Was St. Maximus Merely a Hopeful Universalist?

by Mark Chenoweth

If St Maximus the Confessor read Jordan Daniel Woods’ essay on the differences between Hans Urs von Balthasar’s hopeful universalism and George MacDonald’s fully confident universalism, with which modern theologian would the saint find himself in agreement? I know some would say this hypothetical question is absurd because Maximus was con­vinced of the necessity of an eternal hell, and if you find yourself in this position, I would ask that you please thoughtfully consider the articles and books on Maximus by Andreas Andreopou­los, Ilaria Ramelli, and myself linked to in Fr Aidan’s “readings in universal­ism” page. For the rest of us who already see a definite universalist tendency in Maximus, if he was some type of universalist, surely the type of universalism to which he was closest should have some bearing on today’s conversation regarding the permissibility of the doctrine. Although I am taking what is probably a minority position, I’m going to maintain that Maximus would find Balthasar’s personal view rather exotic and innovative, and actually feel more at home with the fully confident universalism of MacDonald.[1]

I will begin by looking at whether Maximus would have been more familiar with Balthasar’s “tensioned” approach to the damnation and universalist passages in scripture or David Bentley Hart’s “dual eschatological horizon” view, wherein the damnation passages refer to one eschatological horizon while the universalist passages refer to a much further horizon after the long and circuitous period of judgment and purgation has reached its completion. Most of our investigation will consist of looking at some of Maximus’ favorite theologians (Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, but also Origen), and if they did advocate a universalist view, whether it was (anachronisti­cally) “Balthasarian,” or a more confident understanding. Following suggestions from my last post, I will also offer an explanation for how many fathers could have fully confident universalist statements on the one hand, but in other works, still give us horrifying pictures of hell that imply its eternity. Last of all, we’ll turn to a few popular reasons some deny Maximus was a universalist that I didn’t fully address in my last post. I contend that when interpreted with sufficient back­ground knowledge, some non-universalist readings of Maximus are a misunderstanding of his language of divinization, and other readings end up making his theology needlessly incoherent. Reading Maximus as a confident universalist along the lines of Nyssen makes better sense out of his language and allows the theology of this great philosophical mind to exist more seamlessly without internal contradictions. I admit that one of my criterion of a good interpretation of Maximus is one that lets his theology exist with the least amount of internal contradictions, but if anyone is familiar with Maximus’ exhaustingly precise logic, it seems unlikely for a thinker of his caliber to not notice when his theology contains glaring inconsistencies.

“Dual Eschatological Horizons” vs. “Scriptures in Tension”

Damnation: (Matt. 25:45; 2 Thess. 1:6 – 9; Rev. 14:11; 20:10 – 15)
Universal Salvation: (Rom. 5:18; 11:32; 1 Cor. 15:22; Phil. 2:11; Col. 1:20)[2]

For many hopeful universalists like Von Balthasar, these two sets of scriptures should not be harmonized but should sit side-by-side as two different possible eschatological out­comes. For Hart, these two sets of statements mark two different points in the history of the cosmos. The first set marks the final judgment, the second, the restoration and end of judgment. Since Balthasar’s view has been more prominent in Catholic and Orthodox circles for the last couple decades, we will look more at Hart’s “dual eschatological horizons” view, despite most faithful readers of this site being thoroughly familiar with it. In his That All Shall Be Saved, Hart writes:

Each horizon is, of course, absolute within its own sphere: one is the final verdict on the totality of human history, the other the final verdict on the eternal purposes of God—just as the judgment of the cross is a verdict upon the violence and cruelty of human order and human history, and Easter the verdict upon creation as conceived in God’s eternal counsels.[3]

Would Maximus see, for example, Romans 5:18 (“one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men” [RSV]) and Matthew 25:46 (“and they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”) as two contrasting possibilities for the end of history? Or would he read Matthew 25:46 as Hart does, as only describing the immediate outcome of Christ’s return in judgment, where aionios (translated above as “eternal” in the RSV) would mean “aeonal” chastisement, or chastisement pertaining to the future aeon (from which the word aionios is derived), but not eternal chastisement? One of the best ways to begin answering this would be to see how Maximus’ greatest influences interpreted the kolasin aionion (“eternal punishment” vs “age-enduring chastisement”) of Matthew 25:46.

Clues from Maximus’ Predecessors

Hart’s dual eschatological approach does indeed seem to be Gregory of Nyssa’s. For example, in his The Life of Moses, Nyssen speaks explicitly about restoration after those whose sentence in Gehenna has reached its limit and the newly purified and divinely transformed can be admitted into the kingdom of heaven:

Perhaps someone, taking his departure from the fact that after three days of distress in darkness the Egyptians did share in the light, might be led to perceive the final restoration, which is expected to take place later in the kingdom of heaven for those who have suffered condemnation in Gehenna. For that darkness that could be felt, as the history says, has a great affinity both in its name and in its actual meaning to the exterior darkness. Both are dispelled when Moses, as we have perceived before, stretched forth his hand on behalf of those in darkness. In the same way we would perceive the true meaning of the furnace of ashes which according to the text, produced painful boils on the Egyptians. In the figure of what is called the “furnace” we perceive the threatened punishment of fire in Gehenna which touches only those who imitate the Egyptians in their manner of life.[4]

Obviously, Nyssen interpreted Matthew 25:46 as implying that the wicked would depart into the fire of Gehenna in the age to come while the righteous would go into the life of the age to come, while indefinite ages later, those in Gehenna would finally be brought into heaven as well. Notice how matter-of-factly Nyssen says that this restoration is expected to take place. He does not display any anxiousness about expressing this interpretation. He isn’t even speaking for himself, since he says this restoration “is expected to take place,” which pre­sum­ably means that it is expected to take place by Gregory’s fellow orthodox Christians. This would seem to confirm that the non-eternity of hell, and the reality of “dual eschatological horizons” was a fairly prevalent viewpoint in Gregory’s day, just as Chrysostom, Augustine,[5] Jerome,[6] and Basil seem to say (much to some of their chagrins). Although Ilaria Ramelli overstates her case from time to time, her broad argument that for the first 500 years of Christianity, much of the Church in both East and West was universalist is a claim that patristic luminaries like Andrew Louth and Frances Young have mostly endorsed.[7] Citing Fr John Behr’s new translation of Origen’s On First Principles and the work of Ilaria Ramelli, Louth concludes that “the dismissal of universalism as an aberration (however influential) in the Christian dogmatic tradition on Origen’s part is less and less defensi­ble.”[8] The notion of a restoration after judgment, which was first fully articulated by Origen, was not an unusual one in antiquity.

Origen as the “Whetstone”

Most are aware that Origen of Alexandria was the first major craftsman of the doctrine of universal salvation, but it is sometimes forgotten what a great influence he had on many of our most beloved saints. We know that Gregory of Nyssa and his brother Basil were taught Christianity by their grandmother who converted to Christianity after hearing the preach­ing of Gregory the Wonderworker, who had himself converted by hearing Origen preach. Gre­gory of Nyssa refers to Origen favorably twice in his writings. Nazianzen, who was educated with Basil and Nyssen, is reported by ancient church historians to have called Origen “the lover of the good,” and “the pumice stone of us all.” He most likely praises Origen in one particular homily without naming him, and most scholars believe he helped compile Origen’s Philokalia along with Basil.

Because of Origen’s great influence, we shouldn’t be surprised to find universalist state­ments in Nazianzen. We can begin with this text from Nazianzen, which showed up in my last post, but it bears repeating here: “For all these fires belong to the destroying power, unless some prefer even here to understand this fire as showing more love to humankind, in a way wor­thy of the punisher.”[9] Whether Nazianzen himself actually adopts view of punishment, we find out in a different homily, when he says that God’s punishment of death for the first human beings was instituted “so that evil should not be immortal. And so punishment became an act of love for humanity; For I am persuaded that this is the way in which God punishes.[10] Nazianzen repeats this passage verbatim in both his Christmas and Paschal orations, so it is not just a haphazard throw-away statement. If Nazianzen adopts this understanding of punishment, this at least makes it possible that there would be a restoration after judgment. When we look further into his corpus to see how confident he was in such a restoration, there isn’t any indication from his Origenian interpretation of 1 Cor. 15:28 that he had any doubts about the restoration at all:

God will be “all in all” at the time of restoration (apokatastaseos) …God will be “all in all” when we are no longer what we are now, a multiplicity of impulses and emo­tions, with little or nothing of God in us, but are fully like God, with room for God and God alone. Paul himself guarantees us of this. What he predicates of “God” without further specification in this passage, he elsewhere assigns clearly to Christ. I quote, “Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision, nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free; but Christ is “all in all.”[11]

This interpretation of God being “all in all,” when no evil movements exist in the soul and everyone is made holy, is exactly the same as Origen’s and Nyssen’s. Furthermore, what Gregory hints at in one sermon by asking whether God freed all from Hades, or only those who currently believed,[12] he answers in several other places: Christ “loosed all those who groaned under the chains of Tartarus,” he restores “all, and not just some,” to salvation.[13] More­over, he insists that the “eighth day” symbolizes the life to come, which is given due to “our good works in this life and universal restoration [apokatastasis panton] in the next.”[14] We see no agnosticism here regarding what Gregory believed would happen. We are here, only dealing with small samplings of many more universalist texts, all of which can be found in either of Ramelli’s works. When Nazianzen does speak on universalism, he categorically affirms it, and there is little indication he sees it as one possibility alongside eternal damnation. He does, of course, have several texts that speak horrifically of hell, and we will address how to make sense of these opposite streams of thought in the next section.

Other less developed visions of this confidence exist in earlier Fathers other than Origen such as Athanasius. Regarding where Athanasius drew his universalist influence, there is no question that he held Origen’s theology in the highest regard. He wrote a biography of the Origenian St. Anthony, appointed the Origenian Didymus the Blind to be the head of the theological school at Alexandria, and explicitly referred to Origen as “Origen the hardwork­ing,” and the “the most learned and active writer among the ancient.”[15] Finally, he remarked that it was Origen’s arguments for the coeternity of the Son and the Father that won approval at Nicea.[16] Although his application of allegory was far more moderate than Origen’s, he still seems to have sided with Origen that Genesis represented paradise “figuratively,” as the “contemplation of intelligible reality,” and also believed that that being spiritually pure was essential to fully comprehending the meaning of scripture.[17]

St. Athanasius seems to clearly state that all will be saved when in one of his festal letters he writes that Christ’s mercy does not just descend to the perfect, or those in the middle, but

even among those who come third, in sum, in such a way as to redeem all human beings to salvation. To this intent He has prepared many mansions with the Father, so that although the dwelling-place is various in proportion to the advance in moral attainment, yet all of us are within the wall, and all of us enter within the same fence, the adversary being cast out, and all his host expelled thence.[18]

Athanasius is not simply making a statement of God’s intent to save, since his phrase “all human beings” should be linked with “all of us,” which he insists are within the walls, within the same fence, in contrast to the devil, whose army is expelled. This language of “entering” is not uncharacteristic for Athanasius either, since in a different festal letter, he says the same thing: “the totality of the peoples has entered so that every human be saved.”[19] How did sinners enter within heaven’s walls? Athanasius seems to provide us with an answer in another festal letter: Christ “wants the repentance and conversion of the human being rather in its death. In this way, evilness, all of it, will be burnt away from all humans.”[20] This was, of course, Origen’s understanding of the function of the fire of Gehenna. In another passage, he also hints that the fires of Gehenna are meant for painful and agonizing correction rather than eternal torment:

during the reign of Christ [evildoers] will be cast into the fire of the world to come [to pur to aiōnon]. Scripture calls ‘nations’ the iniquitous, because they do not live according to the law, but savagely, like pagans and barbarians. Of these people Scripture requires the exclusion, saying: ‘Go ruin’, and addressing them with a dreadful threat that these may revive, and those may correct themselves.”[21]

It is statements like this that make us take a second look at his plethora of other state­ments which most of us are used to reading as statements of Christ’s only opening up the potential of salvation to all, and nothing more. For example, “the Father works its [the world’s] salvation in the same one [Christ] who created it,”[22] or “Christ became a human being…to set free all beings in himself, to lead the world to the Father and to pacify all beings in himself, in heaven and on earth,”[23] or “flesh was taken up by the logos to liberate all humans and resurrect all of them from the dead, and ransom all of them from sin,” or his often repeated phrase that Christ is the “savior of all.”[24] Although Athana­sius probably didn’t intentionally make these statements with universal salvation in mind, his broader theology of Christ’s deifying all of human nature is a theme that Gregory of Nyssa (and arguably St. Maximus) extended into an explicit (implicit in Maximus’ case) affirmation of universalism.[25] Once again, in none of these statements does Athanasius sound agnostic or only mildly hopeful.

More on “Honorable Silence” in the Church Fathers

Despite all the quotes above, as most of us know, all we have to do is a simple internet search to find quotes from the same fathers mentioned above used to support an eternal hell. Even if, due to Ramelli’s work on the meaning of the Greek word aionios, we change “everlasting” or “eternal,” in these quotations to “age-enduring,” these quotes still seem to at least hint at eternal suffering. Ramelli could then provide some more universalist quotes from Cyril of Alexandria, Irenaeus and Ambrose, and we would simply end up stuck with two sets of warring quotes with no easy way to reconcile them. This is one reason some might argue that there is a “hopeful universalist” precedent in some fathers. Since we do in fact find terrifying hell statements and blatantly universalist statements in the same fathers including Gregory of Nyssa, one could argue that these Fathers saw either outcome as an equally likely possibil­ity, thus making them “hopeful universalists.” However, we have no statement from any author stating that this tensioned approach is actually how they thought about eschatology. We simply have one sermon with one view and another theological writing from the same father with a seemingly totally contradictory view. For some very early authors like Irenaeus, one can indeed find statements perhaps implying an eternal hell, annihilationism, and universal salvation, and it’s quite possible that he generally didn’t have a set view of hell. However, it’s much more difficult to believe that later theologians like Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa also didn’t know what they believed and just haphazardly threw around different contradictory statements on hell. I suggest, expanding on the ideas in Ramelli, and ironically, Balthasar’s historical scholarship on the fathers, that these apparent contradictions can be explained by understanding the eternal hell statements as correspond­ing to Origen’s understanding of the “letter of scripture,” and the universalist statements as corresponding to the “divine” meaning of scripture. Most of us are at least familiar with the fact that Origen believed there was a common literal meaning to scripture and another more elevated allegorical or spiritual meaning to scripture. It seems that for him and his followers, the New Testament’s literal statements on hell were one of the few occasions when sticking to “the letter” of scripture was a good idea when preaching to the masses.

The tendency among all the Church fathers mentioned above seems to be to speak of hell in terrifying terms in their homilies while only making vague references to universal salvation, but to support universalism in more serious theological or philosophical works. Origen began this precedent by speaking openly of universal salvation in his On First Principles and Commentary on John, while his references to it in his homilies tend to be more muted. For example, in his homilies on Luke, when referring to the life to come, he says, “I do not know whether I should expose such mysteries before such a public […] it is dangerous.”[26] He hints at universal salvation again in his Lukan homilies when he says, “‘all flesh will see God’s salvation’ [Luke3:6] […] what does Scripture mean by saying ‘all flesh’? That there is no flesh that is excepted so as not to see God’s salvation. I leave this to be understood by those who grasp the mysteries of Scrip­ture.”[27] In Origen’s homilies, these veiled refer­ences to universal salvation are certainly not the triumphant statements of universalism we find in his far more technical and theological On First Principles.[28]

In another homily on Jeremiah, Origen says that God is portrayed as wrathful in scripture in order to convert those who are like infants, that they might repent, even though in reality, God has no wrath.[29] As Origen reiterates in Contra Celsum (see my previous piece), he believed threats of age-enduring punishments in hell without mentioning any hope of final salvation were helpful to spiritual “newborns” who could only progress in virtue through fear of punishment.

Although Nyssen sometimes speaks of universal salvation in his homilies more openly than any other saint, we still find him giving hellfire homilies that give John Chrysostom and Jonathan Edwards a run for their money.[30] He speaks in terrifying terms of the unquenchable fire and the undying worm (e.g. Mk. 9:48) and even makes it sound like we should interpret these images as implying something like an eternal loss of hope. In his homily on the beatitudes, he says that those who neglected to help the poor will receive no mercy in hell:

You prized want of mercy, so take what you have loved; you looked not with compassion, you will get no merciful looks, you ignored suffering, you will be ignored as you perish; you fled from mercy, mercy will flee from you…what use will [your wealth] be against weeping and grinding of teeth? Who will illuminate the darkness, who quench the flame, who ward off the undying worm? Let us then take note, my brothers, of the voice of the Lord, who has taught us so much about the future in few words, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen.[31]

Gregory’s aim is made clear at the end of this passage: He wants to encourage repentance. But in this instance, he, like Origen, and like Jesus himself upon whose words these homilies are based, seems to think it beneficial to only speak of punishment without ever mentioning any hope of redemption (even if Origen, Jesus, and Gregory strongly held to this hope).

However, in what is probably his last work, his Homilies on the Song of Songs, Gregory tells us that many passages in the Old Testament, and the hell passages in the New Testament, should not be interpreted according to their most literal meaning. This helps us understand that in his homilies, he was giving the meaning of the hell passages “according to the letter” for the sake of his audience’s salvation. In his homilies on the Song of Songs, he doesn’t tell us how we should interpret the hell passages, but he does say that their literal meaning is ultimately unworthy of God. He begins his explanation by arguing against some people in the church who insist on interpreting all of scripture according to “the letter”:

It seems right to some church leaders, however, to stand by the letter of the Holy Scriptures in all circumstances, and they do not agree that Scripture says anything for our profit by way of enigmas and below-the-surface meanings. For this reason I judge it necessary first of all to defend my practice against those who thus charge us.[32]

Like Origen, he says that he is following Paul’s use of allegory in scripture (e.g. Gal. 4:22-24). He then goes on to write that many things in the Old Testament, if interpreted literally, make Christianity out to be an embarrassment, a myth, and entirely unhelpful in the spiri­tual life.[33] He gives a handful of examples from Genesis 1-3, and several other Old Testa­ment passages, such as Hosea’s fathering a child through “sexual malfeasance,” and King David’s adultery and murder. But then, he moves to the New Testament and says that Jesus spoke to his disciples through dark sayings and enigmas, but “in private,” he would reveal what his parables meant to those closest to him. Gregory then writes,

This [discerning a meaning worthy of God] applies not only to the words of the Old Covenant but also to the greater part of the Gospel teaching: the winnow­ing fork that clears the threshing floor, the chaff being blown away, the wheat remaining at the feet of the winnower, the unquenchable fire, the good granary, the fertile tree of the wicked, the threat of the axe that terrifyingly exhibits its sharp edge to the tree beforehand, the stones being altered to human nature (Matt. 3:9-12; Luke 3:8-9).[34]

Almost all the things in the New Testament that should not be interpreted according to the letter are the passages about hell or the final judgment. Just as Gregory says that “in private,” Jesus explained the meaning of his parables to his disciples, in what might be his last work, Gregory clues us in to why it seems like he and most other Fathers have such contradictory passages on hell. One set of statements is probably geared towards “infants” in Christ, who can only be urged to good works through punishment and attention to “the letter.” As Gregory writes in his first homily on the Song of Songs, “salvation comes to some people even through fear…in the face of the threats of punishment in Gehenna.”[35] However, for Nyssen and others, this “hellfire and brimstone” way of reading is only interpreting the text in its most literal and superficial fashion. On the other hand, the universalist readings of the same passages are discerning the meaning “worthy of God” that describes more accurately the true nature of hell to those spiritually mature enough to hear it.

We have to look to Gregory’s more theological or doctrinal works to get a sense of the more elevated meaning he believes God intended for scripture’s “hell” texts. Some may consider Nyssen’s Catechetical Discourse an exception to this rule, where Gregory tells a general audience about universal salvation. However, as Ignatius Green argues, the discourse was most likely intended as a handbook for catechists, and wasn’t something that Nyssen simply stood up in Church one Sunday and preached to everyone.[36] As Nyssen says in his preface to the work, “the same manner of teaching will not be made suitable for all who approach the word.”[37] Although this statement is in reference to his arguments against the truth of other religions, what he says equally applies to his teaching of universal salvation. The Catechetical Discourse contains the entire gospel teaching and catechists must pick and choose which teachings they deem appropriate to discuss with their catechumens.

In his more theological works (the Catechetical Discourse should be included here), when he speaks about the unquenchable fire, or the wheat and the chaff (both phrases men­tioned in his quoted text above), gone are his homiletical references to the (perhaps) endless burning of sinners. Now, all these gospel images are metaphors for the separation of evil from good. The unquenchable fire slowly and painfully burns up people’s sins rather than the sinners themselves.[38] As we saw in my previous post, he argues that because of evil’s finite nature, all people will eventually reach the furthest limit in evil possible, and when God gives them over to experience the painful consequences of their sins (presum­ably in Gehenna), this will at some point provoke in them a desire for the good.[39] They will then willingly submit to the unquenchable fire of God that “burns as long as it has fuel [evil]” until “no creature will fall out of the kingdom of God,” and the category of “the saved” will include every being.[40]

This emphasis on multiple levels of meaning in scripture probably made it possible for Church Fathers in the “Alexandrian” tradition to speak of hell in two totally different ways without feeling as if they were lying in one interpretation and telling the truth in another. Their biggest concern was interpreting scripture in a way that would bring spiritual benefit to their listeners. Sometimes this meant giving the meaning according to “the letter,” and telling one’s audience that in the age to come, the fire and worm would burn sinners unceasingly. On other occasions, it meant saying that the fire and worm in Gehenna actually eat away at sin and enable salvation (we can find both types of “contradictory” statements in Athanasius, Nazianzen, Nyssen, and of course, Maximus).

