The Path Upward: Liturgy, Universalism, and George Seferis

by Christopher Howell

Burning burning burning burning O Lord
Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
burning

~ T.S. Eliot ~

“When you asked me about hell the other day,” wrote Philip Sherrard in a 1966 letter to the poet George Seferis, “were you being serious?”

I came across this letter while researching another subject related to Sherrard and Seferis—part of a continual preoccupation I have had with science, Orthodoxy, and modern Greek literature. But I was struck by Sherrard’s tone—tentative, circumspect, and yet earnest. The question was haunting: would Seferis, who had just that same year completed an essay on Dante and The Divine Comedy as part of the 700th anniversary of the great poem, ask about something as somber as hell with flippancy? Would anyone?

Despite the uncertain beginning, Sherrard launched into a “Wednesday evening sermon” and laid out for Seferis a universalist vision that he took to be central to Orthodoxy. Sherrard, who was obsessed with tradition, drew on the legacy of the liturgy and the Fathers to articulate his eschatology, which would be familiar to anyone who has studied apokatastasis. “This idea,” wrote Sherrard,

that there is a place called paradise where the good enjoy eternal bliss and another place called hell where the bad suffer for ever has got deeply embedded in people and passes for a Christian idea, and there is a whole tradition of teaching which tries to make people good by terrifying them with visions of eternal punishment if they sin (and the sins, too, are laid out in neat categories). It is all rather disgusting and is the kind of thing Blake was always attacking.

Rather, for Sherrard, one must turn to the liturgy for an alternate vision. “Also it doesn’t seem very Orthodox,” he continued, “whatever they may say, especially if one remembers those words of the Easter morning liturgy about hell having been destroyed (or put to death, which is the same thing).”

As Sherrard reminds, liturgical words, especially in Holy Week, are tinged with universal­ist color, and this must be remembered when considering apokatastasis and damnation. As Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyen has written, very often even professional theologians “underestimate the role of liturgical tradition.” Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in his journals, lamented how far theology could stray from liturgy, especially Holy Week. “I am convinced that if people would really hear Holy week,” he wrote, “Pascha, the Resurrection, Pente­cost, the Dormition, there would be no need for theology. All of the theology is there.”

Beginning on Lazarus Saturday we hear of the rebirth of Lazarus as a foretaste of “the universal resurrection,” but one that will be made general at the end of Holy Week. During matins, we hear, “When you arose You raised Adam with yourself and from Hades liberated everyone.” But on that day, only Lazarus is raised, and so in the last hymn of matins we beg Christ, “You fulfilled Your word in action by calling back Lazarus from Hades. Resurrect me, also, for I am dead through passions.” The anxiety sets in on Palm Sunday evening, when during the Bridegroom service Psalm 87 (88) is sung, and we worriedly fret:

For my soul is full of trouble,
and my life draws near to Hades.
I have been counted among those who
go down to the pit;
I became like those who have no help,
adrift among the dead, like the wounded ones, cast out, who sleep in the tombs,
like those whom thou rememberest no more,
for they were cut off from thy hand.

Is there no respite? Is there no remembrance? Is there no help?

Is thy mercy declared in the grave,
or thy truth in Hades?
Are thy wonders known in the darkness, or thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

We repeat the same Psalm on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday, during the Holy Unction service, the priest reminds us at the end of the service of Christ’s promise, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” But on Friday —on Good Friday, on Holy Friday—we hear at Great Vespers of the Apokathelosis, in an early hymn, “the Friend of humanity is lifted up on a cross, in order to free the prisoners in Hades, who cry to Him, “Long-suffering Lord, glory to You!”

And during the Lamentations on Holy and Great Friday, the descent commences, and the Psalmist entombed in Hades hears the evangelion as Christ descends and defeats and breaks the bonds of hell. “Your burial,” is sung in a troparion after the reading of Psalm 50 (51), “opened the entrances of life to me. By Your death You put Hades and death to death.” The message is repeated endlessly, and the truth is made known to all who linger in the abode of death. The choir sings in the canon, “But what You once kept secret, O Master, now, as God and man, You clearly showed to those in Hades, who cried aloud, ‘No one is holy, but You, O Lord’.” The prophets of old foretold this, for Habakkuk saw that God “went to those in Hades and there cut off the heads of the rulers.” And Isaiah said, “The dead shall rise up, and those in the tombs shall arise, and all those in the earth shall be glad and greatly rejoice.” Christ “shattered the bonds of both Death and Hades”; “Hades was embittered in meeting You, O Logos.” Christ reaches down through the eons of time to the very first sin and sinners, to Adam and to Eve, to pluck them out: “The second Adam, who dwells in the heights, went down to the chambers of Hades, in order to save the first one.” Moreover, those who stood by the gates, those prison guards of eternal sorrow, were wracked with terror as Christ conquered Hades, and as Jesus says, “Earth covers Me by My own will. But the doorkeepers of Hades shudder and quake, as they behold that I am clothed in the bloodstained garment of vengeance. After I smite My enemies with the Cross, as God, O Mother, I will rise again and magnify you.” Hades is “wounded at its heart by receiving Him, whom a lance had wounded in the side. And it groans, consumed by the fire of divinity, for the salvation of us who sing, ‘O our God and Redeemer, You are blessed’.” And not only Adam, but “everyone who was born on earth, be glad! Hades, the enemy, has been despoiled…I am rescuing Adam and Eve and all mankind.” Closer to the end of the service, Christ is praised because he “shattered the dominion of death and opened the gates of Paradise for all mankind, glory to You!”

Who cannot be moved by the sequence of the Epitaphios service? What a sight it is when it is carried out into the darkness of hell in the night, a candled procession trailing behind, and all the congregants proclaiming songs of redemption and salvation for those souls who toil away, stopping at every corner of the earth—north, south, east, west—to announce the gospel message. “How could Hell endure it, when in splendor you came, and how not be swiftly shattered and plunged in dark, blinded by the blazing glory of your light?”

And then on Saturday night, during the Resurrection service, many of these words are repeated, but with now the vision of the resurrected Christ accompanying them—“When those who were captive in Hades’ bonds saw thy boundless compassion, they ran to the light with a joyful step, exalting the eternal Pascha.”

“Hades reigned over the human race,” we read and hear on Good Friday, “but would not do so forever.”

A straightforward reading of these passages would seem to preclude any contention that Christ’s rescue was only for a fortunate remnant—say, the Old Testament saints, or Adam and Eve. Why should the gate-keepers of Hades tremble if only a small selection are being extracted—does that not make Hades’s reign truly eternal? The doors would then not broken, merely locked again behind the fortunate elect. Of what power is the consuming fire of God if Hades endures and continues to exercise control over the vast majority of humanity throughout history? How else can the “everyone who was born on earth” be understood?

One of St. John of Damascus’s evening prayers reads, “For to save a righteous man is no great thing, and to have mercy on the pure is nothing wonderful.” Jesus himself says, “if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?” The Damascene says elsewhere that “there is nothing undeserved, nothing miraculous and nothing strange in that Christ should save the believers … So they all ought to have been saved and delivered from the bonds of hell.” In commenting on these passages, Metropolitan Hilarion argues that the Damascene, like many other church fathers, believed that “Christ opens the way to paradise for all and calls all to salvation,” though he seems to have believed that not everyone would take it. However, for Met. Hilarion, even if one cannot dogmatize it, there must nevertheless be openness to the idea that all can possibly be saved. “The church places its faith in this possibility above all through the paschal message of Christ’s victory of death and hell,” he writes in Christ the Conqueror of Hell, “which permeates like a cantus firmus all of the liturgical books of the Orthodox Church.”

I must here make a few observations about the differences (and similarities) between the various terms for hell: Hades and Gehenna in particular. Most of the English translations of the liturgy employ hell and Hades almost interchangeably. The service texts I drew on for this essay did so (the Seraphim Dedes version). Met. Hilarion likewise remarks that Hades can be understood both as the abode of the dead, like Sheol, as well as a place of seclusion and torment (as it is in the parable of Lazarus and Dives). He claims that “in many Byzantine patristic writings as well as in church liturgical poetry, all these terms are used synonymously. Depending on the context, they refer either to the underworld or, more frequently, to the place of torment for sinners after their death.”

