The Deep Patristic Roots of Hart’s Universalism: A Response to Fr Lawrence Farley

by Mark Chenoweth

Many of the critics of David Bentley Hart’s presentation of universalism in his That All Shall Be Saved argue that he doesn’t give nearly enough weight to church tradition. I agree. However, these critics, the latest one being the Eastern Orthodox priest Fr Lawrence Farley, tend to go on to say that not only does Hart not care about church tradition, but that the Orthodox Church Tradition speaks univocally against Hart’s universalist claims. The latter claim is where I demur. While Hart doesn’t much seem to care what church tradition has to say about universalism, it is nevertheless the case that there is a very strong stream of Orthodox Church Tradition (though certainly not the only stream) that supports him, not just in his universalism per se, but also in his arguments in support of it. I’m not just talking about St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Isaac the Syrian, but several others as well. In this response to Fr Lawrence Farley’s review, my goal is to show the deep patristic foundations of Hart’s book and to respond to many of Farley’s criticisms using mostly the church fathers, although my own voice will chime in briefly from time to time.

Rather than following the trajectory of Farley’s review, I will begin by looking at what Farley sees as Hart’s pitiful use of scripture and tradition and then move on to look at Farley’s analysis of Hart’s arguments and rhetoric. The reader should also remember that Hart’s book was written to the Christian world at large, and his references to church tradition don’t typically refer specifically to Orthodox Church Tradition. Nevertheless, since this review is a response to Fr Lawrence who is concerned solely with Eastern Orthodox Church Tradition, when I say Church Tradition in this post, unless I qualify it, I mean the Orthodox Church Tradition.[1]

Scripture and Tradition

Fr Lawrence finds Hart’s claims that universalism was probably the majority view in the early church to be far-fetched and tries to drive home to his readers that there was a consensus among the fathers of the Church that hell is eternal. He gives us a long list of which early church fathers and non-canonical but orthodox books he thinks supported a belief in an eternal hell: “Ignatius of Antioch, 2 Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Epistle to Diognetus, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Cyprian of Carthage, Dionysius of Alexandria, Lactantius, Anthony the Great, Ephraim the Syrian, Basil the Great, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, John Cassian, and others.” He says there is a “consensus” six times throughout the review. However, merely repeating this claim of “consensus” doesn’t make it any more believable, and neither does listing or even quoting several church fathers—a consensus is different from a majority. The fact is, as the revered patristics scholar Fr Andrew Louth puts it, “the dismissal of universalism as an aberration (however influential) in the Christian dogmatic tradition on Origen’s part is less and less defensible.”[2] Hart’s claim that universalism was probably the majority view in the early church is only growing in evidence and scholarly support. World renowned patristic scholars such as Fr John Behr,[3] Fr Andrew Louth,[4] Fr Anthony Meredith, Istvan Perczel, Frances Young,[5] Mark Edwards,[6] and of course, Ilaria Ramelli, all believe that the popularity of universalism among the saints in the first 1000 years of Christianity has been significantly underestimated. I’m guessing the list of eternal hell supporters that Farley gives us comes mostly from Brian Daley’s book on early church eschatology, which is excellent but nevertheless quite dated. And two can play at “the list” game. Ilaria Ramelli, whose work the other scholars above generally endorse, also gives us a list of who she thinks were universalists in the early church. I am omitting anyone not an Eastern Orthodox saint in her list: “St. Anthony, St. Pamphilius Martyr, [St.] Methodius, St Macrina, St. Gregory of Nyssa (and probably the two other Cappadocians),… St. John of Jerusalem, St. Jerome … (at least initially), [St. John] Cassian, St. Isaac of Nineveh, St. John of Dalyatha, [St.] Ps. Dionysius the Areopagite, probably St. Maximus the Confessor.”[7] In her second, more popular level book on the subject, Ramelli adds to this list The Apocalypse of Peter, the Sibylline Oracles, Eusebius, and “perhaps” St. Athanasius and St. Ambrose,[8] and states in another place that St. Gregory the Wonderworker also taught the doctrine and brought it to the Cappadocian mothers and fathers. She also gives us no reason to doubt that St. Cyril of Alexandria was also a universalist.[9] In my opinion, Ramelli is wise to leave figures like Justin Martyr, Ignatius, and Irenaeus off of the list, and Fr Lawrence should do the same. Their theology of hell was too undeveloped at that point to safely put them in either the universalist, annihilationist, or eternal hell camp. Their teaching has elements of all three views, and just because they use the word aiōnios, which is usually translated as “eternal,” doesn’t mean they were “infernalists,” since they were simply quoting the same scriptures that Nyssen and Origen also quoted. As universalists, Nyssen, Origen and others, as we will see, did not take the Greek word to always mean absolutely eternal.[10]

Similarly, as Fr Aidan Kimel has painstakingly shown, the view that the universalism of Gregory of Nyssa was condemned at the fifth ecumenical council is not a view that most scholars accept today, nor from the available evidence, should we accept. (I shall let Fr Aidan’s article persuade the reader of this.) Fr Lawrence has written elsewhere that “where such scholars disagree about patristics, I am happy to walk away quietly and leave the question open.” One wonders why he then does not take his own advice and stop repeating that there is a “consensus” against universalism when so many patristic scholars beg to differ. Does he believe that anyone that takes the position of the above scholars is just reading universalism into the fathers when it isn’t there? It would be presumptuous to accuse all of the above scholars of simply wanting to capitulate to secular culture because, as Fr Lawrence hypothesizes, our culture has “lost its sense of sin.”[11] Due to the thoroughness of Fr Aidan’s article arguing that universalism was not condemned at the fifth ecumenical council, we will focus on other aspects of the Orthodox tradition’s relationship to universalism and begin with Farley’s critique of Hart’s use of scripture, using several of the fathers as our interpretive guides. I am aware that Fr Lawrence has reviewed Ilaria Ramelli’s massive tome on patristic universalism and found it wanting. His review reads like someone arguing that the Beatles were actually a terrible band because Ringo’s songs lack musical depth. He points out some genuine problems with Ramelli’s work while ignoring what she does well. I have no illusions of convincing Fr Lawrence of anything in this response, but his “consensus” claim needs to be closely examined for the sake of those still with an open mind on this issue.

The Fathers and 1 Corinthians 15

1 Cor 15:23-28: Each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then [Greek epeita] those who belong to Christ at His coming. Then [Greek eita] comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For God has put all things in subjection under His feet. But when it says, ‘All things are put in subjection under Him,’ it is plain that He is excepted who put all things under Him. When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subjected to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.[12]

Farley writes that Hart’s interpretation of this passage “is solely a fantasy concocted by the universalists.” Yet, when we look at the early patristic interpretation of this passage, Hart’s universalist interpretation seems right at home. This doesn’t mean it’s a good interpreta­tion, of course. Hart and many of the Church fathers could be wrong. But it does mean that the “consensus” to which Fr Lawrence refers throughout the review does not exist.