Did these Fathers we surveyed see the eternal damnation of some or many and the salvation of all as two eschatological outcomes that we just have to hold in equal tension? Gregory of Nyssa certainly did not. He, like all the universalist fathers, had one set of terrifying state­ments of hell, which contained the most “fleshly” (to use Origen’s terminology) meaning of scripture appropriate for spiritual beginners. For the more advanced, he had another set of statements advocating the deeper and more spiritual universalist meaning of these same exact scriptural texts. We also see evidence that Nazianzen was well aware of this twofold meaning of the hell texts, since he hints that the fire has another meaning in one of his public sermons: “For all these fires belong to the destroying power, unless some prefer even here to understand this fire as showing more love to humankind, in a way worthy of the punisher.[41] As was mentioned before, Athanasius did not speak as much as Nazianzen or Nyssen of the spiritual meaning of scripture, but we have no reason to believe he completely rejected Origen’s famous distinction between the “letter” and “the spirit” of scripture. No entirely literal interpre­tation of scripture would enable Athanasius to say that “no one else is found in the scriptures [the Old Testament] except the Savior common to all, the God Word, our Lord Jesus Christ,” which is a Pauline and Origenian statement if there ever was one.[42] It is therefore not implausible that he would have been somewhat familiar with a distinction between “the spirt” and “the letter” in regards to his interpretation of hell.

In addition to the textual evidence from the fathers above, as we saw in my last post, Maximus also has several passages that almost certainly suggest that he saw threats of punishment in Gehenna as suitable for beginners to contemplate while universal salvation was only suitable for the advanced to hear about.[43] With all that as a background, we have good reason to believe these fathers’ universalist statements represent their actual views while their terrifyingly violent eternal hell statements represent their condescension to what they saw as the spiritual infancy of their listeners/readers. On the other hand, the hypothesis that the fathers simply held the universalist scripture passages and damnation passages in equal tension fails to take account for both these fathers’ allegorical or “apocalyptic” way of reading scripture, their strategy to motivate spiritual beginners through fear, and their fully confident statements of universal salvation.

Maximus as an Inheritor of Intentional Duplicity

Although Maximus sometimes mentions fathers like John Chrysostom in his writings,[44] whose sermons could probably be used to more easily support an anti-universalist posi­tion, there is no question that Maximus’ greatest love was for more theological thinkers like Nazianzen, Nyssen, Athanasius, but also (with modifications) Evagrius and Origen.[45] If, as I argued in the last article, Maximus did not understand universalism to be condemned at the fifth ecumenical council, there is no good reason to believe he completely rejected the universalism of his predecessors . He did have to modify how openly he spoke of universal salvation because St. Justinian’s anti-universalist presence still loomed large in the empire, but this is only another reason for Maximus’ “honorable silence” on universalism (spoken about at length in the previous post), not his rejection of the doctrine. Before we leave this topic, we will look at one particular text from Maximus, the importance of which should not be underestimated:

[When Christ is experienced by a purified mind,] he does not include parables and enigmas, nor necessary stories and allegories; but when he is present to humans incapable of approaching denuded thoughts with a denuded mind, discoursing on the basis of means customary for them — framed through a diversity of stories, enigmas, parables and obscure words — he becomes flesh. For according to the first approach, our mind does not approach the denuded Word- who is Word by nature, but flesh by sight, so that the many see him seeming to be flesh and not Word, even though he is Word in truth. For that which does not seem to be the case to the many, but is other than what it seems, that is the meaning of scripture. For the Word becomes flesh through every single written word.[46]

If, for Maximus, the meaning of scripture is “other than what it seems,” this should give us great pause when considering how matter-of-factly we should understand his terrifying hell texts, which at times, do imply hell existing in perpetuity.[47] Since he has other statements that imply hell’s non-eternity, and we saw that these statements give us the more “spiritual meaning,” we should place Maximus’ terrifying hell statements in the category of the “flesh­ly” meaning of scripture, and the universalist texts in the category of the “divine” meaning of scripture. In one of Maximus’ most probable “honorable silences” on universal salvation, he does in fact say that the Fathers offered the more mystical (in this case, universalist) inter­pretations of a passage “only after they first discerned the capacity of their listeners,” and Maximus himself chooses not to offer this interpretation but “say what is suitable for all, and meaningful for both beginners and the more advanced.[48]

The very fact that Maximus has honorable silences makes more sense if he was in fact quite confident in his hope for universal salvation. There doesn’t seem to be a plausible pastoral reason to avoid speaking of something that only might happen. Aside from the question of whether “honorable silence” would be a wise pastoral practice for universalists today, one can at least understand these fathers’ fears that unqualifiedly telling every single parishioner that “all will be saved” could cause spiritual negligence in beginning Christians. But why keep an agnostic universalism so tightly under wraps? The very fact that an eternal hell may be real and I might end up there should be enough to put terror in even the laziest individ­ual. Maximus gives no indication in his “honorable silences” that the interpretation he refuses to disclose is simply “a possibility.” For example, in one “honorable silence,” he says, “the deeper secrets of the divine doctrines must not be committed to writing.”[49] It makes little sense to think of the mere possibility that all may saved as “a deep secret of a divine doctrine.” On another occasion, he calls this secret “sublime.”[50] Maximus seems to have something far more glorious and scandalous in mind here than universalist agnosticism.

Clues from Maximus’ Texts

Now that we have looked at whether Maximus’ universalist predecessors were timidly hopeful or confidently expectant, we can look further into this question in the writings of Maximus. Before we look at any new issues, however, I will briefly quote from the conclusion of my last blog post in order to remind the reader of what we have already seen from Maximus.

In Maximus, we have a saint that still had a chance to talk to those who were alive in 553, and he gives us no indication that he believed universalism was condemned. His theology of motion and rest, modes and logoi, particulars and universals all point exclusively in the universalist direction. His “honorable silences,” [I would also add that Maximus has a few explicitly universalist statements], and the conspicuous absence of criticism of the doctrine when given the perfect opportunity to do so also push us towards the conclusion that not only did Maximus consider the doctrine permissible but probably held to some form of it himself.

Following up on that last sentence, we now want to ask, to what form of universalism did Maximus hold? As we saw last time, he certainly speaks of a terrifying judgment of the righteous and the wicked,[51] and in other places, speaks of a universal harmony, unison, and perfection of all creatures.[52] I gave many examples in my last piece, so here are just two new examples of each type of statement:

Universal Restoration: This [image] may perhaps be the subjection of which Paul speaks [1 Cor. 15:28] when he describes the Son subjecting to the Father those who freely accept to be subjected to Him…on account of which, the last enemy, death [he obviously interprets this as spiritual death], will be destroyed…henceforth [the will] has neither the inclination nor the ability to be carried elsewhere…it will become God by divinization…for in that state nothing will appear apart from God, nor will there be anything opposed to God that could entice our will to desire it, since all things intelligible and sensible will be enveloped in the ineffable manifestation and presence of God.[53]

Some may see his remark that “those who freely accept to be subjected to Him,” implies that some don’t freely accept this submission, but since the rest of the language here is universal, it’s more likely this is his very underhanded way of saying all will freely accept this subjec­tion, which would fit well with his honorable silence, and much more will be said about confusing phrases like this later. As a confirmation that Maximus understands the abolition of the “last enemy, death,” in 1 Corinthians 15 to be the complete eradication of spiritual death, in his Questions and Doubts he says:

“death is the last enemy to be destroyed” means whenever we, ourselves, submit the entire self-determining will to God, then the last enemy is also abolished. And it is called “death” since God is life, and that which is opposed to life is fittingly called death.[54]

Maximus interprets this death on an individual basis, but if the death being referred to in 1 Cor. 15 is a spiritual one, there is no question that this would mean a universal abolition of spiritual death. If spiritual death is totally and universally destroyed in all humans, all that is left is the submission of the entire self-determining will to God. St. Paul mentions no strag­glers still “in death” when God is “all in all.” This is confirmed in the rest of Ambi­guum 7, where Maximus speaks of all of humanity being divinized and being part of the body of Christ (see my previous article).[55] For Maximus, this abolition of death is universal salvation, and was explicitly interpreted as such by both Origen and Nyssen, and Maximus follows them on every single detail of interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15, only without explicitly spelling out the implications.

Now on to his “damnation” passage:

Damnation: [Beings] move in accordance with their possession or privation of the potential they have naturally to participate in Him who is by nature absolutely imparticipable, and who offers Himself wholly and simply to all – worthy and unworthy – by grace through His infinite goodness, and who endows each with the permeance of eternal being [or “ever being”], corresponding to the way that each disposes himself and is. And for those who participate or do not participate pro­por­tionately in Him who, in the truest sense, is and is good, and is forever, there is an intensification and increase of punishment for those who cannot participate, and of enjoyment for those who can participate.[56]

As I discuss in more detail in my last post, some scholars like David Bradshaw and Fr Ignatius Green, admittedly following the dominant (but by no means binding) interpre­tation of the Orthodox Church, argue that both sets of Maximus’ statements above apply to the same event: the Parousia where Christ is “all in all,” but for the wicked, this is experienced as eternal torment. Despite this being how most Orthodox saints after Maximus interpreted him, I just can’t bring myself to see how this is a reasonable explanation of Maximus’ statements, and I spend a considerable amount of time showing why in my previous piece. Even in the two contrasting statements above, it certainly doesn’t seem like “those who cannot participate” (“damnation passage”) are the same people that have “become God by Divinization” (universalist passage). The two sets of statements seem to be speaking about two different situations, and I suggest that one event is the final judgment while the other is the universal restoration.

Much more was said in the last piece about Maximus phrase “ever being badly” (each word is used above, but separated by a few phrases in between), but it should be pointed out that for Maximus, God gives everyone “eternal being,” while “being well,” or “being badly” are always subject to some type of change (not to be confused with the possibility of a “second fall”). “Being well” describes a life of dynamic and constantly increasing participation in the life of God, while “being badly” describes a life literally grounded in instability and finiteness and therefore, a life not necessarily subject to eternal suffering. As Andrew Louth points out, “aei eu einai and aei pheu einai [“ever being well” and “ever being badly”] are not parallel options; pheu einai seems to frustrate God’s plan for human kind. Maximos does not, so far as I can tell, dwell on this: he has reached a surd and refuses to incorporate it into his understanding of God’s purposes.”[57]

By way of further response to Bradshaw and Green’s interpretation, when Maximus says in many places that the whole human nature is divinized, sometimes he may only be speak­ing about the potential of each hypostasis to partake in the divinized human nature, but there are also several statements from Maximus where he speaks about every or all humans being divinized. It is much more difficult to take these statements as a reference to Christ’s poten­tially divinizing each individual. In some cases, Maximus specifically states that the divini­zation is present not just in potentiality but in actuality: “they [the prophets] researched and investigated that other time, by which I mean the age or aeon according to which diviniza­tion (ektheoseos) will be present in actuality to all (pantas), transforming (metapoiousa) all human beings into the divine likeness…”[58]

The above statement sounds about as explicit a universalist statement as anyone could make. One could perhaps respond that Maximus doesn’t actually mean divinization here, but only resurrection. However, as Jordan Wood helpfully pointed out to me, Maximus also uses the word transformation (metapoiousa) here, which he often uses in place of deification, and our own Eucharistic transformation into gods.[59] Maximus also uses two different words that mean all here, pantas, and omoiosin. This isn’t simply a reference to the one human nature that is divinized, but the deification of each individual hypostatsis or particular of human nature.

Other scholars dismiss statements like the above because Maximus immediately adds that this divinization which is present in actuality to all is present “in a manner proportionate to each, to the extent that each one is receptive of it.”[60] This little additional phrase makes many of us now reconsider whether what came before is actually a universalist statement. We assume that if God is in all but only in a manner “that each one is receptive of it,” this must mean that some people aren’t receptive of it for all eternity. But this would then mean that we have to evacuate Maximus’ phrase “divinization” (ektheoseos) of almost all its meaning. Under this interpretation, those in hell are individually divinized while being simultaneously eternally damned. While Maximus may be able to speak of Christ divinizing human nature while still damning some individuals for all eternity, his words begin to mean nothing if we start speaking of God simultaneously divinizing and damning the same individual. If in any other circumstance, we were to hear of an individual being divinized and made into the divine likeness, the last thing we would think this means is that the person has eternally rejected God in hell, and yet this is what Bradshaw’s and Green’s interpretation of Maximus ultimately seems to require us to believe. Fortunately, there is a more exegetically pleasing alternative that makes sense both of the “divinization” language and the language of proportionality.

Maximus’ Language of Proportionality

Like much of his theology, Maximus was trying to keep the good elements of the Evagrian theological system while discarding the bad elements that were condemned in 553. The anathemas of 553 give a perfect indication of exactly what Maximus was trying to avoid by stressing proportionality:

  1. If anyone says that there will not be a single difference at all between Christ and other rational beings, neither in substance nor in knowledge nor in power over everything nor in operation, but that all will be at the right hand of God as Christ beside them will be, as indeed they were also in their mythical pre-existence, let him be anathema.
  2. If anyone says that there will be one henad of all rational beings, when the hypos­tases and numbers are annihilated together with bodies, and that knowledge about rational beings will be accompanied by the destruction of the universe, the shedding of bodies, and the abolition of names, and there will be identity of knowledge as of hypostases, and that in this mythical restoration there will be only pure spirits, as there were in their nonsensical notion of preexistence, let him be anathema.

By speaking of God in all, but proportionately, Maximus was speaking against any sense of an abolition of hypostases, or a loss of each human’s identity in the apokatastasis. For Maximus, everyone is Divinized but retains their uniqueness as a human being. As Jordan Daniel Wood points out in one of his comments on my last blog, Maximus’ “point is nearly always that an expressed activity is expressed principally according to the character of the medium that expresses it…My face expresses my soul in one way, my big toe in another: and yet surely both parts possess and are identical with my one soul to the same extent; they just express my life ‘in their own unique way.’”

In Amb. 47, Maximus explains his own language of proportionality completely along the lines of what Wood suggests:

If Christ…is one, how is it that the law, when ritually celebrating the type of Christ, commands that a multiplicity of lambs be slain in the house of the families? [Ex. 12:3]…Thus it happens that each of us in his own rank…sacrifices the Divine Lamb, partakes of its fleshes, and takes his fill of Jesus. For to each person, Christ Jesus becomes his own proper lamb, to the extent that each is able to contain and consume Him. He becomes something proper to Paul…something distinctively proper to Peter…and something distinctively proper for each of the saints…becoming all things to everyone.[61]

In another passage in his Chapters on Theology, he writes that God has “become all things for all that he might save all,” and goes on to specify that God appears to spiritual begin­ners different from how he appears to the advanced “in a way appropriate to the capacity of each.” In both of these passages, (which properly represent Maximus’ larger corpus) there is no mention whatsoever of any sinners or wicked people, just people at different levels of holiness. It’s part and parcel of both Maximus’ and Nyssen’s vision of epektasis that all are at different levels of participation in God, and will always be at different levels, but all are ever moving into deeper participation in God. John might be further along than Peter, who is further along than Mark, but once universal salvation has been achieved, all are moving in the same direction towards deeper and deeper participation. Given this background of Maximus’ statements of proportionality, the great Maximus scholar Paul Blowers seems mistaken when he says that Maximus’ language of God being “all in all” should not be interpreted in a straightforwardly universalist manner because “Maximus stresses how the Logos becomes all things to all human beings ‘proportionately in each one.’”[62] This statement from Maximus doesn’t disqualify his universalist statements in the slightest.

Lastly, Maximus may have actually borrowed his language of proportionality from Gregory of Nyssa, who most scholars sees as the quintessential patristic universalist. Most would agree that by using this language, Gregory isn’t saying some are eternally in hell. Both Maximus and Gregory use the Greek word idios to emphasize that God appears in a partic­ular manner to each individual. For example, in his sixth homily on the Song of Songs, Nyssen describes how God is like an actor in a drama in that as people progress in perfec­tion, God appears to them in proportion to the degree of perfection they have reached:

In proportion to the perfection that each has attained for the moment through good things, some special quality illumines his manner of life, one such appearing and succeeding to another by reason of his increase in good things.[63]

Nyssen repeats these statements of proportionality throughout his corpus and most of them don’t mention anyone in hell, just different degrees of perfection in everyone.[64] Given that Maximus expanded on Nyssen’s conception of epektasis (terming it “ever moving rest”), it is quite probable that he would have picked up this language of proportionality from Nyssen. Maximus’ language is certainly not an argument for Maximus being identified as a univer­sal­ist, but neither should it be part of an argument against his universalism. The language of proportionality is compatible with Maximus’ hell statements and his universalist statements, and he uses the language in both. The terminology doesn’t have anything to do with who is saved or damned, but simply emphasizes the distinction and uniqueness of all people, all of whom are at different levels of perfec­tion. With this as a background, we can look with fresh eyes at Maximus’ statement quoted above and notice that he is not saying anything different from what Nyssen repeatedly asserted:

[The prophets] researched and investigated that other time, by which I mean the age or aeon according to which divinization will be present in actuality to all, transforming all human beings into the divine likeness, in a manner proportionate to each, to the extent that each one is receptive of it.[65]

Objection: God Will be All in All, but
the Righteous Will Experience Him as Torment

Another objection to reading Maximus a confident universalist would be that sometimes, Maximus appears to say that the final judgment is the final event of eschatological history, leaving no room for any restoration to follow. By far, the best passage to support this view comes from Ad Thalassium 59:

For nature does not contain the characteristics of the super-natural, just as it does not contain the laws of what is against nature. By ‘supernatural’ I mean the divine and inconceivable joy, which God naturally creates when he is united by grace to those who are worthy. By ‘against nature’, I mean the unspeakable anguish which is involved in the deprivation of this (joy), which God naturally creates when He is united with the unworthy against grace. For God is united with all, according to the quality of the fundamental state of each person; in a way that He understands, he supplies sensation to each one, corresponding to the way each is made by Him to receive the One Who is completely united to all, at the end of the ages.[66]

At first, much like Amb. 65, there seems to be absolutely no room here whatsoever for a universalist interpretation of Maximus. It is statements like this that push great Maximus scholars like Paul Blowers to say that Maximus considered eternal damnation one eschato­logical possibility alongside universal salvation. Maximus’ statement above that this will happen at “the end of the ages” certainly seems to mean that there is no restoration to be looked forward to after this. It is possible that this phrase of Maximus above, “completely united to all, at the end of the ages,” is actually a reference to the universal restoration, but it’s also possible that the phrase is referring to the last judgment, which tends to make better sense given its context. Supposing the phrase is indeed a reference to the final judgment and not to the restoration, we must keep in mind that for Maximus, there seems to be not one “end of the ages,” but three different “end(s) of the ages”! In Ambiguum 22, he writes,

existing here and now, we will reach the end of the ages. In the ages that will follow, we shall passively experience by grace the transformation of divinization, no longer being active but passive, and for this reason we will not cease being divinized … the power of the intellect, which by potential is unconditionally receptive of all knowledge, passes through the whole nature of beings and whatever can be known, and leaves behind itself all the ages…Thus in truth “the ends of the ages have come upon us,” though we have not yet received through the grace that is in Christ the gift of the good things that transcend the ages and nature…[The divinity] possesses the infinite power to divinize, a power which in fact transcends all infinity, and which never comes to an end in the things it has brought into being.[67]

As strange as it may sound, even though Maximus says God will be united to all, the worthy and the unworthy, at “the end of the ages,” this does not necessarily mean that he didn’t envision more ages to come, the last age being the “aeon according to which divinization will be present in actuality to all.” We can postulate three “end of the ages” for Maximus that show up in the passage above. The first would be Christ’s incarnation (“the end of the ages have come upon us”), the second Christ’s return in judgment (“existing in the here and now we will reach the end of the ages”), and last of all, the universal restoration of humanity (God divinizes all “the things it has brought into being”), when any last trace of time is transformed into absolute eternity, which “transcends all infinity.” Maximus also says the same thing in regard to the “ages” in his Chapters on Theology 2.85. With three different “ends of the ages,” we once again, seem to come close to a view of Hart’s “dual eschatological horizons.”

Objection: But Only the “Worthy” are Divinized!

Finally, some argue that because Maximus repeatedly says that only the “worthy” are divinized, this implies that some, i.e. the unworthy, will never be divinized, and thus in hell for all eternity. This is probably one of the strongest arguments against seeing Maximus as a universalist, but as we will see, postulating that the qualifier “worthy” implies that some must be unworthy, ultimately creates needless contradictions in Maximus’ writings. More­over, there is again, a plausible reason why Maximus would keep using the “worthy” quali­fier despite the fact that it makes his writing quite confusing at times, and does create the initial impression that all are not saved.

