St. Gregory of Nyssa–Teacher of Eternal Damnation?

by C. T. Cohen

One reader of Eclectic Orthodoxy has brought up two passages from St. Gregory of Nyssa’s work De Infantibus Praemature Abreptis (On Infant’s Early Deaths). On the face of it, one of these two sections may suggest that Nyssen was in fact not a universalist. The second of which would appear to strengthen this, in its indication of Nyssen’s interpreta­tion of a psalm which articulates that the joy of the saints in heaven after judgment day is increased by the torments of the damned. I will deal with the first section and then the second. Morwenna Ludlow has addressed these two passages as well, though not in quite the detail I aim to do here, in her work Universal Salvation.1 Ludlow indicates that of all of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s works which are extant, only this one in isolation can form the strongest argument that St. Gregory was of the belief that the punishment in the coming age is unending. Therefore, any argumentation or examination to discern St. Gregory of Nyssa’s universal­ism or lack thereof needs to address this text. However, as will be seen, any argument from this text also relies on the more robust eschatological accounts in other works of Nyssen’s.

To begin dealing with the first section, I would like to examine the New Advent translation (trans. William Moore and Henry Austin Wilson),2 followed by attention to the original Greek in order to clarify what may be misleading:

We learn as much too in the case of Judas, from the sentence pronounced upon him in the Gospels (Matthew 26:24); namely, that when we think of such men, that which never existed is to be preferred to that which has existed in such sin. For, as to the latter, on account of the depth of the ingrained evil, the chastisement in the way of purgation will be extended into infinity; but as for what has never existed, how can any torment touch it?— However, notwithstanding that, the man who institutes a comparison between the infantine immature life and that of perfect virtue, must himself be pronounced immature for so judging of realities.

There are a few important terms and phrases to grasp here: (1) The crucial phrase “εἰς ἄπειρον παρατέινεται” translated as “extended into infinity,” (2) the phrase “ἡ διὰ τῆς καθάρσεως κόλασις” translated as “the chastisement in the way of purgation,” (3) and lastly “ὀδύνη” translated as “torment.” I will deal with each of these, the first being the most crucial.

As for the first phrase, the word “ἄπειρον” is the key term. What one does not know unless one knows Greek is that this term actually has two distinct meanings, and in all likelihood the first usage and meaning is that which generated the second usage and meaning. The first usage and meaning effectively means “that which is not experienced or is able to be experi­enced” and “ignorant by means of lack of experience.” The root of the word peir is the etymological root from Greek through Latin for our English “experience” even. And the alpha-privative apeir, in Greek, is prefixed to a vast amount of words which indicate “inex­perience with…” For example, ἀπειρόμοθος (inexperienced in toil), ἀπειρομάχας (inexperi­enced in battle), ἀπειρόπλους (inexperienced in naval navigation), and many such words. The second usage of the term signifies “boundless, infinite, countless, innumerable, indef­inite,” with some metaphorical extended usages of the term. Both Liddell-Scott-Jones and Lampe post this more ambiguous meaning of the term as ‘indefinite but not necessarily without end’ or ‘indefinite but ambiguous in regards to an end.’ As one can see, the second meaning of degree, number or quantity beyond what is accountable grows out of the first meaning of that which is inexperienced or not able to be experienced.

The second phrase, “ἡ διὰ τῆς καθάρσεως κόλασις,” containing two key terms. The first is κόλασις, which, frankly, should be translated as ambiguously as the term is in the Greek and thus as “punishment.” The word predominantly occurs as “chastisement,” as in the text above); however, there are instances, such as in 3rd Maccabees 1:3 in which a stand-in for the king is killed in his tent, where it is used in the sense of just vengeance. But “punish­ment,” in all of its ambiguity, is precisely the scope of this Greek term, and the generic point is ‘to punish or chastise in response to evil or transgression.’ However, our second term in the phrase is the key: τῆς καθάρσεως. It defines this phase, which the translation does adequately represent. The term signifies “cleansing”—as in moral/spiri­tual cases, in cooking, surgery, rhetoric (clarify), winnowing (chaff from grain), tree-pruning, and clearing land. As a predicate of “punishment” or “chastisement,” it dictates the purpose of and goal of the punishing—namely, purification. Nyssen is very aware of Scripture and its precarious texts in this vein; he is just very careful not to transpose theological truths flatly from the ἱστορία (narrative) or γράμμα (letter; literal/literary meaning) without carefully engaging θεωρία (contemplation) which must abide by other theological axioms.

In the third phrase “ὀδύνη” is dubiously translated as “torments.” As is standard fare in much of patristic literature, ὀδύνη, or most simply “pain,” is just as generic a term for late antiquity as it is in English; save for the exception that it and synonymous terms are often associated with purification through askesis or the ascetical reception (the soterial “χρήσις/usage”) of the misfortunes of this life.

