Where is Everybody? Apokatastasis, Divine Charity and Human Freedom

by Richard Bernier, Ph.D.

In the 2016 remake of the classic film The Magnificent Seven, a motley crew led by Sam Chisholm, played by Denzel Washington, is called upon to rid a town of a bullying tyrant. In an exchange with one of the principal townswomen, Emma Cullen, who has lost almost everything to the villains, Sam asks her “So you seek revenge?” Emma answers him, “I seek righteousness, as should we all. But I’ll take revenge.” It is, if I may say, an immensely satis­fying line that captures one innocent woman’s refusal to surrender her ideals even as her oppressor’s impunity galvanizes her to yearn at least for his downfall if not his redemption. How often do the rest of us not look at some egregious example of shameless devilry, of monstrous inhumanity, and think “Let even this be redeemed, ibut at the very least, let it be avenged.” Most of us, even those of us who are Christians, I would venture to guess, have certain persons in mind whom we feel it would be neither difficult nor overly painful to imagine suffering eternal torments. At first glance, it seems one would have to be exception­ally charitable to muster a really heartfelt tear or shudder at the prospect of eternal damna­tion for the architects of the Holocaust, the Gulag, the Holodomor, the Killing Fields; for tormentors of children, for that vile fiend who designed an electrified chair to terrify the young Indigenous inmates of a Canadian residential school. It is all very well to seek righteousness; but there are times when all of us would take revenge. To read Dante is to become uncomfortably aware of a man who, for all his immeasurable talents, saw in the literary portrayal of the Last Things an opportunity to settle a few scores.

And yet, the pithiest and most concise affirmation of Christian soteriology is that line from the 21st chapter of the Apocalypse: “Behold, I make all things new.” However weary and calloused one might be in one’s outlook, nevertheless the sovereignty of Christ, trampling on death by death, victorious over the enemy, and on those in the tomb, lavishing life – this sovereignty seems mocked if the understandable human settling for revenge creeps into the Lordship of Christ over the transformed cosmos.

Prescinding for a moment from the very worst examples of human obliquity such as those just catalogued, it seems that settling for revenge rather than righteousness is even more plainly inconsistent with the Christian notion of Christ’s Lordship if we think, not of Pol Pot or Beria, but of the teeming masses of us who are just muddling through – such as your Great-Uncle Ned, a thoroughly decent chap who never managed to be terribly punctilious about attending Sunday Mass; our kind and just and generous neighbours who have not in any obvious way received the grace of faith; or the immense multitude of little ones who pass away without seeing the light of day let alone the waters of Baptism. The Lord makes all things new, and His mercy endures forever, but there are in our churches some solid traditions of consigning any number of such hapless souls to perdition without, it must be said, much dismay. This ought to trouble us. It ought to trouble us even in those utterly depraved cases I just mentioned; let us take as a specific example that loathsome individual who set out to inflict fear and pain on the little children from Indigenous communities sentenced to miserable years in a residential school. Even here, it seems to me, there is a world of difference between retribution with a fiery core of justice, and revenge with a rotten core of cruelty. An understandable justice might say “I would like to see that monster suffer as long and as deeply as he must until he himself has felt all the pain he inflicted, until he truly and from the depths of his being begs forgiveness from God and from his survivors.” On the other hand, to say, “I just want him to suffer and to go on suffering in anguish and despair for the rest of eternity with no hope of deliverance” – that is a revenge in which any spark of justice seems to have been extinguished.

The remarks that follow will not be about a single verse, but there in black and white in First Timothy is a most apposite verse, the verse that says concisely what so much of the Christian Faith conspires to affirm: God our saviour…wishes all people to be saved. It is not that this or any single verse proves anything definitively, but this phrase from Timothy expresses in a few words what is expressed throughout the Scriptures, Hebrew and Greek, the mystical traditions of the Church, and the lives of its most beloved Saints, such as Francis of Assisi, Thérèse of Lisieux, Seraphim of Sarov, or any number of others: the Divine act of Creation and the Divine act of Redemption arise from Divine charity and compassion and must be defined in terms of charity and compassion all the way down the line or they make no sense at all.

“God our Saviour wishes all people to be saved.” This sentiment immediately gives rise to entire departments of Theology as faith, seeking understanding, parses the verse and those like it. What does it mean to be saved? Once we grant that God wishes something, how is it that we don’t immediately move from the subjunctive to the indicative mood – for doesn’t God’s wishing something make it so? And if not, why not? “God our Saviour wishes all people to be saved” – the observation should delight but not really surprise us, once we have accepted that Christ’s life and teaching were Good News.

He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed. (Luke 4:18, RSV)

Make this mission selective rather than universal, and you immediately nullify its claim to be Good News. We can confidently take this as a conviction of orthodox Christianity and thus as our starting point: “God our Saviour wishes all people to be saved.” Any contrac­tion of this circle of mercy in the name, let’s say, of one or another version of predestina­tion, is at best a depressing triumph of clever cheese-paring wordplay over the radical hope promised by the Incarnation, and is at worst the most hideous of blasphemies.

And yet a phenomenological survey of orthodox Christian faith and practice reveals persis­tent and widespread conviction that some kind of perdition, some kind of personal escha­to­logical catastrophe, remains a real menace and one to be taken with great seriousness. This conviction arises first of all, of course, from the pages of the Greek Scriptures them­selves and particularly the Gospels. Christian literature, Christian art, Christian homile­tics, are shot through with an often intense anxiety that the final destiny of some is damnation, a permanent torment of separation from God, the intensity of which is represented by, even when it is not formally believed to consist of, scorching flames and ghastly shrieks and odours unbearable. It is this fearful prospect that the author of the Dies Irae seeks to be delivered from:

Confutatis maledictis, Flammis acribus addictis, Voca me cum benedictis.​

In the words of Irons’ translation:

When the wicked are confounded, Doomed to flames of woe unbounded, Call me with Your saints surrounded.

What are we to make of these “flames of woe unbounded”? This fiery imagery is of course not so very far from the New Testament images of the Gehenna, of the lake of fire, of the unquenchable flame, perhaps the very one that burns up the chaff. It is tempting to move on quickly from these popular, more fanciful or detailed portrayals of Hell in the Christian tradition, on the grounds that nobody really believes them, at least not anymore. However, Christian literary and artistic depictions of Hell are also part of the legacy of the Churches, and they continue their catechetical function even when they are no longer attached to pulpits, altars or cloisters but hang among the comfortingly eclectic holdings of art muse­ums, or are read in the sheltered confines of the seminar room. Consider the central place given to lurid descriptions of Hell’s torments in some homiletic resources and traditions in the West. James Joyce draws upon such chilling sermons for our disedification; in Québec, the Redemptorist Order were sometimes nicknamed the rédempterroristes because of their reputation for parish missions where Hell was preached with blood-curdling zeal. Christians are quick, I think, to take pride in the way cathedrals and stained-glass windows have served as catechisms for the unlettered; but then it would be inconsistent to insist on getting a pass on the nastier bits. It is all very well to derive a frisson of sophisticated amusement from the darker themes in Hieronymus Bosch, but his demons and hellscapes were no joke; they were no mere study in whimsy for the generations of unlettered faithful praying and trembling with his work looming over them.

What, then, have the churches made of damnation, theologically speaking?

First, and most bluntly: Christians have widely believed that it is possible, and terrible, to be punished by God for all eternity. Let your imagination run as wild as it might with specific torments, these can only approximate how dreadful Hell must be. Hell is real, on this view, and we have no basis for supposing it will be unpopulated. While everyone admits that Dante’s Inferno and Bosch’s hellscapes are no Lonely Planet guides by experienced visitors to the realm of everlasting torment, nonetheless, on this view, these artists’ instincts for what Hell may be like are perceptive and dependable ones, powerful not because they get the details right, but because they catch the drift of what must be meant by eternal damnation – namely, that it is the supreme and the only definitive tragedy.

But if eternal hellfire has this pedigree of being professed across many years and many cultures, and if it is the view that even now is in possession of the field, why bother attempting to revise it or question it? What is the point of disputing something so entrenched?

Well, it is because such a notion of a never-ending non-medicinal punishment is mon­strous, plain and simple. No amount of mental or verbal gymnastics can really make intelligible the claim that an utterly loving and just God deliberately sentences some of His rational creatures to an eternity of unbroken anguish, whatever form it takes, without even sleep or coma to alleviate their grief, and with no healing or remediation possible. It is this point in particular that David Bentley Hart makes at length and very persuasively in That All Shall Be Saved, his vitally important recent book on universal salvation. Hart argues that positing a loving and just God who wills an eternal, conscious, non-remedial punishment is so starkly and manifestly perverse, and that the efforts to defend that view are so alien to reason and human experience, that the claim practically rises to the level of a logical impossibility. He is not alone in his misgivings, although he is exceptional for the vigour with which he expresses them.

In the first edition of his Apologia pro vita sua, St John Henry Newman initially wrote that he believed in eternal punishment but that he had “tried in various ways to make that truth less terrible to the reason“: in subsequent editions he changed that line first to “I have tried in various ways to make that truth less terrible to the intellect” and finally “I have tried in various ways to make that truth less terrible to the imagination.” This is an intriguing evolution, suggesting that Newman found the doctrine of Hell even more terrible to the heart than to the mind, or that he did not wish to undertake any defence of Hell which would require an attempt to adduce reasons, or a defense of the indefensible. Whatever Newman’s motives for adjusting so subtly the way he framed his reticences about the doctrine of Hell, we can see in Christian history a number of theological and pastoral efforts to make the doctrine of eternal damnation less terrible to the intellect and imagination, even when, as with Newman, the doctrine itself is not in question.

