In both The Orthodox Church and “Dogma and Dogmatic Theology,” Sergius Bulgakov cites eschatology, among others, as a topic of theology open to dogmatic definition, the implication being that standard Orthodox teaching on the last things—including everlasting perdition—can only be said to enjoy the status of reformable doctrinal propositions.1 He elaborates upon this claim in his book The Bride of the Lamb, perhaps his greatest work. In the beginning of the section devoted to eschatology, Bulgakov asserts:
The Church has not established a single universally obligatory dogmatic definition in the domain of eschatology, if we do not count the brief testimony of the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed concerning the second coming (“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end”), as well as concerning the resurrection of the dead and the life of the future age. These dogmas of the faith, attested to by the Creed and based on the express promises of the Lord, have not, all the same, been developed by theology. They are considered to be self-evident for the dogmatic consciousness, although that is not, in reality, the case. All the rest, referring to various aspects of eschatology, has not been defined dogmatically; it is an object of dogmatic doctrine that has yet to undergo free theological investigation.2
Throughout the history of the Church, bishops and priests have preached the ta eschata, what Bulgakov calls the final accomplishments; but except for the resurrection and parousia of Christ, the Orthodox Church has not seen the need to formally pronounce upon them. The Latin Church has done so, of course—the finality of the particular judgment and the existence of an intermediate purgatorial state being prime examples—but its second millennium dogmas do not carry authority for Orthodoxy.
Note the last sentence of the above quotation: “it is an object of dogmatic doctrine that has yet to undergo free theological investigation.” Bulgakov believes that authentic dogmas are necessarily supported by intensive study and reflection, argumentation and debate. In their absence, the attempt to bind the conscience is simply an assertion of power and suppression of theological liberty. Consider, for example, the Nicene assertion of the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son in A.D. 325. The use of homoousios was controversial. No one quite knew what it meant or implied, beyond excluding the position of Arius; consequently, the Council Fathers were able to sign the final document and return to their respective dioceses with very different understandings of the Nicene “dogma.” Formal subscription to the homousion, therefore, was insufficient to expel the Arian subordination of Jesus Christ to the Father. What was needed was deeper reflection and deliberation, subsequently accomplished by Athanasius, Hilary, and especially the Cappadocians. Before the homoousion could be assimilated into the depths of the dogmatic consciousness of the Church, it was necessary for theologians to clarify the meaning of “of one substance with the Father”—which ultimately meant giving it a meaning it did not have in the Nicene definition—and demonstrate its coherence with God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ and his work of salvation. Only then could the homoousion be confirmed by the Second Ecumenical Council in 381 and received into the dogmatic consciousness of the Church. A process like this has not happened with regard to the important eschatological questions, particularly on the teaching of eternal damnation.
Nor will it do, Bulgakov avers, to appeal to a consensus patrum to justify hell, as if the Church has always been of one mind on these questions or that dogmatic resolution has already been achieved:
If it is maintained that the absence of an ecclesial definition is compensated by the existence of a firm ecclesial tradition, patristic and other, one must call such an assertion inaccurate or even completely erroneous. Aside from the fact that this tradition is insufficient and disparate, the most important thing here is the absence of a single tradition. Instead, we have at least two completely different variants: on the one hand, a doctrine originating in Origen and stabilized in the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa and his tacit and open followers; and, on the other hand, a widespread doctrine that has had many adherents but none equal in power of theological thought to those mentioned above. (Perhaps in this group we can put Augustine, the greatest teacher of the Western Church, but the originality of his worldview sets him apart in general, especially for Eastern theology.) As regards both particular patristic doctrines and the systematization of biblical texts, an inquiry that would precede dogmatization has yet to be carried out.3
Note the emphasis on the need for theological examination of and reflection upon the sources of revelation as a precondition for authentic dogmatization. Dogmatic definition requires discernment of the intrinsic connections of a theological proposition to the gospel of Christ and the whole of divine revelation. “Dogmas possess a mutual transparence,” Bulgakov writes. “They are given not as an external listing, as in a catalog or inventory, but are internally organically tied, so that in the light of one dogma the content and strength of the other is revealed.”4 When done well, theology goes beyond the mere enumeration of propositional truths and grasps the profound coherency of the faith, in all of its life-giving beauty and truth. Yet the necessary exploration of the biblical, patristic, and theological foundations of eschatology, as well as its its speculative elaboration, remains in its early stages. Burning questions remain:
- Is the doctrine of everlasting perdition compatible with God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ as absolute and infinite Love?