Fr Lawrence underestimates the extent to which other Church fathers followed Gregory of Nyssa’s exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15. Gregory’s exegesis in his In Illud is undoubtedly a universalist one, but it was universalist precisely to combat the Eunomian heresy at the time, and as we will see, Gregory’s contemporaries and successors valued this universalist argument against heresy. To avoid the idea that Christ’s submission to the Father was the equivalent to some sort of boot on the neck, which would imply Arian subordinationism, Gregory argued that the submission that the Son offers to the Father was the submission of his humanity. In Gregory’s theology, which he articulates in his Ad Ablabium, what are referred to as universals only subsist in their particulars, meaning that the universal of humanity can only be saved if every particular, i.e. every human, is also saved.[13] Therefore, as the head of the Church, Christ’s “humanity” consists of every hypostasis of human nature (i.e. every human being) and is “the kingdom” that Christ hands over to the Father in 1 Corinthians 15. Although I quote an extremely long portion of Gregory’s In Illud below, it is essential that we see exactly what he does with 1 Corinthians 15 so we can then see how other great Church fathers follow Gregory’s exegesis, who, it should be pointed out, was only expanding upon Origen’s work. Here is Gregory:

Here, then, is the object of our treatise: I will first set forth my own understanding of the text and will add the Apostle Paul’s words as applied to my understanding. What does Paul’s teaching consist of? Evil will come to nought and will be completely destroyed. The divine, pure goodness will contain in itself every nature endowed with reason; nothing made by God is excluded from his kingdom once everything mixed with some elements of base material has been consumed by refinement in fire. Such things had their origin in God; what was made in the beginning did not receive evil. Paul testifies to the truth of this. He said that the pure and undefiled Divinity of the Only-Begotten [Son] assumed man’s mortal and perishable nature. However, from the entirety of human nature to which the divinity is mixed, the man constituted according to Christ is a kind of first fruits of the common dough. It is through this [divinized] man that all mankind is joined to the divinity…The goal of our hope is that nothing contrary to the good is left but that the divine life permeates everything. It completely destroys death, having earlier removed sin which, as it is said, held dominion over all mankind. Therefore every wicked authority and domination has been destroyed in us. No longer do our passions rule our [human] nature since it is necessary that none of them dominate–all are subjected to the one who rules over all. Subjection to God is complete alienation from evil. When we are removed from evil in imitation of the first fruits [Christ], our entire nature is mixed with this selfsame fruits. One body has been formed with the good as predominant [this one body is all of humanity, which at this point, is also the Church]; our body’s entire nature is united to the divine, pure nature. This is what we mean by the Son’s subjection–when in his body Christ rightly has the subjection brought to him, and he effects in us the grace of subjection.[14]

Here is how Gregory’s good friend and fellow warrior against Eunomianism Gregory of Nazianzus interpreted 1 Corinthians 15:

God will be “all in all” at the time of restoration (apokatastaseos).… God will be “all in all” when we are no longer what we are now, a multiplicity of impulses and emotions, with little or nothing of God in us, but are fully like God, with room for God and God alone. Paul himself guarantees us of this. What he predicates of “God” without further specification in this passage, he elsewhere assigns clearly to Christ. I quote, “where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision, nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free; but Christ is “all in all.”[15]

Notice that both Nyssen and Nazianzen contrast how we exist now, with many passionate impulses still to be quieted, and how we will exist then, when we will have no room for any evil in us, but only for “God and God alone,” as Nazianzen says. He also clearly sees humanity’s subjection to God as universal and voluntary, and he explicitly says so:

But when all things are put in submission under him, when transformed they obediently acknowledge him, then will Christ bring me forward, me who have been saved, and make his subjection complete.… Thus it is that he effects our submission, makes it his own and presents it to God.[16]

It is quite easy to see the strong parallel between Nazianzen’s and Nyssen’s conception of what this submission means. As Nyssen says, “when in his body Christ rightly has the subjection brought to him … he effects in us the grace of subjection.”

Cyril of Alexandria also follows Gregory of Nyssa’s interpretation:

Since the human being, having sinned, ended up with being submitted [notice this subjection is involuntary] to corruption, and, because of the devil and the demons, detached itself from God … then the Only-Begotten became a human being for our sake, and has annihilated the power of death and also eliminated the root of death, which is sin; he threw out the ruler of this world. After doing all this and bringing the whole salvific economy to completion, he will hand to the Father the Kingdom that once upon a time had been stolen from him and had passed under the power of others [the devil/demons], so to exert his power over all beings on earth, after restoring them [apokatastēsas], having them return to himself, once he has annihilated death and Satan, who had tyrannized them, the Son will have again, and for the world to come, the excellence of the power over all [pantōn].[17]

Although the parallels are not as clear as in Nazianzen, humanity is first said to be submitted to sin and the devil, which clearly contrasts with the final submission to Christ. Christ is also only said to have “power over all beings on earth” after “restoring them,” and here, Cyril specifically uses a variant of the Greek word apokatastasis to describe the restoration. This restoration and “return to himself” is more than just a mere physical resurrection, especially when it is contrasted with the annihilation of the devil and Satan. No part of humanity is said to be cast out with them, but rather, the Son has “power over all.” As with the other fathers, Cyril’s universalist interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15 doesn’t come out of nowhere. Cyril was a follower of the Cappadocians, was taught by an Origenian, and also knew Origen’s works themselves, as Ramelli shows.[18] His interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15 as a reference to a universal spiritual restoration as well as to a universal resurrection is made fairly evident from his other references to a holistic sense of resurrection in a fragment from book 6 of his commentary on 1 Corinthians and a couple places in his Commentary on John.[19]

We turn now to St. Dionysius the Pseudo Areopagite’s use of 1 Corinthians 15. Although patristic scholars Istvan Perczel and Ilaria Ramelli both believe the author of the Dionysian corpus believed in universal salvation, they also think he may have actually held to the heretical version condemned in the 15 Origenist anathemas attributed to the fifth ecumenical council.[20] Nevertheless, the unknown author is a saint of the Church and he or she doesn’t interpret 1 Corinthians 15 any differently than does Gregory of Nyssa:

The cause of all is “all in all” according to Scripture, and must certainly be praised for being the giver of existence to all, the originator of all beings, which brings all of them to perfection. It holds them together and protects them. It is their seat, and has all of them come back to itself, and this in a unified, irresistible, absolute, and transcendent manner.[21]

The words Dionysius uses here such as “perfection,” or the concept of a “return” show up throughout his corpus, and so taking them as referring only to a physical resurrection without a spiritual resurrection (i.e. universal salvation) is to evacuate his language of the meaning he gives it on several other occasions.[22] For example, in Divine Names 1.4, Dionysius specifically defines “return” (epistrophē) as the return to the Good itself, which is, of course, God. It isn’t plausible to interpret this return as anything other than the full and holistic return of humanity to God envisioned by Gregory of Nyssa and Origen.

Maximus the Confessor also followed Gregory of Nyssa’s interpretation, emphasizing the complete eradication of all evil:

The Godhead will really be all in all, embracing all and giving substance to all in itself, in that no being will have any movement separate from it and nobody will be deprived of its presence. Thanks to this presence, we will be, and will be called, gods and children, body and limbs, because we shall be restored to the perfection of God’s project.[23]

Throughout the rest of Maximus’ corpus, any movement apart from God or against nature is defined as evil. Therefore, if there is no movement separate from God, then universal salvation is being referred to here. Unlike in some places, such as his Questions and Doubts 13, where he stops a hairs breadth short of affirming the deification of all creatures, he is not as timorous here.[24] His language of being “gods,” and part of the “body” are clear references to deification and to the body of Christ, and this interpretation is supported by a passage in Ad Thalassium 59 when he says that “diviniza­tion (ektheōseōs) will be present in actuality to all (pantas), transforming (metapoiousa) all human beings into the divine likeness.”[25] Earlier in Ambigum 7, before his interpreta­tion of 1 Corinthians 15, Maximus states that “man as a whole will be divinized, being made God by the grace of God who became man.”[26] He also tells us that the “subjection” of which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 15 means “those who freely accept to be subjected to Him,” which is, according to 1 Corinthians 15, all things.[27] In his Questions and Doubts, Maximus also interprets the “death” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15 not merely as physical death, but also spiritual death (just as Nyssen does). Maximus writes:

“death is the last enemy to be destroyed” means whenever we, ourselves, submit the entire self-determining will to God, then the last enemy is also abolished. And it is called “death” since God is life, and that which is opposed to life is fittingly called death.[28]

Whatever this “death” is, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 that it is universally abolished. Maximus’ universalist interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15 is very significant given that he lived after the fifth ecumenical council. It would seem to be confirmation that although quite unpopular and controversial by his time, Maximus still saw Gregory of Nyssa’s vision as an orthodox belief.