A first very modest step away from the unthinkable is to explicitly deny that Hell is in any sense a torture chamber: to deny that the sufferings are physical (failing which we would have to posit that God created a lake of fire or an icy prison), to deny that specific punish­ments are meted out in the manner Dante portrays, to deny that the damned are handed over to the demons for their malicious sport. This first step which we might summarize as a denial of Hell conceived as punishment in favour of a Hell conceived of as separation and alienation – this first step already takes us a long way from what Herbert McCabe notes “seem to have been largely projections of sadistic or vindictive fantasies,” from what Hell has often been in the Christian imagination, from the Vision of Tundale to Dante to Bosch to the New Yorker cartoons for which the palpable physical and elaborate emotional torments of Hell are a favourite trope – a long way, for that matter, from the third part of St Thomas’ Summa and the prima facie meaning of the formulation employed by the First Council of Lyon. Nonetheless, I think very many Christians today recognize the necessity of denying that Hell is a purpose-built torture chamber since otherwise we are obliged to claim that the Father deliberately causes sufferings which cannot be redemptive or medicinal or even pedagogical since they are unending, entirely retributive, in no sense restorative, and out of all proportion to what a human being can possibly merit.

The reason for taking this step is that the first and most glaring scandal of most traditional versions of eternal punishment is their lack of the two precise things that alone can make any punishment tolerable, namely the quality of being finite in time (so that there is hope of deliverance), and the quality of ultimately having some benefit for the person suffering. Can there be any satisfaction in seeing even the worst of villains punished if there is no way it can ever do them any good, if it cannot wring true repentance from their hearts? That, truly, would be revenge without righteousness.

But even if we take away the ghastliest and most blasphemous component of the conven­tional Western view, namely the positing of deliberately created torments, we are still left with the scandal of an eternity of despair that can never do anyone any good, even if that despair is framed, as it usually is nowadays, as entirely self-inflicted. Many catechists today will insist that God sends nobody to Hell, but that it is a state we choose for ourselves. Still, self-inflicted or not, an eternity of futile despair and unrelieved loneliness looks like a defect in Divine charity, no matter how hard we squint. It must also be said that many critics of universalism, whether Hart’s version or another’s, object that eternal punishment has been held by most Christians in every age while universal salvation has not. However, those raising this objection do not typically consider themselves equally bound by the fact that most Christians in every age envisioned Hell not purely as a state of separation, not purely as a spiritual alienation, but as a realm of outright punishment. It is entirely understandable that defenders of the doctrine of eternal punishment should want to distance themselves from the implications of seeing God as a kind of Grand Inquisitor, but it illustrates vividly how selectively they take the views of the Councils and the faithful as authoritative. The move to spiritualize Hell, after all, is not a triumph of the prima facie meaning of Scripture over subsequent accretions, given the language of worms and fires and the gnashing of teeth; it is a triumph of the primacy of God’s goodness over any secondary doctrines. If the Church can permit itself to qualify the flames in the name of God’s goodness, then many Christians will want to qualify other aspects of the established view, and with good reason.

Hence it is that attempts have been made to go even further, to mitigate the sting of positing this sort of damnation in the first place.

For example, one may argue that whatever Hell is like, we may at least hope it will remain strictly a theoretical possibility that will never actually exist for any person. This is von Balthasar’s position, and the position evoked by Bishop Kallistos Ware in The Orthodox Way and much more developed in the essay “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?” in The Inner Kingdom. I also take this to be Pope St John Paul’s point when he writes in Crossing the Threshold of Hope that we can’t even confidently say that Judas is a lost soul. In this view, it is possible to hope that all shall be saved, not by having their freedom overridden by grace or Divine decree, but on account of the sheer happy coincidence that, between grace and mercy and the essential goodness of human nature, nobody will in the end be lost. This position has the advantage that it allows us not to think very much about what damnation means – when the unpleasant topic arises in conversation or reflection, we can simply hope for the best and not dwell on it too much. This is probably the least controversial version of universal salvation, although von Balthasar does have his Catholic critics, among others, who consider that the data requires us to posit at least some lost souls. However, von Balthasar’s view meets even the very exacting doctrinal demands of the Latin Church’s pronouncements on the matter. The discipline of the Latin Church seems to leave little room for universal salvation to be preached in that Church, but von Balthasar’s version of the hope that all shall be saved is a kind of conditional universalism available to the Roman Catholic preacher.

Nonetheless von Balthasar’s earnest hope does not resolve the problem of what it means for our theodicy to posit damnation even if only as a theoretical possibility. Suppose I announced to this room that I have strewn landmines from here to City Hall but I add, “don’t trouble yourself too much – it may be that all of you will be lucky enough not to step on one.” I expect you would find your curiosity and indignation as to my motives, and your alarm at my state of mind, will remain unsatisfied by my assurances. In the same way von Balthasar’s hope in a de facto universal salvation fails to dissipate the weighty concerns raised by Bentley Hart.

Another quite different possibility is to maintain the eternity of punishment but to remove the scandal of apparent Divine indifference to this ongoing suffering by positing that lost souls will be annihilated or not be granted their immortality – in short that, while they will not enjoy life and the Divine presence, neither will they experience ongoing loss and despair. This is Fr Robert Wild’s position as expressed in his book A Catholic Reading Guide to Conditional Immortality (Resource Publications, 2017), a position he arrived at after concluding that eternal damnation is untenable but that universal salvation is inadequate as a doctrine to account for the radical implications that the Christian tradition has normally ascribed to our choices. This rather grey prospect of conditional immortality, dreary though it may be, spares the Christian the obligation of positing a God indifferent to the hopeless suffering of His beloved creations. If there is no way of confidently proclaiming that Hell is an empty set, then annihilation or non-survival seem like the next best thing, certainly better than an eternity of loneliness and despair.

In a similar vein, some who have broached the problem of eternal punishment have emphasized that eternity should not be seen as an endless succession of moments in time but as another mode of existence where time does not operate in the same way. Chuck Norris may have counted to infinity twice, but this is not an ability available to us average mortals – so that instead of taking as a model the intemperate homilist’s vision of hell as an endless series of desperate moments, we should instead understand it as a permanent state of separation beyond the categories of time.

But however we parse the place of eternity in one’s notion of hell, neither annihilation nor despair is very Good News at all, and this brings us to the various ways Christians have sought to make the doctrine of Hell less terrible to the intellect and imagination by making it temporary; and with this removal of eternity from the equation, we are in the territory of universal salvation, for apokatastasis as applied to human beings does not mean there is no justice or consequence of sin, but precisely that perdition need not or even must not be permanent.

One popular way of implicitly denying Hell’s eternity is also an interesting attempt to shift the locus of responsibility for damnation: namely, the position that Hell is real but that it is eternal only because, and if, the damned refuse to repent. This I take to be what C.S. Lewis means when he writes in The Problem of Pain that the doors of Hell are locked on the inside, and what he develops so beautifully in his extraordinary story The Great Divorce. A Hell continually freely chosen by the damned is much easier to grapple with than a doctrine of inexorable, unending, non-medicinal punishment or even alienation – but of course to posit such a Hell really means that we have ceased to describe perdition as eternal and have ceased to describe it as an inflicted torture. If those doors could be opened at any moment by those separated from God, if it is a self-chosen and reversible damnation, then it is not eter­nal but merely indefinite and accords a greater role to ongoing human agency than even most classic Western notions of purgatory. This idea that Hell is locked on the inside is very popular among catechists and evangelizers today, and understandably so, for it is much easier to speak with a straight face about the boundless mercy of God if even the lost are never truly lost beyond all hope. On the other hand, Lewis was not a universalist, and Kallistos Ware uses the locked-door image in The Orthodox Way, but still affirms that Hell is eternal – presumably because the soul is held to be fixed in its disposition and beyond conversion. This view, that the possibility of a change of heart ceases at death and the will becomes fixed, is a widely repeated claim for which I have not yet been able to see a persuasive argument. Be that as it may, if I have been rendered utterly incapable of unlocking a door, the fact that it is locked only on my side is of little comfort.

Another approach to denying Hell’s eternity is to affirm, not that it is a prison whose door is locked on the inside, whose sentence is self-imposed, but to conceive of Hell’s sufferings as a redemptive purgation, as a medicinal or remedial process that can and will end when the soul repents and is sufficiently purified. In effect, this view collapses the distinction between Hell and what the West calls Purgatory, and attributes to Hell some of the main features that the Western Tradition has normally ascribed to Purgatory, notably that it is limited in time and medicinal or restorative in nature. This is what I understand Origen, St Gregory of Nyssa, Hilarion Alfeyev, and Bentley Hart to be positing. Recent quite indis­pen­sable work by Ilaria Ramelli and Robin Parry has documented persistent affirmations of one form or another of universal salvation in different eras of Christian history. Thus whether universal­ism is true or false, it is no myopic innovation of a misguidedly soft-hearted age but a recurring, one might say incessant concern of Christians in the face of the difficulties raised by the doctrine of eternal punishment, and is by some accounts a persistent return to the liberating hope of the New Testament, though this is contested strongly by Hart’s critics.

Assessing these competing visions of the Last Things means weighing their respective cogency but it also means weighing how readily they can be squared with the Scriptures, Holy Tradition, the canons of the Councils, and the teaching of the Fathers. It won’t have escaped our attention that on the matter of Hell, the Eastern and Western Churches have chosen over the centuries to go, by and large, down somewhat different paths. Advocates of belief in a universal human salvation often find their most kindred spirits among the Eastern Fathers particularly, notably St Isaac of Nineveh, St Gregory of Nyssa, St Evagrius Ponticus, St Theodore of Mopsuestia, St Athanasius, and others, and among modern Orthodox thinkers such as Bulgakov, Alfeyev, and of course Bentley Hart. At the same time, as Ramelli shows, this contrast should not be overstated as there are ancient Western authors sympa­thetic to universalism. Still, it is instructive to compare the treatment of Hell in two modern Catholic catechetical instruments of particularly solemn weight, namely the Catechism of the Catholic Church intended for the whole Catholic communion but preponderantly Western in outlook, and Christ our Pascha, the catechism of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. The 1999 Roman Catechism over several paragraphs reiterates the traditional Latin position that Hell involves punishment and is eternal; in contrast, Christ our Pascha treats of the topic very briefly in a single paragraph, specifically disavows the word “punishment,” and says nothing about eternity, turning instead to Maximus the Confessor and Origen for the imagery of an unrepentant soul that is not said to be separated from God but to be at war with itself. The choice to cite only Maximus and Origen on this topic is itself a very instructive choice of sources, as Origen is the most famous of Christian universalists, while Maximus is generally considered to be a universalist as well.