- Would the omnibenevolent Father of Jesus have freely created a cosmos from nothing foreknowing that some, many, or most of his children would be doomed to interminable punishment and suffering?
- How is eternal damnation not unworthy of the good God?
- Morally, aesthetically, spiritually, which is the more satisfying conclusion to the story of Jesus and the human beings he came to save—everlasting hell or apokatastasis?
In response to these questions and others, the mere iteration of catechetical doctrine, as if that ends discussion, can never be sufficient. God is absolute and infinite Love. This is the bedrock revelation given in Jesus Christ. Everlasting perdition, so the proponents of universal salvation claim, violates the revealed character of God and depth grammar of the gospel. Thus St Isaac the Syrian:
I am of the opinion that He is going to manifest some wonderful outcome, a matter of immense and ineffable compassion on the part of the glorious Creator, with respect to the ordering of this difficult matter of Gehenna’s torment: out of it the wealth of His love and power and wisdom will become known all the more—and so will the insistent might of the waves of His goodness. It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when He created them—and whom nonetheless He created. (II.39.6)
If the Kingdom and Gehenna had not been foreseen in the purpose of our good God as a result of the coming into being of good and evil actions, then God’s thoughts concerning these would not be eternal; but righteousness and sin were known by Him before they revealed themselves. Accordingly the Kingdom and Gehenna are matters belonging to mercy, which were conceived of in their essence by God as a result of His eternal goodness. It was not a matter of requiting, even though He gave them the name of requital. That we should further say or think that the matter is not full of love and mingled with compassion would be an opinion full of blasphemy and insult to our Lord God. By saying that He will even hand us over to burning for the sake of sufferings, torment and all sorts of ills, we are attributing to the divine Nature an enmity towards the very rational being which He created through grace; the same is true if we say that He acts or thinks with spite and with a vengeful purpose, as though He was avenging Himself. Among all His actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and the end of His dealings with us. (II.39.22)5
The debate on everlasting perdition must be joined at the primary level of the Church’s apprehension of the character and identity of her God. All Orthodox confess that God is Love, not only in the sense that he benevolently shares his many gifts, and indeed himself, with humanity, but that his divine being is constituted by the mutual self-giving of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Every doctrine of the Church, therefore, must bespeak this Love. Hence the challenge now put to the Orthodox Church—to creatively think through the entirety of the apostolic revelation in light of Christ’s sacrificial love disclosed in cross and resurrection. To refuse this hard work condemns the Church to a pernicious dogmatism that subverts the life-transforming good news of Jesus Christ.6 Gospel always trumps long-held but problematic beliefs. Christ and only Christ, Pascha and only Pascha, Love and only Love, is our hermeneutic. If we do not find the Holy Trinity on every page of Scripture, we are not yet reading it Christianly; if we do not find Love intimated in every biblical text, including the terrifying hell passages, we are not interpreting the Bible as divinely inspired witness to the crucified and risen Lord.
For 1,500 years Christians have claimed that the doctrine of universal salvation is heretical, yet the oddity of this claim is rarely noticed. Why odd? Because the affirmation of universal salvation does not negatively impact the central catholic doctrines and practices: Holy Trinity, Incarnation, Church, Eucharist, soteriology, grace, theosis, the necessity of repentance and the life of prayer—all remain intact and whole. All apokatastasis changes is the end of the story that we tell. This change changes nothing … yet everything. Most crucially, it changes how priests proclaim the good news of Christ to their congregations:7
- “Jesus is risen and therefore you are destined for eternal life in his Kingdom, come what may.”
- “Jesus is risen and therefore your life has inalienable meaning and purpose, despite your sins and failures.”
- “By incarnation, cross, and resurrection, God has bound himself to you for all eternity and will never let you go.”
- “Even in the hopeless depths of the Gehenna you create for yourself, your Creator will find and deliver you. Nothing is impossible for the God who raises the dead.
- “Because Christ Jesus has died for your sins, your future with God is assured; therefore repent, take up your cross, and follow your Lord and Savior.”
This evangelical preaching in turn generates in the hearts of believers indomitable hope and joy:
- “God has committed himself totally to my salvation and happiness, glory to God!”