There are scholars, however, who have argued that the distinction between hell and Hades is sharper than that, however, notably in the volume Round Trip to Hades in the Eastern Mediterranean Tradition (as pointed out to me by Thomas Arentzen, a contributor to the volume). Hades is often seen in patristic sources as a place and personification of death—not a good place, but not exactly the medieval notion of hell either. A critic of universalism might argue, then, that Hades is only the realm of the dead and the true hell—Gehenna—is “created” at the last judgment and all sinners are cast into it after. But even supposing this, there are still great difficulties for those opposed to universalism. In fact, the predicament may be worsened, not least because of the liturgy’s lack of such distinction.

For one thing, if the Bible is the source here, then the absolute distinction between Hades, Tartaros, and Gehenna completely breaks down, for these terms, though very different, are foundational for conceptions of hell as we interpret them and have often been translated interchangeably as hell (thus coloring all popular and liturgical perceptions). Indeed, they are the usual basis for the claims that hell is a place of torment, such as Jesus’s description of Hades in Lazarus and Dives, where it is a place of torment for the wicked, or when threatening Capernaum, whose banishment into Hades is so horrendous that “it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee” (Matt. 11:24). That banishment is the direct result from rejecting Christ (Luke 10:13-16). So, if Hades is to be characterized not as hell but as a Hellenic or Hebrew abode of the dead, then Christ’s comments on the matter must be nuanced—which is, of course, what universalists have been trying to do all along.

But then, if the opponent to universalism preserves Christ’s description of Hades as hell (a place of misery and torment, as it is for the rich man who neglected Lazarus), then the two must be fused together. But no sooner does that fusion transpire than comes the Petrine verses regarding the descent into Hades, the reference to the descent in the Apostle’s Creed, and the liturgical insistence upon that same event. Christ descends into hell, then, rescues those held captive, and utterly destroys its power—indeed putting it to death.

So either Hades and hell are synonymous, and Christ descends into it to destroy it and pull everyone out of it, or Hades is not hell, meaning all Christ’s and the Church Fathers’s references to Hades must be understood not as referencing eternal damnation but something else.

And what of the Last Judgment? And Gehenna? Here, too, there are deep liturgical difficulties for the opponent of universalism. Now, of course there are feasts which center the eternal fires of hell. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick lists a few. The Sunday of Last Judgement contains a number of references to “eternal fire,” “outer darkness,” “everlasting punishments,” and the “dread worm and the gnashing of teeth.” Is the last judgement different from the hope promised Easter?

Regarding the last judgement, Sherrard wrote, “this is a whole other subject,” but God’s provision for salvation is without end. For even after death, because Hades is destroyed and hell is, as Isaac of Nineveh wrote, only the fires of God’s love felt as torment by those who refuse it, there is hope for eventual restoration. One still “has the capacity to love and to accept love.” Continued Sherrard, quoting from Cabasilas and Augustine, “God created us without our help, but He cannot save us without our help.” The Orthodox do not have a doctrine of “purgatory” or “eternal hell,” according to Sherrard, because “even the soul in deepest hell still has the capacity to get out of it, is still capable of changing its mind/life (metanoia).” “This is why,” he noted, “the Orthodox pray for the dead—all the dead.” And he had no time for “clever bits of verbiage as that about hell existing but nobody being in it.”

Furthermore, as Schmemann has argued, the liturgy as a whole is eschatological. In For the Life of the World, he writes: “It is only because the Church’s leitourgia is always cosmic, i.e., assumes into Christ all creation, and is always historical, i.e., assumes into Christ all time, that it can therefore also be eschatological.” Easter, then, is “not a commemoration of an event, but— every year—the fulfillment of time itself, of our real time.”

And what of the conflicting language in the liturgy? One could do a tedious numbers game and calculate whether there are more of one or the other (and should one do this, as Met. Hilarion has shown, the universalist passages in the Octoechos, for instance, dwarf the non-universalist ones by several orders of magnitude); but should not one rather think about the central thrust of Christianity, and the absolute foundation of Pascha to that vision? Is the Last Judgement an abrogation of Easter or its fulfillment? Are not Easter and the Last Judgment meant to be unified in a holistic eschatological vision, and not arrayed against each other? The dead in Hades, according to the liturgy, should “be glad.” Which of these are the glad tidings, truly? To be plucked from Hades as it is mercilessly destroyed? Or to simply linger in an intermediate state until being thrown back in again? Is the good news merely a sign affixed to hell’s door: “Closed for renovation”?

Furthermore, the Greek version of the Sunday of Last Judgment also does not appear to reflect a bifurcation between Hades and Gehenna either (I owe this observation to Mark Chenoweth who pointed it out in an email). In the Greek both Hades and Gehenna are described the same way. During Matins, one hymn reads, “Terror and amazement seize me when I think of the unquenchable fire of Gehenna, of the bitter worm and gnashing teeth.” Yet, later we hear “Terror seizes me when I think of the unquenchable fire, of the bitter worm, the gnashing of teeth, and soul-destroying hell.” The latter in Greek is Hades. An absolute distinction between Hades and Gehenna is foreign to the liturgy. And so what to make of the conflicting language? We see in this service that Hades is the unquenchable fire and soul-destroying hell, but we also know that Christ descends into Hades and draws everyone out of it.

Mark Chenoweth has noted that in the hymns of the Sunday of Last Judgment, what is almost exclusively translated as “eternal” is the word aionios, which, as Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan have documented, has a potentially more ambiguous meaning than the word aei (or aeidios) might. While aionios can mean eternal, it can also mean a long time, or an age. In a comment on his article on Maximus the Confessor, Chenoweth observes that in the Sunday of Last Judgment, “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.” Even supposing aionios can mean eternal, however, the Pentecostal kneeling prayers make it more difficult to interpret the word as unequivocally endless. There, the very bars of hell are described as aionios even as Christ destroys them. Not even eternal bonds can prevent Christ’s descent, for we read that Christ “didst descend into Hell and break down its eternal (aionios) bars, showing forth the way up to those who sat in the lower world.” What may seem eternal is not so, and the eternal bars are broken and breached by Christ’s descent into hell and God’s liberation of those held captive. As Chenoweth pointed out in an email, “this would simply mean hell’s ‘eternity’ cannot overpower God’s ‘eternity’.” In a comment below, he writes “the aionios (eternity, if you want) of hell itself is said to ‘annihilated’.”

Furthermore, the kneeling prayers explicitly call on the faithful to offer petitions for those bound in hell, because even if they themselves refuse to offer supplication to God, we can ask on their behalf, for they might yet be drawn out of their darkness. “For the dead praise Thee not, neither do those in Hell dare to offer Thee confession, but we, the living, bless Thee, and supplicate Thee, and offer them propitiatory prayers and sacrifices for their souls.” After all, God, “on this all perfect and saving feast, dost deign to receive oblations and supplications for those bound in Hell, and grantest unto us the great hope that respite and comfort will be sent down from Thee to the departed from the grief that binds them.”

Regarding the Last Judgment, however, one should note that in the structure of the liturgical year, the Sunday of Last Judgment comes before Easter, not after. And even in that service, the text is that of a soul repeatedly pleading to God for rescue. There is horror at the sight of eternal punishments and unquenchable fires and the endless darkness of hell (Hades and Gehenna). Yet even as Christ the Judge is witnessed, the plea resounds, “Righteous Judge and Savior, have mercy on me, and deliver me from the fire that threatens me, from the punishment that I deserve to suffer at the Judgement. Grant me remission through virtue and repentance before the end!” The wretchedness of the sinner and the burden of their sins is repeated frequently through the Sunday matins, but it is significant that the Divine Liturgy on the Sunday of Last Judgment ends with a shift in orientation.