There are a number of critical points that must be explored in any discussion of universal salvation, especially the question of what we are to make of the New Testament’s claims about the fiery destiny of some, the implications for human freedom and responsibility, and the problem of how universalism might be squared with some of the magisterial affirmations of the Churches.

There is also the objection, often levelled, that universal salvation trivializes the impli­ca­tions of our actions. Let’s say for the sake of argument that it does. If eternal punishment is the solution, then the cure is worse than the disease. This is a point Bentley Hart makes especially powerfully – the idea that there is anything any of us poor creatures could do that would literally merit an eternity of unremitting despair is beyond credence, because of what it requires us to affirm about God and because what it requires us to believe about human nature.

Even more to the point, let us suppose instead that the vision of C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce were the truest version we have of the Last Things. Far from making our choices trivial, this vision recognizes that in fact we are constantly choosing Heaven and Hell every day. It would be a childish mistake to take only immediate lethal threats as worthy of concern. If my doctor tells me that an excessive predilection for Snickers bars may not kill me this afternoon but it will eventually make me miserable until I smarten up — that is not shallow or trivial but a real warning of a little Hell I am needlessly creating for myself. If a friend warns me that if I persist in checking social media incessantly, I may not die on the spot but I will live a more and more unhappy and stress-filled life, until I choose to learn to manage my futile rage — that perspective does not trivialize my choices, but urges me to cherish my life more carefully. It is truer to our experience and thus far more persuasive to say “Keep this up and you will live to regret the Hell created by your anger, your heartless­ness, your intemperance, your lusts, your cruelty, your refusal to trust God; and you will find it an excruciating journey to come back to grace, life, and peace.” That is far more persuasive than to say “The disposition of your will at the instant of your death – no matter how you have lived the rest of your life – will be your fixed and unchangeable disposition for the rest of eternity, so make sure you get that moment right.” And it is certainly more persuasive than to say, “We can only really live with our own claims about Hell by hoping nobody ends up there.” These important questions are beyond the scope of my remarks here but a number of the works cited, especially those by Bentley Hart, Ramelli, and Wild, do explore these problems in greater depth.

I do want to say a word about one particular question raised by universalism.

The official pronouncements of the Roman Catholic Church raise important questions for all those sympathetic to universalism and at the same time committed to grappling seriously with what it means to be in communion with Rome. Justin Shaun Coyle has written an interesting and hopeful essay entitled “May Catholics Endorse Universalism?“, published on the website Eclectic Orthodoxy. Fr Aidan Kimel, who manages and contributes to the site, has curated some of the most interesting work on the subject of universalism, and Coyle’s essay is specifically intended to address what versions of universalism, if any, might be available to a Roman Catholic who is guided by that Church’s pronouncements on the matter of eternal punishment. Coyle proposes a vision of how universal salvation might be squared with the Roman Church’s suite of official statements in favour of eternal punishment, and as I see it that vision is consciously in harmony with what Bentley Hart offers. In a nutshell, Coyle distinguishes between the true and the shadow self, between the sinner who burns everlastingly and the beloved soul which is liberated from those flames to everlasting life, no longer a sinner by the very fact of having his or her sins permanently purified. It is a reading well worth exploring by Roman Catholics, especially now that Bentley Hart has newly given voice to the grave objections that stand against the classic position. If Bentley Hart is right, then Roman Catholics will certainly want to think about how to receive Lateran IV and Lyon I in ways other than they have generally been received. Coyle’s project is one such attempt at a re-reading; doubtless others are possible and desirable. But some rethinking of Lateran IV and Lyon I becomes imperative, and Eastern Catholics will want to continue to think about what it means doctrinally to be in genuine communion with Rome while faithfully and fully retaining our own proper traditions, including an openness to universal salvation that is anchored in our history, in our theological and spiritual sources, and above all in our commitment to the Orthodox faith as to the nature of Christ and the nature of Divine charity.

I would like by way of conclusion to offer a few thoughts about one specific objection that has been levelled against the doctrine of universal salvation, namely: Doesn’t the hope that all shall be saved remove the incentive for holiness?

I contend that it does the opposite: to take the most obvious human parallel, the faithful love of our friends or family or Fred Rogers does not normally lead us to treat them shabbily, rather it draws us up to greater generosity and love. We don’t normally mistreat a beloved friend or family member because we are confident that she will not abandon us; her devotion instead evokes in us greater humanity. Consider St Ignatius of Loyola’s’ meditation on Hell in his Spiritual Exercises, a key moment in the Exercises where the exercitant faces what kind of person he or she intends and wishes to be with God’s grace. It would completely cheapen the whole process, the very spirit of the Exercises, if it merely urged us to avoid sin to avoid the torments of the damned; and such a craven and fearful attitude would belie the Exercises’ own portrayal of God’s love and of the freedom and abundant life for which we are created. This is shown by the pinnacle of the Exercises, the “Contemplation to Attain Love.” This contemplatio vigorously dismisses motives of fear and self-interest to consider simply how the graciousness of God ought to evoke in us love and collaboration.

It would be a caricature of the apokatastatic vision to suppose that positing an indefinite period of deep and cleansing purification is a kind of laxity, an insanely optimistic delusion. A major theme of recent work on apokatastasis (Bentley Hart, Talbott, Parry…) has been that the hope embedded in Jesus’ Good News seems incompatible with eternal punishment; however, as the universalist Fathers understood, the purification that most universalist views envision as the purpose of the unquenchable fire is no day at the beach. Jesus’ escha­tological teaching, for all its shadows and hints, seems clear about this: if we persist in injustice, in cruelty, in selfishness, in blasphemy, all these will eventually have to be purified as if by fire, and we will not be delivered from this fire until every trace of ungodliness has been burned away. This is no invitation to complacency.

If we envision Hell, not as an eternal punishment, but as the intrinsic consequence of living as though we and the rest of the human family and the rest of the world are mere accidents rather than creations; if we envision Hell as the natural evolution of what St Ephrem’s Prayer calls “slothfulness, discouragement, ambition, and idle talk,” then we will grasp that Hell really is the extension beyond death of what we are all living right now when we do not live by faith, hope, and charity. The imperative to evangelize is tremen­dously plausible and powerful if by grace we elect to avoid that sort of Hell for ourselves and others: Hell under­stood as Citizen Kane’s lonely deathbed, Sam Rockwell’s desolate base in the film Moon, Kayla’s stark and lonely world in the film Eighth Grade, or even grimmer Gehennas of our making. The imperative to evangelize is all the more plausible and powerful once we wish to avoid Hell understood as the world of the Gulag and the death camp. Look at BergenBelsen, or Lampedusa, or the suicide rates among young men in Québec, and then try to say with conviction that if we focus mainly on what sin is already doing to us right now, the stakes are just too damn low. We do not have the luxury of taking revenge when we must be seeking righteousness.

With Julian of Norwich, with St Catherine of Siena, with Dorothy Day, we must remind each other: All the way to Heaven is Heaven. Would anyone know this to be true by listening to what we profess to believe?1



[1] These remarks were delivered at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies [MASI] in Toronto on February 25, 2020. I am very grateful to Dr. Brian Butcher and Rev. Dr. Peter Galadza for the opportunity to speak at MASI. A version of this text is published in LOGOS: a journal of Eastern Christian Studies, vol. 60, nos. 1-4, (2019).

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Richard Bernier works as an administrator in Concordia University’s Faculty of Arts and Science (Montreal) and teaches in philosophy and religious studies at Concordia, and at McGill University where he obtained his doctorate. He is a member of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church.

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55 Responses to Where is Everybody? Apokatastasis, Divine Charity and Human Freedom

  1. “Be that as it may, if I have been rendered utterly incapable of unlocking a door, the fact that it is locked only on my side is of little comfort.” – KO

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    • C.S. Lewis spoke of the doors of hell being locked from the inside, and he spoke also of the damned not WANTED to be redeemed – if every they do WANT it, it shall not be denied them.

      It can be no lack of comfort, can it, to be incapable of doing something precisely because one wants to be so incapable?

      (I’m not arguing for such an endless hell; perhaps it is impossible for human beings’ desires to become so thoroughly and completely depraved.)


      • Tom says:

        “It can be no lack of comfort, can it, to be incapable of doing something precisely because one wants to be so incapable?”

        I don’t think Richard is decrying the fact that ‘desire’ and ‘act’ should be inextricably linked, that one should be capable of acting only in accordance with one’s desire. That makes perfect sense. What he’s decrying is the idea that one should be incapable of changing one’s desires. We can imagine ‘wanting to be incapable of doing a particular something or other’. But to imagine ‘wanting to be incapable of wanting something better than what one presently wants’? Or wanting to be incapable of understanding/perceiving one’s highest good?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. When it comes to the “flames of woe unbounded” reference, I acknowledge the song may be, in itself, about terror of eternal damnation – but the specifically quoted line does not bother me. Woe can certainly feel unbounded, no less if it is “meant to lead you to repentance.” It may even be unbounded – not in eternity, but in the extent to which it is felt in the moment of nothingness out of which one is called to repentance.

    When it comes to the Christian view, to Christian love, to the hope, not of revenge, but of redemption, I think of 1st Corinthians 13, commonly known as “The Love Chapter.”

