelings of revulsion notwithstanding.” He calls his position of hope “the existential posture,” that is, the only perspective capable of holding in tension the ambiguities not just of scripture but of this our wrecked existence. He places himself between Paul, who says, “It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness” (1 Cor 4:3-5), and John, who assures that “we may have confidence on the day of judgment” (1 Jn 4.17). Here below we live between fear and hope, though we must somehow gather ourselves to hope with daring. It is our duty to pray for all to be saved; we know not whether He will deliver.
For MacDonald we certainly do know. Now his is no easy universalism. He neither evacuates meaning from the drama of human existence nor wavers about creation’s final outcome. This alone ought to give the Balthasarian pause, since, along with Dostoevsky, MacDonald was himself a universalist and a dramatist. He’s likely to know the stuff of the dramatic. And he’s just as likely to know what he rejects when he defects from Scottish Calvinism: “From every portrait of the God of Jonathan Edwards, however faded by time, softened by whatever less stark pigments, I turn away with loathing” (“Justice,” Unspoken Sermons). In the same sermon: “I know the root of all that can be said on the subject; the notion is imbedded in the gray matter of my Scotch brains; and if I reject it, I know what I reject.” In this work (and elsewhere) MacDonald articulates his own eschatological view: “God is not bound to punish sin; He is bound to destroy it.” He goes on to say that were God not the creator, perhaps He would not be so bound. But since He is, and since He made creatures who introduced the sin which devastated the world, and since, therefore, sin is at least indirectly the result of God’s own free creation, then He is, “in His own righteousness, bound to destroy sin.” The Son of God was revealed to destroy the works of the Devil (1 Jn 3.8), not simply to make sinners suffer for their sin. Such suffering, however many ages it endure, would never fundamentally rectify the offense of sin itself. Sin only suffers true defeat, MacDonald’s Adam-character tells Mr. Vane in Lilith, “when good is where evil was.” Anything less is not yet the “slaying of evil” that God, by the very act of creating anything at all, has obliged Himself to execute. I here note two striking features of MacDonald’s sure universalism. Each addresses von Balthasar’s objections.
1. The mystery of judgment
MacDonald agrees with Balthasar that the very character of personhood resists any generic account of how a person will arrive at her final destiny. Nearly all of his fairytales contain three main actors: typically at least two wayfarers in and out of Fairy Land, often children, and one “divine” guide who is also a sort of pedagogue or judge, often an “old wise woman.” The plot’s essential animus, its “dramatic” dynamism, is not so much an indeterminacy of the end as it is that of the way to the end (indeed sometimes the end of a character is not only presaged but openly predicted). What imbues the characters with the full latitude of dramatic possibility is not that they may or may not arrive at a reconciling end; it’s rather how they will manage to reach the end which is totally individual, totally personal, totally resistant to any generic synthesis or account. In his first novel, Phantastes, MacDonald’s protagonist is called “Anodos,” which, as those familiar with Greek will perceive, means “without a way.” The entire fantasy genre seems especially fit to display the point: Fairy Land overlays the “real” world, though it is itself more vivid and more real than anything in our own phenomenal “world.” It is only properly perceived and entered upon by those who are such as to be able to perceive and enter it. Ins and outs, byways and inroads and exits are all alike as individual as each person concerned. This often frustrates the main characters. They come and go they know not how, and when they inquire of their divine guide to show them the way, the guide usually says what Mr. Raven (Adam) says to Mr. Vane in Lilith: “To go back, you must go through yourself, and that way no man can show another.”
The mystery of personhood does not, however, finally subsume the mystery of God’s own judgment as it threatens to do in von Balthasar. This judgment, it needs to be said over and over, is not some easy resolution or blithe acquittal. As MacDonald says in his sermon “The Consuming Fire,” it’s precisely because God’s judgment must destroy every trace of sin and evil in every soul that it promises to be indescribably painful. “Escape is hopeless. For Love is inexorable.” Again, in “Justice”: “A man might flatter, or bribe, or coax a tyrant; but there is no refuge from the love of God; that love will, for very love, insist upon the uttermost farthing.”
Nothing within Dante’s infernal circles can approach the horror of the judgment scene of Lilith, the Queen of Hell in that novel. Lilith is said to have been Adam’s first wife (as some actual but obscure Jewish lore has it). She bore him a child but soon grew weary of carrying out the will of her creator, and became quite enraptured by the power she experienced in having a child of her own. Envy and pride incited her to leave Adam and become a tyrant-queen over all the lesser creatures of Fairy Land, killing and terrorizing thousands for many, many ages. A prophecy was propagated alongside her reign that she would one day fall to her own child, whom she had abandoned for power. At length, through various wiles and ways, the protagonist, Mr. Vane, comes to lead an ebullient group of forest children called “The Little Ones”—the head of which, no one knew, was Lilith’s daughter Lona—into battle against the oppressive Queen Lilith. At the decisive moment when Lona learns that Lilith is actually her mother, Lona tries to appeal to her by familial love. Lilith slays Lona in cold blood. Soon after, Lilith is captured and brought to the House of Adam and Eve. There her judgment commences.
The whole masterful scene never fully turns on whether or not Lilith will ultimately be saved. We’ve already been told she eventually will be. What seizes the reader is the intensity of the judgment itself, its inscrutable and indescribable nature. Lilith sits before Mara, daughter of Eve, who conducts the judgment, as it were. The Little Ones ask whether it must be painful. Mara says indeed it must, and that it would be “cruel” if it were not painful enough; for it would then have to be done all over, and would be much worse. Two features of the scene are palpable.
First, the inflexibly individual or personal character of the judgment. So much of it is horrifying not because of what is described but because of what is not described, or what is not able to be described. The “process of torture,” as MacDonald puts it in one sermon, is essentially a process of coming to know the true self that you, through your ignorant rebellion, have never known, and then to compare God’s idea of you with what you’ve made of yourself. We do meet some descriptions: Lilith’s eyes are closed, sweat pouring off her brow; at one moment a “worm-thing” slithers out of the fireplace, “white-hot, as incandescent as silver,” and penetrates Lilith’s bosom in order to separate by excruciating fire, we’re told, bone from marrow and even deeper subtleties of the soul from one another. There’s very little else. Lilith slips into “the Hell of her self-consciousness,” somewhere “afar” from here. Long periods of silence. Shrieks, curses, silence again. She grips something in her right hand so tightly that her fingernails sink into her palms. We’re never told what. It is an image and a result of her insatiable acquisitiveness. When she’s finally destroyed so that she appears to the narrator as “death living,” a positive negation, an absolutely artificial embodiment of Nothingness, she is taken to the House of the Dead where countless others yet sleep their judgment sleep. She is placed upon a cold bed of white sheets, and her gripping hand is severed off clean. Adam and Eve assure us that it will, in ages to come, grow back once more. We hear nothing more of Lilith’s judgment.
Second, the total, mysterious power of the divine over judgment. Terse though it is, much of the intense dialogue between Mara and Lilith is consumed with Lilith’s protests against relinquishing her complete autonomy. She insists that she’d rather make herself, even if it means endless suffering. She accuses Mara of being a slave to “Him.” Come what may, she asserts, at least she will act in accordance with her own nature. “You do not know your nature,” retorts Mara. “You are not the Self you imagine.” When, by ineffable judgment, Lilith is “compelled” to admit that she is not her own creator—when, that is, she finally glimpses her “true self”—she clings still tighter to the sheer power of her will: “You might be able to torture me, I don’t know, but you will never compel me to do anything against my will!” Mara’s response is a thoroughly dyothelitist one:
Such a compulsion would be without value. But there is a light that goes deeper than the will, a light that lights up the darkness behind it: that light can change your will, can make it truly yours and not another’s—not the Shadow’s. Into the created can pour itself the creating will, and so redeem it!
At length, Lilith softens ever so slightly, and Mara demands that she release what she’s clutching in her hand. “You think so,” returns Lilith, “but I know I cannot open my hand!” Mara returns: “I know you better than you know yourself, and I know you can.”