Context is likewise important here: for the argument Gregory is developing, it is crucial to determine the meaning of this passage. The example of the coming chastisement of Judas and Judas-like individuals is placed for purpose of abstract to more generic truths: that it is better to not have come into life at all than to have been born and live and become exceed­ingly wicked, and better still to have come into life and fully pursued and partici­pated in God via the taking on of virtue. To say this most explicitly: the duration of the chastisement of Judas and Judas-like individuals is not crucial to the argument. What is analogized from this is simply that aforementioned principle. Indeed, both “infinite,” or “without end” and “indefinitely (possibly with or without end)” can work here as what is implied. Either “infinite” or “indefinite” can work here among other words. The point being not duration but precisely ambiguity about the duration. Indeed, from Nyssen’s schematical taxis (ordering of salvation for those perfect down to those who possess more evil than good) in De Anima et Resurrectione (On the Soul and the Resurrection) and elsewhere, one gets the sense that he conceives that such purification of the exceedingly wicked could take aeons of chastisement within that greater eschatological aeon. And in fact, the second open ended fear of possible interminability is probably the point. My paraphrase of Nyssen to this effect:

It is best to live a long life and increase in virtue for the purpose of the benefits which come in the eschaton. It is not ideal but is permitted by God in his providence that some die early in their infancy for the purpose of preventing some from becoming exceedingly evil (but there may be other reasons why he does this which I am unaware of!). And worst of all is to become exceedingly evil. For we know from the interaction of Judas and Jesus in the Gospel, that it is better to not have been born at all than to become as evil as Judas. Because of how deeply evil has attached into the very being of such persons, the cleansing chastisement may extend into uncertain bounds (maybe forever)! Thus it is shown that it is better to never have made it far in life than to become so abounding in wickedness.

Nyssen must, after all, be read in context of all of his other works. And unless one can demonstrate that he shifted his views decisively on this point or, more absurdly, never believed or explicated such a notion, one should assume he is being consistent. His many other statements, most notably in In Illud: Tunc Et Ipse Filius (Concerning That: Then Even the Son Himself (will be subjected to the Father) (1 Cor. 15:28)) and De Anima et Resurrectione demonstrate his doctrine of apokatastasis most clearly, but there are even more beyond this. Given this, the effect is such that Nyssen wants to imprint his readers with the notion that infants experience early deaths because of God’s providence and that this can be inferred from the statement of Christ in the gospels concerning Judas’ because of his imminent betrayal: “It would have been better for that one not to have been born!” The presence of “cleansing correction (ἡ διὰ τῆς καθάρσεως κόλασις)” in tandem with this probably is for the purpose of theoretic or possible infinity, even if not real or truly inevitable, even if Nyssen does not actually believe that this is what the eschaton will hold for even those most wicked of souls. The vast majority, if not entirety, of Church Fathers, even the universalist ones, at the very least hold that the fear of hell and the severity of the pains required for such purification, as well its indefiniteness leading to the possible interminability, is salutary for any and every soul here and now in this liminality.

Finally, the Greek text and my translation:

Greek Text My Translation
Ἰούδα διὰ τῆς εὐαγγελικῆς φωνῆς ἐδιδάχθημεν, ὅτι ἐπὶ τῶν τοιούτων κρεῖττον τοῦ κατὰ κακίαν ὑφεστῶτός ἐστι τὸ παντελῶς ἀνυπόστατον· τῷ μὲν γὰρ διὰ τὸ βάθος τῆς ἐμφυείσης κακίας εἰς ἄπειρον παρατείνεται ἡ διὰ τῆς καθάρσεως κόλασις, τοῦ δὲ μὴ ὄντος πῶς ἂν ὀδύνη καθάψαιτο; εἰ δέ τις πρὸς τὸν κατ’ ἀρετὴν βίον κρίνοι τὸν νηπιώδη καὶ ἄωρον, ὄντως ἄωρος ὁ τοιοῦτός ἐστι τοιαύτῃ κρίσει περὶ τῶν ὄντων χρώμενος. Through Judas, we are taught from the voice of the gospel that on the basis of evil having been established it is better to have been entirely anhypostatic (ἀνυπόστατον; never made manifest). For on the other hand, the depth of evil having become so deeply rooted, the cleansing chastisement (ἡ διὰ τῆς καθάρσεως κόλασις) is thus stretched out indefinitely. But how can the one not having existed have pain (ὀδύνη) fastened to it? And if someone should wish to judge the virtuous life against the infantile (life) and (those of) untimely (death) (ἄωρον), really such a one themself is immature (ἄωρος) submitting such a judgement concerning such realities.

Now that this first section has been handled in respect to those crucial points, the secondary section may be dealt with—namely, the benefit added to the saints in heaven, while those in hell are suffering. The New Advent text reads:

But some one will say, “It is not all who thus reap in this life the fruits of their wickedness, any more than all those whose lives have been virtuous profit while living by their virtuous endeavours; what then, I ask, is the advantage of their existence in the case of these who live to the end unpunished?” I will bring forward to meet this question of yours a reason which transcends all human arguments. Somewhere in his utterances the great David declares that some portion of the blessedness of the virtuous will consist in this; in contemplating side by side with their own felicity the perdition of the reprobate. He says, “The righteous shall rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he shall wash his hands in the blood of the ungodly” (MT Ps 58; LXX Ps 57); not indeed as rejoicing over the torments of those sufferers, but as then most completely realizing the extent of the well-earned rewards of virtue. He signifies by those words that it will be an addition to the felicity of the virtuous and an intensification of it, to have its contrary set against it. In saying that “he washes his hands in the blood of the ungodly,” he would convey the thought that the cleanness of his own acting in life is plainly declared in the perdition of the ungodly. For the expression “wash” represents the idea of cleanness; but no one is washed, but is rather defiled, in blood; whereby it is clear that it is a comparison with the harsher forms of punishment that puts in a clearer light the blessedness of virtue.