    Love never fails. Never gives up. Always hope. Always perseveres.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A wonderful article, but, dear Richard, I would gently take you to task for one small item here. 1Tim. 2:4 does not state that God merely “wishes” that all should be saved. Ah, but *sigh* wishes are such vain things. We may wish for a wonderful vacation and yet it rains the whole time we are at the beach. No, the Greek will not allow for this, any more than it allows “aionios” to mean “eternal” when there is another precise word that carries that exact meaning.

    To wish in Greek is εὔχομαί εὔχομαι euchomai, found in such verses as 3 John 1: 2. There is also ἐπιποθήσατε ἐπιποθέω epipotheō – to desire, as in a babe desiring the milk of it’s mother, allegorically referred to in 1 Peter 2: 2. This word also does not carry the force of “to will.” which is found in 1 Tim. 2:4. θέλει θέλω thelō. To INTEND, TO WILL. as in “it is the WILL (INTENT) of God that all be saved.”

    Look, I’m no Greek scholar, but I can read an interlinear Greek dictionary, run the various verses in which the word is used, and come up with the proper knowledge of the intent of the word being used. The examination shows that the use of this word is consistent with an intent to do something. God INTENDS to save all.

    Please refrain from stating again that 1 Tim 2:4 merely says that God sighs and wishes (poor God, he wishes to save us all, but we are so stubborn and intractable that He just can’t) that he could save us. No. Use the forceful word and then challenge the hellists with this simple question:

    “Can any created being of any kind, human or spirit, block, hinder, or thwart the will of God?”

    If they are going to be hellists, then make them earn it!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • SF says:

      Part of not having expertise in a particular area is being blind to what is or isn’t truly “logical” within it. Lexicographers/philologists aren’t just people who know how to use interlinears very well, obviously; they’re experts of how language evolves and is used. In the case of aionios, they know that words don’t have immutable and singular meanings, and that languages are packed with redundancies and synonyms with no discernible differences in meaning.

      As for the issue of will, this is just the worst kind of reductionism. The Biblical writers didn’t write what they believed to be perfect logical axioms. When they wrote about God wanting something, they weren’t thinking of the logical calculus of “by definition, God always gets what he wants.” Andrew Perriman points to something like (LXX) Hosea 6:6-7, for example, where God talks about his anger toward those who disobeyed the fact that he desired mercy and not sacrifice.


    • DBH says:

      Well, however you translate it, there is no significant difference between God “willing” and God “intending” something. If you will it, you must intend it. If you do not intend it, then you do not really will it. The same is true if you throw in the seemingly weaker renderings, like “desire” or “wish.” What you desire is what you will. I have never thought “wishes” sounds right when talking about God, but I don’t care if that’s how it’s rendered. The point is that, according to the verse, the damnation of anyone is contrary to God’s will and therefore a natural evil. It falls outside God’s universal willing of the Good and only the Good. He could not positively will it, therefore, without it becoming a moral evil on his part. But, as my First Meditation points out, the moral modal distinction between what God positively wills and what he merely negatively permits suffers a complete modal collapse at the eschatological horizon as a result of the metaphysics of creatio ex nihilo. (That is the only way, incidentally, in which I use the verse in the book’s argument.)

      I myself used “intends” rather than the traditional “wills” in my translation just because that happens to be a more contemporary idiom. We do not today say, “I will that my son shall attend Harvard.” We may say, however, “I intend that my son shall attend Harvard.” It hadn’t occurred to me that it would seem audacious. I mean, I didn’t go so far as to write “commands,” which is one way of rendering, say, ho basileus thelei.

      The question of whether God “gets what he wants” is a question of context, theological plausibility, etc. The quote from 1 Timothy comes from the Pastoral Epistles, which are the most universalist of the epistolary deposit on the NT, if that helps. And, while it may make sense to say that, in the providential order of divine permission, God doesn’t always get what he wants from us, it becomes more conceptually bizarre to say that, in the universal order of God’s eschatological designs for all his creatures, God still doesn’t get what he really wants, even at the end of everything. At that point, you are very correct, the picture becomes fairly absurd. But, as far as my formal argument in the book goes, that is not the issue.

      Liked by 3 people

      • DBH says:

        That comment is directed to The Reluctant Heretic, incidentally. I didn’t notce that someone else had replied before me.


        • Dear David – Thank you for replying to my inquiry. I have read further below in the commentary between you and TIK and Thomas and have come to realize one thing – I am waaaaaaaaay out of my league in this discussion, kind of like a smug brown belt in martial arts who unknowingly meets a master and finds hmself flat on his back wondering what the heck just happened? I always thought I had a fairly good intellect and reasoning ability. I am….humbled.

          Question, dear sir. You mention that the error of infernalist thinking is pervasive in both East and West. What does this do to my search for truth, in re the verse of Scripture which states that the Church is the “pillar and ground of truth.” This verse is used by both East and West as a kind of cudgel to keep the participants in line…..i.e. “listen to us or go directly to hell. Do not pass GO and do not collect any mercy along the way”

          But more than that, there is a substantive problem here for me. If the Church has gotten this wrong for 2000 years (other than the Universalists who valiantly strove against this slander on God’s character), then how do I know what truth is? If they screwed up this one, then how do I trust that they got other areas of anthropology, soteriology, theology, or eclessiology correct?

          Do you see my problem? Upon reflection, it is challenging to trust anything they say, other than perhaps the writings of the Fathers. And even some of the Fathers make statements in favor of eternal punishment (such as St. John Chrysostom’s declarations that the wicked suffer eternally). How then do I separate truth from either outright error or cultural degredation of the Christian faith? If the Church slowly eroded the truth by allowing pagan concepts of the angry and vengeful “god” to seep into its eschatological consciousness, how do I trust it en toto? I then, through study, must become the discerner of truth, and as mentioned in my opening statement, I do not have the mental, moral, or theological firepower to take on such a task. This leaves me wandering through the desert of life without guideposts. Perhaps you can offer some.

          I look forward to your response.

          Liked by 2 people

          • DBH says:

            You cannot trust tradition simply on the basis of tradition. That is circular. Like it or not, as a rational creature, you must apply your reasoning, and never assent to anything that strikes you as irrational; to do otherwise is not faith, but the abdication of responsibility. Any model of the authority of tradition that does not require reasoning is just nihilism masquerading as piety.

            That said, no truly competent historian of dogma has ever adduced evidence that universalism is doctrinally aberrant. Read Evdokimov, Turincev, Clément, etc.

            Understand, I am not necessarily the person to ask. My view of how tradition works—upon which I am writing a short book—is a very particular one.

            Liked by 2 people

          • Oh wow, sorry to but into someone else’s thread but just want to say i’m extremely excited to hear that you’re writing such a book. How long do we have to wait till we can read it?

            Also, seeing as DBH is still hovering in the comments here, i’ll continue probing on the ecumenism angle:

            DBH, your arguments in favour of apokatastasis are beautiful and flawless, however it does not appear that you are respecting the catholic dogmatic, liturgical and scriptural traditions. In the vulgate and approved catholic english translations of say, matthew 25, the language is unambiguous. There have also been many latin ecumenical councils which have affirmed that Hell is everlasting and eternal (where these terms are understood to mean “infinite in duration”). I can’t recall off the top of my head which councils defined this but I think the council of florence was one of them.

            I know you are eastern orthodox, not catholic, and from that standpoint it is permissible to reject the western tradition and simply deal with the first 7 councils as well as the original greek of the new testament. However Catholic Christians simply can’t do this: as Catholics, we are bound to accept the vulgate, the western liturgies, the 21 catholic ecumenical councils and so on.

            This is my primary motivation in pushing back on you so hard with respect to the eternity of Hell. If you are ever going to convince a Catholic to believe your argument and whilst remaining within the Catholic tradition, you need to respect that tradition and not reject it. As such, it would seem that everlasting/eternal/infinite Hell is non-negotiable.

            Now, I may be wrong about this. Etymologically “everlasting” is literally the same word as αιονιων and both of them simply mean “something which lasts for the entire duration of an age/ever/aevum/αιον”. So potentially an argument could be made from within the Catholic tradition that Hell is not infinite. However I can’t confirm this with certainty as I am not directly familiar with all the relevant dogmatic statements of the councils.

            But lets say for the sake of argument that the Catholic tradition really does require Catholics to believe that hell is infinite in duration. In this case, in order for a Catholic to accept your argument while remaining Catholic (as opposed to converting to orthodoxy), your argument needs to demonstrate that it is compatible with the idea of an infinite-duration Hell. This is what I have attempted to do in my previous comments and exchange with you here.

            So there are three broad approaches you or I can take when trying to convince Catholics of apokatastasis: 1. Try to get them to apostatise from Catholicism and defect to a tradition such as your own (eastern orthodoxy) where the dogmatic requirements are easier to navigate. 2. Try and work from within the Catholic tradition to demonstrate that as a Catholic, belief in a Hell of infinite duration is not mandated by that tradition. or 3. Accept that the Catholic tradition requires belief in a Hell of infinite duration, and then find some way to show that apokatastasis is nevertheless compatible with this.

            It seems to me that you are opting for option 1, while I am opting for option 3. Personally I think I am in the right here and you are in the wrong, based on my reading of 1 Corinthians. Paul would not want Catholics to cease being Catholic in order to accept the gospel, just as he didn’t require jews to cease being jewish. Paul would work within the dogmatic framework of the people he was evangelising. Rather than telling a Catholic to stop being Catholic (which at the end of the day, seems to be what you are advocating), Paul would insist that the Catholic tradition is true and beautiful and then try to work within it rather than against it, in order to demonstrate the gospel.

            That’s all that i’m trying to say. Your argument is flawless, but it only really works in an eastern orthodox context. If you want to transplant it to a Catholic one, you need to respect the dogmatic commitments of Catholicism. Leads which I propose for this include projective geometry and the mathematics of infinity.