The service ends with a reminder of what is to come and concludes with a meditation on the descent into hell and subsequent return to life. What will save those who are standing here awaiting judgment? The answer is clear: Easter. “For the Lamb of God will feed us on the radiant night of his resurrection. He is the victim offered for us,” the service concludes, “On the night when his mysteries shall be accomplished: the chains of darkness will be destroyed, and we shall enter into the light of his resurrection.” Even on the Sunday of Last Judgement, the orientation of the liturgy is to Easter and the granting of salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ.

The liturgical forefronting of Hades’s destruction also helps resolve lingering questions about universalism and history. I must admit, in a personal confession, that the most difficult thing to resolve about universalism and its truth or falsity is its historical defeat. For instance, I find David Bentley Hart’s argument convincing—logically, theologically, scripturally, and anthropologically—but I remain unnerved by the historical question. Hart mentioned how Augustine referred to a group of the “misericordes” (the merciful-hearted) as indication that there was at least a significant minority that held to the view. And Basil likewise, notes Hart, felt that a “large majority” of universalist Christians existed at the time, at least in the East.

Even if Hart is correct on these accounts, and I would count myself convinced.what of the gradual erosion of universalism in time afterward? Is history an argument against it? This was an element of Michael McClymond’s critique, as he explained they once had an email exchange in which McClymond attempted to establish authority by noting a “10-to-1” numerical superiority in Church Fathers who believed in eternal hell to those who did not.

Not being a patristics scholar, I cannot adjudicate the relative weight of McClymond’s point against Hart regarding tradition, but attention should be drawn to the arguments made by both Illaria Ramelli and Met. Hilarion that there were far more universalists than we usually recognize, including perhaps such figures as Athanasius and all the Cappado­cians (beyond just Gregory of Nyssa). In a reply to McClymond’s list of sixty-eight fathers against universalism, Ramelli writes, “It is not the case that ‘the support for universalism is paltry compared with opposition to it’.” Many of the sixty-eight “in fact support apokatastasis” and those that remain against it are theologians of comparatively reduced stature. Met. Hilarion goes even further, and states there are “enough grounds” to agree with the Greek theologian I.N. Kamieres who argued in the 1930s that “according to the teaching of almost all the Eastern fathers, the preaching of the Savior was extended to all without exception and salvation was offered to the souls who passed away from the beginning of time, whether Jews or Greeks, righteous or unrighteous.” Many, it seems, if not fully embracing universalism, at least were open to its possibility, and most believed the opportunity to choose Christ was offered to all without restriction, even if some Fathers (like the Damascene) believed that some would still persist to reject this offer. Regardless, as Ramelli argues, it is a “Christian doctrine,” grounded in Scripture and tradition.

But perhaps this makes it even more tragic and difficult. How could, then, the edicts of Justinian, or the theology of Augustine’s two cities, so utterly obscure what appears to have been a widespread conviction? But here also is where the liturgy helps resolve—for when we read it, hear it, and sing it, we realize that the universalist hope never did disappear.

When the theologians do not speak, the liturgy has. For nearly two millennia Holy Week has been performed and witnessed by every generation of Christians. Every year the story of Christ’s conquering of hell is repeated, and every year the annihilation and death of Hades is proclaimed as the good news—not to the intellectuals, but to the average man, woman, and child. Every year the faithful walk the Good Friday procession and proclaim with candlelit song that Christ does not go gentle into that good night. And in the weeks after Easter, every Sunday for the duration of the season, the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom concludes, “When you descended unto death, O life immortal, You destroyed Hades with the splendor of Your divinity” and “He has delivered us from the depths of Hades; and has granted to the world great mercy.” For centuries, priests have sung, intoned, and reminded us of the breathless vision of Hades’s destruction and the liberating power of the crucifixion and resurrection for all humanity.

“How could people spend centuries discussing justification and redemption?” asked Schmemann in his journal, “it is all in these services. The more I live, the more I am convinced that most people love something else and expect something else from religion and in religion.”

This bring me back at long last to George Seferis. A poet and diplomat, and the first Greek to win the Nobel Prize for literature, he was not especially pious, but he was intimate with the Orthodox church, read the Bible often and translated Song of Songs and Revelation into modern Greek, and saturated his poetry with religious imagery. He called himself an “empiric man,” and detested abstractions, especially theological ones, and favored the physicality of religion instead. As a learned outsider-insider to Orthodoxy, then, it is interesting that he seems to have developed his own apokatastatic sympathies—and where else could he have derived them but from the liturgy? The vision of Easter, testified all these centuries in the Holy Week services, still speaks, even when the theologians forget. And as Seferis said, Holy Week is the “loftiest form of springtime that I know.”

What was the response of poor Seferis to Sherrard’s letter? It was, unfortunately for him, a season of grief, for he had just lost his friend and fellow writer George Theotokas. Sherrard, who learned of Theotokas’s death after mailing his manifesto, was horrified that he might have launched into a soliloquy on hellfire while Seferis was in despair, and so sent another letter writing, “It must have seemed strange to you, and heartlessly indifferent,” but he stood by what he said—“Not that its themes were not appropriate.” He praised Theotokas’s life, and concluded, “he did seem a pillar bearing with purity, courage, and even deeper understanding of the living burden of Greece.”

Seferis, for his part, wrote back, “Many thanks for your ‘Wednesday evening sermon’, I was terribly interested in it. Only the trouble is that your kind answer creates other questions. So when you come again to Attica try to meet me.” Sadly, there is no record of whether they spoke about this again, nor what was said.

But we might be able to surmise a little of what Seferis thought. Idiosyncratic in his religious beliefs though he was, one of Seferis’s earliest and most famous poems—1932’s “The Cistern”— contains a description of the descent into hell and the Orthodox Holy Friday procession.

“Here, in the earth, a cistern has taken root,” it begins, translated by Sherrard himself. “Den of secret water that gathers there.” This cistern, according to Seferis biographer Roderick Beaton, is hell and sin—an erotic and mystical fusion of fornication and damnation beneath the surface of the earth. Above is the “curve of the dome of a pitiless night.” Down in the cistern “dusk approaches like passer-by / then night, then the grave.” There is no escape—“And a body hidden, deep cry / let out from the cave of death.” The poet is stuck in the cistern with his sin, “O gods, the crime / that daily grows and weighs upon us.” One stanza intones:

Gathering up the pain of our wound
So that we may escape the pain of our wound
Gathering up the body’s bitterness
So that we may escape the body’s bitterness
So that roses may bloom in the blood of our wound.

But outside, there is light—it is the funeral procession of the Epitaphios, the faithful have descended into hell too and are lighting the way. “Faces that go!…/ and the signs of the great day / take them up and bring them closer….” Here they come! The divine fire arrives to consume Hades, “Flames of the world beyond, candles / over spring surging forth today, / mournful shadows on dead wreaths / footsteps…footsteps … the slow bell / unwinds a dark chain.”

The poem concludes with the poet watching them enter the church “their sorrow / hot near the lowered church candles / that inscribed on their bent foreheads / the life full of joy at noon.” But he is not sure he can leave, the cistern “teaches silence,” and he knows that “night does not believe in dawn,” and so “like a free soul” he stands “in the flaming city.”

But that is not the last word. In Six Nights on the Acropolis, Seferis’s deeply weird and mercifully posthumous novel that he wrote and rewrote and finished in the 1950s, the same framework is there. In the beginning, Stratis Thalassinos—the main character and Seferis’s poetic alter ego—comments that he cannot accept the church, as noble as he finds it, because he cannot abide the division of humanity into the saved on one side and then the others “outside the walls, [who] are in pain and howl like dogs and cats.” Why should someone as noble as Homer “wander around in Limbo, with only yearning and no hope?”

There is a later scene that reproduces the exact event of “The Cistern”—a sinful tryst between lovers in the cistern, in hell, on Good Friday as the procession goes by. As Stratis says to his lover Salome, “We’ve damned ourselves today … we’ve been to hell today.” Stratis and Salome, who are deeply unlikeable characters involved in a destructive love triangle with another woman named Lala, torment each other in their infernal relationship (“the arduous readying of souls for the resurrection must be something like this”), and when Stratis expresses hope of one day emerging from his torments, Salome says, “I’m afraid you’re going to have to pass through a whole lot of hell.”