St. Basil the Great, Universalism, and 1 Corinthians 15

We now come to St. Basil’s interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15. Fr Lawrence repeatedly lists St. Basil as an anti-universalist. Is he right to do so? The scholarship surrounding Basil’s relationship to universalism is an extremely complex matter, but from what I can tell, it really boils down to whether Basil is the author of the universalist Commentary on Isaiah or the author of a particular anti-universalist passage in his Regulae for monks. In antiquity, both were attributed to him, but now his authorship is questioned regarding both. Although I personally believe Ramelli offers plausible reasons to reject his authorship of the anti-universalist passage in the regulae, and Nikolai Lipatov offers a reasonable case in favor of Basilian authorship of the Isaiah commentary, let’s simply assume the “best case” scenario for Farley. Let’s assume that Basil was the zealous anti-universalist who wrote the passage in the Regulae and that he believed that his brother Gregory Nyssen whom he approved of as bishop, his sister Macrina, and his beloved hero St. Gregory the Wonderworker (universalists, all) were among those he considered “deceived by the devil” because they believed the lie of universalism, as the author says in the Regulae.[29] Before we proceed, I cannot resist saying we will also have to assume that St. Gregory of Nyssa still chose to dedicate one of his most explicitly universalist works, On the Soul and the Resurrection, to his virulently anti-universalist recently deceased brother Basil, which is a little comedic but not impossible, I suppose. Let’s also assume Basil did not write the universalist commentary on Isaiah. Would this pseudonymous Commentary on Isaiah lose its value in the Orthodox tradition? I see absolutely no reason to think so. There are many Orthodox scholars who do not believe the author of the Dionysian corpus is the Dionysius spoken of in the book of acts (Bishop Alexander Golitzin, Fr Andrew Louth, Fr Thomas Hopko, for example), and I am not aware of anyone who has suggested that non-Dionysian authorship takes away from the Dionysian corpus’s authority within the Orthodox tradition.[30] Just as in the case of the Dionysian corpus, subsequent church fathers felt the ring of truth in Pseudo(?)-Basil’s Commentary, and so should we. Regarding the Orthodox debate on the permissibility of universalism, this would mean we simply have another text in the Orthodox tradition that attests to the acceptance of universalism as an orthodox belief in the early church. With that being said, let us now take a look at how Basil, or Pseudo-Basil, interprets 1 Corinthians 15:

The peace of Solomon was limited to the recorded years, whereas the peace from the Lord is co-extensive with the whole of eternity, being unlimited and boundless. For all shall be subjected to him and shall recognize his mastery, and when God shall be all in all, and those making an uproar by their apostasies are silenced, all in peaceful harmony shall praise God with hymns.[31]

One would have to work fairly hard against the text to argue that this isn’t a statement of universal salvation. It clearly echoes the interpretation we have seen in Nyssen, Nazianzen, Cyril, and Maximus: After those who were formerly against God have been pacified or their apostasies have been silenced, then all will praise God. Clearly echoing the “hymn” in Philippians 2, Basil does not say that even those who are still in apostasy praise God. He says that after their rebellion has been silenced or pacified, then all will praise God. We will draw much more from St. Basil’s commentary below.

The Early Church Fathers and 1 Corinthians 3

1 Corinthians 3:14-15: If the work that someone has built endures, that one will receive a reward; if anyone’s work should be burned away, that one will suffer loss, yet shall be saved, even though as by fire.[32]

Unsurprisingly, Fr Lawrence finds Hart’s universalist interpretation of 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 implausible and writes, “it is clear that in this passage that Paul is not talking about the fate of all men, but solely about the fate of those Christian teachers in Corinth.” Farley offers his own exegesis of the passage which I find credible, although my own opinion regarding what’s going on in this passage is different from both Farley’s and Hart’s. Nevertheless, I have no desire to discuss my own exegesis here. Once again, I only intend to look at how closely Hart’s interpretation aligns with what we find in early church tradition. Farley asserts that Hart’s interpretation has no basis in Orthodox Church Tradition. He’s wrong. Hart’s interpretation may actually have more support in the early church than Farley’s position or my own.

Let us start with Gregory Nazianzen, who sees the “fire” of 1 Corinthians 3 as the same fire mentioned in Mark 9:49 (“For everyone will be salted with fire”), which he interprets as extremely painful, yet purifying, due to Mark’s reference to salt. In short, for Nazianzen the fires associated with Gehenna, in addition to having a chastising or punishing function, also have a purifying function. In one sermon, Gregory cites an image directly from 1 Corinthians 3 and tells his audience to fear the second baptism that is “by fire…that is more laborious and longer, that devours matter like hay and consumes all evils like the lightest things.[33] As further confirmation that Gregory has 1 Corinthians 3 in mind here, Gregory’s translator Nonna Verna Harrison puts 1 Corinthians 3 as a footnote to this passage.[34] It is clear in this instance that Gregory interprets 1 Corinthians 3 as Hart does: the fire spoken of devours all evils, not just those of Paul’s fellow-workers in Christ, and it said to last longer than baptism on earth but not forever. The fact that he refers to it as a second baptism also implies that it doesn’t last forever since just as one has to pass through the water in baptism, if one does not repent in this life, he or she must pass through the fire in the next. If this fire were eternal, the baptismal imagery would not “work.” It lasts until (with the person’s consent) it has burned away all of the evil in that person.

Earlier in the sermon, Gregory applies several different biblical images to Gehenna, and it is again clear that he certainly sees a purifying function to these images, although he still tends to throw in the more literal biblical image of hell (e.g. separating persons rather than evil from good in a person) in order to only hint at the universalist images, because, as we will see later, the tradition of the early church was to hide universalism from those perceived to be spiritually lazy. As he says in the passage from his sermon quoted in Hart’s book, “For all these fires belong to the destroying power, unless some prefer even here to understand this fire as showing more love to humankind, in a way worthy of the punisher.”[35] Although Gregory intended most people to simply hear this statement in passing, when we focus in on it, it is clear that he certainly wouldn’t believe in any meaning of the fire that is unworthy of the punisher and so he must believe the fire is purificatory. Origen was remarkably clear that universalism should not be preached openly to the spiritually lazy, and should only be hinted at in public homilies, and Nazianzen was following Origen’s lead here:

And what is the winnowing fan?[36] Purification. And what is the fire? The destruction of the chaff and the fervor of the Spirit. And what is the axe?[37] The cutting down of the soul that is incurable, even after the manure.[38] And what is the sword?[39] The cut made by the Word, which divides what is worse from the better, and separates believer from unbeliever.[40]

Gregory then goes on to say that “Christ’s sojourn and the flesh” is a difficult matter to both those who are “infants” in Christ, and those who are more like John the Baptist “in the Spirit.”[41] It was the “infants” in Christ who Origen was reticent to tell about the apokatastasis, and Gregory is just as timid as Origen in this regard.