- “My life will not end in failure and meaninglessness, glory to God!”
- “Jesus will find a way to conquer the faithlessness and sin of my heart, glory to God!”
- “My Father will never condemn me to eternal torment, glory to God!”
- “I will be reunited with my family and friends in heaven and together we will rejoice and sing and play, glory to God!”
What then is the heresy? Is it believing that God is better and more loving than typically portrayed? Above I asked, “Morally, aesthetically, spiritually, which is the more satisfying conclusion to the story of Jesus and the human beings he came to save—everlasting hell or apokatastasis?” I suspect many readers found it perplexing, perhaps even presumptuous. Who are we to dictate to God the most fitting conclusion? It’s his story, after all. Yet it is precisely this story, a story of prodigal mercy, surprising reversals, mighty deliverances, and exhilarating paschal victory—of eucatastrophe, as J.R.R. Tolkien puts it—that invites us to imagine the most glorious possible conclusion. In Jesus Christ, God has revealed himself as lover of the ungodly and victor over Satan, sin, and death. What conclusion, therefore, will (nay, must) Love write?
But, someone objects, apokatastasis is too good to be true. How can even God save the contumacious. obdurate sinner? To this question George MacDonald has given the only possible gospel answer:
If you find what I tell you untrue, it will only be that it is not grand and free and bounteous enough. To think anything too good to be true, is to deny God—to say the untrue may be better than the true—that there might be a greater God than he.8
All that human tenderness can give or desire in the nearness and readiness of love, all and infinitely more must be true of the perfect Father—of the maker of fatherhood, the Father of all the fathers of the earth, specially the Father of those who have specially shown a father-heart.9
The moment we find ourselves underestimating or limiting the power of the divine Lover to accomplish his salvific purposes, we betray the gospel of Jesus Christ.
What does it mean to say that God is Love? If the doctrine of eternal damnation is true, then this logically entails that God loves either conditionally or impotently. In both cases God effectively ceases to will the good for every human being he has created and therefore ceases to love truly. Yet this cannot be true, for we can imagine both an infinitely greater Love and an infinitely happier ending to the story of the risen Savior. How is it that we can conceive a Trinity surpassing catechetical divinity or envision a more glorious eschaton? Surely only by the enchantment of Pascha and Spirit. Apokatastasis is but the gospel of Christ’s absolute and unconditional love sung in an eschatological key. From beginning to end, the story of Jesus is eucatastrophe: “The Birth of Christ,” declares Tolkien, “is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. The story begins and ends in joy.”10
Orthodox supporters of eternal damnation critics will immediately invoke the Second Council of Constantinople (553): “But universal salvation has already been condemned by an Ecumenical Council! Just look at the anti-Origenist anathemas!” By the time Bulgakov wrote The Bride of the Lamb, however, the ecumenical authority of these anathemas had been seriously questioned by historians of Christian doctrine for two centuries: “Even the definitions that condemn Origenism, which previously had been attributed to the fifth ecumenical council, have been shown by recent historical inquiry not to originate in this council.”11 More recent scholarship has confirmed this judgment.12 But Bulgakov does not put all of his eggs into this historical assessment, for “even if the anathemas did so originate, they would still require interpretation and very careful commentary.”13 Like Scripture, dogma too must be interpreted through Pascha. Even if the council fathers did condemn the sixth-century formulations of apokatastasis, which were grounded in a belief in the preexistence of souls and their return to their original state, they did not consider, much less condemn, the bold and substantively different formulation advanced by St Gregory of Nyssa. In support Bulgakov quotes M. F. Oksiyuk, author of Eskhatologila sv. Grigorija Nisskogo (1914): the council fathers “did not condemn the opinions of St. Gregory of Nyssa. And how could they have condemned them if, even before the third ecumenical council, this bishop was recognized by the Church as a saint?”14 The Emperor Justinian even included Gregory in his list of holy fathers in his letter to the council. This is the essential dogmatic point, which Bulgakov repeats multiple times in the chapters devoted to eschatology: “The Church has not issued a precise determination on this issue, although the doctrine of scholastic theology attempts to pass itself off as such a determination. But, actually, this doctrine only expresses the ‘opinion’ of one of the two tendencies that have opposed each other and continue to oppose each other in theology.”15
What might the necessary exploration of the question of eternal damnation look like? We begin, as always, with Holy Scripture and specifically with our Lord’s parable on the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 (always the first text raised), with careful attention to v. 46 and the semantic range of two critical words—aionion and kolasis. In most English translations aionion is typically translated as “eternal” and kolasis as “punishment”: “And these will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (RSV). But aionion might also be plausibly rendered “age-during” and kolasis “chastisment”:
And these shall be coming away into chastening eonian, yet the just into life eonian. (CLNT)
And these shall go away to punishment age-during, but the righteous to life age-during. (YLT)
And these will go to the chastening of that Age, but the just to the life of that Age. (DBHNT)16
How then do we decide? Only by in-depth study of the myriad eschatologies of Second Temple Judaism and the New Testament. This is the kind of research that was unavailable to the patristic and medieval Fathers. It is a complex subject, and definitive answers may be impossible. Most certainly we will be left with probabiities, with each scholar reaching his or her own judgments about the eschatological beliefs of Jesus. Did Jesus believe that the chastisements of Gehenna would be temporary (i.e., for an age)? Did he intend to teach everlasting damnation, or was he simply appropriating popular beliefs to confront his audience with the eschatological urgency of his message and mission?17 It might even be the case, as David Bentley Hart has recently proposed, that because of the diverse and conflicting imagery used by Jesus in speaking of the final judgment—ranging from metaphors of destruction, exclusion, and imprisonment—the gospels do not permit a definitive determination regarding our Lord’s beliefs about the final judgment:
While Christ employed all sorts of imagery regarding final judgment, and spoke of a discrimination between the righteous and the wicked, and spoke also of the dire consequences for the latter of their actions in this life, none of it should be received as anything other than an intentionally heterogenous phantasmagory, meant as much to disorient as to instruct.18
Yet even if a consensus on dominical eschatology should be achieved, such consensuses are notoriously provisional. Scholarship does not stand still. The same kind of research is necessary to rightly understand the distinctive eschatologies of the New Testament authors, especially the Apostle Paul. This research has been and is being done, particularly by Protestant and Catholic biblical scholars; but Orthodox theology has been notoriously resistant to assimilating critical research into its exposition of Scripture, preferring instead to remain in the comforting sureties of premodern exegesis. This is by no means to depreciate the Fathers and their interpretation of the Bible; but the questions posed by historical science (no more than the questions posed by the natural sciences) will not go away.
Historical scholarship also challenges the belief that the Church has always taught an eternal hell. Matters are not so neat. As the historian Dimitris J. Kyrtatas notes, hell as a place of punishment first appears in Christian literature in the second century document The Apocalypse of Peter. Kyrtatas, like a growing number of scholars, believes that the New Testament teaches a doctrine of the total annihilation of the wicked.19 “It therefore comes as a great surprise to the historian,” he writes,
that a generation after all the New Testament documents had been completed (and possibly within an even shorter period), a new idea appears to have been advanced, giving an entirely different direction to the eschatological expectations of the early Christians. Instead of total destruction and eternal death, the so-called Apocalypse of Peter (Apoc. Pet.) envisages all the resurrected sinners as being tortured, with a variety of punishments, designed, more or less, to fit their crimes. They are hanging by their tongues, their necks, their hair or their thighs. They are cast into pits filled with excrement or venomous beasts. Their eyes are pierced, their tongues are chewed or their lips are cut off. They thrust themselves down from high places only to return again, and so on. The only details that recall the predictions of Jesus in the Gospels are the unquenchable fire and the undying worms, but they serve a different purpose. Instead of consuming the dead bodies, they are employed as instruments for torture, inflicting pain and causing great agony.20
But are these punishments eternal? The earliest surviving fragment seems to suggest this, but Kyrtatas proposes that we should read The Apocalypse of Peter alongside the second book of the Sybylline Oracles. It too offers a graphic depiction of the torments of the damned, but it ends differently. The pious, it is said, will be granted the privilege of interceding on behalf of the condemned. Those who are rescued in answer to their prayers will then be granted a life of everlasting bliss. “Luckily,” Kyrtatas comments, “we can be pretty sure that the Oracula Sybillina preserves indeed, at this important point, the original meaning of the Apoc. Pet.,” given its agreement with the Rainer fragment:
I shall grant to my summoned and elect all those whom they ask me to remove from punishment. And I shall grant them a beautiful baptism in salvation in the Echerusian Lake, which is said to be in the Elysian Valley, a sharing of justification with my saints.21
I mention this essay by Kyrtalis not because I believe that his thesis is beyond scholarly critique but to challenge the commonly held opinions that eternal damnation (1) is obviously and clearly taught in the Scriptures and (2) was universally taught by orthodox Christians in the early centuries. This simply is not the case. The data does not yield these conclusions. Hence the need for continued investigation. If Christianity is true, then it has no reason to fear sound historical research, even if it compels reassessment of inherited beliefs and prejudices. As St Augustine famously wrote: “Let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master.”22 The teaching of the Church lives forward, as Richard Neuhaus liked to say.