Before we look at any particular passages, it must be stated that all Christian universalists agree that only the absolutely pure and totally holy will ever enter the kingdom of heaven, so asserting that only the worthy are saved does not in any way contradict universal salvation, and Maximus certainly knew this from his reading of Nyssen and other early fathers. This is why Maximus says that the fire of the final judgment will painfully transform sinners into saints over long aeons of anguishing yet corrective chastisement.[68] Emphasizing that only “the worthy” are saved was also another way for Maximus to endorse that it is only through our free will and cooperation with God that we can be saved. As for the historical reason behind using the term, this will have to wait until after our look at Maximus’ key texts.

In his commentary on the Divine Liturgy, Maximus sees the closing of the doors and the dismissal as symbolizing the final judgment and the sending away of the wicked to hell. We all know that the purpose of the dismissal of the catechumens in the first place is to prepare them to eventually partake of communion, and this fact was probably not lost on Maximus. His commentary on the “kiss of peace,” which comes after the dismissal, is striking. Its symbolic meaning takes on a universal scope since, as Maximus says, the mouth symbolizes rationality, of which all rational beings (logikoi, i.e. all people) partake. Still, Maximus specifies that only the worthy will participate:

The spiritual kiss of peace, which is addressed to all the people, prefigures and portrays in advance the unanimity, agreement, and identity in rationality that we all shall possess toward one another at the time when the unspeakable blessings to come will be revealed according to faith and love; and it is through this identity that the worthy [axioi] receive kinship with God the Word. For the mouth is a symbol of reason- the reason by which in fact all who participate in rationality are united to all things as rational beings and united to the first and only Word and Cause of all rationality.[69]

During the Sanctus in the Anaphora prayers, which again, occur after the dismissal of the catechumens and shortly after the kiss of peace, Maximus says that “human nature will be taught to sing in harmony with the powers above,” and have a “ceaseless motion around God,” and that there will be “oneness and equality of honor” between the “incorporeal and intellectual powers…[of] “everyone with everyone” (pros pantas panton).[70] Yet we must keep in mind that Maximus tells us elsewhere that this takes place only in the worthy. This is not Maximus’ description of the final judgment. There is no mention of any wicked people suffering torment, or anyone moving against nature. Given Maximus’ understand­ing of motion (see the previous post), if all of human nature moves ceaselessly around God, this means there would no longer be any human with any movement contrary to nature, which is often how he characterizes the damned in the final judgment. In other words, no one is damned in Maximus’ above description.

Yet, Maximus still adds the “worthy” qualifier. It should become obvious at this point that the only way that all of human nature can move ceaselessly around God, etc. and for this to only occur in those who are worthy would be if all of human nature (i.e. every human being) is, at this point, made worthy. Once again, if one argues that the phrase “the worthy” implies that some are in hell, then how is it that all of human nature is said to move ceaselessly around the Divinity? And if one argues that all of human nature ceaselessly moving around God does not imply universal salvation, then why is it that this is said to only take place in the worthy? Universal salvation is the only solution that makes sense of the text.

As in most cases, Maximus obscurely affirms what Gregory of Nyssa says explicitly. In Gregory’s On the Soul and the Resurrection, one notices three clustered themes Maximus speaks about above: The mention of all of human nature, the “unspeakable blessings to come,” and the “oneness and equality of honor.” Although the wording is slightly different, it’s difficult to argue that the clustering of these themes in both writers is simply coinciden­tal:

[God] has one goal: When the whole fullness of our nature has been perfected in each man, some straightaway even in this life purified from evil, others healed thereafter through fire for the appropriate length of time, and others ignorant of the experience equally of good and of evil in the life here, God intends to set before everyone the participation of the good things in Him [“oneness and equality of honor”], which the scripture says eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor thought attained [“the unspeakable blessings to come,” 1 Cor. 2:9].”[71]

Given all we know of Maximus at this point, the Origenian Eusebius of Caesarea summarizes beautifully what Maximus means when he simultaneously says only the worthy will experi­ence “the unspeakable blessings to come,” and yet all of “human nature” will ceaselessly move around the Divinity: “But after the end and perfection of all, at the constitution of the new aeon, God will no longer inhabit few, but all, those who by then have become worthy [tois tote axios] of the kingdom of heavens.”[72]

Given that Maximus sees a definite progression in the liturgy corresponding to a pro­gression in the life of the cosmos, there is good reason to believe we see here another instance of Hart’s dual eschatological horizons. We can think of the parallelism in this way: Catechu­mens/those in Gehenna have finally spent enough time outside of the nave/outside of the heavenly courts in preparation/purification to receive the Eucharist/ enter the heavenly courts. Although this is certainly a speculative out­working of Maximus’ thought, perhaps it is no coincidence that historically, catechumens are chrisma­ted or confirmed on Easter, the time of the Orthodox church year where the hymns most confidently proclaim Christ’s total emptying of the realms of hades (e.g. “Thou didst close the chambers of death, O Christ, Thou hast emptied all the palaces of Hell”). The season of Lent could be seen as symbolically mirroring the final suffering and purification of those in Gehenna before the final and glorious bestowal of “unspeakable blessings” (to use the Confessor’s terminology) upon everything and everyone God has created at his Paschal victory.

Was Maximus Speaking “In Code”?

Adding the word “worthy” to his statements made it possible for Maximus to speak of universal salvation without most people noticing, including imperial elites who were still undoubtedly quite averse to the doctrine after St. Justinian’s (unsuccessful) attempts to have it ecumenically condemned. Maximus probably knew that only the most attentive reader would catch on to what he was actually saying. We can see evidence of this stealthy approach in his interpretation of Luke 3:6 (“All flesh shall see the salvation of God”), where, at first, he says that the verse means only “all faithful flesh” will see salvation; but later says he knows a “loftier contemplation” of the verse, and here he writes with no qualifications that God “becomes ‘all things in all’ that He might ‘save all through the riches of his goodness.’”[73] We saw above that Origen also commented on this verse and said that he will “leave this [what is implied in the verse] to be understood by those who grasp the mysteries of Scripture.”[74] Maximus is following Origen here, implying that, yes, only faithful flesh will see salvation, but in fact, all flesh will be found faithful.

Lest someone think this suggestion my desperate attempt to “make Maximus into a uni­versalist,” there is more to be said in favor of this almost “coded” speech. As we saw above, Origen and the fathers that followed him only let the universalist secret out to those they felt were spiritually mature, but what was vague in these fathers almost had to become a secret “code” in Maximus’ time. As Istvan Perczel convincingly shows, after the condem­nation of “Origenism” in 553, “Origenists” like Theodore of Caesarea developed what could almost be called a secret code in their writings to allow themselves to speak of their “Origenist” myths without imperial detection.[75] By Maximus’ time, “Origenists” had had enough time to put their beliefs in-line with the 553 council while retaining the best of what Origen and Eva­grius had to offer. As Perczel argues, along with Blowers and Ramelli, Maximus most likely learned the monastic life in one of these “reformed” or “orthodox Origenist” Palestinian monasteries.[76] Still, any insight from Origen or Evagrius, even if it wasn’t condemned (universalism was not condemned, see here and here) was certainly not welcome on the imperial level, and so a certain degree of discreetness was necessary. Maximus’ famous refutations of “Origenist” myths are just as much responses to accusations that he himself was an Origenist as much as they are responses to an actual group of monks. This would make sense in light of the fact that one of his biographies tells us that he was put on trial in 665, and accused of the heretical Origenism condemned in 553.[77] This is not surprising since all of his writings, but especially his Ad Thalassium is more full of allegorical and spiritual interpretations of scripture than almost anything else in the seventh century.

As we saw last time, Maximus has several universalist statements that don’t have the “wor­thy” qualifier in them, and given the above analysis, it would be completely unnecessary to see the universalist sounding statements with the qualifier as speaking of some other eschatological situation. Both types of statements are speaking of the same universal restoration. Maximus had very good reasons to keep his opinion hidden, which is why it requires a considerable amount of work to realize he is in fact making a universalist statement. We must remember that for Maximus, one must also look beneath the surface of scripture to understand it as well: “For that which does not seem to be the case to the many, but is other than what it seems, that is the meaning of scripture.” Perhaps this is also how some of Maximus’ own texts work.


Was Maximus a hopeful universalist? It depends on what we mean by “hope.” If by “hope,” we mean an agnosticism regarding whether some will be forever lost, which is how Balthasar is traditionally interpreted, then no. But if we mean a confident expectation that God will persuade every last soul in Gehenna that only he can fulfill their deepest desires, then yes. If we mean an assured hope that after indefinite aeons in hell, all beings will voluntarily choose to undergo purification and enter the heavenly courts, then yes. However, I doubt Maximus would attribute all his confidence to a theological or philosophical argument. Although as we saw before, Maximus has several streams of philosophical thought that all point exclusively towards universal salvation, for him, as for all the Fathers and especially Origen, they copiously used philosophy to support what they first saw revealed through their crucified Lord who opened the scriptures. In my view, Kallistos Ware speaks for Maximus when he writes that universal salvation is not a “logical certainty.” However, if Maximus believed that Christ was proclaimed not just as the potential savior of all, but the actual savior of all (e.g. Lk. 16:16; Rom.5; Phil 2:9-11; 1 Cor. 15:28), if he believed that God gave all people to Christ, and in the age to come that Christ will give life to everyone God has entrusted to him (Jn. 17:2), then surely God wouldn’t have made these promises unless he knew he would be able to providentially bring them to a complete and perfect fulfillment. If Maximus firmly believed that the “divine” meaning of scripture was a promise of universal salvation, then to be less than a fully confident universalist would be to doubt what he saw as the assured guarantee of his savoir, and as we know from the epithet attached to the saint’s name, this is something Maximus would have rather died than do.


[1] I am making a distinction between Balthasar’s personal view and the view that he ascribes to Maximus, since Balthasar was a theologian in his own right, but also one of the greatest Maximus scholars that ever lived.

[2] Robin Parry, “A Universalist View,” in Four Views on Hell, ed. Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2016), 102.

[3] David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), location 1433 of 3097.

[4] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1978), 73. Emphasis mine.

[5] Ench. 112.

[6] Commentary on Jonah 3.

[7] See their glowing recommendations of Ramelli’s work on the back of her newest book: A Larger Hope?: Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2019).

[8] Andrew Louth, “Response to Tom Greggs,” in Five Views on the Extent of the Atonement, ed. Adam J. Johnson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2019), 218.

[9] Or. 40.36, trans. Nonna Verna Harrison, Festal Orations: Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press), 132.

[10] Or. 38 (36.324) and 45 (36.633), trans. Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 457.

[11] Gregory of Nazianzus, Or. 30.6 (PG 36, 112), trans. Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 98. I slightly altered their translation inserting part of Ramelli’s translation of this passage. See Ramelli, Apokatastasis, 453-4. The word “guarantee” is more faithful to the greek word tekmerioi, which has the sense of “to prove positively.” The “guarantee” probably does refer to the following sentences, and Ramelli unfortunately gives the opposite impression. However, in a broader sense, the “guarantee” should probably apply to all of what it means for God to be all in all for Gregory.

[12] Or. 45.24

[13] Carm. 35.9; Or. 33.9, trans. Ramelli,

[14] Or. 34.5. I gladly rely here on Ramelli’s panoply of quotes from Nazianzus from her A Larger Hope?, 133-34.

[15] See ibid., 87.

[16] Ibid.

[17] On the Incarnation, 57.

[18] Festal letter 10.4, trans. Ilaria Ramelli, A Larger Hope, 92. The first sentence is Ramelli’s translation, and the rest of it is taken from http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2806010.htm. Emphasis, mine.

[19] Festal letter 27.24, trans. ibid., 90.

[20] Festal Letter 3.4-8, trans. Ramelli, A Larger Hope, 91.

[21] Exp. In Ps. PG 92, trans. Ilaria Ramelli, from her book The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 254.

[22] On the Incarnation 1, trans. John Behr (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 2011), 53. Although all of these quotations can be found in either of Ramelli’s large works, I am trying, from time to time, to quote other translations of the fathers to avoid the accusation that I am biased. One might say that given Behr’s blurb on the back of Hart’s book, he is by no means unbiased. However, Behr’s translation came out in 2011, and at that time, he seemed to quite clearly dismiss universalism as an option. See his interview on the question of universal salvation here.

[23] Col. 1081, trans. Ramelli, A Larger Hope, 88.

[24] The first quote is from the Letter to Adelphius, and the second refers to a number of different places in Athanasius’ writings. See Ramelli, chapter 5, n. 29.

[25] For more on this, see my previous piece, particularly on Nyssen and the Confessor’s understanding of particulars and universals.

[26] Hom.in Luc. 23, trans. Ramelli, Apokatastasis, 206-7.

[27] Hom.in Luc. 22,5; cf. 32,5, ibid., 206, cf. Homilies on Jeremiah 5.4.

[28] See n. 53 in ibid, Cf. Ronald Heine, Origen: Scholarship in the Service of the Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[29] Hom. In Jer. 18.6, cf. 20.1.

[30] See Ignatius Green’s thorough citation of all these very frightening homilies in his introduction to St Gregory of Nyssa: Catechetical Discourse (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 2019), 51-57. Green attributes this alleged lack of coherence in Gregory’s thought to Gregory having an undeveloped opinion regarding the last things, but as I argue above, I think something more systematic and purposeful is going on.

[31] Beatitudes 5.8, from Homilies on the Beatitudes, trans. Stuart George Hall (Boston, MA: Brill, 2000), 65.

[32] Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Song of Songs 1.4, trans. Richard A. Norris Jr. (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012), 3.

[33] Preface to Hom. in Song. 7-13.

[34] Preface to Hom. in Song. 12,

[35] Hom. in Song. 1.16, trans. Norris, 17.

[36] See Green’s enlightening introduction to the Discourse, 18-24.

[37] Prologue to Cat. Or.

[38] Ex. Cat. Or. 26.8.

[39] De Hom. Op. 21.2.

[40] In Illud 21 and 14D., trans. Ramelli, A Larger Hope, 110-11.

[41] Or. 40.36, trans. Nonna Verna Harrison, Festal Orations: Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press), 132, emphasis mine.

[42] Inc. 37, trans. Behr.

[43] Cap. Theol. 2.9, Cf. Cap. Theol. 2.99, Ad Thal. 43.2.

[44] Questions and Doubts 119.

[45] See Paul Blowers’ discussion of Maximus’ influences in his Maximus the Confessor: Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016), 66-68, 88.

[46] Two Hundred Chapters on Theology 2.60, trans. Luis Joshua Salés (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 2015), 145-47.

[47] E.g. On the Ecclesiastical Mystagogy (CCSG 44); Amb. 21.12; Ep. 1 (389 a8-b9).

[48] Ad Thal. 43.2, trans. Constas., 246, emphasis added.

[49] Ad Thal. 21.8, trans. Constas, 148.

[50] Ad Thal. 21.8.

[51] E.g. Amb. 42.15 (1329b), along with all the texts mentioned in my section on Maximus’ “hell” passages in “St. Maximus the Universalist?”

[52] E.g. Amb. 41.11 (1313b). Again, see Maximus’ most universalist texts at the beginning of my “St. Maximus the Universalist” essay.

[53] Amb. 7.11-12 (1076a-1077a), Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, Volume I, ed. and trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2014), 89-93.

[54] Questions and Doubts 21.

[55] Amb. 7.31 (1092c).

[56] Amb. 42.15 (1392a-1392b), trans. Constas, 149, notes in bracket, my own.

[57] Andrew Louth, “Response to Tom Greggs,” in Five Views, 222. Louth doesn’t say what he does with Amb. 65, where Maximus does seem to incorporate “ever being badly” into his theology. I offer an explanation in my previous post.

[58] Ad Thal. 59.11, trans. Constas, 421.

[59] Ad Thal. 1.2.18 (CCSG 7, 37; cf. too Exp. orat. dom. 2; CCSG 23, 32-3); Myst. 21 (PG 91, 697A); Myst. 24 (PG 91, 704A; CCSG 69, 55-6). I thank Dr. Wood for these excellent references.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Amb. 47.2 (1357d-1361a), trans. Constas, 207-11, emphasis added.

[62] Paul Blowers, Maximus the Confessor, 250.

[63] Hom. In Song., trans. Norris, 198-99, emphasis added.

[64] E.g. Hom. In Song. 33, 159, On the Soul and the Resurrection 104.4.

[65] Ad Thal. 59.11, trans. Constas, 421, emphasis added.

[66] Ad Thal. 59 (609B14-C12).

[67] Ad Thal. 22.7, trans. Constas, emphasis added.

[68] Q. et Dub. 159

[69] Ecclesiastical Mystagogy 17 (740), trans. Jonathan Armstrong (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 2019), 79.

[70] Myst. 19, 24, trans. Armstrong, 79, 87.

[71] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection, trans. Catherine P. Roth (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary press, 2002), 115-16.

[72] Eusebius of Caesarea, Eccl.Theol 2.8, trans. Ramelli, Apokatastasis, 328. Emphasis mine.

[73] Ad Thal. 47.8, trans. Constas, 262.

[74] Hom.in Luc. 22,5; cf. 32,5, ibid., 206, cf. Homilies on Jeremiah 5.4.

[75] Istvan Perczel, “Theodore of Caesarea at the Court of Justinian,” in New Themes, New Styles in the Eastern Mediterranean: Christian, Jewish, and Islamic Encounters, 5th-8th Centuries, ed. Hagit Amirav and Francesco Celia (Bristol, CT: Peeters, 2017), 137- 171.

[76] Istvan Perczel, “Saint Maximus on the Lord’s Prayer: An Inquiry into his relationship to the Origenist tradition,” in The Architecture of the Cosmos: St Maximus the Confessor, New Perspectives, ed. Antione Levy, Pauli Annala, Olli Hallamaa and Tuomo Lankila (Helsinki, Finland: Luther-Agricola-Society, 2015), 221- 278. Cf. Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 738-39; Paul Blowers, Maximus the Confessor, 36.

[77] Life of Maximus, BHG 1234.23A;93A

(Return to first article)

Mark Chenoweth received his M.Div. and Th.M. from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and is currently an adjunct professor of theology at St. John’s University.

This entry was posted in Eschatology, Mark Chenoweth, Maximus the Confessor and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

106 Responses to Was St. Maximus Merely a Hopeful Universalist?

  1. I would like to say that just as we should distinguish from Balthasar’s personal views and the view he ascribes to Maximus, I would like to distinguish between my own view and the view I ascribe to Maximus.

    I personally find Balthasar’s reading of scripture to be somewhat appealing. However, like Brad Jersak, I think there might actually be some sort of way to have my cake and eat it too. I think Hart and Balthasar both have something to offer. See Jersak’s post here.



  2. ebcvictoria says:

    Somehow it seems appropriate to my fallen heart that the revelation of universal salvation be an direct insight given to our hearts concerning Divine Love, and therefore not the accomplishment of philosophical or theological rigour. Like the beauty of a work of art, all the theory in the world cannot convey what is grasp in the moment of direct experience with incarnate Beauty. A partial salvation is an abomination of art, a failure of artistic form and purpose. But we know that Love can leave no one behind. And we know this because it is a self evident first principle immanent to all know of love – seek and find and bring home safely a lost little sheep. Christ came to teach us to know love, and it is in light of that first lesson that the next lesson follows: Divine Love must be a universal salvific love for the whole creation. It is through meditation upon love, and not primarily the methods of hermeneutics or logic, that we receive these insights into our hearts. But then, I am only speaking from experience, so what do I know?


  3. Maximus says:

    Truth: “…most Orthodox saints after Maximus interpreted him” as teaching God’s eschatological presence will be experienced by the wicked as eternal torment. This “dominant…interpre­tation of the Orthodox Church” is important because, just like Holy Scripture itself, the writings of the saints belong to the Church, not to academics or individual interpreters.

    What Bradshaw has done is to read St. Maximus as a faithful Orthodox should. Yes—there is a right way and a wrong way to read Scripture, councils, canons, liturgy, icons, and the saints. To presuppose there is no repentance after death (with the caveats highlighted by Bradshaw) is the correct approach. The only way to “prove” this, however, is just to recognize, in retrospect, that this is what the saints have done. Reading St. Maximus according to the latest theological fad only shows that we have no desire to submit to the mind of Christ in the Church. Those who came after St. Maximus received his teaching differently because they humbly put their finger on the Church’s spiritual and dogmatic pulse and followed its authoritative rhythm. I think especially here of Sts. John of Damascus, Simeon the New Theologian and Gregory Palamas. The latter clearly sums up the patristic mindset and the correct interpretation of St. Maximus. The present life (only) is the time for repentance.