Pass through he does, and at the end of the novel, as he emerges from the hell of his life into something more mature; he begins to “grow out of his torture.” After Salome suddenly dies in an accident, Stratis is walking with Lala, who asks him, “Did you ever consider the other path? The path upward?” This question seems to be enforcing a kind of salvation against Stratis’s own plans, and he confesses he “felt dominated by another’s will.” Lala continues the question—has he considered “that our souls ultimately annihilate death and become skin and lips once again?” And as Stratis sees her, “she looked all aflame,” and he was in “great pain and the pain was spreading all over my body,” but then it suddenly ceases and he is granted a vision like a “bolt of lightning.” As Seferis annotates in his appendix, it is “Purgatorio with a lightning flash of Paradise.”

This purgative and reformative potential of the afterlife is something Seferis seemed to believe was a part Orthodoxy, even if it was often forgotten or ignored. As he wrote in his essay on Dante, “I do not think that any doctrine can separate us from the past, even if we are Orthodox Christians and are too self-denying to accept Purgatory.” Perhaps the eternality of hell is pronounced by theologians, canon lawyers, and clergy, but the liturgy expresses things differently. For the layman or the poet, for the soul whose religious formation comes from hymns and communion and the Epitaphios procession, perhaps hell’s finitude is obvious. Seferis noticed this. He may not have known what comes next, but who can truly say they do? And even if he did not believe it, or if he did believe but without the same intensity as his pious mother, Seferis knew what the liturgy showed, and his poetry reminds us of it.

As C.S. Lewis so piquantly and beautifully illustrated in The Last Battle, the boundaries of heaven are paradoxically illusory. From the outside, it appears a city, from the inside it expands beyond comprehension. As all the familiar the characters journey into that golden empyrean, the space of heaven grows more and more. “Daughter of Eve,” says Mr. Tumnus to Lucy, “the further up and further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.” What looks on the outside like a walled city is inside the endlessly unfolding epectasy of salvation, stretching ever wider and deeper for all eternity. What seemed provincial is in fact cosmic, and hell, in The Great Divorce, is whittled down to a mere crack in the side of the road (alas, if only Lewis had followed his “master” George MacDonald in pursuing this to its universalist conclusion).

In glossing on this Narnian passage, Rowan Williams writes there is an incarnational aspect to this: “The Incarnation is often spoken of, not least in Christian poetry, as the containing of the uncontainable.” Seferis saw that the logic of the Incarnation demanded that this paradox be extended all the way to hell itself, through Christ’s descent and resurrection, and redemption of all humanity as all are drawn back to God, even those on the “outside” are brought into the larger inside that contains all reality.

And so here I will conclude with Seferis’s brief poem fittingly titled “The Container of the Uncontainable,” which bears the inscription “Good Friday.”

Bells like coins falling sound today all over the city
between each peal a new space opens
like a drop of water on the earth: the moment has come,
raise me up.

* * *

I would like to dedicate this essay to my grandfather Raymond Verle White (1928-2020), who passed away during the course of its composition. Αιώνια ἡ μνήμη.

And special thanks to Fr. Kimel, Mark Chenoweth, Thomas Arentzen, Aristotle Papanikolaou, and George Demacopoulos for their insight, feedback, and assistance.

Christopher Howell is a PhD candidate in Religion at Duke University, working on a dissertation on the history of anti-Darwinism. He lives in Durham, NC, with his wife Mary Carol and their two dogs. When not writing, his spare time revolves around baseball and video games.

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55 Responses to The Path Upward: Liturgy, Universalism, and George Seferis

  1. Excellent! Thank you. I do think this will be difficult to argue against. The only thing I would add, that to me, helps make sense of the “aionios” (usually translated as eternal) hell/hades spoken of in some hymns, is that in other hymns, the aionios (eternity, if you want) of hell itself is said to “annihilated.”

    From one of the kneeling prayers at Pentecost: “O Thou Who didst descend into Hades, and demolish the eternal bars“

    Again in the Sun.3.Mat.Oikos (EL-BB):

    “He raised the prisoners from the tombs…today as the Giver of life he drew people out of hell and raises them together to heaven. He lays low the uprisings of the foe and smashes the GATES of hell.”

    We are told in the prayer above this one that the aionios of those bars/gates is demolished.

    We are told over and over again that Christ destroyed the POWER of hell. Wouldn’t part of its power be its “aionios”?

    I suppose you could try to get around that somehow by saying, well Christ FREED everyone but some people freely chose to stay there.” But that does go against plenty of other hymns that say Christ “emptied hell,” or “annihilated it.” I.e. no one was left.

    I took the Pentecost kneeling prayer from Fr Stephen Freeman’s blog post:

    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; Who with the lure of divine wisdom didst entice the dragon, the head of subtle evil, and with Thy boundless power bound him in abysmal hell, in inextinguishable fire, and extreme darkness. O Wisdom of the Father, Thou great of Name Who dost manifest Thyself a great Helper to those who are in distress; a luminous Light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death; Thou art the Lord of everlasting glory, the beloved Son of the Most High Father, eternal Light from eternal Light, Thou Sun of justice! … Who also, on this all-perfect and saving feast, dost deign to receive oblations and supplications for those bound in Hades, and grantest unto us the great hope that rest and comfort will be sent down from Thee to the departed from the grief that binds them. (edited for length)“

    https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2019/06/16/entering-hell-on-pentecost-with-prayer/

    Liked by 1 person

    • CWHowell says:

      Wonderful, thank you for this addition (and for the original contribution in the article!). A much needed point.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Christopher, if you want to write a new paragraph incorporating Mark’s contribution, feel free to do so and I’ll add it to your article. 🙂

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        • CWHowell says:

          Good idea! He explains it really clearly in the post–maybe insert a line in the text referring to it? Or a footnote?

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  2. I appreciate all the references to the liturgical prayers in this article. As a laymen for 20 years in the Church, however, my experience is that many of these texts get chanted or read in a way which often blurs any true understanding or their beautiful content — chanted too fast, sung too low, mumbled, etc. I would say (obviously a very general observation) that primarily the clergy get the full benefit of all the prayers and their universalist theology because they have to read them. But that’s just me . . . I became an “ultimate Redemptionist” after reading Hart’s book, Bradley Jersak’s as well, 2 or 3 times and pondered carefully his argumentation, including reading again the biblical references to “all” (esp. 1 Cor. 15:20 ff) as not just referring to the “elect.”
    I can’t speak for anyone else, but now, any reference to the infernalist position, and imagining that God — perfect source and vision and explainer of all Goodness and Love — could ever allow any of his rational creatures to suffer endless, conscious torment makes me nauseous. That notion, which I consciously or sub-consciously subscribed to for 50 years, is as Hart says, clearly one of the most odious “doctrines” responsible for many folks rejecting the Gospel as a glorified version of Zeus and his thunderbolts delivered with impunity. Whether anyone of the traditional persuasion wants to admit it, the infernalist position posits — overtly or subtly — that evil is, afterall, quite possible within God.

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    • CWHowell says:

      And it’s easy to miss it since so often the liturgy is not in a language the congregation knows. And my Greek (what of it exists) is almost entirely modern and not ancient. But I do think the universalist flavor is still very apparent, even apart from the hymns, in the Good Friday epitaphios procession. The germ of this article started there, for me, when in 2019, my priest (who is not a universalist, as far as I know) preached a sermon on it about its inclusive scope and the way the candles were meant to light all four corners of the Earth and show the way out for everyone in the darkness.

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    • Geoffrey A McKinney says:

      “As a laymen for 20 years in the Church, however, my experience is that many of these texts get chanted or read in a way which often blurs any true understanding or their beautiful content — chanted too fast, sung too low, mumbled, etc.”

      I implore all who participate in the liturgy (or even who merely attend as visitors) to purchase liturgical booklets and read along during the liturgy–at least until such time that one has internalized the words. For as you say, all too often the words of the liturgy are not chanted with clarity.

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  3. Beautiful! I agree. The Incarnation is, at it were, the promise or beginning, or even “incarnation” of universal restoration, the firstfruits of the apokatastasis, the beginning and the end of it. How could the Second Adam by His much-greater gift and obedience not redeem ALL that the First Adam lost?