In essence, it appears that Nyssen is harmonizing with other Christian voices throughout history (Tertullian, Martin Luther, et al.) who maintained that the torments of those in hell adds to the beatitude of the saints in heaven. One example of this would be Thomas Aquinas’ reiteration of an interpretive gloss of a similar text from Isaiah which reads:

And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh. (Isa 66:24)

And the gloss which reads, “The elect will go out by understanding or seeing manifestly, so that they may be urged the more to praise God.”3 Aquinas’ interpretation of Isaiah 66:24 is effectively the same as Nyssen’s interpretation of Psalm 58 (LXX 57), saying:

I answer that, nothing should be denied the blessed that belongs to the perfection of their beatitude. Now everything is known the more for being compared with its contrary, because when contraries are placed beside one another they become more conspicuous. Wherefore in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.4

Furthermore, Aquinas will use the same psalm which Nyssen interprets here, but to apply it so as to teach that it is the divine justice which is being inflicted upon those in hell which stimulates so much happiness to the saints in heaven—it is not their suffering which incites this elation.5 As David Bentley Hart has noted, this is still morally grotesque of Aquinas to articulate.6. And Aquinas’ disturbing sensibility here is not lessened, as he argues the need for the saints in heaven to experience nothing of pity or compassion—a sentiment that cuts directly against more than a few Eastern saints, ancient and modern7—for it would be entirely futile and therefore irrational to harbor such a disposition to the eternally damned:

But in the future state it will be impossible for them [the damned] to be taken away from their unhappiness: and consequently it will not be possible to pity their sufferings according to right reason. Therefore the blessed in glory will have no pity on the damned.8

Are we then to classify St. Gregory of Nyssa among such voices? In a sense, yes, because he makes that initial interpretive move. However, Nyssen does not seem to grant that one could rejoice in their punishment as distinct from their suffering. And I would even grant something to Aquinas and whatever variety of Thomist on this point: that there is a distinction between the justice done and the suffering experienced. One can certainly grant that the death of an evil person is just insofar as it ceases the evil which they propagate. However, that one might rejoice in the visceral pain or torment suffered which may be entailed in said death of an evil or vicious person and the undignified corruption of their body should be entirely attributed to our sinful and passion-riddled hearts, rather than to any true and virtuous sense of justice. The death occurring to an evil person does not cease to be evil, only that as an evil it simply obtains some good, that is, the cessation of their evils; the evil of death terminates the evil of a wicked person.

So what sets Nyssen apart then, even if we grant Aquinas’ distinction between the justice done and the suffering experienced? Simply this: that for Aquinas this justice is unending and teleologically directed towards something other than what is seen in Nyssen’s concep­tion. For Nyssen, the cleansing punishment might even last for aeons for some portion of the wicked, varying according to the appropriate taxis/ordering. And it does appear that he leaves the door open to the theoretical possibility that it may never end—probably for rhetorical effect—even if he teaches elsewhere that it will come to an end in time. However, the purpose of the pain, of the kolasis or chastisement/punishment, is katharsis or cleansing/purification. Thus, even though Nyssen distinguishes that what is rejoiced in is the contrariety of the blessedness, and not even the justice/punishment per se (where Aquinas takes a step farther in stating so).9 If we extended Nyssen’s interpretation to theoretically encapsulate Aquinas’ articulation here, then still the nature of what is said is distinct; for the saints in heaven would be rejoicing over the cleansing, the purification which is occurring to those in hell, but not necessarily the pain they are experiencing. The very nature of the purpose of punishment drastically changes the entire mood and, in effect, the moral quality of the contrasting punishment here. This is probably why Hart did not bring up St. Gregory of Nyssa’s articulation here:10 because if the nature of punishment in the coming age is ordered towards something other than endless torment, principally toward salvation/purification, then it is categorically a different meaning.

To strengthen this reading, one can attend to Gregory’s De Inscriptiones Psalmorum (On the Inscriptions of the Psalms) in which he attends to this very psalm11 and articulates a number of clarifying points: that the first two verses are David’s judgement of those who are supposedly righteous alike with those who have fallen, that David himself stands above the tumult of the world and looks down lamenting the sinners who have lost their way, that he emphasizes that taking the psalm as a whole will yield that this lament over sinners is the predominant sentiment, that the storing up of blessings for the righteous is one of the points of the psalm, and that God does not actually evince anger or wrath (only something like them). There Nyssen’s interpretation of the washing of hands in blood is semantically identical to here: it is about the contrariety of the blessedness of the saints.