    “True life—the life that confers immortality and true life on both body and soul—will have its origin here [i.e. earth], in this place of death. If you do not strive here to gain this life in your soul, do not deceive yourself with vain hopes about receiving it hereafter, or about God then being compassionate towards you. For then is the time of requital and retribution, not of sympathy and compassion: the time for the revealing of God’s wrath and anger and just judgement, for the manifestation of the mighty and sublime power that brings chastisement upon unbelievers. Woe to him who falls into the hands of the living God! Woe to him who hereafter experiences the Lord’s wrath, who has not acquired in this life the fear of God and so come to know the might of His anger, who has not through his actions gained a foretaste of God’s compassion. For the time to do all this is the present life.”

    ~St. Gregory Palamas, To the Most Reverend Nun Xenia, Philokalia, Vol 4, par 16

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maximus,

      You have hit on THE issue that SHOULD keep Orthodox from embracing universalism. Personally, I think this is the only objection that really holds any weight. And it does hold weight! In my opinion, Orthodox universalists who simply shrug off what you said do so to their own detriment.

      I have some things to do this morning, and then I’ll try to offer a response.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Question, Mark: What specifically is THE issue that you believe Maximus has raised?


      • DBH says:

        No, Mark, Maximus the Lesser has raised no issue of consequence at all. He has merely made the fundamentalist’s predictable move of shrugging off the deliverances of reason in pursuit of the comfort of unthinking conformity to what he has decided is the authoritative tradition. “Tradition”–meaning the very best thought and judgments of the very best minds of the past–is always worthy of respect. “Tradition”–meaning the brute inertia of received opinion repeated in an echo-chamber–is a thing to be detested. But neither form of tradition is authoritative in itself. Scripture and councils are fixed points, but that is precisely because they–and no interpretations of them, not even the “dominant” interpretations–have a unique claim to authority; as such, they have the power to resist even many centuries of misreadings; they are safeguards, in the very minimalism of their formulations, against the kind of complacent fundamentalism “Maximus” is propounding.

        Maximus the Confessor’s reasoning leads in only one coherent direction. You have identified it very well here, though you are wrong in saying that it does not lead to the conclusion that universalism is a logical certainty. If Maximus’s system holds together, it does so only in its universalist acceptation.

        Liked by 3 people

        • Maximus says:

          And how does one adjudicate “the very best minds of the past”?

          Liked by 1 person

          • DBH says:

            By reading with care, thinking deeply, trusting in logic as well as in sentiment, insisting on the centrality of moral intelligence in all one’s judgments, and never ever surrendering one’s mind to any picture of reality that justifies itself simply by proclaiming itself orthodox tradition, or simply by the brute force of majority opinion. No tradition is authoritative if it can be shown to be irrational or wicked; and no assent to a tradition of that sort merits the name “faith.”

            The Orthodox love to mystify “holy tradition,” often to the point of pure incoherence. So do Catholics and others, of course, but the Orthodox sometimes make a fetish of it. It is a childish concept of tradition that regards it as a unitary authority whose authority consists principally in one or another identifiable majority report. Isaac of Nineveh and Gregory of Nyssa are minority voices in the tradition, and yet their voices never dissolve into equivocity and cruel nonsense in the way the majority report invariably must on this matter. And, if you cannot see this, then you should be withholding judgment entirely.

            Liked by 4 people

          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Maximus: “And how does one adjudicate “the very best minds of the past”?”

            I understand the power of that question. I know that many convert to Orthodoxy from Protestantism (especially conservative evangelicalism) because they believe they have found a Church, the Church, in which the truths of the apostolic revelation are infallibly established by council and patristic consensus. That is not why I became Orthodox (from Anglicanism) but I know this is why many have. Before I became Orthodox I spent a short time in the Catholic Church. I became Catholic precisely because of the question of authority. John Henry Newman had gotten into my brain, and his desire and need for an infallible Church became mine. I immersed myself in the Roman literature on infallibility, and it persuaded me that an infallible Church needed an institutional organ that can infallibly define, approve, and interpret dogma. Councils alone cannot do it, because someone is needed to tell the Church which council is a true council and which is not. Moreover, a dogmatic statement always requires clarification and interpretation, even correction, in every generation. We can’t ask the council fathers what their dogmatic formulations means. They’re dead. Moreover, even if we could, their opinions may prove insufficient, because we are probably asking questions they did not ask and probably could not ask. Our philosophical conceptuality and historical situation are different from theirs. Considering all of that, and much more, it seems plausible that God would appoint a single office to adjudicate doctrinal disagreements and conflicts and make binding determinations. What I’m trying to say is that if one wants an infallible Church, Catholicism is the way to go. The literature on dogmatic infallibility is vast. They have both a sophisticated theory and a formal mechanism by which to adjudicate doctrinal conflicts between subordinate authorities. They have formulated clear criteria to distinguish levels of doctrinal authority. It’s all very impressive. Of course, that’s all on paper. In the real ecclesial world, things don’t always work out as neatly as theory says it should.

            Orthodoxy lacks all of this. We don’t have a dogma of infallibility, nor do we have dogmatically established hermeneutical principles by which to interpret the doctrines we believe to be dogmas, nor do we have a divinely appointed office that can make infallible dogmatic decisions. Of course, everyone has an opinion (often stridently expressed by internet pundits) which they believe to be THE Orthodox position. In your above comment you asserted that David Bradshaw’s exposition of Maximus represented THE Orthodox way to read the Fathers. But that is just your opinion. I’m sure that you can point to many both in the present and past who share your opinion; but sheer numbers do not make dogma. Only God can do that. How he does that, well, that is a interesting and debated question. Quite frankly, Orthodox theologians have not invested a lot of time thinking about the subject, as evidenced by the paucity of writings on the topic. For the past 150 years they seem to have been content simply to reject the dogma of infallibility promulgated by Vatican I. A lot of pious nonsense, especially on the internet, is spoken about Spirit-transformed nouses and the Orthodox phronema; but more often than not this is just a tactical ploy to avoid substantive theological reflection and argument.

            The present question of apokatastasis is case-in-point. I have yet to read a substantive Orthodox critique of the arguments advanced on behalf of universal salvation. Apparenly the Orthodox are simply content to affirm the status quo, supported by patristic citations and appeals to the Fifth Ecumenical Council, which never considered anything like the universalist position that is being advanced today. Heck, as far as I can tell, most Orthodox have never read the literature or given the matter much thought. Just consider the silly, ignorant, irresponsible responses to David’s book (e.g., the recent review by a St Tikhon’s professor). Appeals to authority (argumentum ad verecundiam</em) is not a substitute for serious theological argument!

            I have more to say about your comment on the interpretation of the Fathers, but I have to feed the dogs. Maybe I’ll continue my comment tomorrow. In the meantime, you might want to read John Behr’s paper that I posted today. You may not like him, but he is an Orthodox theologian and scholar who is taken seriously by many Orthodox theologians, scholars, and bishops. He should not be dismissed as not truly Orthodox because he presents a different opinion than yours or the theologians you prefer.

            Liked by 4 people

          • Maximus says:

            Fr Aidan, I too converted from Anglicanism. It was truly a choose-your-own-adventure kind of theological environment. I appreciate your testimony here. I would disagree, however, about the infallibility of the Orthodox Church. Of course, that term must be spelled out, and I’m not the one to do it. I realize things aren’t as (apparently) tidy as they are in Catholicism. And I like it that way. Our leaders aren’t mainly schoolmen or lawyers. The way I understand it, there is a nexus of items out of which the dogmatic teachings of the Church derive. As one author has put it, “the mind of the Church…and the authority of our Tradition resides in a combination of Scripture, the Fathers, the Creed, the ecumenical councils, the canons, the liturgical tradition and the icons.” It’s both messy and mysterious. Wisdom and discernment via prayer, with all of the aforementioned items in mind, are the means of intuiting dogmatic truth, as the bishops speak, and the laity thoughtfully (and liturgically) listen. The council fathers claimed that the Holy Spirit was speaking in the Councils. I’m not hung up on the term infallibility. But something is being claimed by the Orthodox Church concerning its common voice, something much more than “everyone has an opinion.”

            After considering your remarks, I withdraw my statement concerning Dr. Bradshaw’s position being THE Orthodox position. To the best of my understanding, he seeks to carefully consider that entire nexus which I mentioned above, out of which the dogmatic teachings of the Church derive. Bradshaw is not infallible. But for my dollar, he’s one of the scholars who humbly submits to what he finds in the tradition, rather than bending the evidence to fit another agenda. Yes, that’s my opinion. I hope that as I continue to encounter evidence both for and against the teaching of universalism, I’ll be willing to change that opinion to more soundly fit the Church’s mindset. To be honest, I care very little about “rational arguments” if they deviate from the Church’s mindset. I’m not claiming to have an expert grasp on the latter, but I simply confess that I will faithfully submit to it, whatever it is, by God’s grace. This is what pleases God. Is this a childish approach? I believe “childlike” is a better description. And I have not arrived.

            This appeal to the Church’s authority is the main thing (Heb 13:17), but it’s not the only thing. I have attempted on this blog, if you’ll remember, to interact on a substantive level with DBH’s arguments. He concedes nothing. Ever. To anyone, as far I can tell. (If DBH pounds the table long enough, saying “I’m right and the tradition is wrong,” many people will eventually follow him, especially in a Trump kind of world. Many will say, “DBH’s a wicked sharp guy, and he’s very confident about his arguments, so he must be correct, right? Not to mention, universalism sounds great!”) So, I’m not seeking to substitute an appeal to authority for serious theological argument, but the latter must always be conducted in light of the former. The latter without the former is pure rationalism. If God has spoken on the matter in the Church, then no amount of philosophical subtlety is going to “prove” anything. It is kicking against the pricks at that point. While often “brilliant,” it amounts to a critical, revisionist form of scholarship, always skeptical that cherished traditions are in fact pious nonsense. Thankfully for me, brilliance is not a requirement to enter the Kingdom. I pray for the humility to say, “I believe in…one Church,” and really mean it. Rationalism be damned. On the other hand, deep theological work in a spirit of prayer within the bounds of received Church doctrine can greatly enrich the faithful.

            Liked by 1 person

          • TJF says:

            I have a lot of problems with what you are saying Maximus. Let me try to spell them out. First off, it seems clear in all your writings I’ve seen over the past year or so that you have a warped idea of hierarchy and authority in the church. You talk about submitting things to priests and bishops, etc. well fine nothing wrong with that but then when you say that bishops speak and laity should listen “liturgically” and I can’t help but think you’ve been infected with pious gobbledygook. One of the problems with the modern Catholic church, especially among the radtrad FSSP and SSPX types is the unwavering loyalty to the division of people in the church that shows profound ignorance of the Scriptures, the Fathers, Tradition, and history. This concept of the laity being basically inanimate sheep who have nothing to contribute without demurely begging the permission of their priests and bishops is absurd. Just read the philokalia my friend, you will find the saints in their telling you to obey your conscience much more often than you will see them saying that you must crucify your intellect. The baptized are all part of the royal priesthood of believers and all of us are monks of interior monasticism. This isn’t just coming from me. Read Gabriel Bunge, Evdokimov, St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, Vladimir Lossky, etc. If I had time I’d quote them and give a much bigger list of the theologians and scholars who say that there are not two categories of christians, regular and superchristians (those who really take it seriously) just one. We have many saints who went squarely against church authorities. On the other hand, I’m not saying we should be off the rails rebels without causes.

            What is obvious from your comment is that you think you are following THE ONLY ONE TRUE Church tradition from which people like me, mark, DBH, Fr. Aidan, etc. have all fallen away. You’ve submitted your mind and crucified your intellect to David Bradshaw, Seraphim Rose (probably, but IDK), the neopatristic syntheis, your priest and your bishop and the rest of us are just rebels flaunting the clear authority of the church and you are graciously offering to bring us back so we can escape the flames of eternal Hell (although why we would require your help and not God’s is a mystery I can’t fathom). That is all untrue. DBH is not furiously slamming a table declaring that he is right and the tradition is wrong. He argues WITHIN the tradition, that the TRADITION itself supports him. Without the risen Christ and certain dogmas and doctrines of the CHURCH, DBH’s argument wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. Let me recap for you:

            1. His first meditation relies on Creatio ex nihilo — a distinctive Christian teaching(so you can’t blame this on pagan philosophy)

            2. Testimony of universalist scriptures passages

            3. Argument from a communal view of human nature– ultimately based on the testimony of scripture which see salvation as cosmic and communal, rather than individualistic in scope. Also relies primarily, but not exclusively on “The Father of Fathers” St. Gregory of Nyssa

            4. Argues against the free will defense of hell. This is also based heavily on a recovery of tradition. This modern concept of the “river of fire” as Fr. Aidan has pointed out many times does not come from the fathers at all. If anything they make John Edwards sermons sound tame. The classical concept of free will as the ability to carry out your nature and seek your final cause unhindered is held by a vast majority of the early father, probably all of them, though I’m not a scholar nor certain enough to say all. Also, Chalcedonian Christology seems to point logically to universalism and that is a dogma of the 4th council. You see, he uses starting points of tradition to argue against a different conception of tradition, not the tradition itself.

            Anyways the point is that it isn’t the Tradition DBH is arguing against as a fierce individualist, he is arguing FROM Tradition against your modern neopatristic rabbinic tradition.

            I would personally say I think he does argue a bit too stridently and seems a bit too satisfied in his accuracy- but maybe he has seen something I haven’t. I’m uncertain about a great deal, but it does seem to me to get clearer everyday that if God created people to burn forever then He wouldn’t be God and there must be God, so He won’t do that. But you as well seem fairly certain that your view is the correct view of tradition as well.

            Liked by 2 people

          • Maximus says:

            TJF, I agree with the first part of the first sentence in your last paragraph! 🙂 I also agree that laity are not “inanimate sheep who have nothing to contribute.” Well said. Laity are to submit to leaders humbly but thoughtfully. Bishops can and should be challenged, however, if they unambiguously teach against the Tradition as embodied in the liturgy. Hence, “liturgical listening.” The liturgy and its accouterments are the primary way that laity are exposed to Church tradition. Thus, if a bishop were to unambiguously teach, say, that punishment for the wicked was merely temporary and not everlasting, he ought to be called to account. The liturgical texts are clear: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/orthodoxyandheterodoxy/2015/06/24/the-rejection-of-universalism-in-the-triodion/


          • TJF says:

            That’s funny, if you asked Brad Jersak, he’d say the liturgical hymns overwhelmingly declare universalism. In fact, he did a post on that not too long ago. Looks like we’re stuck at the same impasse of interpretation and no way to authoritatively solve it. I will say that the patristic maxim that we should interpret scripture in a way that is worthy of God is undoubtedly on the universalist side. But I’ll probably leave it at that. You can have the last word, because this isn’t going anywhere really.


          • DBH says:


            Thanks for your defense. My one request, however, is that you not use the word “rabbinic” opprobriously, especially not as a synonym for dry, dogmatical reliance on past authority. That is a caricature of rabbinic practice, which is in fact a glorious and honorable discipline of treating tradition like a living thing, calling us to participate in its rationality. Rabbinic Judaism has always understood tradition as a labor of interpretation that continues into the present. In fact, Orthodox Christians could learn a great deal about how to approach tradition from the rabbis who spent long days debating Talmud and Mishnah. After all, we worship a very pious Jew and rabbi as God; and certainly Paul’s approach to scripture–both in its reverence for the spirit of the text and its daring use of the words of the text–could be called proto-rabbinic.

            If only Maximus the Lesser here really were rabbinic in his thinking. Instead, he’s that most modern of things: a fideist who confuses tradition for a uniform transmission of clear and unquestionable propositional truths. No good rabbi would touch that kind of reasoning with a barge-pole.

            Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “What Bradshaw has done is to read St. Maximus as a faithful Orthodox should. Yes—there is a right way and a wrong way to read Scripture, councils, canons, liturgy, icons, and the saints.”

      Maximus, what you have in effect done here is to dismiss historical scholarship in favor of ecclesial mythology. This move is one way of preserving the infallible Church. It makes every aspect of Church impervious to any kind of historical, theological, and prophetic critique. In other words, it’s just an Orthodox form of the same fundamentalism that determines huge swaths of American evangelicalism, and it comes with the same terrible costs.

      So what is wrong with Bradshaw’s essay on repentance after death? David Bradshaw is a sound scholar of ancient philosophy. But you have just told me that his reading of the Fathers is to accepted because he has rigorously read them through the lens of dogma and tradition and not according to the principles and criteria of sound historical scholarship. This means, if it means anything, is that David has ignored or twisted any text contrary to the thesis he is advancing. In other words, we have no reason to believe that his paper presents us with what, say, Maximus or the Damascene actually believed and taught. We are only given an Orthodox fiction. Now I do not for a moment believe that is what David has done, but it’s what I should believe if he is consistently following the hermeneutic you have advanced.

      My response to David’s essay is the same response to any kind of descriptive historical scholarship: “Interesting, if true,” as one of my seminary professors liked to quip. As absolutely necessary as historical theology is to the life of the Church, by itself it is insufficient. It cannot be a substitute for constructive theological reflection. The mere fact that so many post-sixth century theologians have taught that one’s eternal destiny is irrevocably determined by a person’s orientation toward God at the moment of death does not mean that they are right. It’s not as if they have privileged information on life after death. They have simply articulated a speculative implication of the doctrine of eternal damnation. If the doctrine is true, then we must believe that post-mortem repentance is impossible. If it were possible and God chose not to exploit this possibility to effect the salvation of the damned, then God would be a moral monster.

      But we know by divine revelation that the God and Father of Jesus Christ cannot be a moral monster, and that is precisely why the arguments advanced by St Gregory of Nyssa, St Isaac the Syrian, Sergius Bulgakov, David Hart, Brian Moore (and I’ll even hubristically add my name to the list) simply cannot be dismissed. If the doctrine of everlasting perdition logically implies that God is a moral monster, then it must be corrected in the name of the gospel. It doesn’t matter how many Church Fathers and saints have taught the doctrine, it doesn’t matter how long the doctrine has been taught and believed by the Orthodox Church. The gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake! For this reason the refusal to constructively engage the biblical, theological, and philosophical arguments advanced both against the doctrine of hell and in support of universal salvation must be judged as morally and evangelically irresponsible.

      If that sounds unduly harsh and arrogantly judgmental, blame it on my immersion over the past year in the book of Ezekiel. The elders, priests, and royal house of Jerusalem wholeheartedly believed that God’s ancient covenant with King David, as well as his abiding presence in the Temple, meant that God would never allow the enemies of Israel to conquer Jerusalem. They were wrong, and Israel suffered the horrific consequences.


  4. That the Church Fathers AFTER Maximus didn’t read him as a universalist. That should count for something. If I’m right, this would mean that the church fathers after Maximus were wrong, and what do we do with that? Surely that tradition has to count for SOMETHING. Surely Damascene (he is really where universalism seems to stop), Palamas, Mark of Ephesus, etc. all believed they were keeping the tradition laid down in the early fathers, which was one of non-universalism. At least according to them. I’m sure they read Athanasius through Maximus as non-universalists.

    At this point, it seems we have two choices. We could say Ramelli is simply wrong, and the church fathers she cites as universalists were NOT universalists, and so we have a seamless tradition in the Church.

    Or two. Admit that Ramelli is right, which implies that later church fathers MISinterpreted the earlier ones as non-universalists.

    If we take option one, we run up against very convincing arguments that seem to show that the first 500 years of Christianity were largely universalist, and we have to explain all that away.

    If we take option two, we can accept what the evidence seems to show according to Ramelli, myself, and others. But then we have to deal with the non-universalist 1500 years afterwards and attempt to answer why God would let the church misinterpret earlier church fathers for so long.

    It seems much safer to many Orthodox to take option one. Option two causes severe anxiety: “If we got hell wrong, who is to say we also didn’t get abortion wrong, _____, ______ (fill in the blank with whatever you like) all the way down to the deity of Christ. So why should we trust the Church at all?”

    My guess is, this is where a lot of Orthodox people’s mind go when encountering Ramelli, Hart, and others. And I sympathize with them. It’s a tough issue. Here is a response:

    First of all, if Ramelli is right, this wouldn’t be the first time the Church has RECOVERED something that it previously “lost.” Schmemann had a very hard time convincing people that frequent communion was a recovery of a tradition that had since fell by the wayside. This is a VERY BIG ISSUE! As far as I understand it, the majority was against him for a while.


    And yet, according to most scholars, frequent communion was the norm in antiquity and fell out of practice. We recovered it. I’m sure there were saints who supported the idea that communion shouldn’t be taken very often at all. And yes, from where we are at now, it seems those saints were wrong.

    Another occasion that should be considered an “accident” of tradition would be the prayers after miscarriage. The antiochian archdiocese has recently issued a prayer book for priests which has this to say about the what snuck into the tradition in the medieval period:

    “As with the services above, for the First-Day and also for the Fortieth Day, we have included an alternative to the prayer given in the printed Euchologion. The reason for this provision of an alternative prayer stems from the imposition of the Levitical purity ethos in the late medieval prayers, WHICH WERE INCORPORATED INTO THE PRINTED EUCHOLOGION…The left-hand column, below, carries the prayer in the printed Euchologion; the right-hand column carries the prayer provided in the Other Service.”

    How many saints do you think insisted on these prayers being used that the Antiochian archdiocese now sees as foreign to the tradition of the Church? I would guess every almost every saint in the medieval period and beyond.