    I’ve always loved the utter victory of the Orthodox liturgical hymns! Because that’s what universal salvation is: the victory, complete and unshadowed, of God, of Love!

    I also wished to note that even in the Roman Rite a shadow of this has been preserved in the ancient Exultet. “O happy fault of Adam, destroyed completely by the death of Christ.”

    I’ve often wondered why so many don’t see what shines with all the glory of a fresh-born star in our faces? Is it what St. Paul speaks of when he says that the gods of this age has blinded their minds so they cannot see the light of the glory of the grace of God in the face of Christ?

    How wonderful to hope and pray for the salvation of all, instead of thinking those who are wrong are lost!

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  4. Iain Lovejoy says:

    On a side note, can I just say I have never attended an eastern Orthodox service, but the pictures of them seem quite beautiful.

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  5. Curdie says:

    “Even if Hart is correct on these accounts, and I would count myself convinced, what of the gradual erosion of universalism in time afterward? Is history an argument against it? This was an element of Michael McClymond’s critique, as he explained they once had an email exchange in which McClymond attempted to establish authority by noting a “10-to-1” numerical superiority in Church Fathers who believed in eternal hell to those who did not.”

    I understand the apparent weight of the tradition leaning against universalism at least since Augustine, and I don’t deny the feelings of doubt it can create, but couldn’t McClymond’s “critique” just as easily be used as a critique of Christianity on the whole? I’m guessing there’s probably close to a 10-1 numerical superiority of non-Christians to Christians in the world, does that demonstrate that Christianity has to account for the weight of a majority of nonbelievers? I know that’s playing a little coy, but I just don’t think “9 out of 10 people agree with me” proves anything other than that 9 people have a different opinion than someone. I’m sure the Catholic church could have used the same sort of reasoning against Luther.

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  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Without first asking the author’s permission, I have taken the liberty of bolding what I believe to be is the critical sentence in this article. It jumped out at me this morning.

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  7. Geoffrey A McKinney says:

    The Orthodox priest by whose hand I was baptized told me that the liturgy IS the teaching of the Church, her very voice. All other texts are doubtful.

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  8. joel in ga says:

    A very encouraging essay, and, importantly for those of us who like to be able to appeal both to authority and to conscience, encouraging without disparaging either Scripture or Church dogma. Quite the contrary. The Sherrard quote, “even the soul in deepest hell still has the capacity to get out of it, is still capable of changing its mind/life (metanoia),” probably contains the key as to how one can square the circle of even a document like the Synodikon with universalism. Torment can be unending only if the sinner unendingly refuses to repent (and such a refusal is highly doubtful). Recently I watched a Protecting Veil video on Church canons and how their application, whatever the letter of a particular canon says, is always tempered by the sinner’s perceived penitential state. My thought was that such economia would be of a piece with any infliction of punishment in the hereafter.

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  9. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have inserted into the article two new paragraphs by the author that incorporates the helpful comment offered by Mark Chenoworth above.

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    • Thanks Fr.

      I just noticed something. Although I don’t think every liturgical prayer has the exact same outlook on every tiny detail, at least with this kneeling prayer, it seems to rule out probably the most popular anti-universalist interpretation the “submission” of 1 Cor. 15, and the “every knee shall bow, every tongue confess” or Phil 2- namely that every knee shall bow and tongue confess UNWILLINGLY, while they still hate God.

      “For the dead praise Thee not, neither do those in Hell dare to offer Thee confession.”

      If those in hell don’t offer confession, then if EVERY knee DOES bow, this would then mean it is out of love, which implies universalism.

      Also, just to be 100 percent accurate, I did not check what the greek word is for “eternal” in the kneeling prayers. I’m assuming it is aionios, but if it’s something stronger that implies absolute eternity, this would seem to make Chris’s point even more emphatically.

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      • CWHowell says:

        I’d be very interested to hear what you find about the word for eternal in that part of the kneeling prayers. I’ll have to look back and see if I can find anything (though my Greek is not so reliable).

        I think you can find some similar expressions of this universal/unwilling/willing connection in some of the Holy Week hymns, too–especially those that discuss “everyone” singing praises, even in Hades. It could imply a metanoia, or possibility of it, as Sherrard points out.

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  10. Greg Pavlik says:

    Is there a source for the Sherrard letter?

    Excellent essay, by the way

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    • CWHowell says:

      It’s in a collected correspondence between him and George Seferis, entitled “This Dialectic of Blood and Light.” Published by Denise Harvey (Sherrard’s wife) in Evia, Greece.

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      • nathanieldrakecarlson says:

        I couldn’t recommend this volume highly enough (and I’m very glad to see someone referencing it). I love Sherrard and I love Seferis but this provides a unique and uniquely thorough entryway into their thought and worldview, collectively and separate. An essential text.

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        • CWHowell says:

          I agree, and am glad to see another mention the volume! It’s especially interesting to see Sherrard develop throughout, since they began corresponding when he was in his early twenties and carried on for twenty-five years. Some of Sherrard’s exuberance gets away from him, but as a whole it’s a great introduction to his thought.

          I also am glad to meet others with interest in Seferis. I wish he was more read these days. I actually have a separate article on him coming out soon on Public Orthodoxy, regarding religion and tradition.

          Liked by 1 person

          • nathanieldrakecarlson says:

            I actually came to Seferis through Sherrard’s excellent compilation text on modern Greek poets, “The Marble Threshing Floor”. Please permit me to quote him here as there has rarely been a better and more accurate succinct summary of Seferis:

            “The poet is not only someone who makes a beautiful or convincing pattern of words, the possessor, that is, of a specialised technique. Certainly, he must have such a technique. But a technique is, or should be, a means of expression, not an end in itself. That is why the poet must also be something of a philosopher, a seer, one who seeks to divine some meaning in the world and in human life, and to express this in words. But to this end, he differs from the conventional philosopher in that he conducts his inquiry not so much with his reason, as with that far more perceptive faculty, his intuition. This is the poetic faculty. Nor does the poet, in his quest, aim at reducing the chaos to an ordered symmetry, at finding a scheme which is all-embracing and logically watertight. ‘My task,’ writes Seferis, ‘is not with abstract ideas but to hear what the things of the world say to me, to discern how they interweave themselves with my soul and with my body, and to express them.’ But through this expression, the poet will alter in some measure our perception of the whole, he will increase our awareness of life as a whole. This is his claim to our attention: that he is making us known to ourselves, he is revealing to us something of our condition and of our potentialities. If he does not do that, we can safely take no notice of him. But if he carries out his task as he should, we ignore him at our own risk, for what he has to say concerns our very existence.”

            -Philip Sherrard, “The Marble Threshing Floor” pp.186-187

            As to “Six Nights on the Acropolis”, it’s a beautiful, quietly devastating “coming of age” narrative which proceeds incrementally. Much of its allure is its Modernist debt to an unforced seeming development. All is established early and unfolds often in ways more intuited than observed. There is, in fact, a complex structure at work but one that does not call attention to itself. What is clear is the alternating literary modes–one being the then highly fashionable voice of the diarist while the other is the story he tells or attempts to re-tell. The distinction becomes blurred as the rhythm is disrupted and the styles converge. A great book which is, of course, hard to find but worth it.

            I very much look forward to reading your piece on Seferis on Public Orthodoxy. I will be looking out for that. Thank you for informing us.

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  11. I was researching hermeticism and esoteric strains of Christian thought recently.

    While reading over the emerald tablet of Hermès, the real perversion of esotericism struck me-

    The idea that spiritual realities are analogies of physical processes.

    This is the crux of the error.

    It is true that we can ascend- we can know some shreds of the spiritual life by earthly analogy- the burning and upward reaching fire is the man ascending through contemplation of the heavens.

    But the reverse is NOT true. It is the subjugation of spiritual realities to alchemical processes. In theosis, we are not supposed to learn that the sulphur of Mercury is formed by a processes analogical to catharsis!

    This is the inversion of the pentagram. This is the descent. This is the fall. This is the error-

    To make earthly subjugation the telos of spiritual reality.