This whole harrowing exchange illustrates not merely that an author can attain dramatic tension even when the end is known; though it shows that too. What’s most striking is that the end is known because the “divine” character or guide is never simply a character among other characters. The divine is at once actor and author, character and stage, and so always knows more than any individual character presumes to know. That, I think, is the mystery of judgment in MacDonald. Von Balthasar, for all his affront against presumption, courts a presumption as old as Augustine himself: he presumes to know, time and again, that the bare fact that human persons rebel against and reject God now somehow gives us privileged access to the fundamental nature of human freedom itself. But why should we presume that our current state is really revelatory of the basic, perhaps undetectable structures and subtleties of human nature, or especially of the human person as such? Whence comes this unassailable insight into the abyss of the human soul? Did we create it? Divine judgment, says MacDonald, is exactly God’s destruction of “what we call our ‘selves’.” It is His perfection of every human individual qua individual. We do not, in fact, know enough of ourselves to know we cannot fully trust the power of His inscrutable judgment to save all.
At the end of “The Wise Woman,” another of his fairytales, MacDonald’s narrator admits he cannot say how any of the tale occurred. He says “it was a result of the interaction of things outside and things inside, of the wise woman’s skill, and the silly child’s folly.” And if “this does not satisfy my questioner,” he concludes, “I can only add, that the wise woman was able to do far more wonderful things than this.” For the Wise Woman, God, there are no limits, Edith Stein might say, to Her infinite resourcefulness over all She has made. Or, as Adam says near the end of Lilith, “He can save even the rich!”
2. Presumption of incertitude
Von Balthasar judged it presumptuous to maintain any sort of certainty about the Final Act. About this, scriptural revelation rebuffs every forceful attempt at “system-building,” every speculative storming of the gates of Heaven in order to attain an objective vantage from which to deliver some grand synthesis of all things in the end. It might seem that MacDonald falls right in line on this crucial point. He too has little patience for rigid dogmatic pronouncements (more so, indeed, than von Balthasar would generally). He even claims that his own “sequences” are not aimed “at logical certainty”; that is, he is not interested in “proving” his view as much as he is in “showing” it forth. Now, his point is importantly different from von Balthasar’s: MacDonald believes that truth can be properly discerned only by a true person. So “to see a truth, to know what it is, to understand it, and to love it are all one thing.” It’s a fairly Platonic idea. Like knows like, and you cannot know truth—especially divine truth—without being the sort of person, having the sort of character, that knows itself, as it were, in knowing truth (MacDonald thinks the further Christian idea that Truth is divine-human person only exacerbates the irreducibly personal character of perceiving truth). You must be kin to have ken.
That the truth revealed resists any easy speculative synthesis, though, does not lead MacDonald where it leads von Balthasar, and certainly not about matters eschatological. Quite the opposite. Since knowing the truth must always, for MacDonald, mean knowing the truth for oneself—seeing that it is so—then when you come to so perceive it, you do so in the most intimate sense imaginable. Particularly when it has to do with the Father revealed in and as the face of Jesus Christ, you come to know the truth like you know a brother (the Son) and a Father, and through their common Spirit in you (1 Cor 1–2). This means that when statements about God take an absolute form, they need not be the result of speculative, scientific theology (as von Balthasar presumes). They might rather be like saying, “I know my father, and I know he would never do that.” Did you arrive at that kind of certainty by some speculative enterprise? Is it not something still more subtle, something yet un-systematic exactly because it is intensely personal? Don’t you know absolutes about those closest to you because you know their character, you know them? The degree to which you do not is the degree to which you might have trust issues.
This is why MacDonald prefers to characterize both us and God in terms of “childlikeness.” In his sermon, “The Child in the Midst” (on Mk 9.33-7), he asserts that Jesus tells us to become like a child not because children blindly obey parents, but because God himself is like a child. “God never tells us to become what He Himself is not first.” Rather literally, of course, God became a child in Christ’s birth. But that He did so, and that he commends to us childlikeness as what ought to be imitated, means He too is essentially childlike. We have here two immediate reasons MacDonald chides anyone who considers God overly preoccupied with our alleged presumption. First, we are to be like children, and children often show the least apprehension by boldly (we might say “with confidence,” per John) posing questions or proffering answers, especially when it has to do with the people they know best. A child so trusts her parent that even if she utters some hyperbole, she knows this would constitute no offense to the “dignity” or propriety of her mother. Particularly if she knows her mother is good. Second, since God himself is childlike, He does not worry himself over His royal majesty like a petty monarch. “We are careful, in our unbelief, over the divine dignity, of which he is too grand to think.” It is not God who is afraid of our presumption. We are ones cowering, afraid of being sent away just as the children were barred from Jesus by his disciples.
But notice: when we fear that our imagination of God’s goodness might be too good, too presumptuous for God, we are guilty of imagining Christ in the figure of his ignorant disciples. We are guilty, that is, of rendering a rather unfavorable judgment on His character such that He could never abide little children. We could leger many objections to von Balthasar’s view that hope must exclude certainty. We might point out, for instance, that this is in fact not true of dynamics of theological hope. Hope need not preclude certainty of outcomes. I know that every dead body will one day be raised, and I know that the unjust shall suffer punishment for sin—are these then no longer objects of hope? Of course they are. As Hebrews 11.1 teaches, hope is grounded in faith, and “faith is assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Again, as Paul says in Romans 8.24–5, hope is not opposed to being certain that something will occur; it opposes only the realization of that something here and now. You don’t have hope if the object of hope stands before your eyes; but if it does not, and if you do not know how it will come to pass, then it remains a proper object of hope. But that is quite different from saying you don’t know what it is that will somehow come to be.
I could continue with several other points in criticism of von Balthasar’s position. But really, I think MacDonald has hit on the most basic issue in von Balthasar when he defends the “imaginative, hope-filled child” in the face of the “dull disciple” and his protests that no one can know what is not explicitly revealed. “What should I think of my child, if I found that he limited his faith in me and hope from me to the few promises he had heard me utter!” (“The Higher Faith,” Unspoken Sermons). In other words, the very refusal to claim certainty, especially when it implicates the moral integrity of the Father, is itself a rather staggering judgment against the Father. In the Parable of the Talents (Mt 25.14ff.), the sin of the wicked servant is precisely that he presumed to know the character of the Master, and so refrained from action: “I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” “Oh, you knew, did you, that I was that way?” Whatever you think the Father might do reveals what you think the Father is like. We know this too from experience of personal intimacy. If someone told me that my father might have killed a man, and I say, “Well, I don’t know that he did, but he might well have”—then what does that say about my opinion of my own father? If you think someone capable of doing some evil, or at least something less than the best, you are, despite your intentions, judging the moral nature of that person. This is what MacDonald thinks we do even if we merely think God might not save everything He chose freely to create. That very suspension of judgment judges God, especially if we affirm openly, as von Balthasar does, that God has the power to save all. Von Balthasar can protest all he likes that everyone else is a “knower” while he alone resides within the bounds of proper hope, but his too is a presumptuous judgment. He is not neutral; he has claimed to know what is possible of God, what is within his power, what constitute real possibilities for God. And this position seems to me, at least, all the more disingenuous and deceptive, even, in that it renders its judgments under the pretense of pious restraint.
MacDonald gives the lie to Balthasar’s claim. No one truly refrains from intruding upon God. And why should they? As MacDonald has it in “The Higher Faith”: “To say that we must wait for the other world, to know the mind of him who came to this world to give himself to us, seems to me the foolishness of a worldly and lazy spirit.”
* * *
Jordan Daniel Wood is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Theology at Providence College. He wrote and defended his doctoral dissertation on the christological metaphysics of Maximus Confessor at Boston College. Most importantly, he’s the husband of an ICU nurse and father to three daughters under age 5.