    Maximus, how do you feel about Eastern Orthodox/Oriental Orthodox relations? That is another issue where for about 1500 years, Orthodox saints believed that the Oriental theology was completely anathema to the faith. Now, a sizable number of Bishops and theologians disagree.

    The same goes for the idea that Catholic wafers are an abomination. Most Orthodox saints probably believed this, but today, most bishops and theologians would NOT consider this a church-dividing issue.

    Now, let’s take something like…abortion, for instance. As far as I’m aware, there has been no attempt to “recover” a lost tradition of pro-abortion church fathers. I don’t think such an effort would be very successful. Does that mean we can claim that the “the Tradition of the Church” has been consistently against abortion from the beginning until nowadays? I think you could make a pretty strong claim that yes, that is a FAITHFUL interpretation of the Tradition. I could mention a couple other issues that I think are probably FAITHFUL interpretations of the Tradition, but that would risk starting a firestorm (though as Fr Hopko would say, the Orthodox Church has no infallible magisterium, and so all these issues need to be discussed with utmost care, thoughtfulness and sensitivity when there is disagreement). We could also place the understanding that the Eucharist is TRULY Christ’s body and blood. I think it would probably be a lost cause to argue that we can recover a Patristic Tradition arguing that the Eucharist ISN’T Christ’s body and blood (though I know Protestants would disagree!). Please don’t mistake this as any sort of commentary on the current controversy over COVID-19 response regarding communion. As far as I can tell, NEITHER SIDE of that debate is arguing that the Eucharist is JUST bread and wine.

    This isn’t to say that our only task is to simply preserve what was before, but it certainly IS part of our task.

    None of the anti-universalist saints have been canonized BECAUSE they held that opinion. Our job today is to distinguish between accidents that have slipped in to the tradition of the Church and have been falsely associated with THE TRADITION. I think it’s pretty futile to say that this hasn’t ever happened.

    Lastly, there also seems to be a larger ethos of the Church that Bradshaw’s “no repentance after death” thing has a lot of trouble taking account of. Maximus, read slowly through the Akathist for the Departed and tell me with a straight face that all we’re doing there is asking God to give some temporary comfort to hardened sinners that can never repent. Maybe “repent” isn’t the right word here, because, for Maximus, there is a relative immobility after death. But what if we say they can have a change of heart and can passively experience God’s grace until it purges all the evil out of them?

    Click to access akathist-for-those-who-have-fallen-asleep.pdf

    “O Father of all consolation and comfort, Thou brightenest
    with the sun, delightest with fruits, and gladdenest with the
    beauty of the world both Thy friends and enemies.
    And we believe that even beyond the grave Thy loving
    which is merciful even to all rejected sinners, does not fail.
    We grieve for hardened and wicked blasphemers of Thy
    May Thy saving and gracious will be over them.
    Forgive, O Lord,
    those who have died without repentance.
    Save those who have committed suicide in the darkness of
    their mind,
    that the flame of their sinfulness may be extinguished in the
    ocean of Thy grace.
    O Lord of unutterable Love, remember Thy servants who
    have fallen asleep.

    This clearly asks God to SAVE those have died in, well, ,if we want to borrow Catholic terminology, “mortal” sin. Read Fr Stephen Freeman’s post on the prayers for the departed. https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2019/06/22/you-have-one-job-pray-on-behalf-of-all-and-for-all/

    Can we really say, again, that we aren’t asking God to save even the most hardened sinners in hell? It seems that that is EXACTLY what we’re doing. And the prayers definitely presuppose that this is possible.

    For example,

    “Your light, O Christ our God, has shone upon those that sit in darkness and the shadow of death, and those in hades, who are not mindful of You; having descended into the nethermost parts of the earth, bring out into joy those who have been separated from You by sin, but who have not renounced You; O Lord, Your children suffer, forgive them; for they have sinned against Heaven and before You, immeasurably serious are their sins, but also infinite is Your mercy. Visit the bitter destitution of souls far removed from You; O Lord, have mercy on those who hated the truth out of ignorance, let Your love be to them not a burning fire, but the cool delight of Paradise.”

    I’m sorry, but I see Bradshaw’s claim to be flatly contradicted by these prayers. As much as some saints have been anti-universalist over the centuries, the PRAYERS of the Church AT THE VERY LEAST permit us to HOPE that God’s will will be fulfilled in the end.

    And I don’t find very convincing the line that “after the last judgment, there’s no chance to repent.” If you look above in my post, the Fathers I quoted SAW the last judgment as ENABLING repentance. Are we really supposed to believe that the prayers I just cited will cease to have any force after the final judgment? That Jesus will say to those in heaven, “alright folks, what’s done is done, you might as well stop praying for those in hell because it’s no use anymore”? I don’t think that’s what these prayers imply.

    There are accidents of tradition, and then there is Tradition. Our task, which can be assisted by the modern Orthodox Church, is to discern between the two. Maybe universalism (in any of its varieties) is NOT part of that Tradition. But this needs to be shown through more than just quoting anti-universalist Church Fathers after Maximus and Anastasius of Sinai.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mark, I corrected some of your typos. Email me if you want me to change anything else.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Maximus says:

      I appreciate your last paragraph, Mark, and I agree. I also take to heart several points you made from the Akathist for the Departed. I would note, however, that Bradshaw does make room for some kind of repentance after death, i.e., a “weak” variety. That category includes the reposed described in your second quote, beginning with “Your light, O Christ our God, has shone….” No problem there. Nevertheless, the first prayer—especially, “Forgive, O Lord, those who have died without repentance”—is challenging to Bradshaw’s and my position. I’m going to ask my priest about this particular prayer and the best way to understand it.

      You give several examples where the Church apparently had to retrieve lost beliefs or practices. Yet Schmemann’s battle isn’t nearly of the same caliber as the issue of universal salvation. Yes, infrequent communion had become an issue in some large regions. But a temporary wave of liturgical decline does not mean the Church has lost, and had to recover, a liturgical norm of antiquity. And liturgical is a key word here. I’m not claiming liturgical practices are unimportant, but the doctrine of everlasting damnation resides on a higher plane. Both Tertullian and St. Irenaeus include everlasting fire for the wicked as part of the Church’s rule of faith. It’s that basic to the Christian proclamation.

      Thus, I remain unconvinced that “the first 500 years of Christianity were largely universalist.” There were outliers to the orthodox teaching, as there always will be. The philosophically minded, especially, tended to speculate beyond the mainline. But the apostolic truth, present from the beginning, was upheld clearly in the last 1,500 years, namely as a result of the decisions of the 5th, 6th and 7th Councils’ condemnations of universalism. Forgive me, but no amount of historical manipulation will demonstrate otherwise. And I think the doctrinal consensus afterwards shows that the Church in the Councils had spoken clearly. Everyone obviously knew what the Church taught about this, whereas before the clarification, the teaching on everlasting punishment of the damned was normative but not within a conciliar mode of authority.


      • “Both Tertullian and St. Irenaeus include everlasting fire for the wicked as part of the Church’s rule of faith. It’s that basic to the Christian proclamation.”

        Where are you getting this from?

        We agree on a lot, but I find it hard to agree with anything in your last paragraph.

        The fifth council, whether the 15 anathemas should be considered part of that council or not, never condemned universalism. And then 6th and 7th simply said, “hey we agree with whatever the 5th council said.” Well, the fifth council didn’t condemn it. I just don’t understand where you’re getting this from. Is what most Orthodox theologians today say simply historical manipulation? Because as far as I can tell, the scholarship agrees with Fr Aidan’s article on what was or wasn’t condemned in 553. This isn’t just Orthodox leftist propaganda or something. John McGuckin, Kallistos Ware, Bishop Alexander Golitzin all agree that there were lots of historical misunderstandings at the fifth council. By the time we get to Mark of Ephesus, yes, he thought that universalism was condemned in 553. But he was simply mistaken. This was an accident of tradition. Maximus says no such thing. He seems to say the opposite. Do you just deny that something like that could ever happen? A historical misunderstanding that simply gets repeated for about 1500 yrs because no one really looked into it until today?

        It seems that loads of historical evidence can be showered upon you and no matter what, the response is still, “I’m not convinced, there is a consensus, and it was condemned at the 5th, 6th, and 7th councils.”

        From what I can see, most of what is said on this blog is simply ignored, not responded to, and then we just get the same “there is a consensus, it was condemned” response from many traditional Orthodox. I’m sorry, but this DOES seem like fundamentalism to me.

        Liked by 1 person

        • brian says:

          If it walks and quacks like a duck or wears a sailor suit without pants and works for Disney, it’s probably a duck.


        • Maximus says:

          Mark, you wrote, “It seems that loads of historical evidence can be showered upon you and no matter what, the response is still, “I’m not convinced, there is a consensus, and it was condemned at the 5th, 6th, and 7th councils.””

          Mark, this is simply untrue. I am willing to look at the evidence, and have read the arguments presented here and the counterarguments presented elsewhere. The latter I have found more conclusive, more laden with actual evidence. Does my conclusion, based upon such evidence, make me a fundamentalist, simply because that conclusion goes against “the scholarship”? Seriously? You seem to be a humble, thoughtful guy, Mark. Please don’t resort—as nameless others have done—to name calling.

          On the Rule of Faith:

          Tertullian, De Praescriptione Haereticorum, 13 (**emphasis added**)

          Now, with regard to this rule of faith—that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend—it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen “in diverse manners” by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; (then) having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and **to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire**, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics.

          St Irenaeus, Against Heresies I:10:1 (**emphasis added**)

          The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them. And in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation. And in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord; and His manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that **He should execute just judgment towards all, that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire**; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning, and others from their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.


          • Maximus,

            All that Irenaeus is doing is quoting the gospels. The english says “everlasting,” but I can almost guarantee you the Greek just says “aionios,” which is what scripture says. That proves nothing. Irenaeus was all over the place on eschatology and has other statements that sound universalist.

            As for the rest, I’m sure Tertullian was an anti-universalist but that’s fine. I don’t have time to answer anything else. It’s my wife’s birthday and she’s off work. I will have to respond to most everything else tomorrow, probably.


          • Maximus says:

            Interesting reading, Mark. It seems that a simple gospel quote would retain the parallelism with “eternal life.” Instead we have “everlasting glory.”


          • DBH says:

            The word is “aionios” nonetheless. So what’s your point?


          • Maximus says:

            I stand corrected. Thus the only point I could make here (since the semantics of aionios are disputed) is that inherent to the Church’s regula fidei is the doctrine of Two Ways. But apparently not Two Horizons.


          • TJF says:

            This entire essay we commented on just proved, to my mind, that two horizons idea was more prevalent in the early church than the so-called two (everlastingly divergent) ways. Question begging.


          • DBH says:

            There are indeed two ways. Their consequences are elegantly described in 1 Corinthians 3:14-15, a formulation that applies to “anyone” (tis), not just to a special company of the already saved. The infernalists insist that there is yet a third way as well.


          • Sorry, I meant to post this here. It will be posted again at the bottom:


            I went ahead and looked at the Greek for the Triodion passages that Damick cites. I only looked at the Sunday of the Last Judgment, and this is what I found: everything translated as “eternal,” or “everlasting,” comes from a variation of Aionios. The closest we get to “absolutely eternal” (aeidios) is aei, which seemed to be used in reference to God’s eternal will, not hell.

            More interesting is the fact that in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Hades is written about in the exact same manner as “Gehenna.” Now, in the gospels, Jesus makes it clear that he is in Hades. And anti-universalists usually make the argument that Christ only empties “hades,” and not “hell.” Well, in the hymn, hades IS hell. So it seems to follow that in the hymns that speak about Christ’s emptying all of Hades, this SHOULD be interpreted as emptying all of hell. This is how the Nazianzen interpreted it.

            There’s much I haven’t looked at, and there could be a giant loophole in what I’m saying and I’m not seeing it. But I think that’s fairly significant.

            Even if these should be translated as “eternal,” we have other hymns that speak of Christ breaking down the “eternal” bones of hell/hades. What would be bad for the universalist is if Christ was said to break down aionios bonds, while the other references to eternal torment were aeidios. But if they’re both the same word (I’ll have to look), this would seem to imply that even an “eternal” hell is not truly eternal because it is not IN God.

            What are your thoughts?


  5. Just imagine I said all the above without any typos.


    • Or, well…when it appears. For some reason, it requires moderator’s approval.


      • DBH says:

        No, I think not.

        Tradition is all too often a nonsensical concept. Whenever it is used to justify a theological position that goes beyond the ambiguous testimonies of scripture and councils, it is largely a fiction. For one thing, it is a term obliged simultaneously to justify both everything that has changed over the centuries in Christian history and also everything that has not. The former it calls “development” and the latter “the deposit of the faith.” That means that, in the way we generally think of tradition, it is a vacuous category, one that is so ductile that it can be used to support potentially everything and nearly nothing.

        Moreover, it has never been a stable historical construct. It changes with each epoch.

        For the Orthodox today, “tradition” refers to the consensus patrum, but of course there really is no such thing apart from some very broad agreements on some very particular issues (usually as a result of minimal reflection). That consensus has always been a posterior and ideological reconstruction, and one that alters from age to age. Even the centrality of the fathers, or of what their authority represented, has shifted from generation to generation. And, in fact, what the Orthodox today regard as their theological tradition is to a very great degree an artefact of the middle of the twentieth century. The neopatristic synthesis, with its neopalamite infrastructure, is not even a century old yet. If one were to go back to the 18th century to find what Orthodoxy taught, in the academies and the pulpits, one would find almost nothing you would recognize. One would be even more confused if one went back to the 16th century. If one leapt ahead again to the late 19th, and found oneself shocked by the speculative daring of the Russian religious philosophers, or went to Greece and found oneself more shocked by the Calvinist-infected dogmatics taught to Greek seminarians, one would be guilty of presuming what should never have been presumed. In any of those periods, the narrowing of Orthodox options to the modern synthesis had not as yet occurred yet, the recovery of the fathers as living voices had not yet begun to be undertaken by Orthodox scholars, and neither had the procrustean attempt to fuse their voices into a single “system.” At present, throughout the Orthodox world, that synthesis is being taken apart, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Here in the US, alas, it is being displaced by an Evangelical fundamentalism in Orthodox garb as the result of converts who have changed their confessional addresses but not their mental habits.

        Whatever the case, the way we usually think of tradition is crude, monochromatic, and historically absurd. Tradition has to be conceived much differently if it is to be a name for anything other than a rhetorical bludgeon. Above all, it has to be understood as a history of interpretation and reasoning, not as a history of divine oracles delivered by the Spirit through mortal amanuenses (and then delivered so incompetently that it is always in need of clarification, while apparent contradictions have to be explained away). When it crystallizes in those very rare and very sketchy things called conciliar decisions, it achieves a kind of formulaic authority. But, even then, you will find that the formulae don’t interpret themselves.

        Liked by 4 people

        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Exactly right – and this is precisely why if one is going to make an argument from authority and not fall into a fallacy one has to do this very carefully, tentatively, pointing out the conditions, contexts, exceptions, differences in positions, changes over time, and so forth. This of course is not facile but rather hard and tedious work. It also requires the willingness to admit the complexities and uncertainties of interpretation which stands in stark contrast to the easy and sure pronouncements of an imagined, monolithic tradition which speaks on all things clearly and with ready judgment.

          Liked by 2 people

          • DBH says:

            I might also add that tradition tends to provide its own critiques. The unthinking unanimity of the pecus patrum on certain issues finds its corrective in the more searching and intellectually rigorous thought of the best minds within the tradition. A Gregory of Nyssa or Maximus the Confessor or Origen is a rare prodigy of both nature and grace; most of the fathers were men of much more ordinary intellect. Quite often, the real voice of tradition–as opposed to traditionalism–turns out to be a singular voice breaking through the droning monotony or raucous clamor of the majority. How many Orthodox theologians today, for example, treat Maximus’s logos-metaphysics or his understanding of time and eternity as “the” Orthodox position? And yet he was one man, and his teaching on these things is more or less unique to him–or, at any rate, uniquely developed by him (on the issue of ever-moving rest,” for instance, he follows but qualifies Gregory of Nyssa).

            Bradshaw, for instance, is obviously not a biblical scholar; his assertions regarding the teachings of scripture are full of elementary errors. But he may well be right that the majority of the canonical fathers were precisely the sort of unimaginative and morally obtuse infernalists he makes them out to be (and implicitly praises them for being). But so what? None of them is a dogmatic authority, and most of them were not very impressive original thinkers. What matters when, say, comparing Gregory of Nyssa to a lesser intellect among the fathers is not which of them better echoes this or that majority prejudice, but which of them has the better arguments. In the end, the singular genius is to be prized above the flocks of the doctrinaire. The argumentum a vulgare is always a counsel of foolishness.

            Liked by 2 people

          • TJF says:

            The consensus patrum or the majority of saints teaching infernalism is probably the biggest defense that I personally get when discussing universalism with infernalists and I have to say that, in my mind, it is their strongest defense much like the problem of evil is for the atheist. I say this because I have learned a lot from Evagrius, Lossky, and others and I think “practical” and the “theoretical” (dogmatic and spiritual, theological and mystical) cannot be separated. Even though I found it necessary to research this matter, I find for most people there is an intuitive and inseparable link between belief and practice. It is rather odd and counterintuitive, to say the least, to see some of the holiest saints, absolutely beyond reproach in their love and conduct to their fellow humans, profess belief in ECT. That does seem to confer some authority, especially coming from the Christian tradition which unlike other belief systems, doesn’t view salvation as only for the elite intellectuals, but especially for the lowly. George MacDonald, Evagrius, Stephen Clark, etc. all teach us to do the will of the Father and then we will understand. Well, it seems strange that many of those who seem to do the will of the Father also seem to be moral idiots of the highest caliber on this issue. I’m convinced they were wrong logically about ECT, but I’m also convinced that in order to know we must first love (even though they didn’t seem to end up learning the truth). I must admit this completely baffles and perplexes me and does give me pause when contemplating whether or not universalism is correct. I can’t simply shrug it off as moral idiocy. I see another aporia here, because as I said many of those who have followed the will of God far more than I have, believed the opposite of what I believe and I’m utterly convinced that book learning isn’t sufficient. Experience and practice aided by ascetic endeavor are necessary for knowledge as Stephen R.L. Clark so elegantly proves. But then, how could those who did have the experience and did the practices be so utterly wrong? The only answer I can give is that things must be worse down here than I think. Or do you think the link between practice and theory is more tenuous than I suggest? I am convinced by your book Dr. Hart, but I’m not sure how to explain this. Understand, I’m not saying this convinces me but I look at like Dostoevsky and Evdokimov see the problem of evil, ultimately I think it can be overcome, but I’m not sure how and I think it is a much bigger problem than people make it out to be. I can see why infernalists are not swayed, just like I can see why atheists don’t accept Christianity, even though I think ultimately there is an answer.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            In his critique of the Vincentian Canon, Georges Florovsky wrote the following:

            Charismatic tradition is truly universal; in its fulness it embraces every kind of semper and ubique and unites all. But empirically it may not be accepted by all. At any rate we are not to prove the truth of Christianity by means of “universal consent,” per consensum omnium. In general, no consensus can prove truth. This would be a case of acute psychologism, and in theology there is even less place for it than in philosophy. On the contrary, truth is the measure by which we can evaluate the worth of “general opinion.” Catholic experience can be expressed even by the few, even by single confessors of faith; and this is quite sufficient.

            I hope Fr Florovsky will forgive me for invoking his authority in this particular debate. 🙂

            Liked by 2 people

          • Grant says:

            I also find that majority consent a strange argument for many Christians to adopt in defense of infernalism, as such an appeal cannot be isolated there if you to be consistent (and not just pull it out as an rhetorical trick to ward off actually engaging universalist arguments). And once you go there a few things can be noted, one the majority consensus of Israel was (and is) and Jesus is not the Messiah, and the Way was a false movement. If majority consensus determines truth, no one should have followed Jesus at all, and various times during history what we know believe are the Orthodox and Catholic positions were minority positions (the Arian crisis for example, or St Maximus himself).

            And I certainly don’t see any non-Catholic Christians accepting the argument that because Catholics comprise the majority of Christians by a significant number (so majority Christian consensus is Catholicism is the truest expression of Christianity), that they should swap confessions. And further, throughout world history to the present, Christians have been a minority of the world population. So, human majority consensus is Christianity is false, or at best only somewhat true, yet I don’t see Christians throwing up their hands saying, well that’s it, most people don’t believe Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God or the Gospel so it must be false.

            That this should be considered as the arbiter of what is true (even just restricting this to saints, depending on which confession accepts as saints, and who have various and major disagreements with each other) is ridiculous and simply doesn’t bear out in the unfolding of Christian history. It just doesn’t have anything like the challenge of the problem of evil has to Christianity (which anyone can grasp), it seems to be used as a talisman by those who don’t wish to think or look into the challenge of universalism or the claim at the Gospel is ruined by this teaching. Like other fundamentalists of any type, they wish to retreat to a place beyond needing to think or ask questions, beyond which something can be challenged, and seems to be the mark of a fearful faith, worried that anything could shatter they world-view at any moment (and perhaps their own sense of security or even their salvation).