    There is an analogy among created things of microcosm and macrocosm. This is true. And what happens in the heavens is similar to what happens in atoms. But this is within the creation itself, and this fractal recursive quality again points beyond itself to the uncreated.

    Between the knowledge of the uncreated and the created there is no descending analogy, no physical principles imitating spiritual ones, but physical processes mirroring the ascension of spiritual ones.

    This is the division between the cultist and the mystic. The false mysticism of Satan and the Light of Tabor the permeates even the wind that blows we-know-not-where.

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  12. jamesa2222 says:

    Doesn’t the Gospel require the consequences for those who reject it to be dire? Won’t a person die if they refuse food?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Yes, absolutely. God is our Good and to alienate ourselves from the Good is to bring untold misery and suffering. But that does not logically entail everlasting damnation. See, e.g., George MacDonald’s homily “The Consuming Fire.”

      Liked by 2 people

      • jamesa2222 says:

        “God is our Good and to alienate ourselves from the Good is to bring untold misery and suffering.”
        Which is the textbook definition of Gehenna is it not? Hell as described by Orthodoxy is a place where the damned experience God’s love: their disposition, however, makes it an object of torment rather than an object of pain. Universalism, on the other hand, seems for all its marketability, betrays the unloving God, it purports eternal torment as does. Isn’t a God who alters free will for the sake of creating submissive subjects a tyrant, despite his intentions?

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        • If that was universalists believed, yes. There are a few who speak this way (Robin Collins and Marilyn McCord Adams). See

          Click to access Murray%20-%20Three%20Versions%20of%20Universalism%20(FaPh).pdf

          But Collins is also sympathetic to open theism (I don’t know about Adams), and so such a “conversion against the will” might go hand-in-hand with open theism. I’m sure this is why Greg Boyd and Thomas Jay Oord remain only HOPEFUL universalists without being able to go all the way to a more sure hope. However, if Hart’s understanding of the will is correct (dare I mention Hart and open theists in the same paragraph?!), this would imply that regardless of what understanding of divine foreknowledge one has, universalism would still be true without God having to coerce anyone. At least that’s how I interpret Hart’s understanding of the will.

          On a Thomistic understanding, or Molinist understanding, or Hugh McCan’s “double agency” view, or the quasi middle knowledge view that Gregory of Nyssa (in On the Early Death of Infants) and John Chrysostom seem to anticipate (sorry, I don’t know how else to describe it),universalism could be true without God converting anyone against their will.

          If Orthodox have decided that Calvinism basically heresy, then we need to further define our view of divine foreknowledge.

          James,

          I’ve said this before on here, but if you believe that God providentially ordered the world so that the Orthodox Church would be free from dogmatic errors, or that he providentially ordered the world so that human beings could freely be inspired to write our scriptures, why do you seem to think it impossible for God to providentially order the world to ensure that all will be saved? In fact, in some ways, these other things seem more difficult to accomplish, since at least, with universalism, God has all of eternity to convince everyone to follow Him. Hell doesn’t have a timer, at which point it’s too late for God. Some may argue that some souls are too far gone for God to ever heal, but as Fr Aidan and Gary Chartier point out, why should we believe that it is possible for a soul to ever do such a thing? Wouldn’t this imply a complete and utter loss of the image of God? I know this IS N.T. Wright’s view of hell, but positing that the image of God could be fully obliterated in someone strikes me as problematic.

          Also, why think that the fire of God’s love isn’t effective at eventually converting the wicked heart to him? After all, this “hell is heaven experienced differently” view was essentially taken from Isaac the Syrian, but then when Part 2 of his works was found, it was never updated. So it’s essentially Isaac the Syrian’s universalism running around with its head cut off. And most of those others who are purported to have held it (Maximus the Confessor for example, Gregory of Nazianzus) were, in my view (and also several others’) also universalists. See https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2020/04/02/st-maximus-the-universalist/
          and https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2020/06/30/was-st-maximus-merely-a-hopeful-universalist/

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          • sorry for a few typos there

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          • jamesa2222 says:

            “I’ve said this before on here, but if you believe that God providentially ordered the world so that the Orthodox Church would be free from dogmatic errors, or that he providentially ordered the world so that human beings could freely be inspired to write our scriptures, why do you seem to think it impossible for God to providentially order the world to ensure that all will be saved?”
            I am actually answering this as a Latin with a strong affinity to the East. My answer would be because it’s against God’s loving nature to violate His creature
            s free will. It’s impossible for God to act against His nature, because God is Love, and love with compulsion ceases to be love.
            “Some may argue that some souls are too far gone for God to ever heal.”
            Which is consistent with Jesus’s teaching that sins against the Holy Spirit are unforgivable. Chrysostom holds to it as well: “For even this was forgiven upon repentance. Many at least of those who said these words believed afterward, and all was forgiven them. What is it then that He saith? That this sin is above all things unpardonable. Why so? Because Himself indeed they knew not, who He might be, but of the Spirit they received ample experience. For the prophets also by the Spirit said whatever they said; and indeed all in the Old Testament had a very high notion of Him…For in proof that He is speaking of what was said of Him before the crucifixion, He added, “Whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whosoever shall speak against the Holy Ghost,” there is no more forgiveness. Wherefore? Because this is known to you; and the truths are notorious which you harden yourselves against. For though ye say that ye know not me; yet of this surely ye are not ignorant, that to cast out devils, and to do cures, is a work of the Holy Ghost. It is not then I only whom ye are insulting, but the Holy Ghost also. Wherefore your punishment can be averted by no prayers, neither here nor there.”

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          James, your last sentence alerted me to the possibility that you have not read a great deal of the universalist literature. Is that fair to say? The question of free will has been addressed at great length on this blog, both by myself and others.

          Needless to say, no universalist of which I am aware would say that God alters our free will, if for no other reason that any person who attempts to definitively reject God and his love is not rationally free, whether because of ignorance or disordered passions (most likely a combination of the two). The claim that a human being, created by the Good for the Good, could freely, definitively, and irrevocably close his heart to the Good is incoherent. If you are interested in exploring this question, I’m happy to point you in the right direction.

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          • James,

            I agree that it’s against God’s will to violate a creature’s free will. But yet, if you are an orthodox Roman Catholic, you still nevertheless believe that God has faithfully preserved the Catholic Church from dogmatic error. Clearly, this entails God’s providential ordering of the world so that the Catholic Church could remain free from dogmatic error while being an institution with free human beings.

            I’m trying to point out that if your objection is that universalism cannot be true because it violates free will, then you should also strongly object to God inspiring scripture and the Church as whole to remain “the pillar of Truth” because if God MUST violate creaturely freedom in order to ensure a universalist future, then SURELY he would violate human free will by ensuring that the Catholic Church has remained free from dogmatic error for 2000 yrs. You can’t have it both ways.

            If one is possible, then both are possible, if one is impossible, then both are impossible. Unless you can show why there’s a fundamental difference between keeping human beings from committing dogmatic errors and keeping human beings from condemning themselves to hell forever.

            As for the unforgivable sin, I must admit, I’m not sure how to respond to this. Fr Aidan, do you recommend anything? It is certainly puzzling, though I can think of some possible solutions.

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          • jamesa2222 says:

            Fair enough.

            Which leads to my other question? How can there be an unforgivable sin if everyone ends up in a state of grace even in eternity?

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            From God’s side, there are no unpardonable sins. Christ is God’s forgiveness. On the cross he made a “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction” for every sin human beings have committed and will commit. Christ’s words, therefore, must be interpreted through this fundamental evangelical truth. They must not be interpreted in such a way as to contradict the Lord’s atoning work.

            George MacDonald’s sermon “It Shall Not Be Forgiven” is particularly helpful.

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  13. I’ve thought about compiling different quotes from Bulgakov, MacDonald, Nyssen, Origen, Nazianzen and Isaac the Syrian and writing something called “the universalist hell,” and if someone else wants to do that, feel free. But this would not be a very pleasant thing to spend my time doing. When you put together all that they have to say about it, it really is very frightening. I probably have more sympathy with the “honorable silence” approach than most here, but if we REALLY believed in the hell that those figures believed in, it is hard for me to see why it would need to be eternal to be an effective deterrent.