Yeah, I lean towards Balthasar’s view here. It’s really hard to see what constitutes real possibilities in God as it is hard to see what constitutes possibilities in general (read any work on metaphysical and epistemic possibilities in analytic philosophy and you’ll see what I mean). There are just some scriptural passages that are so ambiguous that it can lead one to say that hell is at least possible, especially if you interpret it within the second temple Judaism of the first century.
Going off of our idea of a father to see what is possible for God won’t do it either. On the one hand, sure, I don’t see how it is possible for a human being to totally reject God in the end (add David Hart’s argument on creation/eschatology and freedom here). On the other hand, my idea of a good God wouldn’t allow any suffering at all (think of any pointless suffering. That was allowed for what? Who cares if that person goes in to be happy with God forever. But you let him suffer that suffering pointlessly? And so on).
MacDonald’s last quote is silly. You’re telling me that the God who told Abram to go to another land without knowing where it was, without knowing for what reason, who made Israel wait for so long for the messiah and the incarnation, would take away the virtue of patience just because Christ came? The incarnation actually proves that patience/hope is more important now than ever before (or else, why the hell are we waiting for the second coming?). The worldly and lazy spirit is the technological modern mindset that doesn’t understand patience.
For the first paragraph, I don’t really know analytic philosophy, however on the scripture aspect, if Dr Hart is right, Paul was a universalist, that should count for something. As for Christ’s words, they lean more annihilationist with at least one parable (the ungrateful servant) being possibly universalist. AFAIK only the book of revelation has anything that seems infernalist, and I’m sure you know that book’s symbolism shouldn’t be taken as a direct revelation.
For your second paragraph, the problem of evil in this life seems to cast some shadow on universal salvation. If God is going to save all, why was there suffering in the first place? I think it’s best (following Dr Hart) not to look for any “Justification” or reason for present evils. There is no justification that doesn’t turn God into a monster. The problem of suffering is something inherent in our finitude, it is meaninglessness manifest. There is no meaning to it. You could say in a sense, in our creation, there is always the possibility of suffering, of the meaningless. As Christians know, we are fallen, with no one to blame but ourselves. God’s “allowance” of this will only make full sense in the eschaton, when all suffering is eliminated, in fact, it never really “existed” (and this is a glimpse of that answer). This doesn’t eliminate the appalling suffering the world is enmeshed in, it only offers hope for its demise
For the third paragraph, I think you’re mistaking the purpose of the quote. He isn’t throwing patience out the window, he is resituating it in the revelation of Christ. We are patient not because we don’t know the end, but because we do know the end. God is revealed in Christ, and we patiently await a further unveiling of that truth, the truth of apocatastasis, when Christ will be all in all. Theosis is now, towards then.
I take δεσμοῖς ἀϊδίοις in Jude vs. 6 to mean eternal. Now, if you interpret it within 1 Enoch, it would be annihilation, which doesn’t support universalism. And, yes, along with Ed Sanders and Robert Jewett, I do think Paul was a universalist. That doesn’t mean all authors were.
The second paragraph was talking about possibilities. I get the standard answer and even Hart’s answer, but a good father would allow a tsunami to kill people, even an innocent child? A good father couldn’t seriously create a world without this? The point is that there is an argument to be made that the co-existence of God and evil are impossible. The point is: I don’t get it and it does seem like it is compatible with God but I have no idea how.
As for the third point, that would include the scriptural warnings which seem to give weight to the prophetic tradition.
A better criticism of Balthasar would be this: he gives the possibility of hell in the Trinitarian processions. I would criticize that part.
I meant that Balthasar grounds the possibility of hell (and of moral evil itself) in the trinitarian processions.
The first paragraph I concede. The NT authors don’t agree on everything. I think that alone should make us give more weight to the other arguments.
It’s a thorny issue, there’s no specific answer. But however it shades universal salvation, temporary evils doesn’t refute it, if anything it makes it even more pertinent. The impossibility of the co-existence of God and evil is exactly the best argument for universal salvation, and even helps us shed light on theodicy. If evil is a negation, it doesn’t “exist”, the negation negates itself. Applying this to evil throughout time should shed light on the extent of apocatastatsis, a salvation that redeems even time. I wouldn’t say God erases our memory, it’s better to say that God “rectifies” time itself, all evil acts are a “failure” to be, a failure in time, and of time, to be itself. Their solution is to rectify them, not just in the future, but throughout time. I’m not sure I’m using the right words, but there’s a mystery as to God will actually recreate space and time that helps us glimpse the demise of evil. God “allowed” evil, but his allowance is also a “rejection”. In his allowance, he didn’t really allow, because evil dissolves itself, and in the end didn’t really happen. There’s a very real sense in which God didn’t allow the child to die. Again, not a solution, but a start.
The arguments depend a lot on what scripture says since scripture is a witness to Christ. You can’t formulate arguments, especially when it comes to possibility and impossibility about eschatology unless you base it in scripture (and tradition, liturgy, etc).
It doesn’t make sense to speak of universalism being the best argument against the impossibility of the co-existence of God and evil. First, in the literal sense, if the co-existence of God and evil are impossible, then if one exists, the other won’t. Evil exist, etc. Second, evil is real although it may be a privation of goodness or non-being or whatever. You’re horrified at it because of its reality. Third, sure, God redeems. But that doesn’t mean evil didn’t really happen. The wounds of Christ are real and they make us remember what happened and that our sins don’t define us. There is a very real sense that God allowed Christ to die, but also that God allowed the child to die.
Again: of course Balthasar is not neutral when it comes to God. That’s why he wrote his trilogy. But his argument that we can’t know whether there will be people in hell is partly based on his concept of freedom and his grounding it in the trinitarian processions, as well as the inconsistencies in scripture.
Have you ever read the A.G. Hoffman translation of the Book of Enoch? As someone who is studying to become an Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Deacon, I should note that translation is the closest in English to what the Ge’ez says (down to getting the chapter numbers right, given most translations put the chapter numbers in the 100s instead of the much more accurate 40s). Enoch and Jude both refer to damnation for the Watchers/evil angels/demons alone, not for all of mankind. Even then, this can be reconciled with St. Evagrius of Pontus’ “aeons upon aeons” definition of “everlasting” or “ἀϊδίοις.” Enoch can be interpreted as annihilationist, true, but really only with the Watchers.
Of course, we have our own hints of Apokatastasis in the EOTC, given our most popular female Saint, St. Kristos Samra, rescued 100,000 (or 10,000, I’ve heard both numbers from different priests) souls from Hell (Gehenna, if you like) during her life through her prayers and a literal journey to Hades to convert Satan himself. In fact, I would recommend looking up that story. I would link it, but this comment box never seems to like it when I try. I believe you can find a translation of parts of her hagiography on Academia.com, that story of her attempting to convert Satan with all its universalistic implications can be found in Appendix 2 of that article.
My view on 1 Enoch 23-26 is that human beings are also there eternally, and if not, will also be annihilated. I don’t think 1 Enoch is universalist. But even if that is not the case that human beings won’t have the same fate as that of the angels in 1 Enoch, the point is that the fate of the angels is annihilation. That we know for sure. But that goes against universalism especially if we read Jude vs. 6 that way. It is clear to me that the Greek ἀϊδίοις means eternal, but however you interpret vs. 6, I don’t see how you can have universalism in mind especially if you have angels who are either eternally punished or annihilated. To put it in another way, all the arguments for universalism will be put into doubt since the arguments from freedom, eschatology, etc will have to come to terms with spiritual beings who have rejected God.
Thanks. I will check out St. Kristos Samra.
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Apolonio, if temporal suffering is a defeater of universal salvation, then it is also a defeater of an absolutely good and loving God. At this point atheism enters into the fray.
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Of course temporal (pointless) suffering is a potential defeater against a loving God. Just like hell is a potential defeater against a loving God. You can say they are qualitatively different, but both are still potential defeaters against the goodness of God. Just because an evil can be finite, it doesn’t mean it is not sufficient to defeat a loving God. The point is the possibility of the co-existence of both (God and evil, God and hell) are difficult to reconcile.