Nyssen’s conception then should primarily be taken in its seriousness about the nature of hell, and the purpose or goal of God’s antidosis/repayment in hell as intentionally restorative. Even if one ultimately disagrees with St. Gregory of Nyssa on the eventual salvation of all, one should at least believe that those who do not attain this salvation will end up in a cyclical state of perpetual but never-ending purification, and thus maintain Nyssen’s teleological position. One can simply believe that Nyssen, even as a saint, and as “The Father of the Fathers,” is wrong on the one point of the eventual redemptive outcome. We should not conceive that saints are inerrant in their every word, only that the illumination and purification of the saint may potentially make one infallible, even if it were the case that it never in fact has happened or will happen in history.12 But this returns us to the primary matter of the debate about universal salvation, its place in their respective ecclesial dogmatic proclamations (or lack thereof), among other related and pressing issues, which many scholars, theologians, priests and laymen have been debating more in recent years. On this return to that path, I leave off to others.


[1] Universal Salvation: Eschatology in the Thought of St. Gregory of Nyssa and Karl Rahner, 82.

[2] Readers may also wish to compare Casimir McCambly’s translation “Concerning Infants Who Have Died Prematurely.”

[3] ST Suppl., Q. 94, Art. 1, s. c.

[4] ST Suppl., Q. 94, Art. 1, co.

[5] ST Suppl., Q. 94, Art. 3, co.

[6] David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2019) 78-9, 146-50.

[7] St. Isaac of Nineveh and St. Silouan the Athonite, for starters.

[8] ST Suppl. Q. 94, Art. 2, co.

[9] In Nyssen’s In Inscriptione Psalmorum 2.15, he does however make an extra step, stating, “Not in exulting (ἐπιχαίρων) in the undoing of those sinners (τοῖς ἀπολλυμένοις), but as placed parallel to himself [the Psalmist/David] to the things of those [sinners] contrasting, then he will be blessed himself from sound judgment because he did not come to be among those, among whom he sees the avenging (τὴν ἐκδίκησιν) of sinners.” It needs to be said here that Nyssen’s explanation is careful to distinguish the kind of satisfaction or pleasure which occurs among the righteous: from the text of the psalm itself, which Nyssen restates “they will make merry (εὐφανθήσεται)” when they see the avenging of God, but this is not malicious “exulting (ἐπιχαίρων; almost always a deleterious kind of celebration),” but instead the righteous on will consider themselves blessed (μακαρίσει). Nyssen is careful to distinguish that their celebration is not a wicked kind. And it is important to recognize that Gregory does not make the move (which Aquinas makes) of the celebration of the punishment even. This is the difference of being thankful that something terrible has not befallen oneself when seeing it occur to someone else (Nyssen) contrasted to being thankful for the just punishment of evil persons, which is still distinguished from their actual experience of suffering and torment (Aquinas).

[10] Hart, 78-9.

[11] Gregory of Nyssa, In Inscriptiones Psalmorum, 2.15.

[12] As early as St. Maximus the Confessor, we see plenty of statements, primarily in his Ambigua, of the language of infallibility being ascribed to certain saints, namely St. Dionysius the Areopagite and St. Gregory of Nazianzen. By the time of Palamas, one finds much stronger claims about a host of saints—a phenomenon that Sergius Bulgakov comments upon with particular clarity in his essay “Dogma and Dogmatic Theology.”

* * *

C. T. Cohen is a graduate student focusing on patristics and Eastern Christianity in the Master of Arts in Religion in Historical Theology at Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan University in East TN. He and his wife are soon to be chrismated (GOA) in the Orthodox Church.

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25 Responses to St. Gregory of Nyssa–Teacher of Eternal Damnation?

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Yikes. I accidentally omitted several footnotes. They have been returned to their proper place. My apologies to Tyler and readers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ed H says:

    Gregory of Nyssa claims that God kills infants because He foresees the evil they would do in their life and He chooses to prevent that. Why is this monstrous claim not the same as that of Calvin and others who are vilified for their own claims of a vindictive God? Why is a God who would take the life of infant not a monstrosity? Why does this not destroy the credibility of Gregory of Nyssa as a theologian?
    “Therefore, to prevent one who has indulged in the carousals to an improper extent from lingering over so profusely furnished a table, he is early taken from the number of the banqueters, and thereby secures an escape out of those evils which unmeasured indulgence procures for gluttons. This is that achievement of a perfect Providence which I spoke of; namely, not only to heal evils that have been committed, but also to forestall them before they have been committed; and this, we suspect, is the cause of the deaths of new-born infants.”


    • DBH says:

      Is that a serious question? The two cases are hardly comparable.

      Gregory suggests that, in some cases, God may have permitted a potentially very evil person (say, a Pol Pot) to perish in childbirth (which is the principle issue of the treatise) while still sinless, and thus to grow into his or her divine destiny in eternity (the banquet is an image of early departure, not of the sins in question). Not one one of his more brilliant suggestions, but in an age when infant mortality was around 45% this might have brought considerable comfort to grieving parents. It would have reassured them that a child who died prematurely may have been taken away so that he or she could enter into an eternity of bliss, where they would find him or her waiting for them at the end of their lives in this miserable world. It is nothing even remotely like the barbaric view that children who are not among the elect descend even if they die in the cradle to eternal torment by virtue of a praedestinatio ante praevisa merita on the part of a God whose only real attribute is amoral sovereignty. In fact, it is precisely on account of merita praevisa that, according to Gregory, God perhaps exercises providential mercy to spare infants a life leading to immense misery for themselves and others.