    Isaac still recommends thinking of judgment when we are tempted, and I have to say that although I often question whether my tendency towards universalism makes me less fervent in my faith (since this is what so many infernalists think will happen), when it comes down to it, in the throws of temptation, I have a much easier time convincing myself that I want to avoid Bulgakov’s hell, than the eternal hell of Lewis, or Edwards. If I think of an ETERNAL hell in the midst of temptation, ever since I’ve been a teenager, I think I have tended to subconsciously dismiss it as a threat altogether because it sounds too horrible to the subconscious mind for a good God to permit its existence. “So why not sin some more?! Since there isn’t any way a good God would send someone there, and certainly not little old me!” Hart does seem to be on to something when he suggests that many of those with children unconsciously reject an eternal hell without realizing it. On the hand, the hell of MacDonald et al. makes intuitive sense, and it seems easy to believe that God would give people over to their passions for however long they needed before they see how much pain it is causing them. This doesn’t make it any less terrifying.

    Does anyone have any thoughts on the terms “terminalism” vs “eternalism” as new substitutes for “universalism,” vs “infernalism”? To me, this pinpoints where the debate lies for orthodox Christians. Everyone believes in hell, it’s mentioned everywhere in the New Testament. The question is whether hell ultimately has a terminus or goes on forever.

    This also shifts the debate a bit. Universalism makes it sound like the its proponent has a large burden of proof. She needs to show how every last person will end up with Christ in the end. Terminalism shifts how we think about this. To me, “terminalism” sounds a lot less daunting to prove, since hell NOT going on forever sounds like a reasonable position. “Eternalism” drops the rhetoric but gets to the heart of the matter. Terminalism sounds a little like annihilationism but I think the two could be clearly distinguished.

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    • CWHowell says:

      Regarding the frightening descriptions of afterlife even among universtalists, you may have already seen this, but one of my colleagues at Duke wrote an essay along these lines for ChurchLife.

      https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-severity-of-universal-salvation/

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      • Yes, I thought it was wonderful. If I do ever decide to write it, I’ll make sure to read this one again so I don’t say the exact same thing. But I would definitely send someone there if her main concern is that universalism provides no deterrent to those who only refrain from evil out of fear rather than out of want of reward or better yet, out of love.

        I don’t think Origen or Nyssen or Maximus were mistaken to think that some only refrain from doing evil out of fear of adverse consequences, but I do tend to think they underestimated just how terrifying the universalist hell actually is. And many times, their “honorable silence” only reinforces the impression. St. Isaac is the only Church Father I am aware of who spoke openly of universalism in his homilies and thought that the universalist hell was still enough of a deterrent. All of Nyssen’s explicit statements are found in treatises and commentaries while his homilies only contain passing references for those already “in the know.”

        Unless a future ecumenical council decides to definitively squash the universalist hope, I wonder if the strategy of this century should be St. Isaac’s. The “honorable silence” seems to have thrown off 1500 yrs of eschatological interpretation, where almost every interpreter mistook all the early fathers but Nyssen and Isaac for ”infernalists.”

        As a friend of mine put it, we took the exoteric as descriptive of reality rather than the esoteric and we should have done the opposite.

        This has little to do with your original post. Haha sorry

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  14. jamesa2222 says:

    “I’m trying to point out that if your objection is that universalism cannot be true because it violates free will, then you should also strongly object to God inspiring scripture and the Church as a whole to remain “the pillar of Truth” because if God MUST violate creaturely freedom in order to ensure a universalist future, then SURELY he would violate human free will by ensuring that the Catholic Church has remained free from dogmatic error for 2000 yrs. You can’t have it both ways.”
    Considering that Balaam still spoke God’s prophecy and ends up dead because he tries to pervert the Israelites, I’d say you can. Prophecy and dogmatic declarations are God speaking through people. To apply the same to conduct is never promised by Jesus.

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  15. jamesa2222 says:

    “From God’s side, there are no unpardonable sins. Christ is God’s forgiveness. ”
    Jesus who is God said that those who peak against the Spirit will not be forgiven. I.e., you won’t be satisfied if you refuse food. Shouldn’t it be logical that rejecting the Spirit has this consequence as well?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I’ve been away from my commentaries on the gospels for well over a decade now, since I retired from parochial ministry; but if I recall rightly, the commentators insisted that the historical-critical meaning of Jesus’ saying about the sin of the Spirit is a rebuke of the Pharisees and their rejection of Jesus’ teaching and eschatological ministry: to reject Christ is to reject the Spirit since Jesus has been baptized in the Spirit and his teachings and ministry flow from the Spirit. But as mentioned above, in light of Christ’s atoning work on the cross, even this rejection is itself forgiven by God. Hence the Lord’s word here must be read hyperbolically. We must not interpret Jesus’ words as contradicting the gospel; the gospel interprets the gospels.

      Liked by 1 person

      • jamesa2222 says:

        “but if I recall rightly, the commentators insisted that the historical-critical meaning of Jesus’ saying about the sin of the Spirit is a rebuke of the Pharisees and their rejection of Jesus’ teaching and eschatological ministry: to reject Christ is to reject the Spirit since Jesus has been baptized in the Spirit and his teachings and ministry flow from the Spirit. But as mentioned above, in light of Christ’s atoning work on the cross, even this rejection is itself forgiven by God.”
        So back to the analogy, it’s force-feeding a hungry man food who doesn’t want to be fed. Even the Gospel speaks of the consequences for those who do not accept forgiveness. Otherwise, Jesus would have said to those who rejected him, “You will die in your sin.”

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  16. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    James: “It’s force-feeding a hungry man who doesn’t want to be fed. Even the Gospel speaks of the consequences for those who do not accept forgiveness.”

    James, I suggest that by focusing on the question of free-will (and let’s remember that Scripture does not provide a definition or explanation of free-will; in other words, as soon as raise the objection, you are doing philosophy), you are coming at the problem from the wrong-end. The foremost question is this: If God is absolute and unconditional Love–and I believe this has been divinely revealed to us in Jesus Christ–would he freely create a world in which he knew that a portion, perhaps even a large portion, of his rational creatures would be doomed to everlasting suffering? Only until this question is satisfactorily answered can we raise the question of human freedom.

    Be that as it may, I strongly commend to you Tom Talbott’s discussion of freedom and hell in his book The Inescapable Love of God. For a taste of his analysis, see his article “Free will theodicies of hell.”

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    • jamesa2222 says:

      “The foremost question is this: If God is absolute and unconditional Love–and I believe this has been divinely revealed to us in Jesus Christ–would he freely create a world in which he knew that a portion, perhaps even a large portion, of his rational creatures would be doomed to everlasting suffering? Only until this question is satisfactorily answered can we raise the question of human freedom.”
      I think those who ask this question dismiss the “why” answer. A God who loves unconditionally is so unloved by His creation. We often forget that Lucifer an angel who had full knowledge chose to rebel.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        You do not know that Lucifer had full knowledge when he rebelled. That has not been revealed by divine revelation, and reason contradicts it. No rational being with full knowledge that God is his supreme and ultimate Good, apart from which there is hopeless misery, would rationally reject God.

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        • I suppose the passage that some think of as supporting the idea that the devil had “full knowledge” is James 2:19:

          “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.”

          But after getting some clarification from Hart and what he means by “knowledge,” this verse seems to only be speaking of intellectual knowledge, which Hart distinguishes from a deeper type of experiential knowing. It is this second type of knowledge that scripture does not address, at least as far as I am aware.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            That verse says nothing about Satan enjoying perfect knowledge of God as the supreme and ultimate Good. It is therefore irrelevant, as you note, Mark. Reason argues that at the moment of the creation, the angels did not have perfect knowledge of God (Tom Belt calls it an epistemic distance). I see no reason why we should accept 2nd millennium angelology, which presupposes the everlasting damnation of demons and therefore needs to posit an explanation and justification. The simple fact is we know next to nothing about the fall of the angels.