            This is a retreat from truth, and therefore a retreat from Christ, and I cannot take such a position seriously like I can the problem of evil question. And I don’t think it is a position of faith either, but one of fearfulness.


        • DBH says:

          Curiously, it bothers me not in the least. I’ve known holy people who were not very bright, and I expect it’s possible to be extremely holy without ever deeply reflecting on some of the things one has been taught to believe. On the other hand, one can be lacking in conspicuous or habitual holiness and yet possess an intellect that grasps moral truths by way of logic with ease. God apportions gifts as he will; some he gives a heart that emanates charity without effort; to some he gives minds that cast a cold penetrating light on difficult problems. In the end, a bad argument is a bad argument, no matter who makes it, and a good argument should win our assent even if the person making it is something less than a saint. For examples of how to live toward others, consult the holy; for solvent philosophical argument and even for coherent moral rationality, consult the very intelligent; and don’t worry if those two classes only rarely coincide with one another. In the end, every contribution is needed.

          Liked by 2 people

          • TJF says:

            Thank you Dr. Hart,

            I guess I’m just hung up on what SHOULD be the case, although it is not. I shouldn’t be surprised, I guess. Lots of things should be a certain way, but they aren’t — even infernalists will concede that. Thank you for your feedback, it has been truly enlightening.


          • TJF says:

            I have another seemingly random question Dr. Hart. You have talked in a few of your articles and books about meeting holy men on Mt. Athos. Do you recommend a trip there? Can anyone else chime in as well?


            A spiritual seeker.


    • These posts of mine are getting pretty unorganized but here is the Greek: http://glt.goarch.org/


  6. Jorge MacDonald says:

    Help a fundamentalist out. What is the point of life on earth? The infernalist position makes sense of this life. Follow Christ, practice/cooperate/participate in self denial and you will be taken up into that kenotic love. Don’t and you won’t. Fairly simple.

    If that is false in the sense that it will happen eventually and in any state of life or death, does this make life as we know it a matter of expediency on God’s part and empty life of a lot of meaning and drama? Why wouldn’t we force God’s hand and all build a Jonestown. If you were intellectually and materially gifted, the usual sinful attachment would never relinquish those goods and I guess it would be irrational depending on the mechanics of your eschatology. But of the poor, depraved and stupid? Myself. Yes, I get it. Why would I eat a plate of glass. But, we do…and worse as humans and not even education can stop us. So say this becomes pan confessional, how do we deal with deaths of despair? It is this life that is hell that we want rid of. What do we make of it?

    If it’s (eventual theosis) actually harder and more painful without the use of ones corporeal body and thus the importance of today remains ( or will we be resurrected to try again?) is the word ‘eternal’ really that important if one side thinks it means forever and the other potentially infinity less a day depending on one’s pride? But stripped of any particulars in the platonic sense to bastardize how could it not be an immediate capitulation and restoration?

    Do any universalists deal with life below?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Jorge, only the good news that God is absolute and unconditional Love, revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, can make sense of and give meaning to our existence, Hell certainly cannot do it. Do read this excerpt from Robert Jenson that I published last week.


    • Jorge,

      I’m sorry but I have a very hard time understanding what you’re trying to say.

      Does hell need to be eternal to be a deterrent?

      If you want a deterrent, imagine spending what SEEMS like an eternity in darkness not being told when you will be able to be let out, bitterly regretting every sin, done by commission or omission. Imagine this lasting for the equivalent of 15 billion years.

      Then, you’re let into heaven, having been purified without realizing it. Who could possibly bear that?! Nothing I just said contradicts universalism. The only thing that universalism stipulates is that hell is not forever. If you want a deterrent, everything I just said could be true while universalism still being true. A truly horrific picture. No one wants to go to hell even if it lasts eternity minus one days.


    • DBH says:

      Would you think better of God if he gave you life as a kind of test to pass or fail, without providing very much in the way of resources for success? In fact, it is only the universalists who have recognized what life below actually is.

      The purpose of life, according to Gregory and Isaac and Origen and Bulgakov and many others, is to be called out of nonbeing into infinite communion with God in deification. This requires a life lived from beginning to end; and may require a struggle that exceeds the hour of one’s mortal existence. It is not a banal game of chance, in which you either get it right within the finite frame of the timer clicking away on the wall and get rewarded with prizes far beyond anything you ever imagined, or fail to do so in that allotted time and get punished with a penalty of such severity that you could never have really earned it either.

      Deification, to say this differently, is the “final cause” of existence; and, of course, as Gregory saw with such clarity, from the perspective of eternity creation comes into existence only in that last end.

      Still, although it is true that whatever is created must be created in its last end, spiritual existence is possible only under the conditions of those rational relations (those aitia) that logically define it. Hence, for instance, to ask why God did not create spiritual beings already wholly divinized without any prior history in the ambiguities of sin—or of sin’s possibility—is to pose a question no more interesting or solvent than one of those the village atheist’s dilemmas: can God create a square circle, or a rock he is unable to lift? A finite created spirit must have the structure of, precisely, the finite, the created, and spirit. It must have an actual absolute past in nonbeing and an absolute future in the divine infinity, and the continuous successive ordering of its existence out of the former and into the latter is what it is to be a spiritual creature. Every spiritual creature is a pure act of rational and free intentionality away from the utter poverty of nonbeing and toward infinite union with God. This “temporal” or “diastematic” structure is no less intrinsic to it than is its dynamic synthesis of essence and existence, or of stability and change.

      Liked by 1 person

      • TJF says:

        I have a question Dr. Hart,
        Does this mean that suffering, death, corruption etc. are necessary? This is the one struggle that I and I believe many others have. It seems if God has in mind only our good, then He seems to go about it through an oddly circuitous and (literally as well as figuratively) tortuous route.


        • DBH says:

          No. But it does mean, if Christian teachings are true, that the possibility of such things is inevitable. If not, then the world proves that there is no good God to begin with.


          • TJF says:

            I’m having trouble seeing how something inevitable is not necessary, when it comes to God who is perfectly free and Almighty.


          • DBH says:

            To say that the possibility of something is inevitable is not to say that the thing itself is inevitable. When you drive your car, the possibility of a crash is inevitable; the crash is not.


          • TJF says:

            So not even God could safeguard against the possibility of his creation choosing error? I think I’m beginning to understand. Thanks!

            Liked by 2 people

          • DBH says:

            Perhaps he could. But he would be creating some different creature. And, for some reason, he chose to create us, and knew us even when we were not.


          • DBH, I get the impression from what you’re saying that we can never truly be saved in the sense of “non posse peccare”. We are always moving towards our final self which lies an infinite distance into the future, and so long as we are moving towards it, the possibility of misusing our freedom and falling back into hell remains. It sounds as if epektasis as you describe it (the infinite temporal movement out of non-being into being) always allows for the possibility of sin, evil, and the fall. But i’m yearning for a salvation where sin is no longer a possibility. When will that happen?


        • TFJ,

          This is much less of an intellectualist way of thinking about it, but I think Robin Parry’s (or Keith Ward’s, or Thomas Talbott’s) understanding of hell is also helpful, if not complementary to Hart’s.

          Suppose that in this life, God gives us a chance to choose the good without fully feeling the consequences of our evil choices. Consider this a “grace,” to some extent. Some people choose to live a life in Christ and for those people (I hope I’m one of them), they get to experience God without having to feel the full consequences of their sin in hell.

          Others NEED to feel the full consequences of their actions. This is the difference the Parousia makes. Hell is God’s last effort to save us, the most painful “baptism of fire,” as Gregory of Nazianzus called it.

          Perhaps God lets us live long enough in this life so that we have a chance to show whether or not we need this “baptism of fire.” The moment of death could be seen as God’s way of saying either, “it is not to Joe Smith’s benefit to shield him from the full consequences of his actions any longer, he needs hell for his salvation,” or “welcome to the Kingdom.” For most of us, it’ll probably be a little bit if both, as Bulgakov pointed out.

          Hell could be seen as “Salvation, Phase 2,” for the people that need it.

          This would help to answer the commonly asked question, “why doesn’t God just create us all in heaven immediately if we all get there anyway?”

          I think what Hart said sounds right. If he did that, he’d have to create different creatures. So yes, the common answer of non-universalists that we exist in this life so God can permit us to freely choose him can still be true for universalists as well. Only this time, hell doesn’t mean a total rejection of God forever, but a much more painful and perhaps horrific but necessary way for God to let us freely come to him. Salvation, phase 2.

          This is a much more “libertarian” way of putting things, but I see both an intellectualist and libertarian understanding in scripture and the fathers. I don’t think they’re necessarily mutually exclusive. Perhaps Hart can show us that they are, but I don’t see it as of now.


      • Jorge MacDonald says:

        The meaning of life…“ is to be called out of nonbeing into infinite communion with God in deification. This requires a life lived from beginning to end; and may require a struggle that exceeds the hour of one’s mortal existence” Of course it will exceed our mortal existence, it’s an infinite communion. If we are on a voyage into the infinite for all eternity why qualify it with ‘may’ exceed our mortal existence? And our mortal existence’s duration is so arbitrary and small in comparison to that eternity how can one conclude that it’s worth anything of value in its current state other than it being needed as an intrinsic principle, eg, creatureliness? Any minute past conception would be dispensable, would it not? The paydirt is in the glorified body. Why wouldn’t we become Gnostics? Why keep my gender? Why resist homosexual urges? Sarah Coakley has fantastic writings on why these actions need not be resisted, merely the desire of the action directed above, and it’s all underwritten by…Nyssa.

        “As long, therefore, as we are upon earth, let us practise repentance, for we are as clay in the hand of the artificer. For as the potter, if he make a vessel, and it be distorted or broken in his hands, fashions it over again; but if he have before this cast it into the furnace of fire, can no longer find any help for it: so let us also, while we are in this world, repent with our whole heart of the evil deeds we have done in the flesh, that we may be saved by the Lord, while we have yet an opportunity of repentance. For after we have gone out of the world, no further power of confessing or repenting will there belong to us. Wherefore, brethren, by doing the will of the Father, and keeping the flesh holy, and observing the commandments of the Lord, we shall obtain eternal life. For the Lord saith in the Gospel, “If ye have not kept that which was small, who will commit to you the great? For I say unto you, that he that is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in much.” This, then, is what He means: “Keep the flesh holy and the seal undefiled, that ye may receive eternal life.”

        This excerpt form w 2nd epistle of Clement is the general thrust of my question…the power of the flesh does, it have any currency..

        I’m not arguing for hell. Let’s resist the ‘would you rather’. I’m trying to understand the flesh’s place in universalism particularly in light of his church life journal article showing it’s something on the radar


        • Iain Lovejoy says:

          What we do in life, as well as (when good) being good in itself necessarily moulds what we become at the end of it. Jesus says, for example, there is none greater in the Kingdom of Heaven than John the Baptist, and he is great in the Kingdom of Heaven for his earthly life. Our earthly life moulds what we will eternally be. That we will all one day come forgiven into the presence of God (albeit frequently slightly singed) doesn’t negate as pointless the process of how we got there, or mean we will not be individually moulded by our lives here.
          Also, the avoidance of sin is the avoidance of suffering, and things are sinful not through God’s arbitrary fiat but because they are harmful. Your logic seems to suggest that I have no reason not to cut my own arm off for fun if I can be confident with efficient medical treatment that I will survive the experience and recover.


        • DBH says:

          The “may” refers to the struggle, not to the journey. There are those who pass beyond the possibility of rejecting God’s love even in this life.


          • So epektasis is a journey, but not necessarily a struggle? Presumably this means the struggle may end very soon if we apply ourselves, but the journey will go on forever? Where does universal salvation fit in? How long do I have to wait until everyone has moved from struggle to journey?


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            For Gregory epektasis is an unending progress (for its divine target is unending), a journey and a struggle, and so goes before and beyond the apokatastasis. Hope that helps.


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            I wouldn’t tease out struggle vs. journey too literally here. Think of it more as reaching one’s potential, a “stretching forth” to the Other. Yes this can be uncomfortable, but it is a good struggle and a struggle for the Good.


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Jorge, you have moved the discussion far away from the theme of Mark’s article, namely, the views of Maximus Confessor regarding eternal damnation and apokatastasis. I hereby ask everyone to please return to the topic at hand. Thank you.


    • Jorge, almost all meaningfully Christian construals actually place more, and not less weight on the individual and the choices made in this life. Yes, there is certainly some sense in which our choices have weight and meaning if we face the specter of eternal judgment – Dante frames this perfectly in the Inferno. However, it was deeply flawed because a person’s character in this life becomes their individual destiny – and as is often noted the damned in the Inferno seek no release, they are eternally individuated collections of their mortal identities and bear no duty to change, repent, or reform. In this sense, infernalism is merely placid resignation that has become sick and inflamed with fever. Sure it is hot, but it is predictable.

      Universalism, however, demands that we will never escape God, others, or ourselves. There is no consignment to an eternally inescapable fate, there is only the reality that we must freely become what God has made us into or feel the fires of a transfigured cosmos that we cannot possibly be at home in until we have become ourselves. Universalism offers a uniquely hopeful vision of reality for all, however, if it’s implications as a Christian doctrine are considered carefully, it leaves nobody off the hook. All of the good universalists are in agreement on this. And even the bad universalists out there who put forth some funky ideas that are hard to support in Scripture of in the tradition are far better of because they might confuse matters of divine justice (for which one could hope they read Athanasius on the matter) but they do not propagate a belief in a God that is, fundamentally, unjust if the logic of infernalism is taken to its logical conclusion.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. TJF says:

    There is a point here that is a bit fuzzy in my mind and I’d like cleared up if anyone can do that for me. So, is the idea that there are 3 distinct ages? This present sinful age of death and corruption followed by an age of purification/judgment that ends with the Last Judgment when God will reveal all things hidden, to be followed 3rd and final blissful age of the Kingdom?

    Also, is the distinction between a particular judgment and a general judgment valid or some later accretion?

    That’s what I’ve got so far. If someone more learned than me can correct or confirm this view that would be much appreciated. Thanks!


  8. brian says:

    TJF, God does not risk the loss of anyone or anything, but only by “assuming the cost” of creaturely dereliction. You can’t have creatures without temporal unfolding; nor can you have finite, created spirit without the potential for confusion, error, and sin because there is an ineliminable ignorance that creatures called from nothing into being must progressively overcome on their way to theosis.

    Liked by 2 people

    • David says:

      I could be excused for butting in – Brian, I’d love to know whether in your view is this ‘eliminable ignorance’ identical with original sin, or do you conceive this as a kind of innocent ignorance which is the necessary origin of the potential for original sin but not original sin itself?

      (for my money, if we want to conceive of a difference between this eliminable innocent ignorance vs original sin, I’d say that original sin – while perhaps not not ‘evil’ in the sense of being willfully hating God or goodness as such, represents a more profound ignorance of the good that is more than the simply ‘missing’ knowledge’ that we might find with innocent ignorance, but moves into the territory of believing active falsities about the Good.

      i.e. innocent ignorance is knowing a little of God / the Good but not yet knowing the full story (but without actually believing untruths), whereas original sin is believing stuff that’s just wrong and unworthy of what the good is – with the result that we are not irresistibly attracted to the Good and therefore are liable to commit specific sins. Even if we avoid specific sins, we suffer from a fundamentally false notions of what the good is and thus are inclined to depart from even what we know of it.

      So perhaps we start out with an innocent ignorance of how to deal with complex moral conundrums, but can deal with easier ones, but our grasping for knowledge leads us into more complex moral situations than we’re ready for, and in attempting to grapple them before our time we, like children, ‘innocently’ make a mistake that makes us fall into original sin and thus become liable to make all kinds of actual sins as well. Is original sin itself therefore not really a sin, i.e. contracted in and out of innocent ignorance?)

      Assuming the latter, I am wondering whether we should conceptualise the ‘fall’ from mere innocent ignorance to original sin as something that could genuinely have been avoided – i.e. there are ‘possible worlds’ where humanity remained in a state of grace – or is it more a tragic inevitability? It seems plausible to me that, for those of us not lucky enough to be God incarnate, our innocent ignorance means it is essentially inevitable that humans will come up with false notions of the good that mess up our moral reasoning and make us depart from automatically following what we take to be the norm of the good and therefore inclined towards sin. Or is that mistaken in implying that the evil of original sin is in some sense necessary to God’s plan? (although what about the felix culpa?) Is there any distinction we can draw between ‘necessary’ and ‘inevitable’ that is helpful?


  9. Maximus,

    I went ahead and looked at the Greek for the Triodion passages that Damick cites. I only looked at the Sunday of the Last Judgment, and this is what I found: everything translated as “eternal,” or “everlasting,” comes from a variation of Aionios. The closest we get to “absolutely eternal” (aeidios) is aei, which seemed to be used in reference to God’s eternal will, not hell.

    More interesting is the fact that in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Hades is written about in the exact same manner as “Gehenna.” Now, in the gospels, Jesus makes it clear that he is in Hades. And anti-universalists usually make the argument that Christ only empties “hades,” and not “hell.” Well, in the hymn, hades IS hell. So it seems to follow that in the hymns that speak about Christ’s emptying all of Hades, this SHOULD be interpreted as emptying all of hell. This is how the Nazianzen interpreted it.

    There’s much I haven’t looked at, and there could be a giant loophole in what I’m saying and I’m not seeing it. But I think that’s fairly significant.

    Even if these should be translated as “eternal,” we have other hymns that speak of Christ breaking down the “eternal” bones of hell/hades. What would be bad for the universalist is if Christ was said to break down aionios bonds, while the other references to eternal torment were aeidios. But if they’re both the same word (I’ll have to look), this would seem to imply that even an “eternal” hell is not truly eternal because it is not IN God.

    What are your thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Maximus says:

    Mark, I appreciate you looking up these terms translated “eternal” or “everlasting.” If these were our sole reference point, it would indeed move the discussion to the contested meaning of aionios (which I believe often carries connotations of everlasting duration). But Fr. Andrew included other hymns in his post, even for the Sunday of the Last Judgment, that use additional language concerning hell’s duration.

    Will the anguish of the damned ever cease?

    “I lament and weep when I think of the eternal fire, the outer darkness and the nether world, the dread worm and the gnashing of teeth and the *unceasing anguish* that shall befall those who have sinned without measure…” (Vespers Sticheron on “Lord, I have cried”).

    How long will the unquenchable fire and undying worm torment the condemned?

    “Then the unquenchable fire and the destroying worm shall seize the condemned and *hold them fast for ever*.” (Ode 7 of the Matins Canon)

    I have not referenced the Greek; perhaps these highlighted terms are forms of aionios, translated with a traditional bias. If they are, then the debated meaning of aionios becomes the issue. If they are not, they provide a seemingly clear context for the interpretation of aionios on traditional grounds in the liturgies of Lent and Holy Week.

    Concerning Lazarus and the Rich Man, I would disagree that Hades is written about in the exact same manner as Gehenna. Technically, in the Gospels, both Lazarus and the Rich Man are in Hades, the place of the dead. We see two “levels” of Hades described, between which “there is a great chasm fixed,” separating the righteous from the unrighteous dead. Christ descended to rescue the former. The latter are tormented “in agony in this flame” (Lk 16:24) until after the Final Judgment, when the unrighteous dead in Hades will be “thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev 20:15). Thus, “fire” for the unrighteous dead is eternal, i.e., everlasting, and the hymn draws out this dread continuity between (lower) Hades and Gehenna.

    Does the Church hold out any hope for those in lower Hades? This is the grey area about which I’m still unsure. Who all responded favorably to Christ’s preaching? The overwhelming voice of tradition says that only the “righteous” did (see Alfeyev, 2009, 52-81), those dead abiding in “Abraham’s bosom.” As St. Isaac tells us, our life is like a book, based upon our present earthly sojourn and unamendably sealed at our death:

    Our way of life in this world resembles a document that is still in draft form. Things can be added or taken out, and alterations can be made whenever one wants. But life in the world to come resembles the case of completed documents that have the King’s seal already upon them, and no addition or subtraction can be made. While we’re still here and changes can be made, let us take a look at ourselves, and while we still have control over the book of our life, and it is in our hands, let us be eager to add to it by means of a good lifestyle, and delete from it the defects of our former lifestyle. ~Sebastian Brock, trans. The Wisdom of St Isaac the Syrian, #81 (Fairacres, 1997).


    • Maximus,

      Glad to see you commented. You have some excellent points. As long as you get notifications, I will respond in due time. I have a final exam for french this week, so it might be a while before I can get to this. My email is my first initial followed by my last name (chenoweth) at svots dot edu if you would like to correspond that way (spelled out to avoid bots, etc.). Thanks.


    • Maximus says:

      For more context and a different translation, the quote from Saint Isaac above is found in Homily 62 of the Ascetical Homilies.


    • DBH says:

      And yet Isaac was an explicit universalist. So it seems that for him, once one has died, one cannot add or subtract but must, if need be, enter the Gehenna. Still, for him, and explicitly so, “the Gehenna is not endless.” So be careful how you read. You may not be able to add or subtract, and so may need now to be saved as by fire, when the works–the book–of your life is burned away; but still that is not the end of the story.