      In the fourth century, Gregory’s suggestion would not have seemed appalling. After all, God is “taking the lives” of infants all the time, and was doing so with far more regularity in those days. Gregory is merely suggesting a providential story that might assure parents that a child who has perished in childbirth–unlike the Augustinian account–is not on the way to hell, but is instead enfolded in divine mercy and is even now being deified while being spared so much as a touch of the refining fire.

      Liked by 5 people

      • TJF says:

        If it wasn’t one of his better suggestions, do you have a suggestion for why this happens? Is the only answer “we don’t know?”


        • Curdie says:

          Not DBH, but he has written a book on the subject of senseless suffering called The Doors Of The Sea in which I think he handles the issue really gracefully. But the problem of pain and/or evil has probably led to a few trillion pages being written at this point, with many people indeed concluding that the only answer is “we don’t know.”

          Liked by 1 person

      • Ed H says:

        Dr. Hart, I would say you are being quite inconsistent in your leniency toward Gregory of Nyssa. You were very eloquent in Doors of the Sea in your insistence that God did not wish the death of a single drowned child, and you appropriately condemned all those demented scholars who claimed this was somehow God’s plan or mysterious purpose. I believe you also claimed on this website that Gregory never really believed that God actually killed the firstborn in Egypt. But in the passage above, Gregory clearly says that God is killing the infant in His “perfect Providence.” I think Gregory deserves the same articulate condemnation that you given to others who think God would do such a thing.


        • Actually, I echo Ed’s confusion here. Surely DBH and Gregory wouldn’t affirm that God is actively killing these babies (nor is he “permitting” them to die). I don’t see how that would add up with everything else DBH has written on the subject of suffering and evil being entirely unnecessary and without rationale.

          On another note, If I buy a DBH kindle book on amazon for $20, how much of that $20 goes to Amazon and how much of it ends up in DBH’s pocket? I would rather support the artist directly than prop up a big evil middleman like Amazon.


        • DBH says:

          Oh, what utter rubbish. Everyone dies, and children die frequently. To say that God does not positively desire the death of any man (or woman, or baby) is not to deny that God may providentially permit a death to happen now rather than later if it conduces to the ultimate salvation of all to do so. That’s what the whole idea of providence is, after all. It may not be Gregory at his best, but it certainly does not merit condemnation.

          If you can’t see the difference between Gregory’s compassion—his certainty that even when a child dies God has not abandoned that child—and Calvin’s depravity—his conviction that God sends many such babies to eternal torment as a manifestation of divine sovereignty—then you need to cut back on those vodka and benzodiazepine cocktails.

          Just a guess there.

          Liked by 2 people

          • what you’re saying appears to me to fail Ivan Karamazovs argument. I thought that death didn’t figure into a totalising narrative? All of a sudden God permits babies to die so as to secure universal salvation? “If the price of the kingdom is this child’s tears, i’m returning my ticket” or whatever it was. Just struggling to understand how on the one hand you say that God does not require death as part of his plan and yet on the other hand you seem to be saying that he actively orchestrates (or “permits”, which seems to me a distinction without a difference) the moment of our deaths as a key means in order to achieve a greater good. I must be missing something


          • What you’re saying seems at first glance to reify the deaths of these children into necessary moments in God’s plan. Even if ultimately everyone ends up saved, if the deaths of those babies were orchestrated (or “permitted”, again i can’t perceive a difference) by God as part of a “plan” to bring about the kingdom…. it just seems to run counter to literally everything else you’ve written (Doors of the Sea, TASBS, BOTI, HAM). Can you explain how God actively choosing for a baby to die earlier rather than later (which implicates God in the event of the death, which is inherently bad) does not compromise his essential goodness? It just seems to me that if God’s will, choice, or permission is linked to an evil event (such as the death of a baby) in any sense other than the redemption of that event, everything falls apart. But God “choosing” or “permitting” someone to die at a certain time seems to me to go beyond merely redeeming the death; God in this case seems to be an ontological accomplice to the crime: he’s not simply redeeming an evil into a good, but rather actively giving form to the evil (in this case, by involving himself in the determination of when the death will occur).

            I feel like I’m missing something important, and if you are able to clarify clearly what’s going on here my mind will be blow. Apologies if I’m unable to phrase my confusion as precisely and clearly as you are able to answer it. One last try: On the assumption that death is unavoidable, if God permits someone to die at one time rather than another, for the purpose of achieving the maximal good, firstly, does this not make that evil event of death a crucial and unavoidable part of God’s plan/will, thus failing Ivan’s test which requires that evil not contribute in any essential way to the building of the kingdom? Secondly, is God’s “permission” an active or passive thing? Is it really theologically appropriate to say that God “permitted” the holocaust? In the sentence “God permitted the holocaust”, the verb is an active verb. in other words, God, in his pure actuality and divine simplicity just is his actual/active permission of the holocaust. This seems to me to lend too much ontology to the holocaust. My operating narrative for the past few months has been “Plato’s cave”. The holocaust did not really happen and God did not even permit it. (I do not mean to “deny the holocaust” by saying this, i’m just trying to be strict with my ontology) To say that “God permits evil” strikes me as heretical, unless in divine simplicity the verb “permit” can be substituted with the full range of God’s other actions, including “judges”, “creates out of”, “redeems”, “saves from”. Perhaps a better sentence would be “God permits good to emerge from evil”, but I am uncomfortable saying “God permits evil”. God neither caused, nor willed nor even permitted the holocaust; however he does cause, will and permit that good emerge from the nihil that the holocaust was.