        • Since there is, for some odd reason, no “Reply” button under your latest reply to me, I will back up to this last comment and put my reply here.

          Firstly, thank you for responding to my naive questions. As I stated, I am out of my league on this site. You mention that I, as a rational creature, must use my reasoning abilities to come to truth. It seems to me you have just made me equal to the Church in the ability to find truth, which is the same reasoning ability that heretics like Arius used. He reasoned that God is one, Christ was a created being, and opposed what the Church had taught for four centuries. How is this different than your urging me to use my own reasoning power? (I might add that for many years, my own reasoning, improperly formed, led me in to much wickedness. I therefore and hesitant to trust it!)

          I believe that for the Christian in an apostolic Church, Holy Tradition is that which, as St. Vincent of Lerins stated, “has been believed in all places, by all people, at all times.” The idea of the councils is that the mind of the Church collectively, in the bishops who have been given the authority of Christ through apostolic succession, comes to a conclusion which is the mind of God.

          Which, of course, leaves me scratching my head in puzzlement when I think of the saying “Athanasius contra mundum.” If I understand correctly, there was a time in history when only Athanasius and the Bishop of Rome were Trinitarians. All other bishops had gone over to Arianism (correct me, please, if I have overstated this). That such error could infest the whole of the Church’s hierarchy should give one pause, and certainly gives a certain amount of credence to your argument for using one’s own reasoning power.

          As TIK has stated, your reasoning regarding Universalim and the character of God is flawless. Quite frankly, who in their right mind would want the God of the hellists in the character in which such an eschatological end is portrayed?

          But my question still stands. If the Church East and West, has gotten it wrong, then how do I look to them for truth? Such a problem gives the Protestants wholesale authority for their rebellion against Rome (which was morally understandable, given the corruption there). But look how that has turned out. Each person, using his reason, has resulted in hundreds of denominations with dozens of differing doctrines. All cannot be true.

          I am not trying to engage in theological fisticuffs with you. I am just A.) thanking you for your answer and B.) letting you know that despite it, I am still confused. What may see crystal clear to one who has given an answer may still be murky to another. I shall have to meditate upon what you have written. Any further response will be greatly appreciated.


          • DBH says:

            I cannot offer you another answer. Whatever you believe, you believe for reasons you have arrived at on your own. Even the choice to trust tradition is one you had reasons for making, meaning that the surrender of your mind to tradition is itself wholly dependent on a prior (presumptuous?) act of private ratiocination and deliberation. Such is the fate of creatures who are “logikoi.” That is the real shape and real price of rational freedom, as I argue in the book: you have no other choice.

            But, first, recall that I recommended reading authors like Evdokimov because they have convincingly demonstrated that Eastern tradition does not oblige one to believe in eternal damnation. The difference between clear dogma and theologoumenal assumptions is a vital one. For Roman Catholics the issue is more difficult, but Shaun Coyle has written well on the matter on this very site.

            Still my answer stands. No authority should be credited if it tells you that 2+3=7, and my contention in my book is that the traditional theological and dogmatic teachings in support of a hell of eternal torment are no less irrational than that. So, sapere aude!

            Liked by 3 people

      • But DBH, would you accept a distinction between “willing” and “wanting”?

        For example, a father does not want to punish his child, but he wills to punish his child so as to bring about some greater good (the education and reformation of the child).

        Similarly, God wants all men to be saved, but while we are all stuck down here in samsara he does not necessarily will all men to be saved. Sometimes he very much wills people to be damned.

        However, my thesis is that willing is always ultimately directed towards wanting. I believe maximus the confessor said as much. God’s wanting never changes: he always and everywhere desires all men to be saved, therefore when God wills someone to go to Hell, he is willing the opposite of what he wants so as to ultimately achieve what he wants. God only sends people to Hell as an extraordinary means of bringing about their final salvation.

        So I don’t think there’s any need to jettison the traditional theology of God’s antecedant and conequent will. Even though it is usually deployed against universal salvation, us universalists can totally roll with it and turn it back on those cheeky infernalists. Rather than rejecting their theology, use their own theology against them I say.


        • On that note, I have no problem affirming the eternity, everlastingness, and infinity of Hell. This builds bridges with the infernalists who simply won’t budge on the issue. But then I pull an ace out of my sleeve and say “But God is infinitely more infinite than infinity, and eternally more eternal than eternity. Hell may very well be everlasting, but God is more everlasting, and as far as God is concerned the torments of Hell conclude in the blink of an eye. God loves the people in Hell, is able to save the people in Hell, and will save the people in Hell”

          To this day I haven’t been shown to be wrong by anyone when I say this. It’s really indisputable.

          So as universalists, we need not reject the traditional view of Hell. Hell really is that bad, it’s everlasting, inescapable, infinitely torturous and what have you. If someone is stuck in Hell, they are stuck there “forever”. There’s no need for us to water any of this down. The key point is that none of this terrifying doctrine poses any obstacle whatsoever to God. He loves the sinners trapped in Hell and he will save them, just you watch.


          • DBH says:

            Yeah, um… no. That’s all quite unnecessary. I have no interest in building bridges with a morally absurd position, in any event. And God is not a finite psychological subject who “wants”—indeed, he wants for nothing. It is enough to say he wills the salvation of all. To say he wills anyone to go to hell is to say he positively wills a natural evil. He is always overthrowing hell in us, and never ever throwing us into hell. Don’t waste your efforts trying to be subtler than reason requires.

            Liked by 4 people

          • But then, what’s your view on the sovereignty of God? Divine sovereignty as I understand it would imply that literally everything that happens is created (but not “caused”) by God. So if someone is in Hell, it’s because God is actively sustaining them in Hell. In this sense, God is “willing” that person to be in Hell. If God wasn’t willing them to be in Hell, they would simply not be in Hell. This is why I personally feel the need to draw a distinction between willing and wanting; without it, I can’t see how theodicy works. Under this framework, God “wills” everything that happens, including evil, however he only ever “wants” good, and ultimately that’s what will happen: only good, no more evil.

            You can nuance this by saying God doesn’t will evil, because evil has no ontology and therefore there is nothing to will. Thought of this way, God is simply willing some sort of lesser good every time an evil actualises.

            I’ve read “The doors of the sea” and found your argument entirely compelling that God cannot be blamed for evil in any way. I agree with you on that. But i also sympathise with the convictions of christians who believe in sovereignty: everything that happens happens because God ordains and sustains it. The only way i’ve found to mesh these together is the distinction between willing and wanting.


          • DBH says:

            No. The distinction is needless. It also does not work. It is just an error of grammar.

            If I have a child fighting cancer, I want the child to live but I do not want the cancer for him. If you say then that I will for the child to have cancer in willing the child to be alive, you are confusing the object of intention with a set of contingent accidents that might attend the object, but that I in no sense will. Your distinction adds nothing to your understanding of the situation. It’s a distraction.

            And Christians ought never speak of divine sovereignty. It’s not a genuine category of Christian thought. Leave it to the Calvinists.

            Liked by 3 people

          • TIK says:

            I’m actually genuinely surprised you’re pushing back so hard on this. (Also I don’t quite follow your example: if i want my child to live, why would i will him to have cancer? Perhaps the absurdity of this is the point you were trying to make)

            On the sovereignty point, even father kimel on this blog would seem to agree (cf. his fantastic articles about the orthodox doctrine of synergism, double agency, the causal joint etc). Perhaps you’re reacting against the fact I’m using the term “sovereignty”, which is a typically calvinist word. There’s no reason it can’t be redeemed from the calvinists and given a more acceptable interpretation however?

            Im not as eloquent as you, so let me just bombard you with some aphorisms.

            “Sometimes it takes a forever and an eternity for a sinner to repent. But if that’s how long it takes, then that’s how long God is willing to wait.”

            “You say Hell is everlasting. Very well. But i say God is MORE everlasting. Hell may be experienced as an eternity to those who are stuck there, but to God it is over in the blink of an eye. All of the damned will be rescued and once they are safely in the eschaton it will be as if they had never left”

            “For some sinners, the chastisement stretches out to infinity. Nevertheless, the chastisement is efficacious and at infinity they will be saved.”

            You might enjoy reading up on projective geometry. It has interesting things to say about infinity and eternity. Allows you to ask questions such as “what happens after forever?”, which in turn allows you to simultaneously affirm traditional infernalist accounts of hell while also holding strongly to a doctrine of apokatastasis. I think nicholas of cusa developed a little of the mathematics and theology in this area. A good little introduction to it all can be found in the book “prelude to mathematics”.

            I know you’re a respected public figure and academic and it’s in your financial interest to generate controversy with the traditional views, however im a missionary talking to everyday lay people in a variety of different denominations. At the level I’m operating, it pays to build bridges, not burn them, and so I’m happy that I’m able to find a way to make the traditional account of eternal torment fit with the glorious gospel of apokatastasis. Disagreement is a sin; people are more likely to come around to your perspectives and insights when you are sympathetic to their convictions

            On a other note, once varoonawirus-69 clears up, please come and tour australia! I would be a roadie and screaming fangirl. Would be such an experience to meet you in person. Sign my copies of ur books plz haha


          • DBH says:

            Dear Iron Knuckle,

            I’ll excuse the remark about financial interest. No one motivated by profits would alienate half his readers by advocating a position they think heretical while also openly proclaiming political beliefs that most of his compatriots have been systematically conditioned to view with abhorrence.

            The problem is that you are applying a psychological distinction to God, who is not a finite psychological subject in whom there are such things as “wants” that can be supplied by extrinsic realities, or acts of will that are anything apart from his willing of the one Good in all things. To say that, in willing the good of the whole, God permits the possibility of transient and conditional deviations from the good among creatures is very different from saying that he positively wills an evil end or state of affairs. If “hell” is a natural evil for a creature–no less than cancer is a natural evil–God cannot positively will it. In willing the Goodness of his own essence, he does not contingently will hell or cancer or Donald Trump’s presidency. Do not think of God as a kind of demiurge deliberating among a gallery of possible worlds and then choosing one in its totality as his elect design. That’s the sort of mythical picture that the early modern theological language of sovereignty encourages. Rather, God creates all thing in their end: plunged in the fire of the divine, united to him, utterly transparent to the Goodness of the divine nature, and so he wills nothing for them beside.