Basil, or Pseudo-Basil is even more forthright than Nazianzen in his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 3, which makes sense since Nazianzen references the passage in a sermon where he has to worry about “certain lazy people,” as Origen says. Basil, on the other hand, references the passage in a commentary, and commentaries were known to be far more theologically serious and for more “advanced” believers than homilies.[42] At first, it appears that Basil is quite the annihilationist, since he keeps making references to God utterly destroying people and speaking about those who have rebelled to the point of being without hope.[43] He even seems to interpret 1 Corinthians 3 in the least generous way possible, as referring to the destruction of entire groups of people:

A city is a community of people of different pursuits which is welded together for a life in common, a city which because it contains many vain works: timber, grass and straw, is burnt to ashes on the day of judgment, and the communities of the impious are burnt up in fire.[44]

However, Basil eventually lets his readers in on what he thinks is truly going on when someone is referred to in scripture as being completely destroyed. He writes that the fire comes to

destroy utterly … the fiery arrows of the devil into a soul that does not have the shield of faith, and when the divine fire falls upon such a soul it quenches the darts of the evil one, and becomes a purification for the other fire which inflames us into senseless and noxious desires.[45]

He then quotes a portion of Malachi, which speaks of God coming to judge the earth by purifying it.[46] He goes on to say that the “entirely lawless” will be “broken together,” but then explains that by “breaking,” this means that God “breaks their old man,” so that they can “walk in newness of life.”[47] He then tells his readers that even when Isaiah says that “an end shall be made for those who forsake the Lord,”[48] this “by no means signifies complete obliteration,” but rather that the sin in those who forsake the Lord is being obliterated.[49] He then gives an astonishingly Origenian interpretation of the destruction of the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thessalonians 2:

The Lord Jesus will destroy him with the spirit of His mouth and annihilate [him] by the manifestation of His advent [2 Thess. 2:8]. For if the destruction is a complete obliteration, how shall he be annihilated who no longer exists? But quite clearly it is the falsehood which is in the lawless [now a reference back to “the lawless” in Isaiah 1] that will be obliterated utterly with the spirit of the mouth of Truth and thus he shall be annihilated by the manifestation of Christ’s advent. We have already observed many times that vices are utterly obliterated, not the beings themselves in which they occur.[50]

Going back to Basil or Pseudo-Basil’s reference to 1 Corinthians 3, there is now little question that he interpreted it exactly as Hart does, especially since his original reference to the passage was one in which the destruction of sinners was being discussed, not simply half-converted Christians.

Although Maximus was not as obvious as Basil was about his universalism, and his passages that did address the topic were even more purposely confusing than Nazianzen’s,[51] it still quite clear that Maximus interpreted 1 Corinthians 3 as a reference to all humans and not just Christians. When asked point-blank what the passage in 1 Corinthians 3 means in his Questions and Doubts, Maximus writes:

And in the case of sinners [notice, not just impious Christians], the works are completely consumed while discernment renders conscience righteous and diminishes the sins through repentance and saves the human being; and he is responsible for the loss of time that has passed as a result of the neglect of the virtues.[52]

Maximus sees those whose works are “burnt up” as those who would normally be classed as the “eternally derelict,” i.e. “the sinners,” and not just faltering Christians. This is confirmed for us when in Ambigum 46 he takes up the universalist understanding of the parable of the wheat and the tares,[53] surreptitiously arguing that the tares are not people, but the evil things in people. As we can now see, Hart’s interpretations of the main “universalist” scriptural passages certainly has patristic support.

Remaining Issues on Scripture

Fr Lawrence’s longest and most detailed critique is directed to Hart’s interpretation of scripture, and so a few more general comments need to be made in reply before we move on. I agree with Fr Lawrence that it’s difficult to see why Hart believes the book of Revelation should be included in the New Testament if it is so unintelligible to the modern Christian (in our case, the Orthodox Christian). I also doubt whether Origen or Gregory of Nyssa would approve of declaring a book incomprehensible since Origen was always so insistent that all of scripture was written for our benefit. Also, like Farley, I have found modern commentaries on the book greatly enriching, especially Richard Bauckham’s. Nevertheless, it is also true that the book of Revelation is not read within the liturgical life of the Eastern Orthodox Church partly because it is a mysterious book, and so while Hart pushes its mystery too far, his opinion is not entirely divorced from Orthodox practice. All that being said, Hart’s view of the book of Revelation is not central to the main points of his book. At the same time, Farley’s dismissive attitude towards Hart’s aside that Revelation also has universalist elements betrays the respect the universalist Robin Parry has received from New Testament scholars such as Preston Sprinkle, precisely for showing how the book of Revelation does have universalist elements.[54] On whether the Greek word aiōnios means eternal or age, it should go without saying that if the fathers spoken of above were indeed universalists, then their understanding of aiōnios would have to be quite similar to Hart’s understanding. Unfortunately, Farley misstates Hart’s understanding of the word by telling his readers that Hart says the word always means age-long, which is in fact false. Hart says (more than once) that variations of aiōnios may “perhaps indicate something like eternity, but [they] also might be taken as meaning an indeterminately vast period of time.”[55] In fact, I’m not aware of any universalist scholar who argues that aiōnios always means age, not even Ramelli. As with other subjects, Fr Aidan has addressed the meaning of aiōnios in a more in-depth manner than I can do here. Since this piece is primarily about the patristic foundations of Hart’s arguments, I don’t intend to fully address every problem Farley sees with Hart’s scriptural interpretation. As one final note on this subject, it is unfair on Farley’s part to expect Hart to have addressed all the passages that Farley believes indicate eternal punishment in such a short chapter in such a short book.[56]

            Yes, Many Fathers Purposely Hid Their Universalism from the Public

One claim of Hart’s that Farley finds preposterous is the idea that some church fathers actually “kept” the secret of universalism to themselves while preaching an eternal hell to the masses. He writes, “were the many Fathers of those early years, men such as Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Cyprian of Carthage, as well as men such as Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, aware that they were offering ‘a grim distortion of the gospel’ to their flocks and to the world at large?” Well, in the case of the Apocalypse of Peter, St. Athanasius, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and St. Maximus the Confessor, I answer Farley with a shocking, “absolutely!” They (especially Nazianzen and Maximus) were almost certainly aware that they were offering a distortion of the gospel to their flocks, as outrageous as that may be to us moderns. It was the only way they could think of to keep their parishioners virtuous, which is a viewpoint Farley should have some sympathy with since he argues in his review that a certainty of universalism makes life meaningless (we’ll address this later, by the way). Having taken an in-depth look at this issue of “honorable silence” in the church fathers,[57] the conclusion that many church fathers kept universalism from the “common folk” is almost inescapable to me.

Origen, the first Christian to work universalism out in detail, saw this “secret-keeping” in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans and he took it to heart:

Paul is thus acting as a wise steward of the word. And when he comes to the passages in which he has to speak about God’s goodness, he expresses these things in a somewhat concealed and obscure way for the sake of certain lazy people lest perchance, as we have said, “they despise the riches of his goodness and patience and forbearance and store up for themselves wrath on the day of wrath” (Rom 2.4–5).[58]

Origen repeats this sentiment in Contra Celsum 4.19 and Homilies on Jeremiah 19. He also imitates this tendency he sees in St. Paul throughout his sermons,[59] though no such reservations about stating his universalist predilections are observed in his more theologically serious On First Principles. As I show in my piece on Maximus’ universalism, one of the most interesting connections between Origen’s practice of “honorable silence” and the continuation of the practice later in church history is between Origen and Maximus the Confessor. Notice the similarity between these two passages:

Origen: The remarks which might be made on this topic [of hell/universal salvation] are neither to be made to all, nor to be uttered on the present occasion; for it is not unattended with danger to commit to writing the explanation of such subjects, seeing the multitude need no further instruction than that which relates to the punishment of sinners; while to ascend beyond this is not expedient for the sake of those who are with difficulty restrained, even by fear of age-enduring punishment, from plunging into any degree of wickedness, and into the flood of evils which result from sin.[60]

Maximus: It would have been possible to give this theme a more mystical and sublime interpretation. But because, as you know, the deeper secrets of the divine doctrines must not be committed to writing [notice that Origen says the same exact thing above], let the above be enough to satisfy those who seek a more detailed understanding of this question. When God grants us to come together again, we shall inquire assiduously into the apostolic mind regarding this question.[61]