Bulgakov concludes: “On the basis of the objective situation in Orthodox theology it is at least possible to debate about whether crystallized dogmatic definitions in the domain of eschatology exist in Orthodoxy. Therefore to deny that they exist does not, in our opinion, represent a violation of regula fidei.”23 The Russian archpriest is exactly right. When opponents of the greater hope name it heterodox, and therefore its proponents as heretics, they go too far. They may have 1,500 years of tradition on their side, but that in itself does not establish everlasting perdition as irreformable dogma. It might seem that it should—after all, Orthodoxy is all about tradition and 1,500 years is a very long time (or is it?)—yet Orthodoxy lacks both a divinely revealed doctrine of doctrinal infallibility and an institutional mechanism of establishing irreformable dogma.24 Orthodoxy is not Roman Catholicism. It has never had a Vatican I and Vatican II. Its theologians have never devoted huge reams of paper discussing among themselves precisely what doctrinal inerrancy means or how a historically-conditioned dogmatic statement is to be interpreted and applied. Orthodox theologians even disagree among themselves how a council becomes an ecumenical council. Are there formal criteria that need to be fulfilled, or is it a purely charismatic event? The Orthodox spirits divide. The standard teaching of eternal damnation, therefore, may be standard; but it cannot claim irreversibility for its standardness. Theologians should not presume a disputable understanding of doctrinal infallibility and on that basis declare apokatastasis contrary to the Orthodox faith. That is just begging the question. The premature, and in my opinion irresponsible, appeal to ecclesial authority in order to foreclose debate makes impossible the scholarly research, reflection, and discussion of the dogmatic proposal of universal salvation that needs to happen in the Orthodox Church. Nothing less than the right preaching of the gospel is at stake!25
 Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, p. 379.
 Ibid., 379-380. Nor is Bulgakov alone on this point. Most notably, he is joined by Olivier-Maurice Clément, Paul Evdokimov, Alexandre Turincev, Andrew Louth, John Behr, Michael Plekon, David Bentley Hart, and Met Kallistos Ware, as well as lesser lights such as Robert Fortuin and Brad Jersak.
 “Dogma and Dogmatic Theology,” p. 78.
 Isaac the Syrian, The Second Part.
 For a recent example of the refusal to engage the theological arguments on behalf of universal salvation in the name of dogma, see David C. Ford, “An Open Letter to Fr Aidan Kimel regarding Universalism.”
 See my essay “Preaching Apokatastasis.”
 George MacDonald, Donal Grant, chap. 45.
 George MacDonald, “Abba, Father,” Unspoken Sermons.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” The Monster and the Critics, p. 156.
 Bride, p. 482.
 Bride, p. 482.
 Ibid., p. 482, n. 61.
 See “Sometimes Eternity Ain’t Forever.”
 On the difference between presupposition and statement, see Richard Swinburne, Revelation (2nd ed.), chap. 2.
 David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, p.119.
 See, e.g., Bart Ehrman, Heaven and Hell, chaps. 8-9.
 Dimitris J. Kyrtatas, “The Origins of Christian Hell,” p. 288.
 Quoted by Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis, p. 69. Ramelli’s magnum opus deserves careful reading.
 Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Doctrine 2.18.28.
 Bride, p. 381. In his theological commentary The Apocalypse of John, Bulgakov offers this word of judgment: “Such is the sin of dogmatics, running throughout the entire history of theology (with minor exceptions), the diminution or outright denial of apocatastasis, enshrined in the dogma of the Catholic Church and raised to the level of generally accepted or mandatory theological opinion in the East, although it has never entered formally into the dogma” (p. 239).
 This article was originally published on 17 February 2016 under the title “The Dogmatic Status of Apokatastasis.” It has been significantly revised and expanded.