            Moreover, I am a thoroughly analogical thinker, and dislike paradoxical formulations that cannot be resolved into non-paradoxical language. To say hell is everlasting but God is more than everlasting, etc., is simply not appealing to me. Hell is not everlasting because, of its nature, it cannot be. See Meditation Four in my book. I will not concede the language, however qualified by paradox, because the language itself is intrinsically false.

            Liked by 5 people

        • Thomas says:

          It’s impossible to say, on the “classical theist” position, that God “wants” anything. With respect to willing himself, it’s simply the permanent achievement of the perfect good, or “enjoyment” of infinite perfection. With respect to the world, God’s willing is really identical with the created good by which they are ordered to God, and will is attributed to God via extrinsic denomination. Which is to say that there is nothing intrinsic to God that depends or is determined by the created world.

          God does not form internal intentional states whereby he wishes for A or B to happen, and then sets about trying to do it. There is no gap between God’s will with respect to the world and its achievement. At least, not if he is infinite, absolute, and impassible.

          Which is why, if you reject the premise that the good of the whole (the next age) may be achieved at the expense of the good of the parts (the damned), and you believe in God’s power to fully solve the problem of evil, you can get from the classical theist position to the universalist via deductive inference pretty rapidly.

          Liked by 1 person

          • DBH says:

            If you look two comments up, you will see that point made (in nuce). Classical understandings of God also, as it happens, oblige one to say that the good of the whole must be wholly good. Else God’s willing is of a relative good, good by evaluation rather than nature. And such a God is not God.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Thomas says:

            > Classical understandings of God also, as it happens, oblige one to say that the good of the whole must be wholly good.

            Many Thomists will argue that, on the contrary, the good of the whole is regularly achieved by a relative evil (that is, a natural evil) to the parts. This is usually illustrated by example: for instance, the Krebs cycle destroys underlying molecules (e.g., Acetyl CoA). Nevertheless the Krebs cycle is good — it enables aerobic life.

            But Thomists cannot regard humans as parts. Any real whole is a substance, and there are no substances in substances. Humans cannot be reduced to parts without losing their status as substances. (Molecules underlying a biological process are not really both substances and parts on this view, but possess only virtual existence.)

            The part/whole logic can’t be transferred to substances in relation to one another without overlooking a central Thomist metaphysical tenet. The intrinsic good of the created universe, then, cannot be something independent of or over against the concrete good of individuals and their relations. This would prevent a (perfectly) good whole from being achieved in opposition to the good of its members.

            All that to say that your assertion of the (perfect) good of the whole cannot be had without being “wholly good” finds support in some latent elements of the Thomist metaphysics of created things, as well as the more theological and Scriptural points you raised.

            Liked by 1 person

          • DBH says:

            I am aware of that, yes. Thanks for mentioning it. But I have to point out that one thing I deeply dislike in Thomism is the tendency to say that God created the natural order as it exists at present, including the destructive process of the Krebs cycle (or, to take a less abstruse example, carnivores feeding on lambs) and the superadded a level of graced nature (Eden, that is) that was also superelevated above the conditions of created nature. This is in fact, to my mind, the sickness of two-tier Thomism in its most poignant expression. Actually, the world God creates–the *nature* he creates–is nothing other than that reality in which lion and lamb lie down together. All of nature as we know it is a fallen reality, the work of sin and death in all things. Such was the classical view. Thomism is so aberrant in this regard that it has to be accounted heretical.

            Better the gnostic view on this matter than the Thomist.

            Liked by 5 people

          • Thomas says:

            It is a virtue of Thomism that it does not tend, like gnosticism, to flee scientific realism for fanciful myths.

            Once you take a lamb and remove cellular respiration, protein synthesis, digestion, cell division, neurological processes, etc., do you still have a lamb?

            If the essence of a lamb is what the animal biologist grasps in explaining why these underlying materials and processes are a sheep, then you couldn’t have a lamb without destructive processes (e.g., metabolism). We couldn’t understand what a lamb is without its underlying biochemistry any more than we could understand what water is without knowing about hydrogen and helium, chemical bonds, etc.

            The world is shot through with the effects of sin, to be sure. Perhaps animal predation is one consequence, though I’ll admit that strikes me as as a retreat to mythology to the extent that it lacks a direct engagement with the sciences. But imagining a lamb in the eschaton without the Krebs cycle or protein synthesis is just to picture something that looks and acts like a lamb, but is really something else. It would be a new and different form of life, to be accounted for by some other biology than that which explains any species on this planet.

            Either we will have the same animal species in the afterlife, or we have some new life forms with an entirely different constitution. But if the former, we have certain natural evils. And if the latter, no animal in our tree of life will come with us.


          • DBH says:

            What rubbish. That is not scientific realism. Nor is it coherent. It is a crude conception of the Age-to-Come (or of unfallen creation) as just another version of the terrestrial history we inhabit now. By your reasoning, nothing in the transfigured creation spoken of by Paul in Romans 8 would be anything other than a false image, including the spiritual body of the resurrection. Lambs would not be lambs, and human bodies would not be human bodies. Of course, Thomism does not really affirm the glorification of the cosmos in the Age to Come.

            The body of death is the entire cosmos and the whole of cosmic history here “below the aeon.” The Thomist view is based upon an understanding of nature that has been severed from the genuine logic of creation. If you were to see a lamb in its truest nature—a lamb of the kingdom—you would, I suspect, be ravished by the vision of such beauty and sublimity. The essence of a lamb is not the composite physical organism produced by the biochemical logic of a world corrupted by death. It is the lamb of the first and last creation.

            Liked by 6 people

          • DBH says:

            And why would a Thomist imagine that any substance takes its nature from the accidents of its material individuating. Surely the form of the lamb is distinguishable from its mortal body, just as the form of the human is distinguishable from the body of death. Yes, I now, Thomism traditionally speaks of the human as a sovereign exception to the rule of nature only by virtue of the second gift of superelevation, which was squandered in the fall. But I don’t believe in pure nature; I believe only in fallen creation.

            Liked by 4 people

          • DBH says:


            Bloody dictate function.


          • Thomas says:


            > And why would a Thomist imagine that any substance takes its nature from the accidents of its material individuation.

            Well, even on the old-fashioned Thomist account, the definition of a substance invokes definitions of accidents. Rationality is a faculty of human beings, an accident. I’m not sure where the individuation part came from. Determinate matter (these particular flesh and bones) does not belong to the essence of something; matter is indeterminately included.

            But my point only requires the heuristic that the natures of material things are grasp in the scientific explanation that account for why something is what it is, rather than being an aggregate of the lower-level things. The question of nature (“what is x?”) is, for material things, the same as the question “why are these ys an x?”, as Aristotle observed. It is a matter not of seeing (with physical or alleged spiritual eyes), or imagining, but of systematic explanation.

            Were we left with Scripture, or theologians, to determine the natures of physical world, we’d still believe the stars to be unchanging, the species to be fixed, and we would be bereft of germ theory in a pandemic. We would have picture-thinking and stories, and we might have good poetry and art, but what we would not have is knowledge of the nature of the physical universe. We would know as little about the nature of lambs as we do of water or light.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Thomas says:

            > Surely the form of the lamb is distinguishable from its mortal body, just as the form of the human is distinguishable from the body of death. Yes, I now, Thomism traditionally speaks of the human as a sovereign exception to the rule of nature only by virtue of the second gift of superelevation, which was squandered in the fall.

            The important distinction here is that the human soul has no intrinsic material conditions (or, to town down the Lonerganian terminology, it is an immaterial subsistent), while the essence of any animal includes a material component (and is therefore not subsistent). That is why a human being can (and by nature will) exist after death, while an animal will not.

            The reasoning here hinges on the distinction between the intellectual operations and sensitive operations. (ST I, q. 75). That a being is capable of intellectual operations proves that it is not limited to material conditions, while sensory operations does not support the same conclusion. (My preferred version of this argument occurs in Insight, but St. Thomas’ reasoning is forceful enough.)

            Of course, St. Thomas’ speculation on the historical state of man at the fall does invoke grace, but given the fact that there was no significant knowledge of natural history at the time, I wouldn’t put too much weight on that. In any case, it is highly speculative, while the proof for the immortality of the human soul is not.


          • DBH says:


            You’re a good man. And consistent to all appearances. Thanks for the deep dive into the Thomist catechism. Understand–and this is not meant to be belligerent–that I regard it as total nonsense. I also believe that the Thomist tradition here is deeply unscriptural and based upon a defective understanding of spirit. (Oh, by the way, I do not believe that animals lack a spiritual nature or that they are naturally mortal. And please don’t give me the typical Thomist “sole rational animal” line.)

            Thomist tradition tells us that God created the natural order as it is now, and then created a spiritual being miraculously superelevated above nature by a second grace. This grace that creature squandered, and as a result is now subject to the same natural conditions as the rest of material creation. In the Age to Come, moreover, that material natural order will be entirely destroyed, etc. Now, of course, scripture by contrast imagines the New Age as the restoration of a creation not under the rule of death and violence, in which there is neither depredation nor disease (the lion does not lie down with the lamb because it has just torn the lamb’s throat out and is now just settling down to a good meal), and in which nonetheless there are all the goods of creation, including animals and plants and minerals. The Thomist account of the Beatific Vision is, all things being equal, non-Christian.

            So, understand that I am fully cognizant of all you are saying already. I realize moreover that Thomists quaintly imagine that their system is somehow an orthodoxy incumbent on all Christians. I regard it as a squalid and deplorable system. It is, moreover, based on an understanding of nature that merits no serious sympathy. But I have a book coming out on that, so I’ll hold off.