Maximus’ “honorable silence,” as Hans Urs Von Balthasar famously titled it, occurs at least four more times throughout his corpus (Prol. to Ad Thal. 1.2.19, Ad Thal. 43.2, Amb. 31.5, and 45.4), and every time it occurs, it is in connection with themes directly associated with universal salvation since the time of Origen. In one of these “silences,” Maximus specifically says that if the fathers broke this silence, “it was only after they first discerned the capacity of their listeners.”[62] Maximus also says in several passages that the fear of hell helps to keep “beginners” from sin, while more mature Christians are motivated through love,[63] and in one passage of “honorable silence,” says he will only share the interpretation that is suitable for both beginners and the advanced. In other words, he will not share the interpretation suitable only for the advanced. Although I am glossing over reams of material on Maximus when I make this summary statement (one can refer to Ramelli, or my other articles on this if one wants more detail), it nevertheless seems that Maximus saw the Tradition of his Church as one of universalism and honorable silence, and this was after universalism was allegedly condemned in 553, which, of course, implies that it was not condemned. Why would Maximus believe that a universalist honorable silence was the tradition of his church? Most importantly, he saw his hero Gregory of Nazianzus following this tradition of honorable silence. Moreover, as Istvan Perczel has shown, Maximus intimately knew the writings of Origen and Evagrius despite modifying certain aspects of their thought, and Evagrius also states explicitly in his Gnostikos 36 that the doctrine of universal salvation should not be explained to young people. As odd as it may sound, in one of his festal letters, Athanasius also follows Origen’s tradition of “honorable silence” when he says that because “God wants the repentance and conversion of the human being, evilness, all of it, will be burnt away from all humans,” only to then turn around and seemingly affirm eternal damnation so as to not give anything away (this, of course, does not at all exhaust the evidence for Athanasius’ universalism).[64] It seems much more difficult to me to argue that this “honorable silence” in the tradition simply doesn’t exist than to simply acknowledge it was a part of a tradition within the Church.

The Patristic Roots of Hart’s Philosophical Arguments

The Primordial Orientation of the Will

As with most other reviews, Fr Lawrence’s weakest section is his dealing with Hart’s philosophical arguments. Despite agreeing with Farley regarding Hart’s rhetoric and dismissive attitude regarding the importance of church tradition (Orthodox or otherwise), these criticisms only deal with the peripheral details of Hart’s book. The philosophical arguments are the meat of the volume, and if they are more-or-less convincing, then Hart succeeds at what he set out to do.

Fr Lawrence begins with the last of Hart’s arguments. This is Hart’s argument that due to the primordial orientation of the will towards God, each creature will eventually find its permanent satisfaction in God and in deification. Fr Lawrence asks the common question that if any being that knows God as He truly is will desire God insatiably (as Hart claims), “how did Satan fall in the first place?” As Hart’s argument goes, every created will will eventually know God as He truly is, and won’t be able to fall away. But if this is true, how did Satan fall away? “Presumably,” says Fr Lawrence, Satan was made “seeing the good (i.e. God) and knew it truly.” Presumably, yes. But why presume such a thing?

The most common response would be because the scriptures tell us that “the demons believe and tremble” (James 2:19), but the type of knowing Hart is talking about is not the same as mere intellectual belief. Hart’s knowing is more akin to a nuptial or conjugal knowing, an experiential knowing. Did the demons have this type of knowledge of God before they fell? If they did, then we run into a new problem that Maximus saw more clearly than perhaps any other church father.[65]

If, as Farley claims, the demons had a perfect experiential knowledge of God before they fell, then what is to prevent an eternal recurrence of future falls? As Maximus says in his Ambigum 7, “for our part, we do not conceive of the Good as something so narrowly circumscribed and ignoble, as if it could induce a type of satiety and provoke a rebellion among those whose desire it cannot satisfy.”[66] If the demons can fall from such a great height after knowing God intimately, then what is to keep the human beings that God has led into his kingdom from getting bored and falling back down into sin and this cycle repeating for the rest of eternity? God could certainly impose some coercive measures to keep all the believers in heaven, but this would violate the very type of libertarianism Farley wants to uphold. To my mind, Hart’s and Maximus’ solutions to this problem are almost exactly the same (and Hart tips his hat to Maximus in the book). In short, the universalist answer to Fr Lawrence’s question about the fall of the demons is that the demons were not created in a state of a perfect experiential knowledge of God. As Hart says in a recent piece:

temporal extension, entailing emergence from nothingness and growth into a last end, is simply what it is to be a creature. And the emergence of a free, intentional, rational nature—beginning in nonexistence and ending in an endless journey into deification—is what it is to be a spiritual creature. That passage from nothingness into the infinite, which is always a free movement toward a final cause, is the very structure of such creatures. They could not exist otherwise.

Or, as Maximus says:

If, in the first place, we accept that the Divine is immovable (since it fills all things), whereas everything that has received its being ex nihilo is in motion (since all things are necessarily carried along toward some cause), then nothing that moves has yet come to rest, because its capacity for appetitive movement has not yet come to repose in what it ultimately desires, for nothing but the appearance of the ultimate object of desire can bring to rest that which is carried along by the power of its own nature.[67]

This conception of what it means to be a creature also helps answer Farley’s next accusation that Hart’s arguments force us to ask why God hasn’t stopped evil already. Farley’s argument appears to be that if evil will eventually cease, why can’t God simply make it cease now? Fortunately, Hart has answered this question in a recent post on Eclectic Orthodoxy, and it should already be obvious from Maximus and Hart that what it means to be a creature necessarily entails development and education and may very well mean a temporary lapse into horrendous evil (though not as a necessity).

Can Evil qua Evil be Chosen?

Against Hart’s notion that evil cannot be freely chosen as evil, Fr Lawrence relates to us a story of a deacon he knows who works as a prison chaplain whose stories seem to confirm that evil can be “perversely chosen precisely because it is evil.” Fr Lawrence’s assertion here has little if no support in the early patristic tradition. Most of the fathers followed Clement of Alexandria who emphatically states that “no one chooses evil qua evil. He is led astray by the accompanying pleasure, supposing it good, and he thinks it right to choose.”[68] For Hart, but also Clement, Nyssen, Dionysius, and Maximus, we choose evil out of ignorance (this “ignorance” doesn’t totally abolish personal responsibility, however). Maximus prefers to use the more Aristotelian term “motion” instead of desire, but for both Hart and Maximus, every will (whether human or angelic) is created in relative instability with a childlike learning curve in the Good, and it is therefore prone to malfunction. We are not created in sin, but we are created in innocence and immaturity with the potential to unite the world to God, and our fall gives rise to ignorance of the Good. We must, however, think of this as an experiential ignorance, not simply an absence of knowledge about God. Maximus refers to ignorance as the “mother of all evils,”[69] and that in the fall, Adam “fell sick with ignorance of his own Cause, and, following the counsel of the serpent, thought that God was the very thing of which the divine commandment had forbidden him to partake.[70] Here we have a description of the fall entirely in terms of humanity confusing good and evil, which is wholly in line with Hart’s understanding of evil, and wholly at odds with Fr Lawrence’s assertion that evil can be “perversely chosen precisely because it is evil.”

St. Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite also states the exact opposite of Farley regarding the ability to choose evil:

Nor will evil itself exist if it acts as evil upon itself, and unless it does this then evil is not entirely evil but has something of the Good within it, which enables it to exist at all. Now if it is the case that things which have being also have a desire for the Beautiful and the Good, if all their actions are done for what seems to be a good, and if all their actions have the Good as their source and goal (for nothing does what it does while looking at the nature of evil), what place is left for evil among the things that have being and how can it exist at all if is bereft of good purpose?[71]

Dionysius’ answer is that something cannot exist if it is entirely without good purpose; therefore even the demons “have within them some stirrings of desire.”[72] This “desire” would have to be a desire for the Good, although they could consistently mistake evil for good. To argue in favor of Fr Lawrence’s position is to give evil an ontological weight it can’t sustain and to come dangerously close to Manichaeism, which is probably one reason why Augustine appears to endorse universal salvation when he was fighting Manichaeism before he disavowed it later in life.[73]

This is not to say that these fathers didn’t also speak in a libertarian manner about free will. They did. But this type of libertarianism would have to be considered a “soft” libertarianism. They would agree with C.S. Lewis that one of the reasons evil exists is because the Good must be freely chosen without coercion, but this was within a larger theological context of paideia where creatures learn that choosing evil results in pain while choosing the good eventually results in the stability of Maximus’ “ever moving repose” in God. The free choice of evil was seen as free only in a secondary sense, whereas in the primary sense, it was an experiential confusion of evil with good that would be overcome through education and asceticism (only by grace, of course). If those methods of education didn’t work, God’s last resort was hell, which could be seen as God’s giving persons fully over to their evil desires so that they could taste all the bitter consequences of them and eventually accept the purifying fire of God’s love. Gregory of Nyssa beautifully mixes together libertarian language with “intellectualist” language to describe free will in his Oration On Those Who Have Died (“intellectualist” meaning an understanding of seeing the “choice” of evil as simply confusing it for the Good).[74]

Farley then takes on Hart’s claim that “a retribution consisting in unending suffering imposed as recompense for the actions of a finite intellect and will … [is] at the last nothing more than an expression of sheer pointless cruelty.”[75] Farley argues that the eternal suffering of those in hell is self-imposed and self-willed and argues that such suffering is morally acceptable. More of an argument needs to be made, however, before Farley’s argument can successfully work against Hart’s. First of all, Farley would have to knock down Hart’s first ex nihilo argument in the book in order for his own line of reasoning to work here. But his only response to that argument was to ask why God shouldn’t be indicted for allowing evil now if He is to be indicted for allowing it forever. As we saw above, however, this response ignores the Maximian metaphysical grounding of Hart’s conception of creaturehood. With a better grounding in Hart’s metaphysics, we are still forced to ask Farley why God would create such people to suffer forever (even if self-imposed), and how His creating such people doesn’t make Him evil rather than the Good itself. Secondly, this line of argument presupposes a type of “hard” libertarian understand­ing of free will,[76] where evil can be freely chosen, and the will lacks its primordial orientation towards the Good. But we’ve seen plenty of reasons above from Hart, Dionysius, Maximus and others, to doubt whether the “hard” libertarian conception of the will should be accepted.

Does Universalism Make Life Meaningless?

Next, Farley accuses Hart of “asserting that what we do in this life ultimately does not matter in the next.” The only reason Farley says this is because he argues that without the real threat of eternal suffering in hell, our current lives become meaningless: “why bother about anything—including writing (and reviewing) books?”

First of all, Hart never says nor even implies that what we do in this life doesn’t matter in the next. Take for instance, Hart’s statement about Hitler’s damnation: “I for one do not object in the least to Hitler being purged of his sins and saved, over however many aeons of inconceivably painful purification in hell that might take.”[77] For Farley, it seems that if in the end Hitler is saved, no matter how long Hitler spends in hell, even if it’s trillions upon trillions of “years,” his final salvation means his actions on earth didn’t matter. But this is absurd. Farley would of course be correct if Hart adopted some sort of quasi-new age view of the afterlife where hell does not exist and everyone just flies off to heaven immediately after they die regardless of what they did in this life, including the Hitlers and the Stalins. But this is not at all what Hart or any of the universalist fathers argue. Even if the “self-willed” damnation of the next life is not eternal, this by no means implies that our actions here are of no consequence. St. Gregory of Nyssa, even while plainly acknowledg­ing that hell is not forever, still thought the prospect of even age-enduring punishment was a lot to bear emotionally. As he says to his sister St. Macrina (both universalists), “what grain of comfort is left from any subsequent expectation to him whose purgation is thus commensurate with an entire age?”

The universalist fathers were very clear: In any cost-benefit analysis, the pain of seeing one’s unrepented sin in light of Christ’s infinite goodness at the final judgment will always cost more (emotionally, spiritually, perhaps even physiologically) than choosing not to sin and following Christ in this life. If choosing to sin will never win in a cost-benefit analysis, then this is all the negative motivation anyone needs in this life to avoid sin.[78] Holding fast to the serious consequences of hell is partly why St. Isaac the Syrian could make his entire corpus about the importance of repenting in this life while still holding fast to an eventual universal restoration in the next. Nevertheless, as St. Isaac and so many other church fathers believed, love for Christ and Christ’s love for us should be the primary motivating factor in our lives, not the fear of hell, even if for some like myself, fear can still be useful.

What Should We Do with The Later Orthodox Church Tradition?

After looking at the scriptures and Hart’s philosophical arguments through the eyes of some of the Church’s most significant church fathers, it should be fairly clear that the number of universalist saints in the Orthodox Tradition comes to more than just Gregory of Nyssa and Isaac the Syrian. Perhaps Fr Lawrence could respond that an eternal hell became the consensus sometime around the time of St. John of Damascus. Now, I reject the label consensus, but it does seem correct to say that an eternal hell was assumed to have always been the teaching of the Church within a few hundred years after the time of St. Maximus. This argument from tradition has some more weight to it in my opinion. It does look as if it was assumed for centuries that universalism had always been considered heretical until it was revived again mostly by the Orthodox theologians at the St. Sergius Institute in France in the first-half of the twentieth century. But we must ask why universalism faded into oblivion and why it was assumed (wrongly, I would argue) to be heresy. Was it because the Church, through the Holy Spirit, consciously decided to reject it, having all of the relevant arguments for and against it at its disposal (historical, theological, etc.)? Or was it, as Hart argues in his book, a result of many misunder­stand­­ings and the imperialization of Christianity? In other words, was this judgment simply an historical error rather than a theological one? If it were simply a matter of misunderstand­ings and incorrect historical assumptions, would this anti-universalist tradition constitute an infallible Tradition of the Church? Certainly not. But my suspicion is that Farley finds Hart’s view of history totally incompatible with the sense that God guards the Church from error. How could God let the Church “get it wrong” for 1,000 years? I am sympathetic to this question, but it’s not as if this type of question is a new one for Orthodoxy. The same question comes up regarding the possibility of reunion between the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Churches. If the two church’s dogmatic traditions essentially agree with one another, why did God let us stay separated for a millennium and a half? Although many dissertations could be written on this question—and I suggest we Orthodox need to think very hard about it—Fr Aidan’s general instinct on this seems correct: Why assume that 1000 years is a long time on God’s timeline? After all, it probably felt like forever to the Byzantines who waited for decades for the restoration of the icons. For all we know, we could still be in the early Church. Suppose the Orthodox Church becomes mostly universalist again for the next 9,000 years. Then, universalism would be the majority tradition for about 9,500 years and the minority tradition for only about 1000 years. Would the fact that it went out of vogue for 1,000 years matter that much?

As for whether Hart is right regarding why a belief in universalism declined, it does seem likely that the story he gives us in the book is roughly accurate. As scholars like John Behr and Ilaria Ramelli have demonstrated, there certainly were a lot of misunderstandings regarding Origen and universalism which the anti-universalist St. Justinian helped bring about.[79] In addition to posthumously condemning Origen for things that many scholars now think Origen didn’t believe, Justinian also ordered Origen’s books to be burned. This action helped to obscure the link between Origen and his universalist followers like Athanasius, Dionysius, and Maximus. It didn’t help that from the time of the Apocalypse of Peter to Maximus the Confessor universalists purposely only spoke of their beliefs in an obscure manner, which made it even easier for their universalist passages to be ignored and for them to be read through the hermeneutic of an everlasting hell.