            Still, with all this said, I have trouble with the idea of God “permitting someone to die at one time rather than another, in order to minimise good and maximise evil”. This honestly reeks of God sovereignly orchestrating the moment of someone’s death as part of a totalising cosmic calculation aimed at maximising a utilitarian outcome. Surely the appropriate alternative narrative would be simply that “people die when they die, and God has absolutely nothing to do with it, except to respond with resurrection”?


          • DBH says:

            Again, total nonsense. You speak as if the idea of divine permission of evil is the same thing as divine abandonment of history. That really would be a theology of despair.

            This is not difficult. To say that death and sin are not logically necessary, and therefore not necessary parts of God’s great plan for the display of his sovereignty or the eventual dialectical achievement of the Kingdom by way of the refining fires of history, is not to say that God cannot–given the reality of a fallen order–act to arrange certain of the eventualities of fallen history in such a way as to make them occasions for greater rather than lesser good, for everyone involved. Just as God, in allowing a fire to burn down a part of town, might nevertheless also arrange for that fire to divert a pedestrian from a path that would have led him to do something very wicked. Do not confuse the denial of Calvinist or sub-Hegelian determinism for a denial of providence.

            Gregory’s speculation (which, again, might have been an extremely comforting one in the late fourth century when there was no such thing as a household that had not buried infants) may not have been one of his more inspired ones, but it was still an attempt to understand God’s providential presence even in a fallen world; it was not an attempt to discover some great plan of creation, wherein sin and death are necessary and therefore divinely willed realities.

            Don’t confuse issues. Babies die. Either that occurs entirely beyond the reach of God’s saving will to rescue all creation from corruption and death (in which case he’s impotent or recreant) or it does not. If not, then someone like Gregory might well wonder why this child has been taken now rather than later. The mistake is in trying to provide an answer to that “why,” not in assuming that God’s providence will ultimately make evil serve the overthrow of evil. Again, that’s what the whole idea of providence is.

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          • David says:

            DBH speaks the truth.

            DBH, could I please trouble you for your opinion on a related topic?

            I think I understand your meaning that God can permit evil as a consequence of some good, just not a permanent and irredeemable evil.

            Now on the topic of original sin and the general fallenness of the world, you will be aware that some hold that the world’s fallenness is in some sense inevitable. I think can think of three ways in which this could be understood:

            1) God actively wills evil as a demonstration of his power and sovereign will or the like. This is obvious nonsense and it is clear your reject this.
            2) God permits evil as a necessary and intrinsic ‘ingredient’ of the good, as when some argue that we need to experience a little evil in order to appreciate the good. This is also nonsense, I think, in as much that it makes evil in some way part of the definition of good, and would therefore allow us to read evil into the divine being.
            3) God permits evil as a tragic but inevitable consequence – a kind of extrinsic side effect, not an intrinsic ingredient – of the good. e.g. the human will is a very great thing, and a newly created human will, even in a perfect world, is by definition yet to be perfected and so subject to ignorance and apt to be deceived. In a sense evil is ‘necessary’ but not because it is a constituent part of the good, but because it is an inevitable (but impermanent) side effect to the good.

            My question is basically: do you think one can hold to something like 3? I suppose one could worry that it still makes evil in some sense an inevitable consequence of the good creation, but I don’t see how this impugns the character or the power of God – at least not any more than the *possibility* of evil being intrinsic to creation, which you of course accept. After all, we could imagine that a necessary consequence of creation is that it includes a minefield which *will* blow someone’s legs off. Or we could imagine that a necessary consequence of creation is that it includes a minefield which merely *may* blow someone’s legs off. Whether formally inevitable, as in the former case, or just a probable possibility, either kind of minefield is in some sense evil and allowed by God – “what is hazarded is already lost”. I am inclined to think that, whether merely hazarded or foreknown as inevitable, such a hazard is worth it given that it is not positively willed as a ‘good’ in its own right, and it will eventually slip away into the nothingness that it is.

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          • I follow what DBH is saying but something still isn’t clicking. The way you’ve worded your sentences seems to lean towards an anthropomorphic protrayal of God deliberating between options. “Should I let him die now or later? hmmm” and then crunching the formula to work out what is the best option, and then willing/permitting (a distinction for which i still can’t perceive a difference) one of the options, both of which are evil. It just seems to entangle God with evil too much. Again, wouldn’t it be better just to say “Death happens, and God has absolutely nothing to do with it (neither in directly bringing it about nor even in “permitting” death to happen in one way or when rather than another). The only interaction God has with death is to judge it as evil and resurrect the one who died”. My edginess is that talk of God “permitting” death at one time or another would appear to ever so slightly makes him complicit in that death. Again, I don’t even feel comfortable with the sentence “God permits evil”. God does no such thing. Evil is not real and a complete illusion. But open to DBH’s rebuke.