            The Thomist system turns Christianity into an anthropocentric horror story, in which the abominable suffering of creatures other than human beings are part of the good creation of God rather than the residue of a cosmic and spiritual fall. A more incompetent and malign demiurge would be hard to imagine. Maximus, however, provides something that actually honors biblical eschatology and the goodness of creation: the whole is fallen because of the fall of the cosmic priesthood, the methorios, and in the restoration of the human the cosmic order as truly created in God’s eternal will is made perfect. And it’s just overflowing with dogs, cats, hippos, and the occasional Thomist (suitably chastened). Salvation is cosmic. It is not simply the admission of select rational, spiritual beings into communion with God. You will in fact see your pets again, glorified in their eternal beauty as small words within the Word. You won’t be able to find any complete copies of the Summa, however, as the defective former things will have passed away. There will be only selected passages.

            Oh, and just so we understand: when I speak of the fall of humanity, I do not mean an event that occurred in historical terrestrial time. The whole “chronic” order is fallen from one end to the other. So no need to say that I am avoiding the scientific evidence of evolution or anything of the sort. Thomists, however, with their insistence on a fall within terrestrial time and of a real first father and mother of the race who were the first recipients of the infused rational soul, really are talking fantasy fiction. It is they who cannot let go entirely of a literalist acceptation of the mythology of Eden and recover it fully as an allegory.

            Liked by 8 people

          • DBH says:

            By the way, I meant to note that, in Romans 5:12, Paul claims that “death entered the cosmos” because of the fall, and so that was in fact the patristic default. And I don’t see why an immortal dolphin or elephant should seem so outlandish to us, since both are capable of deductive reasoning of a sort, of symbolic communication over a distance, and of tool-making. Clearly they are “rational” animals. One area of the modern sciences Thomists tend to refuse to take seriously is the cognitive studies of animals. It’s very sobering is one wants to cling to the old mythology of a perfect partition between rational and “sub-rational” creatures. Christians in general have to get past those old errors.

            Liked by 4 people

        • I vibe with what you’ve said in your latest response, and I defer to your superior and omniscient intellect, but I also can’t resist asking some questions:
          1. would you firmly deny that the english words “everlasting” and “eternal” can be applied to Hell and it’s torments? How about the latin equivalents?
          commentary on q 1: If you deny that these english words are applicable, you are essentially dismissing many english translations of the bible. These translations of the bible are read during the mass, which sanctifies them and makes them inspired. After they are read, the lector proclaims “the word of the lord”. If this means anything, it means that these translations have authority: to reject such translations is therefore to reject the entire western tradition, in a sense. From other things you’ve written on the topic of ecumenism, I don’t think you’re willing to be so extreme as this, and would rather that the western church and eastern church stand together. In that case, how do you grapple with such blunt translations of the scriptures? Translations in which the words “everlasting” and “eternal” are used with respect to Hell/gehenna? To simply reject the translation is an ecumenical blunder which will burn bridges with people who don’t want to hear it.


          • dunno how my reply got posted. I wasn’t finished writing it yet! 😦

            2. I vibe with what you seem to be getting at with respect to God permitting but not causing evil/hell and damnation. That makes sense to me. God always and everywhere only wills the good. This is all good. However it just makes theodicy even more difficult. When I break my leg, does God positively will me to break my leg? If not, then how is it possible that i even broke my leg in the first place? God is the metaphysical source and ground of all that happens: if i break my leg, tracing back the metaphysical chain of causes should end at God himself: God is the one who ultimately created reality such that I broke my leg. If God is not the ultimate source of all that happens, then this would seem to lean towards some sort of zoroastrian conception where good and evil are both equal forces that are allowed to contend with one another. Why else should evil be a feature of reality? If God only ever wills the good, then who, or what, is it that is willing all the evil that we encounter?


          • Perhaps you would claim that the broken leg is an illusion and therefore God is not really creating/causing it. If God only causes the good, then anything evil is simply maya. I vibe with that, but there’s still a mystery hovering in the wings: how did we even end up in samsara in the first place?


          • 3. DBH, even if God does not positively will that Hell be everlasting/eternal, are you at least happy to concede that they are everlasting and eternal? For people who hold infernalist convictions, this is key: If Hell is not everlasting and eternal, there’s fundamentally nothing to be afraid of according to these people. So putting aside whether or not God positively wills Hell to be everlasting and eternal, would you at least concede that Hell is not temporary? My approach when trying to evangelise people to the gospel of apokatastasis is to agree with them that Hell is just as bad as they always thought it was, including the fact that it’s eternal/everlasting. This only serves to make the salvation that Christ has won for us even more sweet


          • DBH says:

            Since there is not a single passage in the NT that uses the phrase “eternal hell” or “everlasting hell,” or in fact that connects those words at all, there is certainly no lection with those terms used anywhere in the mass. It would change nothing if there were, however. A translation is only a translation, and reading it during mass does not magically confer authenticity on it.

            If you are referring to the single verse in Matthew 25 that speaks of an “aionios” punishment or correction or verdict, I deal with that both in TASBS and in the notes to my NT translation.

            I don’t know why you bring up ecumenism, though, since this isn’t an inter-ecclesial issue. The notion of hell as eternal is found in both East and West. My whole book is meant to show that that is a false concept. So “building bridges
            ” with a tradition that I regard as objectively flse would not really make sense. Nor would it help to adopt paradoxical formulations about God being more than everlasting because they would involve assent to a false concept.

            Liked by 2 people

          • DBH says:

            By the way, yes, of course hell is temporary. It cannot be anything but temporary. It is intrinsically finite. It is nothing but the residue of the emergence of creatures from nothingness into the infinite, and there is nothing to it that has a purchase on the eternal.

            Liked by 2 people

        • when you say

          “Moreover, I am a thoroughly analogical thinker, and dislike paradoxical formulations that cannot be resolved into non-paradoxical language. To say hell is everlasting but God is more than everlasting, etc., is simply not appealing to me. Hell is not everlasting because, of its nature, it cannot be. See Meditation Four in my book. I will not concede the language, however qualified by paradox, because the language itself is intrinsically false.”

          This is why i recommended having a geeze at projective geometry. “Prelude to mathematics” is a brilliant introduction. (available freely here: https://archive.org/details/PreludeToMathematics )

          Projective geometry is in the business of reasoning about infinities and eternities, and when you have a grasp of it, it allows you to ask questions such as “what happens after forever?” which in turn builds bridges with the infernalists who are staunch and adamanet that Hell is everlasting and eternal.

          You are adamant that God cannot positively will evil or hell. I agree completely. But he CAN permit evil and damnation and hell. Would you at least concede this? (it seems obvious by the mere fact that we experience evil and suffering. God must permit it). If you would concede that, then the final thing to establish is that the suffering of Hell truly is everlasting and eternal in the popular sense of the words. To deny this is to take the edge off of the doctrine of Hell, and you just lost the audience.


          • DBH says:

            No. The entire point of the First Meditation in my book is to show that, because of the metaphysics of creatio ex nihilo, the distinction between will and permission suffers a complete moral modal collapse at the eschatological horizon. It is literally impossible for him to permit eternal damnation without thereby positively willing a natural evil, and thereby willing a moral evil. The good God cannot permit eternal damnation any more than he could create a square circle or married bachelor.

            Why are you asking? Have you read the book?

            And who cares about the audience? I’m not trying to convince the traditional believers that they are right about thinking hell eternal but, presto, I can come up with a vacuously paradoxical formulation that somehow says that it will still end. I am trying to convince them that the very idea of hell’s eternity is a grotesque error, a distortion of the gospel, and a moral atrocity that blasphemes against God’s goodness and warps the moral imagination.

            You don’t build bridges to an illusory opposite shore. You try to make others see that it is illusory.

            Liked by 8 people

          • I actually decided to read through the whole book again last night. It really is a breath of fresh air. Thanks so much for writing it. When i’m at home with my socks off I agree with you completely on pretty much every point and i’m eternally grateful that you put the argument so compellingly in the book. The only reason that I’m arguing here that Hell is everlasting is because Catholics are simply not going to budge on this point, so if i want to try and communicate the simple gospel promise to them (including the implication of apokatastasis) I have to work within the dogmatic framework they have adopted, and this unambiguously includes an eternal hell. My job would be much easier if I could just dismiss the catholic ecumenical councils, the vulgate rendering of matthew 25, the english renderings of matthew 25 etc. However the vast majority of catholics (and evangelicals) I speak to treat the bible as a collection of proof texts and when you start to argue from the original greek they get suspicious and shut down. The english/latin is all that they know. I have found it personally more productive to simply agree with them that Hell is everlasting, because they’re not going to budge on this. It’s simply too integral to the tradition that they are living and breathing. Think of it like taking methodone to ease off a heroin addiction: I try to introduce them to apokatastasis gently, without contradicting anything they already believe (specifically, the eternity of Hell). Once they’ve softened up, I’ll hit them hard with your arguments that Hell fundamentally cannot be everlasting.