      Liked by 3 people

      • DBH says:

        Read, in particular, Isaac The Second Part, homilies 39-41.


        • SF says:

          Is that readily available anywhere? The only version I was aware of is Brock’s edition.


        • DBH, I hope you see this, just want to catch you for a quick question.

          I’ve been voraciously studying your writings over the past two weeks or so. Reading you is like peering through a window into heaven. You manage to write so beautifully and argue so persuasively for the goodness of God and the happiness of the eschaton. It warms my heart. However I have some questions.

          1. You summarise the whole story by saying we are “ex nihilo in Deum”. I was wondering if you would identify the “nothingness” out of which we are called with “evil”? As in, is “pure nothingness” just another way of saying “pure evil”?
          2. I’m wondering how the fall fits in. Did we fall from the eschaton towards the nothingness, or are we dragged out of the nothingness into the eschaton, with some sort of fall happening along the way?
          3. From your reading of Gregory of Nyssa, would you say that apokatastasis precedes epektasis, or does epektasis precede apokatastasis? I have been reading his writings alongside yours and I can’t quite work out the answer to this question.

          I ask the third question because as you say, “a lesson which takes an eternity to impart is a lesson which can never be learned”. But then, if epektasis precedes apokatastasis, this would simply be to say that the apokatastasis will never really happen (as far us we are concerned). The implication here is that the apokatastasis cannot be an infinite distance into the future, otherwise as far as we are concerned, it will never actually be realised. Universal salvation would be a point on the horizon towards which we are always moving but never getting any closer to, and history would be more like an infinite cycle of ages, and every age would include a division between the saved and the damned, and death and evil would be ever-present realities.

          The alternative is to say that the apokatastasis is coming soon, and then a blissful epektasis will follow. This strikes me as more happy and hopeful, but also somewhat more arbitrary and hard to believe.

          Liked by 1 person

          • note: I’ve been reading the Hidden and the Manifest, and your analysis of Hegelian/Heidiggerian ontology versus cappadocian Trinitarian ontology is revolutionary and mind-blowing. Rather than a dialectic of violence and contradiction being the basis of reality (eg, between life and death, or good and evil), there is a dialectic of peaceful coherence and good-will (between father and son in the spirit). This changes everything. We no longer have to strike bargains with death and evil in order to live successfully.
            However it still seems like that dialectic between being and non-being (God and nothingness) is present in your account of things. I don’t know what my question is, but I just find it confusing. On the one hand evil is unnecessary in your ontology, on the other hand, evil/non-being/nothingness is a brute fact, ever-standing in opposition to God. God might not “need” evil to be who he is, but evil is nevertheless present and we are contending with it. I suspect that the incarnation and crucifixion have something to do with the answer to my confusion here, but it’s not clear in my mind.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        On the universalism of St Isaac, see Sebastian Brock, “St Isaac the Syrian and his Understanding of Universal Salvation.”

        Liked by 1 person

    • David says:

      Good research Maximus.

      On ‘unceasing anguish’ I have to say that my natural reading of this phrase doesn’t make me think it refers to something that goes on literally forever and ever, but rather refers to a continuous and non-stop process. So long as souls are in Gehenna, the torment is constant, unceasing, and without significant gaps – just as the racket made at a children’s party is constant, unceasing, and without significant gaps – but happily neither need literally last forever to be correctly described as ‘unceasing’. Basically, ‘unceasing’ does not refer to duration at all, but rather to the constant nature of what is going on within a separately specified duration.

      Thinking about it, while ‘unceasing’ is a fairly common English word, I’m not sure if on even 1 in a 100 occasions it is used to refer to events that the user supposes will literally go on forever. I’ve just browsed a few online dictionaries and taken and copied and pasted their usage examples for the word below. You’ll see that they all refer to events which, while ‘unceasing’ throughout the duration to which they refer, are surely now over.

      Cambridge: The authors are grateful for the unceasing support of the editors in London and New York.
      Oxford: Planes passed overhead with unceasing regularity
      dictionary.com: an unceasing flow of criticism.
      Collins: the unceasing quest for more speed

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, now Maximus the Lesser.

      I never really responded, and I’m now talking with someone who might write a full piece on this for Eclectic Orthodoxy (thanks Fr Adian for putting us in touch), so I will keep this brief.

      Here is the hymn on Lazarus that I was referring to:

      “I hear the lamentation of the rich man in the flames of torment,
      and in my misery, deserving the same condemnation, I weep and wail.
      Therefore I entreat You:
      Savior of the world, have mercy on me at the time of judgement.”

      My point is, Jesus tells us the rich man is in Hades. Now, anti-universalists usually make the argument that Hades is different from Hell, and so when the hymns proclaim Christ’s total victory over Hades, this only means everyone has been resurrected, some to eternal condemnation, and some to eternal bliss. But this line of argument doesn’t hold up. In this hymn, HADES IS HELL. It’s equated with where the wicked go at the final judgment.

      Here’s another hymn from the Sunday of the Last judgment where “hades” in the Greek (ᾍδης) is translated as “hell”:

      Terror seizes me when I think of the unquenchable fire,
      of the bitter worm, the gnashing of teeth, and soul-destroying hell;
      yet I do not turn to true compunction.
      Lord, Lord, before the end, strengthen Your fear within me.

      Τὸ ἄσβεστον πῦρ ταράττει με, ὁ πικρότατος βρυγμὸς σκωλήκων, ᾍδης ὁ ψυχοφθόρος φοβεῖ με, εὐκατάνυκτος οὐδόλως δὲ γίνομαι· ἀλλά, Κύριε Κύριε πρὸ τέλους με, στήριξον φόβῳ τῷ σῷ

      This is the language of the final judgment. The unquenchable fire, bitter worm, gnashing of teeth, they are all there. And yet, at Pascha we hear, almost as an answer to your query whether those in the “lowest regions” of hades can be revived,

      “At your divine descent the regions beneath the earth were filled with light, and the darkness, which before pursued, was driven out. Therefore, THE PRISONERS FROM EVERY AGE AROSE.”

      “You broke the bonds of Hades and destroyed the sentence of death, O Lord delivering ALL from the snares of the enemy.”

      “delivered ALL those who had been slain by the devil’s deception…”

      See Hilarion, 175-78.

      “Hell reigns but not forever over the race of mortals…” (Hilarion, 192).

      Christ “emptied all the palaces of hell.”

      Click to access 07-vespers-unnailing-of-holy-friday.pdf

      If the liturgical texts DO speak of Hades in the same way as Gehenna, the best conclusion to me, seems to be universalism.

      Also, even if aionios SHOULD be translated as “eternal” in the texts you cite, perhaps this prayer is God’s response to hell’s “eternity”:

      “Priest: O Christ our God, the ever-flowing Spring, life-giving, illuminating, creative Power, coeternal with the Father, Who hast most excellently fulfilled the whole dispensation of the salvation of mankind, and didst tear apart the indestructible bonds of death, break asunder the bolts of Hades, and tread down the multitude of evil spirits, offering Thyself as a blameless Sacrifice and offering us Thy pure, spotless and sinless body, Who, by this fearsome, inscrutable divine service didst grant us life everlasting; O Thou Who didst descend into Hades, and demolish the eternal bars, revealing an ascent to those who were in the lower abode…” https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2019/06/16/entering-hell-on-pentecost-with-prayer/

      Here, Christ breaks down Hades’ “eternal bars.” If those “bars” or “gates” of hell are “eternal,” then we have PLENTY of hymns that speak of Christ’s breaking down these gates. Could the message of these Paschal hymns be that God’s eternity outstrips even the eternity of hell?

      As for words like “unceasing,” the Greek need not mean “never-ending,” but “unceasing as long as people are there.”

      I wouldn’t consider myself a “certain universalist,” but it does seem to me that a universalist “hermeneutic of Pascha” as Fr Aidan calls it, is a worthy competitor to the anti-universalist reading of the church year. It makes quite good sense of all the hymns. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that there are different points of view in the liturgical texts themselves since some of them do say that Christ only brought out “the righteous” who had awaited Christ’s coming from the day they died. But still, it is hard to deny that a universalist reading of the Church year does make quite good sense of the prayers and hymns of our Church.

      What I suggest above in my article seems to hold up remarkably well: The Sunday of the Last Judgment BEGINS Lent. Pascha ends it. This fits quite well with my suggestion that lent itself can be thought of as the period in between the final judgment and the final restoration where those in hell are painfully purged of all their sins until Pascha/the apokatastasis.

      Again, I’m not certain this is right, but does seem significant that the Sunday of the Last Judgment BEGINS LENT, and Pascha ends it.


      • Maximus the Lesser says:

        Mark, this is all very suggestive. And it’s especially interesting if your reading is correct. From what you’ve written here, my understanding is that you yourself don’t find the evidence conclusive. Otherwise, as the clear-thinking man you are, you’d become a convinced universalist. You claim there are different points of view in the liturgical texts. Are you asserting there’s a contradiction in what the Church confesses in worship? Or, are you saying the texts contain ambiguity, allowing either a universalist reading or a traditional one?

        If you mean the latter, then one must choose which reading makes the best sense of all the texts. Approached with a universalist “hermeneutic of Pascha,” yes, the liturgical texts are brimming with the overtones one presupposes. Scripture is too, and so are the Fathers. One’s “gospel” becomes the rule of reading. Then, hidden treasures begin to emerge, concealed secretly for millennia, from every corner of the historical and theological landscape. (The process of gnosis is intoxicating.) Within every dust-covered datum one finds the pearl of apokatastasis.

        The other reading, of course, is the traditional one (sometimes called the fideistic, fundamentalist reading), held by 99% of Orthodox Christians always and everywhere. In this interpretation, the “eternal bars” of Hades, demolished by Christ, would be understood as potentially eternal, potentially everlasting—that is, everlasting if Christ hadn’t descended to break them. What *could have been* (indeed, justly, should have been) an unending prison is rent asunder by Christ the Victor. He wrought destruction upon “the indestructible bonds of death.”

        The sentence of death, justly, should have condemned sinful mankind for eternity. When you read the Old Testament, there’s no coming back from Sheol. But Christ in His mercy frees from Hades—a place from which the covenant people believed there was no return—those repentant sinners who follow Him. We indeed see glimmers of this future rescue in the OT, but the Orthodox Church has retained the OT motif of death’s permanence in its liturgical hymnography and situated Christ as its conqueror.

        The question remains to what extent Christ’s victory benefits mankind. Just as in Scripture, your references to “all” remain ambiguous until interpreted. I certainly agree, “the prisoners from every age arose.” But does this also include the fallen angels? Surely they have been imprisoned (2 Pet 2:4-7; Jude 6-7) in the “lowest regions” of Hades. And surely they are included in the “all” of universalism since, according to DBH, every rational creature shall be saved. If the liturgical texts do speak of Hades in the same way as Gehenna, the best conclusion seems to be a *thorough-going* universalism, including the redemption of the devil and the demons.

        Mark, I’m sorry, but it is not hard to deny that a universalist reading of the Church year makes good sense of the prayers and hymns of our Church. This reading leads to preposterous conclusions (like demonic deliverance). And just to clarify, the first official Sunday of Great Lent is the Feast of Orthodoxy (preceded by Clean Week Week) at which the Synodicon is read. The Sunday of the Last Judgment/Meatfare Sunday is still pre-Lenten. Now, if we focus upon what is proclaimed from the Synodicon, then I believe we’ll have a much more accurate picture of the Church’s teaching concerning the eschatological reach of Paschal deliverance accomplished by Christ our Savior.


        • “You claim there are different points of view in the liturgical texts. Are you asserting there’s a contradiction in what the Church confesses in worship? Or, are you saying the texts contain ambiguity, allowing either a universalist reading or a traditional one?”

          I would say both. In some ways, I have sympathies with Balthasar here. You could call them contradictions but that doesn’t seem to do justice to these texts. The liturgical texts are records of what different fathers of the Church thought about Christ’s conquering of Hades over the centuries and not all of them can be perfectly harmonized, nor should they be. To me, this is evidence that there is NO ONE SINGLE eschatology on the point of Christ’s descent into Hades. Unlike the Christological formulations in the liturgy, which are very precise and without contradiction, these texts show a variety of different acceptable views for the Orthodox. Thinking of them as contradictions doesn’t seem exactly right. More as different acceptable traditions within the Church, much like there are different and inconsistent traditions on the lives of saints, etc. There is little doubt in my mind that around the time of the 4th and 5th century, some of the texts that SOUND like universalist texts were intended to be universalist texts. Your statement that this is what 99 percent of what Orthodox Christians believed always and everywhere is simply wrong. Basil, Augustine, Chrysostom, and Jerome all attest to the prominence of universalism in their day and and modern scholarship confirms this.

          Is your argument on the salvation of demons supposed to be a reductio-ad-absurdum? Again, I don’t think it’s inconceivable that some of the hymns actually intend to hint at this, but it seems for the vast majority of the universalist ones, we often find it said that Christ brought everyone out of Hades leaving the devil and his army all by his/their lonesome.

          This would seem to leave the salvation of the devil more of an open question, which both Kallistos Ware and Andrew Louth are perfectly fine with, though I know you would probably not consider them trustworthy guides.

          As far as being certain, no. I’m not. I’m personally convinced that the first 500 yrs of the church were largely a universalist one, that a universalist reading of scripture and the liturgical texts tends to make good sense, and that the philosophical arguments in its favor are particularly good. But I would back away from the idea that if Christianity is true, universalism follows necessarily and inescapably. It seems odd to me that we would have to make someone “accept universalism into her heart” in order to be a Christian. But it also seems wrong to me to tell inquirers, “no universalists allowed here.” I personally doubt Orthodoxy will ever dogmatize on this issue, just as I personally doubt it will ever dogmatize on how literally we should understand Genesis 1-3. Young earth creationists and hardcore evolutionists, hardcore infernalists and fully convinced universalists will probably be communing together in the Orthodox Church for a very long time to come. 🙂


          • Maximus the Lesser says:

            “…hardcore infernalists and fully convinced universalists will probably be communing together in the Orthodox Church for a very long time to come.”

            This would be unfortunate, to say the least, since, as Fr Aidan has made clear in several posts, the issue of universal restoration goes to the heart of the gospel. If he’s right, we’re talking about two different gospels, Mark, two opposing versions of Christ’s saving work.


          • Yeah, Fr Aidan and Fr Lawrence Farley have both said they think the other side is preaching a different gospel. I suppose this could be true, that God still has it in mind for the Church to dogmatically reject universalism or infernalism. It’s possible. Perhaps someone could provide a convincing way to make a 100 percent consistent interpretation of all the liturgical texts so they ALL point in one direction. I think they lean in a universalist direction but this is far different from saying that anyone that has a different interpretation should be excommunicated, and this seems to be the logical conclusion of both Fr Lawrence Farley’s and Fr Aidan’s reasoning. There is precedent for this, as Gregory of Nazianzus was not satisfied, nor should he have been with a mediating position on the Divinity of the Holy Spirit. But although I think Nazianzus was a fully confident universalist, it’s not clear he considered this an issue central to the faith, so that anyone who was not a universalist should be excommunicated. It’s not clear to me Origen held this dogmatic position either. Maybe Gregory of Nyssa did! Who knows!

            For myself, at the moment, I’ll stick with boring line that a fully confident universalism should be an acceptable theological view within Orthodoxy, not that it should be dogmatized as the ONLY acceptable eschatology. The inverse of dogmatizing something should mean that we be willing to accept as a consequence excommunicating those that disagree. I’m not prepared to do that to my anti-universalist brothers and sisters in Christ. Maybe the Church will make a decision on this in the distant future. If it did, regardless of the decision it came to, I would do my best to try to accept it. But I have to admit that I kind of hope it doesn’t do so.

            As Gregory of Nazianzus said, “speculate about the universe- or universes, about matter, the soul, about natures (good and evil) endowed with reason, about the resurrection, the judgment, Reward and Punishment, or about the Sufferings of Christ. In these questions to hit the mark is not useless, to miss it is not dangerous.” (or. 27.10) I think it’s pretty clear here that Nazianzen does have his friend’s universalism in mind when he says “judgment, reward and punishment.” For the sufferings of Christ, he talks about the atonement elsewhere and isn’t really happy with any particular model. Will Orthodoxy ever dogmatize a particular model of the atonement? Again, I’m not sure I’d want it to.

            While I do see reason as having a ministerial function, this has a limit. If the Orthodox Church dogmatized six literal day creation, I would probably conclude I made a mistake and the Orthodox Church isn’t the Church of Christ. I simply can’t make myself believe that the earth is only 6-10,000 years old. I can at least see where Hart is coming from when he says he would leave the Church if it dogmatized infernalism, since he thinks he has an ironclad argument against it and the Church can’t make a square circle or a married bachelor.

            Does Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus’ theology of the incarnation make the best sense in a universalist paradigm? I tend to think so, particularly on the point of uniting all particulars and universals, and I think Maximus and both Gregory’s thought so too. But I don’t see very much evidence that they believed it was an issue to be dogmatized. Just permitted to be believed. Maybe my conclusion at the end of the above essay was a bit too extreme. Although I do believe that if the Church tried to absolutely dogmatize infernalism in Maximus’ time, he would have spoken against this dogmatization and probably quoted Nazianzus to back him up.

            I know I differ with Fr Aidan on this (at least I think I do), and that’s fine.


          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Whatever the tensions may be in the liturgical texts, they do not pose a problem, if one privileges the Pachal hymns as our interpretive key. If the difficult parts of Scripture can be interpreted through a hermeneutic of Pascha, why not our hymnody? The Church has been doing this kind of creative interpretation in the Spirit for 2,000 years.

            In fact, I would suggest that infernalists such as Fr Farley and others who have appealed to the hymns of the Sunday of the Last Judgment and Good Friday in order to support their infernalist views have simply privileged those hymns as their hermeneutical lens. It’s the hermeneutical lens I am challenging, not the hymns themselves.

            Of course, our hymnody does not enjoy the same kind of textual finality as Scripture does. Hymns can be rewritten or replaced by other hymns, as has been done in the past; but I see no need to resort to to alteration or replacement.

            Liked by 1 person

        • Also, Maximus,

          You have not provided any critique of the reading of the fathers and Maximus I have presented above other than to say it goes against your understanding of Church Tradition so it can’t be right. You didn’t provide any argument against what I said about the liturgical texts other than to say that it may imply the salvation of the demons and that’s absurd, and that it goes against your understanding of Church tradition.

          If your understanding of how Church Tradition works is correct, there should be compelling exegetical reasons my reading of the fathers and the liturgy doesn’t make any sense. You’ve presented shock as one argument (“but the demons”) and “Tradition” as another. Sometimes shocking things are true, and your understanding of how tradition works may not be right. You do realize that if your understanding of Tradition is correct, there should be very compelling exegetical arguments in favor of an anti-universalist reading, right?

          Is your position simply that there ARE good arguments against my reading of Maximus and the Fathers and the liturgy, but they just haven’t been developed yet? I can respect that. I hold that position on some things. Just wondering.

          To summarize, my position would be that although there are liturgical texts that point in other directions (Christ only saved the righteous of the OT), there is a strong universalist trajectory in the liturgy, 2nd- 7th century Church Fathers that isn’t easy to ignore.


  11. I’ve been talking to a more traditional Russian Orthodox priest about all of this, for the sake of hearing the opinion of a kind priest on this issue, bringing up St. Maximos as an example of how it would be monstrous for God to leave us behind in self-caused eternal torment given that the only true cause of such a state would be simple madness.

    To state his case as charitably and strongly as possible, he claimed that one truly can freely will not to choose God, for one can freely will to live in the state of spiritual pride of prelest. However, it takes not only God’s grace, but our free cooperation with it to escape prelest. Yet, if there are those who don’t cooperate with God’s grace due to their prelest, then they freely choose to remain in Hell. God will always grant people the option, but they will not always take it. It is, paradoxically, a freely-willed state of madness on the part of the person in Hell, who only suffers because he will never accept God’s grace, which He is readily offered for all time. In real life and the Gospels, we see this all the time. God provides us a means to make good out of a bad situation, as He demonstrated perfectly with Christ bringing His great resurrection out of his terrible sufferings, Paul’s repentance after his terrible life before conversion, and so on. However, we also see people like Judas, who commit evil and are given opportunities to change through God’s grace, but who never accept those opportunities by their own choice, leading them to the path of destruction, suffering, and sadness. We also see this in our lives with people who say they will change their ways, but never end up doing so.

    St. Siloaun the Athonite, and the priest I’ve talked to, state firmly that we need to have compassion for the damned, that we need to hope everyone will come around to salvation, and that God will never torture anyone- they torture themselves. But how do we know that all people will freely will God in the end? This is what makes me doubt the universalist interpretation of St. Maximos’ model. Even though we can know that choosing sin is a state of madness, and that in a sense (but not every sense) the only truly free act is the choice of God, how can we know even remotely that everyone will choose God over themselves?