          • and DBH, I just finished reading BOTI, so if you decide to continue answering my questions you’re welcome to refer to it. it’s fresh in my mind (without me fulling grasping it).

            One particular thing you talk about in BOTI which might be relevant (and I find so elegant and ravishingly beautiful) is the idea of the soul as music. The soul is not some static unchanging “substance” or “static core” to our identity, it’s fundamentally dynamic and always moving forward in a remembrance of all the “notes” that went before, and it’s the sort of music for which a “final” climax, ending in silence, (ie, death) would be inappropriate and unnatural. It’s such a cool way of thinking. I, as I am now, am a moment in a symphony. But just as every note in a symphony incorporates every note that went before, without being determined by those notes, so too I am who I am now as a fitting expression of all that went before. Also cool is the idea that the various symphonies of different souls can encounter one another and incorporate one another into each other, producing an even more complex, and even more beautiful, synthesis

            In this understanding, evil is not so much “dissonance” (which can be beautiful) as it is “discord”, “blunt noise”.

            I bring this up because I have a vague hunch that it is relevant to the notion of God permitting death at one time rather than another. Seeing as the analogy of “God, Reality, and the soul as music” resonates with me so well, perhaps you could draw on that metaphor to answer my confusion.


    • Curdie says:

      I’d agree that it’s definitely not one of Gregory’s better takes, but “babies dying prematurely will still experience divine bliss” is almost literally the opposite of “babies dying prematurely boil alive for eternity.”


    • Tyler Cohen says:

      I would add some things here as well. First, Nyssen is explicit about the fact that this is not the *only* purpose for God’s providential allowable of premature death. He effectively seems to be saying that this is the first and perhaps only one he can draw to mind based upon a principle abstracted in Scripture from Christ’s words about Judas. I believe I stated this provisional nature of the suggestion in the work above.

      Additionally, I don’t think it’s quite as offensive as we assume. It’s certainly not an ideal response, but you’ll realize upon reading the treatise that, strangely, this work does appear to be more of an essay letter in response to a theodictic question, rather than a pastoral articulation. Should it be conceivable that God would prevent such a one from arriving at such a state? I believe so, I can see this as merciful, and such statements are standard fare in Patristic literature, Origen even states in the PA that the death of sinners may be to not only cease their sin but to prevent their condition in its worsening progression.

      Given Nyssen’s theory of mind and epistemology (that mankind always wills the good, however poorly, being turned about as regards to the true nature of things, things being mixed with evil and good in many instances), the articulation at present reduces such preventative Providence as a grace contingent on external matters rather some inherent moral defect within the unborn or early deceased infants.


  3. “As early as St. Maximus the Confessor, we see plenty of statements, primarily in his Ambigua, of the language of infallibility being ascribed to certain saints, namely St. Dionysius the Areopagite and St. Gregory of Nazianzen. By the time of Palamas, one finds much stronger claims about a host of saints—a phenomenon that Sergius Bulgakov comments upon with particular clarity in his essay “Dogma and Dogmatic Theology.”

    I obviously don’t think saints are infallible, BUT…could you point out where Maximus says this? If he thought Gregory of Nazianzus was infallible, this would probably lend support to his universalism. He certainly follows Nazianzen in making elliptical statements about it and occasionally seems to proclaim it outright. Is anyone aware of any major or minor theological difference between Nazianzen and Maximus? Maximus develops things more, but I can’t think of any disagreements.

    Also, if he thought Nazianzen was infallible, why wouldn’t he also think the same about Nyssen?


    • Tyler Cohen says:

      Well, it’s replete through the Ambigua, as I noted. He frequents at the beginning of his interpretations of Dionysius and Nazianzen (Nazianzen more frequently). I’d have to dig around to find them all. Im thinking that Louth as well as Constas may catalogue some of these instances in the introductions to their respective volumes.

      The issue concerning Nyssen I think is much more complicated: for instance, he rarely ever says Nyssen’s name even when he is very clearly heavily relying on some particular aspect of Gregory of Nyssa’s thought/writings. However, given that he lived in a heated era around Origenism, and particularly the notion of Apokatastasis, as we can see in his replies in his QD concerning Nyssen, I think he wanted to avoid contention, perhaps. But there may be other explanations for this as well.


  4. Perhaps the better option in the face of these perplexing mysteries is silence, but at the very least Nyssa has not stumbled into the moral swamplands that the Augustinian tradition has when approaching this kind of question. What he is saying about the more difficult aspects of Divine Providence isn’t much different than what Origen says about the most troubling judgement passages in the OT – namely, God has his reasons for acting in history and while we may not understand why he acted thusly (e.g. the Passover or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), he is always acting in such a way that will bring about the highest good of the creature. This is what is markedly absent in Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, et. al. The good end of the creature is no longer in view, all that remains to be demonstrated is the sheer sovereignty of the divine will.