But the key difference is that apokatastasis advances the redemption and healing of even horrific temporal suffering, whereas eternal damnation forever enshrines suffering within God’s final will. Apokatastasis, in other words, is the only possible solution. If this solution doesn’t convince, then the God of absolute Love doesn’t exist.
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This is all beside the point. Yes, all suffering may argue against a loving God. But eternal suffering argues against a loving God with absolute and irrefutable finality, because it concerns the ultimate ends of God’s creative act. And that, of course, is the issue. You do not reduce the scandal of the idea of eternal perdition simply by pointing to the scandal of worldly suffering, or by illogically equating the one with the other. The latter in no way makes the former rationally coherent.
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Alas, bad scriptural exegesis and bad reasoning.
Except that those eternal chains aren’t eternal, are they? They are holding angelic beings in durance until the judgment. And they don’t refer to human souls. So, really, Jude’s epistle does not support your view.
And, once again, transient evils leading to a good end may be susceptible of some justification. Eternal evils permitted to remain uncorrected for the sake of some other good render that good eternally relative and imperfect–a good that is also an evil. There is no moral analogy between the two cases.
It is, I would agree, very difficult to reconcile any suffering at all with a good God. The point is less that universalism succeeds in doing so, and more that without universalism it becomes not merely very difficult, but completely impossible. With universalism you are struggling to understand why it is necessary for God to put his child through so much suffering before, eventually, bringing them into their perfect good with him. Without universalism you are left with a God who creates some children who not only puts them through such suffering, but then discards and abandons them entirely, so they never know good at all.
I would say that the universalist “hope” is the hope that God is good; I agree, however, the presence of suffering in the world, it is true, to any sane and perceptive person, should at least give concern and pause for thought, if not considerable cause to doubt of this. What I think can be said with absolute certainty, though, is that *if* God is indeed good, then, whatever else may also have to be the case, universalism has to be true.
The problem to my mind with Balthazar’s argument is, in fact, his certainty: he absolutely insists that it must be at least possible for God and within God’s nature to indeed create a child then torture and discard it, without that child ever truly being his child or seeing their ultimate good. His only “hope” is that, as it happens, God hasn’t actually in practice done so.
Balthazar is certain the God is evil: I, with George Macdonald, hope that he is, ultimately, good.
(PS I don’t think the last George Macdonald quote is asserting that we ought to or can know God absolutely, but rather that it is not at all presumptuous to attempt to do so, and fearful and lazy not to do our best to try.)
The hopeful universalist would believe that the innocent child who suffered will also be saved. The result of the innocent child, according to both hopeful universalist and universalist, is the same. The question is about wicked men.
The point about the comparison is not that the innocent child won’t go to heaven, it is that God would even allow that kind of pointless suffering at all. Which means that our idea of a good father simply falls short of who God really is. A person who can’t conceive of God allowing a wicked person to reject Him forever is also a person who can’t conceive of God allowing pointless suffering. This is why it is hard to say what is possible and what is not, which simply comes from our conception of things (conceivability, of course, is informed by culture, tradition, faith, etc).
You said, “if* God is indeed good, then, whatever else may also have to be the case, universalism has to be true.” I don’t know that at all. Just like I don’t know why God would create a world with mosquitos, with cancer, or even human beings who are unlike the all-holy Virgin Mary who always chose what is good. Why would God create creatures with ignorance so that they can choose evil and may produce pointless suffering? Why wouldn’t a good father create everyone like the Virgin Mary who was always free? So, yes, a person may not see how it is possible that God can allow wicked men to reject Him forever, but it is the same person who doesn’t see why it is the case that spiritual beings like angels with better knowledge of God reject Him (forever) as well. What’s the response? That angels didn’t have some kind of vision of God before they rejected Him? But how do you know that? Are you now going to speculate about angels based on one’s conception of freedom/rational will, etc? It just gets messy (especially when we are dealing with divine psychology) and I don’t know how certitude can be attained here.
Thanks for your responses. I think you conflate two importantly distinct issues here, though they are indeed related: provisional vs. final tragedies. You seem to treat both as qualitatively the same, such that an argument that God’s goodness–as revealed definitively in Jesus Christ–could not abide the latter (final) sort is incoherent because that same argument doesn’t apply to the former (provisional) sort. There are two reasons that this conflation is wrong and misleading.
1. There is clearly a qualitative difference between provisional and final suffering/tragedy. Insisting that you already don’t understand God’s paternal goodness because it seems contrary to provisional suffering makes it more (not less) likely that admitting the possibility that God’s paternal goodness might allow/will final tragedy ends up obliterating what little shred of integrity we still retained when speaking of God’s goodness. It’s obvious, at least to me, that admitting God might have unseen reasons for allowing *limited* or *finite* suffering is not the same thing as admitting that God has unknown reasons for *absolute* or *infinite* suffering. You can at least imagine that God might permit some finite suffering in view of some infinite good–though you’d still admit, with all universalists, that this permission remains unintelligible (no one denies this–not even the staunch Calvinist, whose final appeal is to God’s sovereign will, would thus think she’s provided an intelligible *reason* for such permission). But can you also imagine that God might permit this same sufferer to end up in a state of final tragedy–either tormented or annihilated–which, by definition (even in the realm of sure possibility), is itself for the sake of *no* further or greater or later or infinite good whatsoever? We can all agree that universalism does not resolve theodicy. But it’s quite wrong to conclude from this that provisional and final tragedy, in view of God’s clearly revealed will, are somehow subject to the same sorts of reasoning when it comes to God’s very being as the Good, Love–as Father and Brother and Spirit of us all.
2. You also conflate God’s will for a provisional, finite event, with God’s absolute, infinite will as revealed by the Incarnation of the Son. About the former–about this or that instance of suffering, tragedy, sin, disaster, etc.–we do *not* have clear insight into God’s will, it’s true. Origen himself–that great and certain universalist–says this in his first Homily on Genesis. But about the latter–about God’s absolute, eternal, unshakable will for all his creatures–we do indeed have clear insight. Scripture really isn’t ambiguous on this point. God wills every single person to be saved (2 Pet 3.9; 1 Tim 2.4 and 4.10; Rom 11.32; Jn 12.32, etc. etc.). You can’t pretend that because you do not know why God allows this or that tragedy, that you therefore do not know whether and why God might allow the final tragedy of any creature’s eternal (whether unending or obliterated) damnation. God has not told us generally about this or that instance; He has absolutely told us about the final Instance of all creation. And, more significantly, He has, in the Lord Christ, descended even into the depths of Hell itself to empty it of any spoils. The Incarnation, Life, Crucifixion, Descent, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Christ is the literal embodiment of the Father’s will (Jn 5.9 and 15.15). What is that will? It is God’s absolute resolve, will, and revelation that He has created nothing that He does not *want* to save and that He cannot save (Rom 5.18; Rev 1.18). To say back to God: “Well, I know you said and showed that you *want* to save all, but I’m not sure if you will actually accomplish that,” is not a suspension of judgment but a refusal to accept either that God actually wills what He’s revealed that He wills, or else a refusal to believe God has the wisdom or power actually to bring about what He’s revealed that He wills. Neither way is neutral.
And so the claim that since God already doesn’t act like a good Father in particular cases (or what we know of them), then we positively cannot say if He will act like a good Father in the most decisive, final, and absolute case of all–in the End of all creatures–wrongly conflates the qualitative difference between finite and infinite cases, as well as our relative ignorance of particular cases with the determinate revelation God has given in Jesus Christ. Just because we don’t know why God permitted COVID-19 doesn’t therefore mean we’re now in the dark about God’s absolute will for creation. MacDonald’s thought, I’ve contended, shows that the Balthasarian epistemic humility is, despite itself, a rather remarkably presumptuous judgment on God’s eternal character and will with respect to His own children.