There were other confusions as well. Shortly after the fifth ecumenical council, supporters of universalism like St. Maximus and critics of the doctrine like St. Barsanuphius were still able to separate Gregory of Nyssa’s notion of restoration from the heretical Neo-Evagrian notion of a restoration to a bodiless state condemned in the anathemas attributed to the fifth ecumenical council; but as time went on, these two separate doctrines became conflated. By the time fathers like St. Mark of Ephesus sat down to read the early church fathers in the early 1400s, not only did he wrongly assume that Nyssen’s universalism was condemned at the fifth ecumenical council, but he also assumed all the church fathers other than Gregory of Nyssa (who was just too explicit) believed that hell was eternal. He read all of church history through an anti-universalist lens, with Origen’s legacy literally burned away and his incalculable influence on the early church fathers now barely visible. Fathers like St. Mark of Ephesus were doing the best they could with the information they had. Yet, as most church historians today now argue, Mark wrongly assumed that there was a time when the bishops of the Church got together and condemned the universalism of Gregory of Nyssa and Isaac the Syrian at an ecumenical council. Nor, as Mark also assumed, was the tradition of the early church consistently anti-universalist, as we have seen. That later church fathers simply presupposed that there was such a council and that there was such an early consensus does not make it so. Incorrect historical assumptions that last for even 1000 years are not the same things as dogmas. They are factual errors that can be corrected—and yes, the discipline of historical-criticism is helping us correct them. It took the Church some time before it became comfortable with historical-critical scholarship of the bible, and now we have to become comfortable with it in the area of church history and patristics. The Holy Spirit does guide the Church in every period of history, but sometimes that guidance requires retrieving traditions and practices that have become obscured. As scary as it may sound to many Orthodox converts (including myself), many Orthodox are now acknowledging that some element of error can creep into the tradition of the Church (which I would distinguish from the capital T Tradition of the Church).[80] This is evident from the Antiochian Archdiocese’s realization that concerns of Levitical purity in the 15th century corrupted the earlier prayers for a woman who just gave birth.[81] Despite these corrupted prayers being used widely throughout the Orthodox Church for the last 500 years, the new Antiochian book for the Services of Initiation suggests putting them aside. In their place, it is recommended that priests read a set of prayers constructed from an older manuscript tradition without the foreign concerns of Levitical purity.[82] If these types of returns to earlier traditions can be made in the Orthodox Church, why can’t a return also be made to the earlier universalist traditions of some of our most beloved fathers? Fr Lawrence is quick to argue that scholars like Ilaria Ramelli try to take Church Tradition into their own hands and that following the Orthodox Tradition is as simple as “having humility.” While this is certainly true in the realm of what we need for our personal salvation, it is not true in terms of what the Church needs to thrive. When Fr Alexander Schmemann argued that the church needed to go back to the earlier church tradition of frequent communion, his arguments were not the results of simply sitting humbly in prayer, although that is necessary. They were also the result of a measured, scholarly, and revisionist look at how far the current practice of communion deviated from the early church’s. Shockingly, some of what Schmemann had to say back in 1972 wasn’t all that different from Hart’s rhetoric today:

Why did we leave it [frequent communion] so far behind us that a mere mention of it appears to some, and especially clergy, an unheard-of novelty and shaking of the foundations? Why is it that for centuries nine out of ten Liturgies are being celebrated without communicants? — and this provokes no amazement, no trembling, whereas the desire to communicate more frequently, on the contrary, raises a real fear? How could the doctrine of a once-a-year communion develop within the Church, the Body of Christ, as an accepted norm, a departure from which can be but an exception?

It is clear that in the past, the Holy Spirit has used the work of liturgical scholars like Schmemann to help bring about renewal, and it’s certainly possible that the Spirit might use revisionist scholars like Ramelli, Hart, Behr, Perczel, and others for that purpose once again.

Hart’s Rhetoric

We finally turn to Farley’s assessment of what he calls Hart’s “vituperative rhetoric.” I agree with Fr Lawrence that Hart’s rhetorical style is far too off-putting, and I believe it may keep otherwise open-minded people from seriously considering the arguments in the book. However, “vituperative rhetoric” is not the same as an “ad hominem” attack, of which Fr Lawrence also accuses Hart, and we need to be careful here. To call what Hart does in the book “ad hominem” would be to sever the connection Hart makes between an eternal hell and God’s character. The end result of Hart’s first argument from creatio ex nihilo is that if hell is eternal, then God is ultimately evil. The reason Hart characterizes believers in an eternal hell “victims of their own diseased emotional conditions” (and other similar descriptions) is not because Hart is distracting us from his arguments by attacking peoples’ character (which is what an ad hominem argument does), but precisely the opposite. If his arguments succeed, then only someone who has a “diseased emotional condition” could believe in an eternal hell, because they are, in effect, believing in an evil God. This rhetoric may very well be evidence of Hart’s overconfidence in his arguments, but it is not “ad hominem,” which is a logical fallacy of which Hart is not guilty. Furthermore, though I still don’t support Hart’s harsh rhetoric, there is much patristic precedent for speaking as forthrightly as he does regarding those who attribute “unworthy things” to God. Hart’s indignation at those he calls “infernalists” (those who believe in an eternal hell) is the same indignation that Hart’s hero Gregory of Nyssa felt at his fellow Christians who wanted to interpret literally the killing of the firstborn in Exodus:

How would a concept worthy of God be preserved in the description of what happened if one looked only to the history? The Egyptian acts unjustly, and in his place is punished his newborn child, who in his infancy cannot discern what is good and what is not…If such a one now pays the penalty of his father’s wickedness, where is justice? Where is piety? Where is holiness? Where is Ezekiel, who cries: The man who has sinned is the man who must die and a son is not to suffer for the sins of his father? How can the history so contradict reason? Therefore, as we look for the true spiritual meaning, seeking to determine whether the events took place typologically, we should be prepared to believe that the lawgiver has taught through the things said.[83]

Gregory was not simply some anomaly in church history, but is supported in his main sentiments here by St. Basil (or Pseudo-Basil), [84] St. Gregory Nazianzen,[85] St. Maximus,[86] and certainly St, Isaac the Syrian. Of critical importance in the above quote from Gregory is his reference to the literal history contradicting reason. Much has been said about Hart’s elevation of human reason to a type of idol below which lie the subservient sources of revelation, scripture, and tradition. As I said before, I agree that Hart should invest more importance in tradition, but it is worth asking if Hart is elevating reason any higher than Gregory of Nyssa or the other saints mentioned above. After all, both Nyssen and Hart argue that scripture does not contradict reason. They both agree that our reason can guide our interpretation of scripture and help us come to interpret scripture in a way that is worthy of the God who inspired it. When Hart or Nyssen or Maximus or Origen argue that one’s conception of God goes against reason, they are essentially arguing that it goes against who Christ revealed God to be. What else is reason other than the Logos that became flesh? Origen, Nyssen and Hart all believe that an eternal hell contradicts who God is revealed to be through His Son Jesus Christ, the Logos. Whether or not they are right, their objection should be seen as a genuinely Christocentric one, rather than an objection rooted in the modern sense of a loss of a sense of sin, as Farley speculates. Hart desires, as did Origen, that people believe the God revealed by Christ to be the Good and that no one would, as Origen says, “believe such things about [God] as would not be believed even of the most unjust and savage of human beings.”[87] Hart gets far too vitriolic for my tastes in his hatred of beliefs that many holy saints of the Church have held; but it is nevertheless the case that underneath the vitriol is the ancient interpretation of scripture, the dazzling metaphysical systems of St. Maximus and the Cappadocians, and the patristic longing for God to be worshiped for being the Good Himself rather than “the most unjust and savage of human beings.”


[1] For those who read my second article on Maximus the Confessor’s universalism, I cover a lot of the same ground in this article, though to my mind, some things bear repeating.

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

[3] Fr Behr has confirmed through private correspondence that he believes the presence of universalism in the early church has been severely underestimated.