    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      Exactly. We can fault Nyssa on logic if we choose, but not on compassion. Children die, and it is a tragedy. Nyssa recognises it as a bad thing, and struggles to reconcile this with a good God: his conjecture is that the deaths are made good, and are only to prevent something worse. He never says that the children dying is in itself a good thing. We may say that his explanation is obviously wrong, or still doesn’t justify what has happened, but you can’t accuse him of actually being glad the children are dead.

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  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Many thanks for this!

    Concerning “the saints in heaven would be rejoicing over the cleansing, the purification which is occurring to those in hell, but not necessarily the pain they are experiencing”, if “the pain they are experiencing” is a proper means to “the cleansing, the purification which is occurring”, should it not be rejoiced over? If it is not a proper means, what can be said of it?


    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      If pain proves necessary for salvation, that is a bad thing, not a good thing. We may rejoice that the cancer patient is getting the treatment they need, but that doesn’t mean we rejoicce in the fact that they are having to have repeated painful and debilitating chemotherapy.


    • Tyler Cohen says:

      I think your question is a good one. What comes to mind, for example, is the instance in which those who have been raised in poverty who come into some amount of financial success and upon having children desires that their children develop the same kind of prudence which their own adversity helped to cultivate. And upon this realization they even begin to desire and perhaps impose adversity on their children or at least withhold opportunity and aid. Such is a matter of prudential judgment. Not every child requires this. Some may be more innately inclined towards the self-discipline required towards such successes. Some may not and require external discipline. But the parent should never begin to assume that the real adversity which they endured and which their children must endure (by imposition or withholding) are good things. Only that they effect or obtain goods. And even then, not with certainty: as Maximus frequents (perhaps from Augustinian influence, perhaps Stoic), it is all about the χρήσις or “usage” of privations and adversity endured.

      If we don’t maintain this distinction, even if in our ‘hypostatic existence’ or ‘experienced life’ they occur as though they are a single whole, a seamless event or process, they are quite distinct metaphysically and morally speaking. This is really the key to grasp. For even our very nature as humans, and even the natural world as a whole should not be conceived of as natural. That is to say that the τρόπος or “mode” of existence on the hypostatic level, rather than the metaphysical stratum of natures as created by God, is already unnatural. This mode of our human existence that is now subjected epistemologically and dies and is now capable of suffering a number of evils, is not “natural” properly speaking. And yet we learn from Scripture and various Fathers that this is imposed by God as pedagogically helpful. Maximus even makes the concession in one Ambiguum that it’s largely irrelevant if this was built into human natures or if it was super-imposed after the primordial transgression. The will and disposition we take is what determines if our mortal modality is actually soterial. This distinction I’ve laid our is really the foundation of all φρονηισς or moral deliberation/judgment. Calling evil good always has disastrous consequences down the road in our judgments. One may begin to call horrendous acts good simply because they have obtained some good in a singular or repeated tendentious instance.


  6. Sonya says:

    I agree. Pain is not the point of the process of our salvation. If it were, we’d be back to tit for tat justice, or divine revenge. It maybe a sad ‘side effect’ of the therapy, but if the same result is possible without pain, all the better.


  7. p myshkin says:

    There is a thing here and it whispers a truth that feels too good to be true. My oldest son, the first of 6, was born on April 21 2003. I have always taken an interest in the Saint for the day of my children’s births, and it just so happens that April 21st is St Anselm’s feast day, and thus did I begin a friendship. Now I am useless w/scholastic theology, so it is not this by which I came to know him, but it was his prayers and meditations, especially his 3rd prayer to Mary and the stunning passage from that prayer found in the Little Office on Monday mornings. So here’s the thing, I’m sure that in St Anselm’s other writing I can find outright declarations that hell is real and there are people there, yet when he is captured in ecstasy he begins to declare a universalism based on the contemplation of what the implications are of a creature so wonderful, Our Lady. In that third prayer he exclaims that the elements are renewed and hell redeemed . . . .even the fallen angels are restored to their place. . . .
    Now what I find intriguing is that when I read the mystics what I consistently come away with is the sense that as they are drawn deeper and deeper and deeper into the chamber of union, the Divine Eros, they come away from that encounter not only consumed w/love for God, but absolutely determined to spend each moment of their remaining life joining the Good Shepperd in rescuing each and every sheep. The point, I think is that when God reveals Himself the result is the overwhelming desire that all should be saved. Or from another vantage point, when St Anselm is contemplating God from his own relational standpoint he is so overcome w/the stupendous wonderfulness of this love that he is convinced that anything short of full restoration is incomprehensible, because this God pursues us w/an indefatigable love, and who is this man who can withstand it’s call to union.
    From the moment I was made aware of Dame Julian’s assurance that all will be well, I was delighted by it’s absolute insistence of wellness in the face of evidence that belied such optimism, and in fact I am convinced that her incomprehension of not seeing sin and querying our Lord as to the meaning of this is an indication that she saw the truth of restoration and was gobsmacked by it. I have grown more and more convinced because of the implications of a God who is so active in his love for us, He would do anything, even the death on a Cross, to bring us to Himself, so much so that He would create Her, a creature of beauty untainted by even the hint of corruption and then He would take this ineffable Lady and from the Cross he would give Her to me, to you. How then, what possible scenario can I or anyone come up w/where we will successfully withstand this love.


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