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Thanks for your response. I think you’re becoming one of the authors whose arguments I love to hate, just like Hart’s! (It’s a compliment)
1) I’m not too sure the qualitative difference between finite evil and infinite evil makes a difference. I can’t imagine how God would have unseen reasons for permitting particular evils that are so horrendous that He would allow them even if they are finite. Evil’s finitude has no bearing whatsoever on that. Can I imagine God who allows finite evil for a further infinite good? No. Not pointless suffering. The thing about pointless suffering (just think of the most horrible) is that they somehow have no purpose or further end and it does seem like (God have mercy on me) absolute in the sense that there is nothing that can justify them. The thing about pointless suffering is that there is no further good that can justify it. At least I can’t think of it. The nature of hell seems to have the same pointlessness (it has no further good) even if it is of a different quality. I really don’t see any “further good” to some evils even if they are finite.
2) I don’t agree that Scripture isn’t ambiguous. There are universalist passages that are hard to come to terms with some passages that either speaks of hell or annihilation. Jude vs. 6 is one. There are other passages such as the deutero-Pauline 2 Thess. 1, and in the Gospels where 1 Enoch and Jer. 7 and19, and Is. 66:24 seem to be have been incorporated. So although we believe that God will be “all in all,” I do not know how to reconcile those passages where it is evident that destruction is at least possible. You even have Church Fathers, like Ephrem, who speaks of the temporality of Gehenna for humans but would leave satan and angels there. The point is this: eternal punishment for angels seem to be possible according to Scripture. But if that’s even possible, then all of the arguments about finite evil vs. infinite evil, rational will, eschatology, etc seem to be diminished. Again: you have angels (are they not included in ‘all”?) who somehow reject God (did they not see the Good before they rejected Him? how was it possible to reject God when they see Him as the Good?) and it seems that they will suffer destruction and never recover. I do not know of a passage in scripture where they will be restored and if we are honest about interpreting Jude 6, for example, in its proper historical and theological context, that does sound universalism isn’t true. I am not saying it isn’t true. It’s just that I don’t know.
Can we clear this up? Please stop citing Jude.
Jude v. 6 is about the offspring of the fallen angels (Nefilim) held in “everlasting (unbreakable) chains” until the final judgment. It is a direct reference to the angelology of the Book of Enoch. It refers to a definitely finite period of waiting. It has nothing nothing to do with an eternal hell or with the fate of human souls. It is about “spirits” (a word used frequently in late antiquity to mean beings that are not soul, flesh, and blood) and the reference would have been familiar to readers and listeners of the time. This is not even a debatable point in New Testament scholarship, nor would the reference have been at all obscure to, say, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, or any other Christians who accepted the intertestamental stories of the angelic rebellion and the children they sired on the daughters of men.
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I’ve tried to summarise your argument as follows: God permits finite evils like cancer, though we cannot understand why he does so; therefore it might be that God also permits infinite evils like eternal hell, though we cannot understand why he does this either.
My objection to this line of thinking may be obvious in the way that I have phrased it: finite evil is not the same as infinite evil. Defeating God’s purposes temporarily is not the same thing as defeating it eternally. God’s goodness means that God ‘desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ – and while cancer and even trivial imperfections are clearly evils, not goods, they do at least not obviously conflict with this purpose. Whereas God toasting individuals over a fire forever, or otherwise permanently excluding them from the heavenly banquet, clearly does conflict with this purpose.
Basically God’s ‘goal’ or ‘purpose’, if we can speak in such a way, is nothing more than God himself – and God is love. We know from human love that love, while not desiring suffering, can sometimes allow suffering (as when a human father brings a child into the world knowing that the child’s life will unavoidably involve some pointless suffering) or even cause suffering (as when a loving father delivers harsh truths to discipline his children and bring them to correction). But no perfect human love could desire or even allow suffering forever. And so neither can the love of God.
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Just what I meant to convey but with far more dispatch–thanks, David.
Thank you Jordan – although I like your longer version much better! Apologies for posting over you, I hadn’t seen your response when I began to compose my reply, but I’m happy you think that my post didn’t depart too much from your thought!
If I may, I actually have a couple of questions for you on a related topic but I’m not sure they’d be very helpful within the bounds this conversation, not sure if there’s any other way to get them to you!
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It won’t let me hit the reply button below, but let me address a couple of your points:
1. Origen used and supported the Book of Enoch. Even if in Against Celsus he says Enoch has not circulated in the Church (which is untrue, given both the Ethiopian Church and the Church of Carthage had Enoch in their scriptures, and perhaps others too in Africa, given the Ethiopian and Eritrean Church at least have kept it all the way up to this day in their Bibles), he also used it over 3 times to back up arguments in “First Principles.” If Enoch were entirely annihilationist as we believe, I don’t think Origen would be using it so heavily in his arguments, especially when “First Principles” is his main apokatastatic work outside of his Commentary on Romans. St. Clement of Alexandria also used Enoch in his commentaries (referenced in the Stromata, and explicitly used in the Selections from the Prophetic Scriptures) and so did several other Apokatastatic Saints.
2. I am unsure of what you mean by Enoch 20 given the chapter # differences, but I will assume you mean where it refers to the 3 distinguished pits, where the good and evil are divided, and how it says the evil will not rise from that place. We must consider this in the light of the New Testament. Remember that the Book of Enoch precedes everything in the rest of the Bible, and that is precisely why it never mentions Israel, the Twelve Tribes, and so forth by name in any capacity, and truly reads like an Antediluvian work in the way it talks about these things. The Judgement it refers to cannot be the Judgement outlined in Revelation, because that would be a very long way off indeed. The Judgement it refers to is Christ, and Christ’s descent into this same region. It says that those who persist in their sins,
“Here their souls are separated. Moreover, abundant is their suffering until the time of the great judgment, the castigation, and the torment of those who eternally execrate, whose souls are punished and bound there for ever … A receptacle of this sort has been formed for the souls of unrighteous men, and of sinners; of those who have completed crime, and associated with the impious, whom they resemble. Their souls shall not be annihilated in the day of judgment, neither shall they arise from this place.” (Enoch 22:12-14)
Yet here lies the Great Mystery, in that Christ when He descended into Hell rescued all souls from torment. And as St. Clement of Alexandria says in his Stromata, after Christ’s ascension, when each of the Apostles died, they too descended into Hell as well to preach the Gospel who had died after this time, so that no soul would be left behind. Enoch predicts this mercy, but it is not for the Watchers to know, who have already had their fill of what they believed to be Heaven’s secrets. Enoch notes that the Son of Man will come and restore everything to its proper boundaries in Chapters 69-75, if we are going off the RH Charles numerology. (Note that if Chapter 70 or 71, depending on the version again, starts with “YOU are the Son of Man” instead of “THIS is the Son of Man,” around verse 17, it’s an incorrect translation)
Thus we must remember that yes, those who have completed their crimes shall not rise from this place, and yet Christ did it anyway. Is that a contradiction? Not at all, because they did not rise as sinners. Christ cleansed them before they ascended, He went down and preached the Gospel, and converted each and every soul, as did each of the Apostles after Him in their own turn. If we might turn to the modern day, St. Sundar Singh (Indian Malankara Orthodox Saint, one of ours also) notes that the Saints in Heaven pray for the damned always in his “Visions of the Spiritual World.” Not to mention the numerous Eastern Orthodox Saints who advocate that we must pray for the damned so that they will be saved (St. Silouan the Athonite as recorded by St. Sophrony of Essex and St. Mark of Ephesus in his argumentation against the doctrine of Purgatory for example). St. Perpetua records in her diary about praying her little brother out of what we can only presume to be Hell, for instance. Yet she was in Carthage, and she would have been familiar with Enoch as used by the Church of Carthage, especially when we consider Tertullian was the one who compiled her diary, and he was also an avid user of Enoch to the point of writing a staunch defense of it before his Montanist days.
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This article roxxored my boxxors. George macca is a madd dogg. Fascinating read and awesome points made
oops submitted the comment early.