    • Robert Fortuin says:


      Before making up your mind and think you have found a reply that stands up to God and reason, do read Dr Hart’s That All Shall be Saved then read it again if the points of the arguments (“meditations”) aren’t clear. The traditional Russian Orthodox priest is throwing up the old and worn “hell is locked from the inside” defense of infinite infernalism. Dr Hart addresses this objection head-on without ambiguity. I won’t tell you where, so you will have to do your own sleuthing (you may even read the whole book 🙂 ). After you have read Hart’s explanation, do return and let us know your response.


      • Robert,

        I’m about 62% of the way through TASBS and I find it very convincing so far. In fact, I think the case is already pretty conclusive in favor of universalism. Having read the response to Fr. Kimel by Dr. Ford, as Father shared on his Twitter yesterday, the only possible response I think still works is the one that, well, we just can’t understand God’s justice. But this, too, seems really weird. We can’t understand God’s nature with reason because He is just so utterly transcendent, but none of the Fathers ever proposed that we just couldn’t understand God’s ways in some way with human reason.

        The incarnation makes sense when you consider our fallen nature and God wishing to redeem it. The crucifixion makes sense when you consider God bringing good from evil. Christology, veneration of the saints, and everything else makes perfect sense; so, why should the afterlife not make sense at all? Why should it be so counter-intuitive, and why would God make it such that we could not understand His ethics for eternally damning people- and, in contrast, such that we would understand eternal damnation as awful?

        Hart’s scriptural arguments make sense. His philosophical arguments about the nature of the person and the rational will make sense. But the counterarguments do not. Again, despite being 62% into the book (with some skimming, admittedly), I think his case is already decisive. But I do have some scruples about it, as per usual, wondering if I could be wrong and a heretic for thinking what I do.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Grant says:

          Just butting in a little, just a add a little comment to your last point Jeremy. Considering you could be wrong is one thing of course, and we should all accept both that possibility and even certainty that we are not completely or even at times at all correct in what we might believe about some things at some points in our lives (the very reason we change our minds). Yet, we do change our minds and views on things when the light of reason, in the face of new arguments, evidences or a new slant or view compels us to do so, because truth compels by being truth, and at it’s best when we change our minds due to this (rather than societal or group pressure or prejudice) is because our minds and souls perceive the truth more clearly and so commands consent, and sets us more free.

          Given what as been written here and elsewhere, I don’t think you need fear being a heretic for thinking as you do, in fact if you are Orthodox there isn’t anyone in any position to say such a view is heretical without a new Ecumenical Council ruling on the subject. It was good enough for the Father of fathers, St Gregory of Nyssa so I think should be golden 🙂 (it’s a bit more of a challenging road within Catholicism because of the current received understanding, but even there it isn’t as clear as some would prefer it to be, see Justin Shaun Coyle’s piece on this blog for example).

          But lets say your confession (I don’t know which is is) does say it is, well so what. What is truth is truth, that is what commands consent, the Truth is Christ, and your mind, soul and reason are called and commanded to follow what is true and what is good. If a Christian group or confession calls that which is incoherent and contradictory and ends up denying key Christian claims as true, and that is manifestly evil as good and attributes this to God, then it is saying something false there. And if it commands assent to a belief that is false and evil, that it is commanding in that area of belief something against Christ who is Truth, and this belief will to a extent affect all other aspects in the life and worship of the confession.

          If this is so, and if you believe and agree in your mind and reason and in your conscience which is the light God has given you to understand and move towards what is true, that this is true, and your confession really does insist what you know to be true is false, then you cannot stay in such a place. As you would be knowingly submitting to what you can see is false and indeed evil (and as such a blasphemy against the name of Christ). This would would not be an act of faithfulness but it’s opposite, an abandonment of faith.

          Now, as i said, I don’t think things are really as dire as all that, I assume you are Orthodox, and universalism despite what some want to believe, remains I viable position and believe in Eastern Orthodoxy (this blog’s owner remains a priest in good standing, Father Andrew Louth is at least sympathetic and regards it a viable non-heretical position, and many others, and of course Robert whom you are dialoguing with). You might come across many Orthodox who by long custom of infernalism being the dominate position might insight otherwise (not helped by it being caught up as a ‘traditional’ position and so being part of a perceived culture war making some so zealous of defending it) but they aren’t the arbiters of Orthodoxy and have no more authority than yourself in that area.

          In the end, you must follow what you understand to be the truth and love, only in that way do you honestly follow Christ, and only in following and knowing truth are you set free. I wish you the best of luck and God’s blessing on your journey.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Dr. Ford’s response was much better than his review, but he fails to distinguish between a paradox and outright contradiction. If any Christian actually believes that the Trinity is an OUTRIGHT CONTRADICTION, then they are in fact irrational. The incarnation and Trinity are things that may seem to be contradictions, and we certainly don’t totally understand them, but this does NOT mean that they are in fact contradictions. Ford should have made this clear. He seems to see scholasticism as a thing of the west, but I think Marcus Plested has shown this most certainly isn’t true in his Orthodox Readings of Aquinas. https://www.amazon.com/Orthodox-Readings-Paradigms-Historical-Systematic/dp/0199650659


    • TJF says:

      “Freely willed state of madness” is not a paradox, but an absolute contradiction. The more insane you are the less free you are, the more sane the more free. People like to bring up Judas a lot, but usually what they say, I find, is directly contradicted by scripture. Mt 27:3 says Judas repented. And is anyone so foolish these days to believe that suicide is some kind of act of pride, rather than as an act of desperation for not being able to see a way out of soul-crushing misery?

      How do we know that everyone will choose God? Easiest question to answer in the world. Faith in God, the Good God of Love as revealed in Jesus Christ. People place so much of the onus on us, the refreshing and remarkable thing is that God saved us, we don’t have to save ourselves. Take no thought for the morrow, my friend. We have a divine ally who never lets us down and loves us when we are unlovable.


      • That seems true to me. Being in a state of madness inherently lowers the culpability of an action from any possible infinitude.

        All of this is just hard for me, though. Simply put, I get very scrupulous and anxious about the nature of Heaven and Hell, as well as becoming Orthodox- a process I’ve been working on for about a year now, but am just truly about to start (hopefully). I have been told that it’s probably some kind of attack from the enemy- not to be paranoid about my own proximity to being anxious, which also clearly exists. I’m hoping to join my local OCA parish, though, and I want to find the peace of Christ, that ally who, as you say, will never leave us. Please pray for me.

        Liked by 2 people

        • TJF says:

          Yes, DBH really does put the “you choose to go to hell, God doesn’t send you there” idea to bed. It is a nonstarter, especially considering it isn’t even traditional. The traditional view is the scary, evil idea of God directly sending you to Hell because you deserve it. It’s even scarier and more evil than the Medieval view that says God’s dignity is infinite and so even a tiny offense deserves infinite torture. It doesn’t even make that concession — it’s just a straight up old wives tale — you did bad things and God gets made, hates you and tortures you forever. It’s absolute nonsense obviously meant to scare you into submission. Eternal Hell will only make you more scrupulous my friend. I do think there is a pastoral risk inherent in preaching universal salvation, but it is overstated in my opinion. From reading Vladimir Lossky, I learned that all the dogmas in the Church have one and only one purpose and that is to safeguard the ultimate truth of theosis. How on earth can sending people to Hell forever possibly be construed as safeguarding theosis? Everything about the idea, once you allow the fog of ideological obfuscation to dissipate, becomes manifestly absurd. If you haven’t read Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church yet, I highly recommend that volume on your journey. While it can overstate its case polemically against the West, it has too many gems in it to allow that to drag it down — it is an extraordinary book that has been foundational to my thinking. He actually says in it that the west focuses too much on preaching hell and he makes statements that can definitely be seen as universalist in my opinion. He straight up says baptism guarantees salvation, no matter how far you slide and is hopeful for the rest. One of the beautiful ideas in the book is that dogma and spirituality are intertwined, not at odds. If you teach that everyone is going to be saved, what would that do to your spirituality? If you believe God will torture some people forever and hate them, what would that do? Ask these types of questions and the answer becomes clear. David Ford’s objections in this vein are nonsensical. Universal salvation should make you LOVE even more. Doing God’s will because you are scared of burning forever is not virtue, doing it because you see how beautiful he is and how powerful he is to save even Hitler, Bin Laden, and co. is more honorable. I will pray for you– have a wonderful weekend my friend.


          • In his universalist days, but also after his flip flop, Met. Hilarion lists Vladimir Lossky as a hesitant supporter of universalism. As evidence, he lists some work in Russian that I could not find anywhere. But very interesting to say the least.


        • Grant says:

          Sorry Jeremy, I hadn’t read this before I posted my previous post, I didn’t realize you were suffering with anxiety and scrupulousness over the questions of heaven and hell, is it possible you suffer from scrupulosity (as in the religious version of OCD)? I myself suffer from this OCD alongside one or two other versions and it was a major blight on my life for a long time (pretty much my entire 20’s and early 30’s went down the drain because of the paralyzing fear and terror it brought into my life), so you have my understanding and sympathy if this is what you are dealing with. It is a true terror of your own mind betraying you and makes it difficult to do things or consider looking at new ideas or new ways of considering things, such as universalism, as that voice insists even to do so would damn you (and can be saying you already are).

          If this is the case (or even if is not be nearly so bad for you of course, and OCD might not be an issue for you, but even if it’s just ‘normal’ anxiety maybe some of this advice can help) know that any voice or impulse in your head saying these things to you is essentially lying. It’s just like a false alarm in your head tripping off and presenting to you the very things you most fear or most hate and disagree with, the thoughts come into your head because you are thinking or concerned over not doing such things or thinking such things. And then because they appear in your mind briefly (and weird thoughts appear in everyone’s head, but most people recognize them immediately as irrelevant, strange and weird thoughts that are not something they want, desire or would think off and dismiss them and forgot about them), but with OCD we dwell on them, obsessive over them, and develop rituals to deal with them. This can have external characteristics (the more know hand-washing, or lock checking or obsessive cleaning) but can have pure rituals, ruminations, thought replacement (attempting to replace the ‘bad’ thoughts with good ones) or fighting the thoughts arguing internally with yourself to ‘prove’ you don’t really think like that (and because with OCD we fear thoughts are saying what we really are, went it’s the opposite). But like attempting to not think of pink elephant, it just causes the thoughts to keep coming, and we get anxious (often with physical systems) and it can make it very hard to function if it gets particularly bad.

          In a system like Christianity it can be set up in a manner particularly bad, particualrly where hell is consider real, any blashphous or ‘evil’ thoughts are considered to be of the person, and so they fear and even become convinced that it means they are this thing, they they hate God, or have commited the sin against the Holy Spirit and so and so. Like some people with OCD who have children and love those children have thoughts of hurting the children or abusing them because that is the very thing they fear most happening to their children, but of course those thoughts torment them, and they obsess about them, often having less contact with their own children because they fear might do something (which if they were prone to such abuse they wouldn’t be reacting in such horror). But back to Christianity, this can make what should be knowing God’s love a matter of fear and terror, of your mind distorting everything about God into a fear He is out to get you or your loved ones, and looking out to drag you to hell to be tormented forever. But like I said, thoughts like that just aren’t true, if you have OCD it’s a quick of your brain and mind and the normal habits that have become cross-wired. The intended function of your mind to warn you to danger has become instead wired around the source of obsession, the new ;source’ of harm, and so both keeps you hyper-aware to ;threats’ and tends to generate the very thoughts which appear as repetitive and intrusive thoughts that keep going as long as you engage them and the fears.

          The only answer really is to know they aren’t of you, they don’t represent what you want or desire at all, or what God wants or desires, but are in fact the opposite, they show just how much you really do love God and want to follow Him. Such anxious thoughts paint a false image of God and you can ignore it no matter what you decide on universalism. God understands all of this, and He sees through it all and knows your true heart and desire, He loves you no matter what and loves you and delights in the love you have for Him. His wish is that you be free from this anxiety born of a fallen world gripped by death (as all disease is) and to see this for what it is, such fear isn’t from Him and such terror isn’t from you either, but is a false distortion that your very fear of failing or losing God is producing. It is producing this false image and false concern, don’t pay such feelings or thoughts any attention whatsoever. It’s hard, but start on a process of just letting them go and as best you can ignore them, and don’t beat yourself up when you will inevitably fail and fall into old habits (OCD habits are hard to leave).

          Remember the repeated command of God, don’t be afraid, and that perfect love casts out fear, nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus, not heaven nor hell, not life nor death, not angels nor demons, His salvation is greater than anything. And openly considering univeralism will not contaminate you, nor can it ever damn you, no whatever what you decide, your soul is same in His hands and nothing can take it from Him. Do you best to remember His love is greater than anything, and make the mental decision to trust in it, and to realize He is greater than your tormenting thoughts, Also if you do have OCD (or think you might) consider seeking some professional counseling and treatment if possible (I had difficulty there, but it can really help).

          If I’m wrong over you possibly being OCD then hopefully at least some of this might still be of help. Again, I might have phrased what I said below differently if I had caught this 🙂 .

          You have my prayers, God bless, and remember Christ really does love you and He won’t loss you and He fully understands you completely, better then even you do 🙂


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Dear Jeremy,

          Through the years I have known people in my parishes who have struggled with scrupulosity. Some have found help through professional counseling. If you have not availed yourself of this avenue, please do consider it.

          The spiritual cure is both easy and hard. It’s easy because it’s one I can give you this very moment: “God our Father loves you absolutely, completely, unconditionally, no ifs and or buts. He will never let you go, never abandon you to everlasting torment. He will find a way to bring you into perfect faith and joy. In the name of Jesus Christ, I speak this word to you. Amen.”

          The hard part is for you to believe this word I have spoken to you, to take it into your heart and allow it to gently heal and transform you. this you must do every day, every hour, every minute, no matter what the contrary voices say. God loves you. Jesus loves you. The Spirit loves you. You are enfolded in the omnipotent arms of the Trinity. Do not be anxious. Relax and trust the God who is infinite Love.

          Liked by 2 people

        • Jeremy,

          I actually didn’t know “scrupulosity” was a technical term, so I looked it up. I checked off all the boxes and I realized I have it as well, but it was always seen as part of my more Generalized Anxiety Disorder which I continue to get therapy for. For a while, I was also reading Luke 15 every day, which helps with a number of different areas of anxiety and shame.

          Honestly, the two Maximus articles I’ve written on here are my own attempt to address my own fears that if I embrace Hart’s universalism, I’m a heretic. My logic is, if Maximus was a post-553 universalist, then this a confirmation that Nyssen’s universalism was NOT officially condemned in 553. I suppose that means these articles have an “agenda,” although I didn’t try to MAKE Maximus a universalist, and they should be assessed by their arguments.

          Channeling my anxiety into academic pursuits has been one fruitful way of dealing with it.


          Liked by 2 people

    • I think this model of a “freely willed state of madness” might make sense to St. Maximus. BUT, only for a period of time, even if it be for the equivalent of 10 trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion years in hell. That much “time” apart from God is much longer than our universe itself has been around (13.8 billion years), but that’s still far less than eternity. Someone could be lost in the darkness of their hatred of God for that long or much longer. However, as Maximus writes, following the Nyssen,

      “Just as all nature will regain, at the expected time, its completeness in the flesh [at the resurrection], so also will the pow­ers of the soul, by necessity, shed all imprints of evil clinging to them; and this after aeons have elapsed, after a long time of being driven about without rest [stasis].” Questiones et Dubia 13, PG 90:796AC.

      Maximus’ philosophy of motion, which he gets from Nyssen, allows for a temporal (however many long ages that may be) rejection and hatred of God, but not an eternal one.

      This understanding helps to make sense of how Maximus could say that those who have gravely sinned will remain far away from God in hell for many aeons (Amb. 21:1252b), while at the same time, insisting that

      “The end of the natural motion of whatever has been originated is rest, which, after the passage beyond finite things, is produced completely by infinity, for in the absence of any spatial or temporal interval, every motion of whatever is naturally moved ceases, henceforth having nowhere, and no means whereby, and nothing to which it could be moved, since it has attained its goal and cause, which is God, who is Himself the limit of the infinite horizon that limits all motion. Thus the beginning and end of every origin and motion of beings is God, for it is from Him that they have come into being, and by Him that they are moved, and it is in Him that they will achieve rest … Thus when the word “rest” is spoken, I understand it to mean solely the cessation of motion.” Amb. 15 (1217c- 1220d)

      So I see I think Maximus would agree with this priest that a freely willed state of madness could occur for a very very long time in hell, but eventually, this being will have tasted every evil that it thought it wanted, and at this point, reaches the furthest point possible in a descent into evil. At this point, the being would begin looking for the god he thought he found in lust/greed/drunkenness/whatever, and turn its (somewhat muted in hell) motion towards God.

      As Hart writes, which (imo) summarizes both Nyssen and Maximus,

      “Given the dynamism of human nature, given its primordial longing for the Good, given the inherent emptiness of evil, given the finitude of evil’s satisfactions and configurations and resources, no rational nature could freely persist forever in its apostasy from the Good. There is no power in that nature or in evil equal to such an act.” TABS 86 percent on kindle

      I want to look more into this, but I think St. John of Damascus somewhat misinterpreted Maximus’ understanding of motion, among some other things, and this MISINTERPRETATION became the standard interpretation of Maximus. John Damascene’s CORRECT theology of the icon won out at the seventh ecumenical council, but this doesn’t mean he was perfect. Others took Maximus’ statements on apokatastasis to mean that somehow, sin would be banished from humanity forever, and yet some people would still remain in hell forever, which seems totally contradictory to me. Ignatius Green mentions St. Theodore the Studite and St. Mark of Ephesus as taking this interpretation of Maximus. It seems that the post-Justinian church was trying to read Maximus through an anti-universalist lens since universalism had greatly waned in its popularity by that point, so much so, that Mark of Ephesus wrongly thought that it was condemned at the fifth ecumenical council. Historical blunders like this take place all the time.

      This doesn’t mean there was no one until modern times that interpreted Maximus in a universalist manner.

      St. Anastasius of Sinai, or writings at least attributed to him, seemed to follow Maximus’ universalism and Eriugena did as well. So this isn’t a totally novel interpretation of Maximus. The writings attributed to Anastasius say two very different things about apokatastasis, and so my guess is that these two sets of statements are not by the same person, especially given all the uncertainty regarding Anastasian authorship of almost everything.

      Jeremy, if you haven’t yet, take a look at my first post on Maximus, where I talk a lot more about why Maximus’ theology of motion, logoi, and particulars and universals point only towards universalism.


      Liked by 1 person

      • TJF says:

        I have the following statements highlighted in my copy of Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church

        “In the parousia, and the eschatological fulfilment of history, the whole created universe will enter into perfect union with God.” (pg. 235)

        “But the limits of the Church beyond death and the possibilities of salvation for those who have not known the light in this life, remain a mystery of the divine mercy for us, on which we dare not count, but to which we cannot place any human bounds.” (pg. 235)


      • DBH says:

        Go easy on the trillions there. Don’t throw the infernalists a line by conceding that God might be so vindictive or inept as all that. I like the rabbinic orthodoxy that says it takes at most eleven months for the Ge-Hinnom to purge an obdurate nature of the last residue of sin. God is not a torturer and a cautery is radical in order to be quick. Of course, Hitler or Vlad Tepes or Donald Trump may take longer; but for normal degenerates a year in the old reducing booth should work wonders.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Thank you DBH! I hope to put it into a doctoral dissertation at some point, but I’m still figuring out the logistics of getting one at this point, and whether I should publish these writings on Maximus sooner.

          Regarding your comment on my use of “trillions,” in your understanding of the Parousia/judgment, do you see the human will as immediately recognizing Christ for who he is and wanting to be purged of its sins, or do you see this recognition as a process that will happen gradually over time? Nyssen and Bulgakov seem to say that in the Parousia, there will be an immediate recognition of one’s culpability and an immediate desire to change. I guess this would make sense out of the repeated statements we see in many patristic writings that you can’t sin anymore after death. This would also make sense of the scriptural passages on judgment where those condemned DON’T WANT to be condemned.

          However, Nyssen, Maximus, and you yourself also have a line of thought that seems to imply it is possible to descend further into evil IN HELL before exhausting evil’s finite nature.

          Do you see it as possible to continue sinning in hell for a finite period of time?


          • DBH says:

            I have no idea. Neither does anyone else. But with clear knowledge must come repentance.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Mark, I think it is impossible to project our temporal concepts to tightly into postmortem judgment. Relative to an everlasting existence any temporal chastisement will be incredibly brief. It could also be the case that the actual duration of purgation could be mere moments that are experienced to varying degrees of ‘time’ for each individual for whom this is necessary. But, again, who knows. Whatever can be said of this judgment is that it will be just and fitting in order to bring souls in need of purgation into full union with God.


      • DBH says:

        By the way, Mark, consider turning these reflections into a proper short monograph. For its title I choose something like Breaking the Honorable Silence.

        Liked by 2 people

        • DBH,

          Do you suggest submission to a journal or just trying to get them into a short book?

          If the second option, any idea who would be interested in publishing such a thing?


  12. DBH says:

    What’s the word count that you would anticipate, roughly speaking?


  13. Both posts combined come to about 30,000 words


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