            HOWEVER, with all that said, I want to reiterate that I fully resonate with your argument against the eternity of Hell. The only reason I’m pushing back against you on this is as a missionary who encounters a firmly entrenched belief in “eternal Hell” or “annihilation” among 99% of the christians who i encounter. While I myself do not believe in an eternal Hell, I have to “get into the mind” of the people I’m evangelising. Remember Paul in 1 corinthians: “to the greeks i became greek, so as to win greeks, to the jews i became jewish so as to win jews”. Today that’s something more like “to the infernalists I became an infernalist, so as to win infernalists”. Paul is pretty adamant that disagreement and dissension is a sin. When trying to speak the gospel to people I have to try my best to agree with them as much as i possibly can. However, as you note in your book, trying to construct an apologetic for eternal damnation requires a never ending rabbit hole of mental gymnastics. For the sake of the lost, I am willing to engage in that mental gymnastics, so as to forge a path whereby I can spread the joy of apokatastasis to those in the darkness. However when I’m at home with my socks off, I would of course prefer to just kick back with a pipe and whiskey and read books like your splendid “That ALL will be saved”. My main point is that while your argument is utterly flawless, it doesn’t respect the dogmatic commitments of Catholics, Seventh Day adventists, mormons, jehovas witnesses, calvinists and so on (even muslims for that matter). As a missionary trying to “be all things to all people”, I have to adopt and make sense of the same dogmatic commitments as the people I’m talking to. I’m trying to be one of those bodhisattvas, descending into the darkness to rescue the lost with the liberating word of the apokatastasic gospel. Sometimes descending into the darkness involves descending into the utter insanity of the dogmatic frameworks of these various christian groups and trying to make some sort of sense of it in order to drag these people back to the greater faith, hope and love (the same faith, hope and love which you so beautifully describe in your book, and which saint origen and saint gregory so compellingly describe).

            I can’t just walk into a SDA church and bash them over the head with your book and say “you’re wrong about everything. read this”. I have to get into their mindset and try to make sense of it.

            Liked by 1 person

          • I guess the main issue i have here is when you say “And who cares about the audience? “. God cares about the audience. And if God cares, you and me should too. While it is true that all these people will be saved, in a very real sense it depends on you and me to save them. We will save them with charity and by trying to get into their heads and gently show them the way to the light, not by shitting on their dogmatic convictions.


          • On another note, are you familiar with the mathematics of infinity? There are some infinities that are bigger than other infinities. This is the tack i’ve been taking lately to explain how hell can be eternal but God and salvation can be “more” eternal. It’s not just paradoxical language, it has a firm logical grounding in the mathematical tradition. I’ve found that introducing people to this really gets them thinking and softens them up to apokatastasis. Most people usually haven’t considered the idea and it really disarms them when I say “I’m a universalist, but I also believe in eternal hell and I can explain that to you if you’d like?”

            Under this analysis, what you’re saying doesn’t quite apply. God can permit eternal hell and redeem it, just as he redeems any other evil, natural or moral. When i say Hell is “eternal”, I’m not saying that therefore that’s the end of the story and God is just going to condemn/abandon people to their fate. Even if Hell is eternal, God is still able and willing to save the people who are stuck there. When I say this to people, they can’t really dispute it.

            so when i say “eternal”, i do not mean to say that “hell is the end of the story”. I’m thinking purely in terms of infinities. Projective geometry allows you to ask “what happens after infinity?”. So while God may permit someone to experience everlasting damnation, this does not mean that God is going to just abandon them to that damnation: he can and will still save them.


          • One last thing just for fun: When I evangelise hare krishnas (oh my goodness it is so pleasant to talk to hindus. they are such a happy bunch), they have told me something interesting: There are infinite souls, and so there is always someone for God to save, any given individual soul will be definitely saved, but there will always be more souls in samsara that we have to rescue.


          • DBH says:

            I am very familiar with the mathematics of infinity, especially in set theory. But that is not relevant here, even as a metaphor, because no infinite set is terminable. And it is precisely the idea of an interminable hell that I regard as logically vacuous.

            As for evangelical bridge building (or whatever), the way you reach someone who starts from a fundamental error is to point the error out—not to accommodate your language to the erroneous concept.

            Liked by 2 people

          • DBH says:

            The error in question being that of an eternal hell. I wasn’t referring to the Krishna Consciousness people you mention. It is not exactly a Vaishnava “orthodoxy” that the number of jivas is infinite, but it is a common enough belief. That said, an infinite number of jivas seeking each to become jivanmukta is still not a state of infinite dereliction for any one jiva.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Just noticed that you mentioned “no infinite set is terminable”. This is why i keep on pushing projective geometry. Infinity, when understood as a limit can be reasoned about as if it’s possible to eventually arrive at infinity. In this way, you can say “hell lasts forever” and then ask “what happens after forever?” This creates space for apokatastasis within a context of a Hell of infinite duration.

            To put it more simply, I agree completely with your conviction that Hell cannot be interminable. However, I’m claiming that it can be infinite, eternal, everlasting, whatever. None of these words necessarily imply interminability, which I would also reject and I am convinced is not infallibly taught by either the Catholic church or scripture or the tradition (although with that said. If Hell were to be dogmatically defined as “interminable”, I would still continue to find some way to sneak apokatastasis back in. God always finds a way to speak his gospel, even in the face of dogmatic opposition).


  4. brian says:

    I cannot agree more with David here. What a Thomist considers bracing realism seems to me an utter lack of eschatological imagination — and it’s callous to boot.

    Liked by 7 people

    • Yeah, Brian, definitely with you here. Fortunately, I don’t mix with Thomists much coming from a Reformed background, however, it’s essentially the same problem that persists. A prima facie glance at the doctrine of an eternal hell of conscious torment is manifestly grotesque and morally pernicious. But, traditional Calvinists and Thomists find themselves in the unfortunate position of having to obstinately arguing that what is implicitly monstrous is somehow defensible, and in the Calvinist case this brutality is somehow part and parcel of the revelation of God’s glory. Any system that must defend such a position is clearly deranged and like David argues in the first meditation of TASBS, the whole system falters under this contagion.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. I’d love to chase down the reference DBH makes here:

    Maximus, however, provides something that actually honors biblical eschatology and the goodness of creation: the whole is fallen because of the fall of the cosmic priesthood, the methorios, and in the restoration of the human the cosmic order as truly created in God’s eternal will is made perfect.

    Does anyone know where I can find this in Maximus? Are there other similar patristic sources on this? This seems reminiscent of that probing theologian, JRR Tolkien’s largely accurate cosmology presented in the Ainulindale. In other words, something sane people believe.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      The notion of man as microcosm runs throughout Maximus’ writing, although it isn’t mentioned explicitly as such. His “Mystagogy” would be a good place to start.

      Liked by 2 people

        • jordandanielwood says:

          The locus classicus in Maximus is Amb 41, where Maximus describes the “five divisions” of nature and humanity’s primordial vocation, actualized in Christ, to unite and sublate these divisions. And indeed the whole of the Mystagogia seamlessly interweaves the cosmos, the church sanctuary, and the individual human being–all Christ’s Body–into the proper subject(s) of the divine liturgy.

          From Amb 41:

          “the fifth [division] is that according to which man, who is above all—like a most efficient workshop [συνεκτικώτατον ἐργαστήριον] sustaining all things, naturally mediating through himself all the divided extremes, and who by design has been beneficially placed amid beings—is divided into male and female, manifestly possessing by nature the full potential to draw all the extremes into unity through their means, by virtue of his characteristic attribute of being related to the divided extremes through his own parts [πᾶσαν ἔχων δηλαδὴ φυσικῶς ταῖς τῶν ἄκρων πάντων μεσότησι διὰ τῆς πρὸς τὰ ἄκρα πάντα τῶν ἰδίων μερῶν σχετικῆς ἰδιότητος τὴν πρὸς ἕνωσιν δύναμιν]. Through this potential, consistent with the purpose (skopos) behind the origination (genesis) of divided beings, man was called to achieve within himself the mode (tropos) of their completion, and so bring to light the great mystery of the divine plan, realizing in God the union of the extremes which exist among beings, by harmoniously advancing in an ascending sequence from the proximate to the remote and from the inferior to the superior.” (Amb 41.2, PG 91, 1305a-b, slight modification)

          And again:

          “This is why man was introduced last among beings—like a kind of natural bond mediating between the universal extremes through his parts, and leading into oneness through himself things that by nature are separated from each other by a great distance [οἱονεὶ σύνδεσμός τις φυσικὸς τοῖς καθόλου διὰ τῶν οἰκείων μερῶν μεσιτεύων ἄκροις, καὶ εἰς ἓν ἄγων ἐν ἑαυτῷ τὰ πολλῷ κατὰ τὴν φύσιν ἀλλήλων διεστηκότα τῷ διαστήματι]….” (Amb 41.3, PG 91, 1305b-c, slightly modified)

          Then there are other texts that make the point clearly enough. For instance:

          “man, fashioned of soul and sensible body, through his proper natural relation of reciprocity to each of these parts of creation, is both contained within these divisions and contains them: the former by virtue of this substance (ousia), and the latter by his potential (dynamis), for being himself extended into these two divided realms, he is able by virtue of his own double nature to draw them together into a unity, for he is contained within the intelligible and sensible, insofar as he is himself a soul and a body, yet he has the potential to contain both of these realms within himself, insofar as he possesses both intellect and sensation.” (Amb 10.57)

          For Maximus the human being is a microcosm most fundamentally because God the Word is (also) a human being, so that being human means uniting every extreme, even the infinite extremes of created and uncreated natures.

          Liked by 6 people

          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Indeed the incarnation and deification are central to this notion of man as microcosm.
            The cosmos as “macroanthropos” also features large in this. For further reading Thunberg’s “Microcosm and Mediator” is worth a start.

            Liked by 1 person

  6. DBH, I’m assuming that you’ve left the chat, but in case you haven’t, and fully agreeing with all that you’ve written here, I’m wondering if you wouldn’t mind sharing your take on what the imago Dei is in a cosmos where a spiritual nature is shared not only with animals but, in all likelihood, with all material reality (since, of course, the biblical universe is utterly and everywhere alive–the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, the Earth, the mountains, the hills, the rivers, and so forth are all responsive to God and, as Thales would have put it, “full of gods” to boot). Is it simply that in the human being the totality of the cosmos is imaged, and so therefore the divine likeness that all things possess in different degrees is thereby consolidated in a unique way in human beings as rational animals? (But then, if all animals are rational to some extent, can humans claim this any more so than elephants can? Or is there a genuine distinction to be drawn?)


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