The idea that hesitating about whether or not God will save all is itself presumptuous resonates with me. Those who claim that God _might_ not save all have already passed judgement on what they think of God’s character.
As I understand it, universalists believe sin/evil will be purged from sinners (a painful process) as a result of God’s Love and after a lengthy period, they will understand and choose the Good, and are saved by the Grace of God.
All this is fine, but my view is that we cannot take the place of God as judge – so I am inclined to the view of hope that all would accept/choose the Good, and we pray for God’s mercy. I think it is the height of presumption to judge God in any way.
The only contentious point is a pointless torture chamber for sinners – this view of hell is without logic or purpose, but we may understand the demonic thrown into eternal darkness (which I think is removed from the kingdom of light.
George McDonald’s name never even came up during all the years I was at university. Towards the end of my years, early eighties, and then again while in seminary (w/ Margaret Turek as systematic theology teacher (94-95), of course Balthasar’s name did indeed come up and since that time I read with some interest his late book on…his many influences? Pope Benedict occasionally referred to his friend. Bishop Barron, I’ve learned recently, agrees with the Catechism and Benedict and Balthasar on this issue. My conservative/Republican friend in Ohio, asks, in a recent phone conversation, in which he summarily dismissed the whole idea of Universalism, “What’s the point of even having a Church?” He despises the current pope and Bishop Barron both. Personally, I have no fear of death. I do fear a long, lingering, wretched, utterly miserable death like the one my father endured, for two years during which he was basically paralyzed in a third rate facility. He expressed a wish to die to one of my brothers. I’ve come to believe the Catholic Church’s absolutes on this and other matters, like condoms, beneath contempt, indecent, irrational and wicked.
Jordan, to what extent do you believe that Balthasar’s fidelity to the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church ultimately determined his final position on the universalist hope? It seems to me that he has pushed the Catholic envelope about just as far as it can go. He cannot come right out and reject the Latin doctrine of eternal damnation, for fear of excommunication. So instead he attempts to argue for the hope that hell will prove empty and exhorts us to pray for this outcome. But if eternal damnation is a just outcome and consonant with the divine goodness, why should we pray for it? Are we trying to persuade God to be a better and more loving God than the One we fear he eternally is? As i recall, MacDonald somewhere addresses precisely this concern.
Thanks for the questions, Fr. Al.
As to von Balthasar’s own reluctance, I think there are many potential answers. What is clear, though, is that he was not so coy about other speculative proposals that he himself knew were certainly departures from the majority of Catholic tradition: his interpretation of Christ’s dereliction, descent into hell, and several of his speculative theses on the intra-trinitarian life (the Son as passive “matter”, the Father as active “form,” etc.)–all of these show speculative gusto and a willingness to go well beyond common “magisterial” interpretations. But he was not willing to do so for universalism. I do think magisterial teaching weighed on him, though I’m puzzled as to why he never cites Trent’s canons, whose absolute resistance to certainty about one’s own salvation seem far more relevant to von Batlhasar’s “existential posture” then many other parts of tradition that criticize universalism. I think von Balthasar also harbored a great fear of Hegel, of “immanentizing” God as a universal principle of nature such that its inexorable logic must unfold according to itself in history (von Balthasar criticizes both Rahner and Bulgakov for this, you might know). His penchant for “the dramatic” is a very common, almost visceral polemic by Catholics against idealism in the 19th. century. So was the idea of Western (Catholic) “personhood” and “freedom” against so-called Oriental “impersonality” and “inevitable oneness.” These and many other influences no doubt led von Balthasar to resist certain universalism. In the end, though, I’d also want to say quite simply: he was, as Augustine was too, so consumed with the weakness of our current attempts to know ultimate truths on our own, that he simply could not perceive any absolute confidence in these matters as anything other than presumption. And he had some philosophical and theological reasons for thinking this, but he was wrong on both counts (Hegel shows the former, the whole Alexandrian tradition the latter, in my view).
But yes, as you say and as MacDonald elsewhere points out (and David Hart recently), we’re then left in the absolutely bizarre position of praying to God, begging Him to be as good as we hope he might be. I’m reminded of a scene in Robert Falconer, where Robert is praying for the repentance and salvation of his wayward father, and his grandmother interrupts: “Add, ‘If this is your will.'” Robert can’t do it, and exclaims: “I will not say that, grandmother. For it *must* be so. We *must* have him back!” (my paraphrase from memory).
This is also why Apolonio’s view above makes little sense to me. The main question is not whether we can understand why God might permit either provisional or final tragedies. That’s to put the matter negatively, as if the real issue in all this is what my tiny mind can know or understand of God’s Very Big Mind. Rather, it’s that there’s an absolute and completely obvious difference between God’s losing even one of His beloved children for “awhile”–as a result of tragedy, suffering, rebellion, sin, etc.–and God’s losing that child forever and finally. Eschatology is not a big puzzle or a grand attempt to unlock God’s puzzling will (as I’ve said, God has made His final will very clear). It is a matter of faith, of whether we can really believe that God will be *without* His child eternally. I might not understand either provisional or final tragedies in themselves (there’s nothing to understand, indeed). But my ignorance is *not* the same in both cases, since both cases have clear, concrete, objectively and qualitatively different outcomes. In the case of provisional suffering, however senseless it be, horrible things occur to God’s child. In the case of final and perpetual suffering, however senseless it be, the very child herself is horribly lost. I might not be able to give a rational account of either, but I can damn well tell the difference between the stakes in each. Love knows the difference; it’s the difference between the Prodigal Son’s stupid suffering and temporary separation, and that same Son’s never seeing his Father’s face again. Surely this is not a matter of indifference to a good Father. It completely misses the point of eschatology, in my view, to focus on what’s negatively unknown instead of what’s positively lost.
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A wonderful article, Dr. Wood. Do you happen to know if MacDonald was familiar with any Eastern religious traditions? The presence of a character named “Mara” and the language of “self” struck me as being perhaps suggestive of this. Not to suggest that those Eastern traditions have a monopoly on that language, of course. One final question, if I may: you mentioned, earlier on in the article, that Balthasar was contending with the specter of Hegel. How this was so wasn’t quite clear to me. Was it to do with Balthasar’s denial of the certainty of a final end as it might or might not be glimpsed before its arrival?
To the first: I confess ignorance here. I do know that MacDonald was a friend of F.D. Maurice, who knew a decent bit about patristics. Perhaps he knew something from them. And, in general in the 19thc., Anglicans expended great effort in patrology. I’m afraid that’s as much as I can say here.
To the second: von Balthasar often characterizes eschatological certainty–either universalist or infernalist–as an attempt at “synthesis” or even “system-building,” as he puts it in Dare We Hope, that effectively denies the freedom of God and human agents to the extent that it subjects their actions to a necessary outcome. Von Balthasar countenances and criticizes Hegel, idealism, and sophiology all across his oeuvre. He does this, significantly, even and especially in his work on Greek patristics (esp. in his book on Maximus, whose first page begins by evoking the 19thc Catholic theologian, Franz Staudenmaier, and his resistance to Hegel). A prime example: at the end of his little French book on Origen, von Balthasar deliberately contrasts the “system” of Origen to that of Hegel, claiming that that, unlike the former’s, the latter’s lacks a genuine sense of Christian love and freedom and attempts to foreclose all the ultimate possibilities of creation by articulating an absolute principle which *must* unfold by epideictic necessity and finality. Von Balthasar seems to have tempered his laudatory judgment of Origen later, but it’s telling that already in that book, at least, Origen (and then Maximus) functioned for von Balthasar as resistance to Hegelian dialectical “system.” I think his fundamental freedom-vs-system binary–itself an old 19thc polemic–is still very operative here in his criticisms of Christian universalism.
Thanks for your reply. I have to confess, I haven’t really read either Hegel or Von Balthasar, but this point of difference between them interests me. In my own cursory knowledge of the topic, Balthasar sounds a tad like a nominalist in his rhetoric, in that he wants to preserve the freedom of God as consisting primarily in his ability to will, rather than to know (the game of switcharoo played with Rom. 8:29). Does this sound like a fair characterization of the matter to you?