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        • jamesa2222 says:

          “You do not know that Lucifer had full knowledge when he rebelled. That has not been revealed by divine revelation, and reason contradicts it. No rational being with full knowledge that God is his supreme and ultimate Good, apart from which there is hopeless misery, would rationally reject God.”
          So we ignore every passage where a demon tells Christ, “I know who You are, the Holy One of God?” And since Paul says that we will know fully at eternity, your claim that Lucifer, in Heaven didn’t know full knowledge of what he was doing is inaccurate.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            James, you are making unwarranted inferences from Scripture, presumably in light of a prior commitment to everlasting damnation. Knowing that God is the one God or that Jesus is the Holy One has nothing to do with possessing a perfect knowledge of God as the Good. As I said above, none of us are privy to the dynamics of the angelic fall, about which Scripture has virtually nothing to say. Christians cannot even agree on humanity’s fall from grace and its consequences, such being the ambiguity of Scripture. Your claim that the angels enjoyed a perfect apprehension and experience of the Good at the moment of their creation is pure speculation and must always remain speculation. The speculation enjoys a long history in the Church, but it remains speculation nonetheless. The Church has not dogmatically defined anything regarding the angelic fall and cannot do so, given the silence of the apostolic revelation.

            As St Thomas Aquinas taught, no rational being freely chooses evil for evil’s sake. We can be ignorant or mistaken about which good or goods will make us truly happy. We can be so enslaved to our disordered desires as to be unable to freely choose the good. But we cannot will evil for the sake of evil. David B. Hart has well stated the axiom: “To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it.”

            In any case, I have recommended that you read George MacDonald’s homily “The Consuming Fire” and the article by Tom Talbott, as well as his book. Once you have read Talbott’s article, please return with your questions and counter-arguments. Hart also addresses the question of human freedom and its relation to the Good in his book That All Shall Be Saved. Talbott and Hart have two different approaches to the question, yet their arguments ultimately dovetail and arrive at the same conclusion. For a brief summary of Hart’s argument, see his article “What is a truly free will?” I have also discussed the question in my article “Rational Freedom and the Incoherence of Satan.” There are also plenty of other articles published on my website that specifically address this issue, helpfully listed on my universalism reading page. But there’s no point in further discussion until you acquaint yourself with the arguments advanced by Talbott and/or Hart.

            Ultimately, though, the real question is whether the God of Jesus Christ is absolute and unconditional Love. If he is, then he will find a way to restore even the most wicked to himself. That is what Love does.

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  17. jamesa2222 says:

    “I see no reason why we should accept 2nd-millennium angelology, which presupposes the everlasting damnation of demons and therefore needs to posit an explanation and justification. The simple fact is we know next to nothing about the fall of the angels.”
    Even in the face of passages which describe hell as fire prepared for the devil and his angels, and where the worm dieth not? Even when we read in John’s Apocalypse that the dragon took a third of the stars in the heavens?

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    • Jamesa,

      Simply mentioning scripture passages that talk about hell is not sufficient as proof that damnation is everlasting. There are other interpretations of these passages that leave open the possibility of eventual universal redemption. Please check out the resources on Fr Aidan’s Readings in Universalism page, particularly the stuff by Brad Jersak, Robin Parry, or David Bentley Hart’s translation of the NT.

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  18. jamesa2222 says:

    “Jamesa,

    Simply mentioning scripture passages that talk about hell is not sufficient as proof that damnation is everlasting.”

    Especially when it says the worm dieth not? When it says eternal punishment?

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  19. jamesa2222 says:

    “That verse says nothing about Satan enjoying perfect knowledge of God as the supreme and ultimate Good.”
    Then how do you read Revelations 12, and the part about the dragon taking a third of heaven’s stars?
    “As St Thomas Aquinas taught, no rational being freely chooses evil for evil’s sake. We can be ignorant or mistaken about which good or goods will make us truly happy. We can be so enslaved to our disordered desires as to be unable to freely choose the good. But we cannot will evil for the sake of evil.”
    And Aquinas said this while holding to eternal damnation. His reasoning on why some aren’t saved. “Hence it may be said of a just judge, that antecedently he wills all men to live; but consequently wills the murderer to be hanged. In the same way God antecedently wills all men to be saved, but consequently wills some to be damned, as His justice exacts.”

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      James, we are not going to trade Bible verses back and forth in fundamentalist fashion. This exchanage is concluded. When you have read the material I recommended, I and others will be happy to discuss them with you.

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      • jamesa2222 says:

        You’ll be happy to know I have. You’ll be unhappy to know that the authors of the material try to hard to circumvent the Scriptures to make their arguments.

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  20. James,

    Why did you choose to make comments on this website? You are not offering anything new to the debate, and have not done the reading that Fr Aidan and I suggested. Are you interested in finding answers? It seems to me if you were, you would take the reading suggestions. I don’t plan on responding again, but I’ll respond to your scriptural objections one last time.

    “Especially when it says the worm dieth not? When it says eternal punishment?”

    This fire that does not die comes from Isaiah 66, and the people it is burning in that passage are DEAD. It’s burning corpses, not immortal resurrected bodies. Furthermore, Mark 9:49, and 1 Cor. 3 (which can only be interpreted as purgatory through eisegesis it seems to me) seem to give the fire a more purificatory function, which is also how the fire functions in Isa 4:4; 47:14-15; 66:16-17; Mal 3:3. So the undying worm and unquenchable fire certainly do not die, and are unquenchable. But nowhere does it say they are such FOREVER (despite your English rendering of “eternal,” where the Greek is more ambiguous). The worm and fire are certainly unlike anything on earth since worms die on earth and fire is quenched by water. Not so in the eschaton. But there isn’t any reason to think, especially if the fire serves a function of purification that the fire will go on forever. It may well go on for many ages till it has completed its work. Jesus simply doesn’t address this, though Paul may in 1 Cor. 3.

    To quote an annihilationist on the “fire,”

    [Infernalist’s] use of Jude 7 is particularly curious. Jude offers the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah — not their torment — as an example of what will happen to the ungodly. Citing this text, Burk argues that “the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah does not imply some kind of eschatological annihilation of the wicked in hell. Rather, the fire that rained down on the infamous cities was an example of ‘eternal fire’ or ‘fire of the age.’ ” Yet, Jude says that in their earthly destruction, Sodom and Gomorrah “are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7 NASB). You can read about this destruction in Genesis 19. There is no ongoing torment in that passage, and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah aren’t still burning in an “eternal fire.” The phrase “eternal fire” (puros aioniou) is stock Old Testament imagery for the intensity of God’s judgment and — again — not its duration.

    Zondervan,. Four Views on Hell (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) (p. 190). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.

    As for your word “eternal punishment,” again the Greek word aionios, from where you get “eternal,” can also mean something like “age enduring” or “pertaining to the future age,” rather “eternal.” This would make sense since it’s derived from the Greek word aeon, which DOES mean age. So “aeonal” (“agey”) is probably the most literal rendering. Also, the word you use for “punishment” may well be “punishment,” but the most common translation of the Greek word kolasis is “chastisement,” which is the word used in Matthew 25. Clement of Alexandria differentiates between kolasis and timoria (punishment). So again, there is ambiguity here.

    Best,

    -Mark

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    • One little last thing James.

      I am not a certain universalist, but nevertheless, ask yourself if there isn’t a big contradiction in Aquinas’s theology. Can he hold these two positions together in a coherent way? It’s at least a question worth posing.

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    • jamesa2222 says:

      “As for your word “eternal punishment,” again the Greek word aionios, from where you get “eternal,” can also mean something like “age enduring” or “pertaining to the future age,” rather “eternal.” This would make sense since it’s derived from the Greek word aeon, which DOES mean age. So “aeonal” (“agey”) is probably the most literal rendering. Also, the word you use for “punishment” may well be “punishment,” but the most common translation of the Greek word kolasis is “chastisement,” which is the word used in Matthew 25. Clement of Alexandria differentiates between kolasis and timoria (punishment). So again, there is ambiguity here.”

      Where is the consistency, then in translating eternal life? Is it life for an age?

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