Well, von Balthasar himself would certainly deny the accusation (of nominalist), and in many ways I think he’s right to do so. His own version of analogia entis is far closer, I think, to a basically Christian platonic participatory metaphysics, though sometimes inflected by Erich Przywara’s far more negative or apophatic “ever greater” (the two didn’t quite agree on analogia–a fact we too often forget). Participatory metaphysics means to reassert a metaphysical realism that most true nominalists could never abide. Hence von Balthasar also repudiates the distinction between God’s absolute and consequent will, which even later Thomists would admit in order to shore up God’s “freedom.” And yet, I don’t think your point entirely off the mark. I have found that on all the most fundamental issues–the “necessity” of creation, efficacious grace, the realization of God’s absolute will for univesal salvation, and indeed in his formulation of the very God-world relation itself–von Balthasar consistently performs the very distinction he typically repudiates (absolute v consequent will). And, really, this is almost a structural feature of any theology–Thomas Aquinas’s included, whom von Balthasar and even Nouvelle thinkers follow in this–that accepts the distinction in God (however that’s understood) between creation’s esse ideale and esse reale: the former is what God unfailingly knows from all eternity, the latter is what God decides to grant concrete (real) existence to. What almost no Thomist explains, I’d say, is what exactly accounts for the transition of the former to the latter. God has, in his infinite knowledge and from eternity, the “idea” of my daughter in mind, and, happily, I guess, God has “decided” (?) to grant her the further gift of actual existence. Does this imply that God might have known her forever and yet forever refused to grant her the gift of actual existence? At this point I can’t see how God’s “will” is not almost entirely severed from his knowledge and essence (a supposed impossibility in view of divine simplicity), and, further, I can’t see how God is not simply an infinite field of virtual possibilities, such that who God actually is and what God actually does is always less than what God could be or do. And, what’s more significant, I can’t see how God’s “ability” to refuse the gift of existence itself to a creature whose face He contemplates for eternity could really be anything other than an insult to God’s goodness.
So no, I don’t think von Balthasar is technically a nominalist; he certainly departs from them on some basic philosophical tenets (esp. regarding epistemology as it relates to our knowledge of things in this world). But the deeper issue your question raises is to what extent much of the Latin tradition (not all of it) is structurally voluntarist where it actually matters.
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Thank you for giving a very potent voicing to a suspicion that I myself have been having about mainstream Latin theological tradition. I did not mean to implicate Balthasar as an ontological or epistemological nominalist; I was more concerned with how his theology lays itself out at the rhetorical level, with a suspicion that it fails to reflect certain key points of Christian thought (as you point out in regards to divine simplicity and the distinction in God of esse ideale and esse reale). I began to have this suspicion when I read Aquinas’s treatment of the love of God in the Summa, especially his claims that the good that God wills for his creatures is not the divine essence, and that the disparity of goodness in creatures is a result of God loving some things more than others. The former, while perhaps keeping the idea of divine simplicity intact in and of itself, nonetheless struck me as making such an idea rather worthless, and as having no clear connection to the idea of divine simplicity that Thomas describes earlier. To the latter claim, it stood out to me as being more or less a rejection of the Parable of the Vineyard Owner. To curtail this from going more off-topic, I would just like to finish by saying that I’ve deeply appreciated your time on this. God bless.
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Question for the brainiacs: what is the significance of the fact that George MacDonald, who was relatively indifferent to ecclesiology and almost to Trinitarian orthodoxy (I assume fellow readers’ own acquaintance with GMD’s works to understand what I mean), has taught us all so much about the goodness of God and universalism, of the fact that we have learned more from him than from the Tradition of the Church? At least that has been my experience. Infernalism is deeply entrenched in Church teaching, both East and West, amirite?
That ‘relative indifference’ to ecclesiology goes together with very deliberately becoming a member of the Church of England (in the context of his admiration for and friendship with F.D. Maurice – if I am not mistaken). I’m not sure I’m aware of any ‘relative indifference almost’ to Trinitarian orthodoxy – is his not writing a lot about Trinitarian theology the basis for this perception?
I’m not sure what you mean, George MacDonald is certainly a Trinitarian. He wouldn’t have converted to Anglicanism if it weren’t so; the Calvinists are the ones who are the true Nestorians in dividing up the Logos.
Besides that, every single thing George MacDonald says on Universalism can be found in St. Isaac the Syrian and St. Gregory of Nyssa. In fact, he essentially word for word quotes St. Isaac’s Homilies (the Second Part) when it comes to Apokatastasis, on the nature of Hell, on God’s love and mercy, and more. Yet that book wouldn’t be re-discovered for another few decades after his death, making the parallels all the more remarkable. I don’t think Fr. George was THAT unorthodox at all really. He escaped Calvinism for Anglicanism, which, to Orthodox and Catholics perhaps might not sound like much of a leap, but as someone who works closely with both the Anglican Church and the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church, I can tell you it’s miles ahead of Presbyterianism in any form.
As for other Churches teaching on Universalism, you might not find it much in the West thanks to the trio of Tertullian, Augustine, and Aquinas, but in the East you’ll find smatterings of it all the way up to the present day. If you won’t find the idea of everyone being saved, you’ll find the similarly passionate notion that we can pray the damned out of Hell, hopefully to the point that Hell will be emptied through our petitions.
It is in the Oriental Churches (Coptic, Ethiopian, Assyrian, Syrian, Malankara, Armenian, and Eritrean) that you will find the most Fathers and works related to Apokatastasis. The Coptic Church reveres Origen as the closest thing to a Saint they can have without proclaiming him, and they heavily venerate St. Didymus the Blind and St. Evagrius Pontus, two Saints the other Churches tend to ignore or even call heretics, and both of them were disciples of Origen or his closest students. There’s also St. Palladius, composer of the Lausiac Histories, and St. Ammodius, one of the 4 “Tall Brothers,” whom we also venerate. The Ethiopian Church along with the Coptic Church also have a heavy veneration for St. Eusebius of Caesarea. There’s also a long-running tradition in both of these Churches regarding the idea that St. Michael regularly through intercessory prayers will dip his wings into the bowels of Hell and deliver souls. There’s many more examples I can give on top of that, but I think this will suffice as a broad idea.
If you want a Church that has always taught Apokatastasis all the way up to the modern day, look at the Assyrian Church of the East. From its earliest Church Fathers (St. Theodore of Mopsuestia, St. Theodoret of Cyrus, and St. Diodore of Tarsus) to the Muslim conquest (St. Isaac the Syrian, St. Theodore bar Konai and St. John Dar) the near-Renaissance age (The Book of the Bee by St. Solomon of Basrah) and later still, they are the ones who teach it. I have had the glad tidings of speaking with some of their representatives in Texas, and I can confirm they still teach it as a Church doctrine. There was a brief time in its history that it was condemned under Mar Timothy I around the 700s or so, but it was overruled by later Catholicos. The Armenian Church as well has generally leaned heavily towards Apokatastasis, but they do not have any kind of official doctrine on it unlike the ACOE.
Hope this helps!
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I’ll also include as an addendum that St. Evagrius of Pontus is extremely venerated in the Armenian and Syrian Churches as well, to the point he is actually considered the Father of Armenian monasticism. I would say St. Evagrius is about as explicit on apokatastasis as any Church Father could be. Not to mention in the Oriental Church, I will sound a tad braggadocios and say we respect and use the Cappadocian Fathers more than any other branch of the Church. Let’s also not forget that the Origenians or “Origenists” if you will came mostly out of Egypt and Syria. It was unfortunately one of the Copts’ own Patriarchs that started slaughtering the Origenian monks (10,000 monks, who are celebrated on the Eastern Orthodox Calendar as Martyrs, by the way), Theophilus I, but he was an Origenian himself until he was brought some hereticized versions of Origen’s works, an all-too-common practice back then sadly. It’s worth noting too that St. Epiphanius of Salimus, as recorded by the Coptic Church, repented of his attacks on Origen and the Origenians when confronted by the Tall Brothers when he was in Constantinople when he’d been sent for to condemn St. John Chrystostom at the “Synod of the Oak.” There’s so much to be said about this, but the point is, the Oriental Church has always been quite sympathetic by and large to Origen and Apokatastasis as well.
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Thank you for that wealth of fascinating information, Logan! But given that infernalism, with those exceptions, has generally prevailed in the Church, how does one square this fact with the Church’s claim to have preserved the fullness of the catholic faith intact from the apostolic era till now, if indeed she has been adamantly wrong about universalism for so long? Is Dr. Hart is the new Luther, and we are all Protestants now?
Orthodoxy, whether Eastern or Oriental, unlike Catholicism, has never dogmatized a specific formulation of doctrinal infallibility. Nor is there a time limit for the correction of error. I acknowledge that it’s embarrassing that the Lord has taken 1500 years to correct the error of everlasting damnation, an error espoused by the large majority of bishops and saints during that period, but he is under no obligation to conform to our expectations. As John Henry Newman noted, e.g., the majority of second century theologians taught a trinitarian subordinationism, and it took the Church 200+ years to correct the error. See the two-part series I wrote four years ago on dogma in the Orthodox Church.
Thank you, Father. I look forward to reading the article.
It depends on the Church you’re referring to. When you say “the Church,” what do you mean? For example, the Assyrian Church of the East has always taught Apokatastasis, and they have been around from the beginning of the Church, founded by the efforts of St. Thomas, Mar Addai, and Mar Mari. Their Liturgy is considered to be the oldest out of all of the ones we have now, with the 2nd oldest being the Liturgy of St. James (used by the Syriac Orthodox Church). Is the ACOE not a true Church? The Armenians have always shared their Churches with the Assyrians, and the 2 have a massive overlap in terms of teachings, shared liturgical uses, and more. In fact, in Texas, the Assyrian Liturgy I attended was inside an Armenian Church. St. Sarkis in Carrollton to be exact. The Armenians and Assyrians share worship spaces together even here in America. When the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch flies to Armenia, because there are no Syrian Orthodox Churches, he attends the Assyrian Church of the East that’s established there. The only reason the ACOE, Syrians, and Armenians haven’t officially reunified together is because the Coptic Church has said no, which runs back to the 2 anathematizing their main Saints (the Assyrians anathematized St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Copts anathematized St. Nestorius) Though in 2016 the Assyrians and Copts did have a big dialogue together, which you can find on Youtube, where progress was made between an Assyrian Metropolitian and a Coptic Bishop in Sydney.
The Catholics may have a lot of issues with Apokatastasis, and so have the Eastern Orthodox thanks to the 5th Council, but the Orient never has really. When it comes to the Oriental Church, infernalism isn’t that predominant at all.
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I’ve enjoyed your responses here. Do you have recommendations for relevant reading regarding these matters?
Unfortunately most of what I’ve learned on this matter is not from books, but from talking to the priests of these Churches themselves. There aren’t many resources at all on the Oriental Church in English. I am in daily communication with a Coptic priest, Ethiopian monk, and Armenian archdeacon. But I can give you some resources I’m aware of that are in English:
St. Evagrius’ “Kephalia Gnostica” as translated and commentated on by Ilaria Ramelli
“The Church of the East: Apostolic and Orthodox” by Mar Bawai Soro (unfortunately no longer an ACOE bishop as he defected to the “Chaldeans,” but he wrote this while he was still part of the ACOE)
“Nestorius and His Teaching: A Fresh Examination” by J.F. Bethune Baker (you can find this one in full for free on Google Books)
St. Gregory bar Hebraeus’ “Book of the Dove” (Internet Archive has this one)
Fr. Tadros Malaty’s “Church of Alexandria: Origen” (probably the most comprehensive and lengthy book on Origen, though it is written in 1995 and thus some things are now known to be incorrect, like Origen’s belief in the “pre-existence of souls” it still gives a lot of texts that demonstrates the impact Origen had on the Church, including that letter I talked about where St. Epiphanius regrets his attacks on the Origenians and Origen himself. You can find this one online for free)
St. Solomon of Basrah’s “Book of the Bee” (especially the last 3 chapters, which are what the ACOE still believe on Apokatastasis to this day, it can be found on Sacred-Texts)
“The Apology for Origen” by St. Pamphilus with “On the Falsifications of the Books of Origen” by Rufinus of Aquila, absolutely required reading given they both go out of their way to show how Origen did not commit any of the heresies accused of him, with the exception of Apokatastasis
“Visions of the Spiritual World” and “Meditations on Various Aspects of the Spiritual Life” by St. Sadhu Sundar Singh, both of which give great detail to his visions of Heaven and his understanding of Apokatastasis, and both of these can be found on Internet Archive. There’s also his first book, “At the Master’s Feet,” which details how he views Hell as involving purgation via God’s love just like St. Isaac the Syrian says.
“Lost Identity” by Pastor Ken Joseph, the multiple papers on the “Nasrani Malankara Christians” by George Alexander, and “The Jesus Sutras” by Martin Palmer (Both of these books give a wonderful insight into the Assyrian Church of the East’s mass spread into both China and Japan, the impact they had on both these nations for hundreds of years, and how even after being destroyed they left a legacy. It also shows how the ACOE has always been willing to blend the cultures around them with Christianity rather than trying to destroy it like the Portugese in India for example)
“St. Isaac the Syrian’s Ascetic Homilies: The Second Part,” tr. by Sebastian Brock
“The Hagiography of St. Kristos Samra” by Wendy Belcher
St. Palladius’ “Lausiac History” which can be found in full for free on Google Books
St. William Law’s “An Humble, Earnest, and Affectionate Address to the Clergy”
“Anglican Ordination of Armenian Clergy” by Bedros Hagopian (I include these last 2 to demonstrate the Armenians’ willingness to work together even with the Churches deemed Protestant, because the Anglican Church has also had a history of Apokatastasis, and has worked very closely with the Armenians and Assyrians in its long history. There’s a lot to say on that, but I will leave it with these 2 sources for now, for St. William Law is a very important Anglican Saint, the teacher of St. John Wesley, and a Universalist, and he references the Eastern Fathers)
If you go on Google, you can find iconographic depictions from the Ethiopian Church with St. Michael rescuing souls from Hell (there’s a 17th century manuscript that shows this in detail, try to google “St. Michael 17th Century Ethiopian”) as well as depicting St. Michael together with St. Kristos Samra rescuing souls from Hell together, which I have as an icon on my desk. I would link some but whenever I try, it won’t let me post for whatever reason. I also have an image from an Ethiopian monastery depicting Christ rescuing all the souls from Hell during the Harrowing.
I wish I had more to offer, but a lot of this info has simply come from going to the priests themselves and talking about these things. I am trying to learn Amharic, in the hopes that I will someday be able to translate some of these books, especially the complete hagiography of St. Kristos Samra. There are books of SACRED SCRIPTURE that the Ethiopians have apart from all the other Churches that haven’t ever been translated into English, with the biggest example being the Zena Ayhud, or History of the Jews, by Josephus, which the Jews may have very well copied to make the Josippon.
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Reblogged this on The Mind of a Mathematician and the Soul of an Artist and commented:
This is an excellent analysis of strong universalism over against hopeful universalism, via George MacDonald (a strong universalist if ever there was one) and Hans Urs von Balthasar (who wrote the definitive Catholic treatment of hopeful universalism). Having read most of MacDonald’s sermons and fantasies, and having read Balthasar’s ‘Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?’, I think this article does justice to both authors, and expresses well why I find the deeply intimate and certain hope of MacDonald favorable to the tentative, distant hope of Balthasar.
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David, (from above, not that one called “DBH”)–feel free to contact me with whatever questions/comments you wish. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org