[4] See his endorsement of Ramelli’s new book on the topic.

[5] Same as above.

[6] Same as above.

[7] Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 11.

[8] Ilaria Ramelli, A Larger Hope?: Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2019), 235.

[9] Ramelli, Apokatastasis, 598-602.

[10] It is interesting to note that annihilationists actually argue that Irenaeus fits into their paradigm better than any other.

[11] I am not disagreeing with Farley here that our culture has in fact lost its sense of sin. I am questioning whether all of the scholars sympathetic to Ramelli have also lost a sense of sin.

[12] I have simply copied the translation of the text that Farley used in his blog.

[13] Other than In Illud, Gregory also works out the universalist implications of his theology of particulars and universals in his Catechetical Discourse 27.

[14] In Illud (PG 1312-1316), trans. Casmir McCambley, “When (the Father) Will Subject All Things to (the Son), Then (the Son) Himself Will Be Subjected to Him (the Father) Who Subjects All Things to Him (the Son) – A Treatise on First Corinthians 15:28 by St. Gregory of Nyssa,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 28 (1983) 11-12, 15. Emphasis added.

[15] Gregory of Nazianzus, Or. 30.6 (PG 36, 112), trans. Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 98, emphasis, mine. I slightly altered their translation inserting part of Ramelli’s translation of this passage. See Ramelli, Apokatastasis, 453-4. The word “guarantee” is more faithful to the greek word tekmerioi, which has the sense of “to prove positively.” Whether the “guarantee” applies to Gregory’s previous sentences about apokatastasis or to what he says afterwards is difficult to say. Perhaps the “guarantee” applies to the entirety of what Gregory has to say regarding the eschatological submission of both Christ to the Father and all of creation to Christ.

[16] Or. 30.5, trans. Lionel Wickham, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 96.  

[17] Ed. P.E. Pusey, S.patris nostril Cyrilli in D.Joannis evangelium, III (Oxford, 1872, reprint 1965), 305–306. Citation from Ramelli, Apokatastasis, 599-600.

[18] Ramelli, Apokatastasis, 598.

[19] Ed. M. Richard, “Le florilège du Cod. Vatopédi 236 sur le corruptible et l’incorruptible,”in Opera minora 1 (Turnhout, 1976), nº 4, 262, used in Ramelli, Apokatastasis. Comm in Io. 2.481–482, 1,693–694. Again, these references are taken from Ramelli.

[20] See Perczel’s work here, and Ramelli’s brief concurrence in A Larger Hope, 167, n. 9.

[21] DN 1:7, trans. Ramelli, 167.

[22] See, e.g. TM 7.9, DN 9.5, 11.5,

[23] Amb. 7.31 (PG 91: 1092c). From Ramelli, A Larger Hope, 184. Emphasis added.

[24] See my article on Maximus for more on all of these Maximian passages.

[25] Quaestiones Ad Thalassium 59.11, trans. Nicholas Constas, St. Maximos the Confessor: On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture, FOTC series (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2018), 421.

[26] Amb. 7.26 (PG 91: 1088c), trans. Nicholas Constas, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, Volume I, ed. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard), 113.

[27] Amb. 7.11-12 (PG 91: 1076a-1077a), trans. Constas, 89.

[28] Questions and Doubts 21.

[29] See Basil’s great praise of Gregory the Wonderworker in On the Holy Spirit 29.74. In regard to whether Gregory the Wonderworker was a universalist, I consider Ramelli to have established this beyond any reasonable doubt due to the fact that Gregory explicitly states it in chapter 17 of his Panegyric Oration for Origen, brought Christianity to Basil and Gregory Nyssen’s family, and is said to have supported the doctrine by Rufinus. See Ramelli, Apokatastasis, 275-77.

[30] Dumitru Stăniloae may be one exception, since though I do not read Romanian, my Romanian friends have told me he defends actual Dionysian authorship. I do not know, however, whether this implies that were the author not Dionysius, that Stăniloae would advocate the Orthodox Church should stop venerating “him”!

[31] Enarr in Isaiam 9.227, trans. Lipatov, 276.

[32] Hart’s translation, That All Shall be Saved, location1351 of 3096, Kindle ed.

[33] Or. 39.19, ibid., 97.

[34] Ibid., n. 153.

[35] Or. 40.36 (PG 35:409d3-5), trans. Nonna Verna Harrison, Festal Orations: Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press), 132.

[36] Matt. 3:12

[37] Matt. 3:10

[38] Luke 13:8

[39] Matt. 10:34

[40] Or. 39.15, trans. Harrison, Festal Orations, 92.

[41] Ibid.

[42] As I said above, Origen is much more forthright in expressing his universalism in his treatises and commentaries than in his sermons. I am of the opinion that Nyssen was as well, though this is debatable since it isn’t clear whether his blatantly universalist In Illud was read before the entire church or just a group of bishops concerned about combatting Eunomianism. His Catechetical Discourse does not actually seem to be something that everyone read, but only presbyters, so this does not help us answer whether Gregory bucked the trend and preached universal salvation to the masses. From the information we do know, however, Gregory was not afraid to preach a fire and brimstone sermon, and while we find occasional passing references to universal salvation in his sermons, these references pale in comparison to his thorough explanations of universalism in his commentaries and treatises. See Ignatius Green, St Gregory of Nyssa: Catechetical Discourse (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 2019), 51-57 for a discussion of the genre of the Catechetical Discourse, and pp. 18-24 for a discussion of some of Gregory’s most fire and brimstone sermons. I disagree with Green’s assessment of what these sermons mean for Gregory’s eschatology, but it is nevertheless a good summary of Gregory’s “darker” side.

[43] Se,e e.g. Enarr in Isaiam 1.18, trans. Lipatov, 20.

[44] Enarr in Isaiam 1.19, Ibid., 23.

[45] Enarr in Isaiam 1.55, ibid., 68-9.

[46] Enarr in Isaiam 1.55, ibid., 69, reference to Mal. 3:3.

[47] Enarr in Isaiam 1.55, ibid., 73.

[48] Isa. 1:28.

[49] Enarr in Isaiam 1.59, ibid., 73.

[50] Enarr in Isaiam 1.59, ibid., 74, emphases added.

[51] Not only did Maximus inherit the pastoral concern about preaching universalism to the uninitiated, but he lived after Emperor Justinian who had pushed the Church in a very anti-universalist direction.

[52] Questiones et Dubia 159, trans. Despina Prassas, “St. Maximus the Confessor’s Questions and Doubts: Translation and Commentary,” (Catholic University of America, 2003), 221, emphasis added.

[53] Amb. 46.4 (1357b), trans. Constas, 205. See my article on Maximus’ universalism for a more in-depth look at his interpretation of the parable.

[54] See Sprinkle’s concluding essay in Four Views on Hell, ed. Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2016), Kindle ed., location 4048 of 9862. It is also not at all insignificant that Parry’s book The Evangelical Universalist was heartily endorsed by the eminent New Testament scholar Joel B. Green, though Green ultimately doesn’t agree with Parry’s universalist perspective.

[55] Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, location 1758 out of 3096, Kindle ed.

[56] If one is interested in further investigating the biblical support for universalism, Robin Parry’s The Evangelical Universalist is a fairly thorough examination.

[57] See my two articles on Maximus’ universalism: and See also Mark Scott’s excellent article “Guarding the Mysteries of Salvation: The Pastoral Pedagogy of Origen’s Universalism,” Journal of Early Christian Studies, 18.3 (2010): 347-368. I am currently working on an article on Gregory of Nazianzus’s “honorable silence” on universalism.

[58] Comm. In Rom. 5.17, trans. Thomas P. Scheck, Origen: Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Books 6–10, FOTC 104 (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2002), 307.

[59] Homilies on Luke. 22.5, 23, 32.5, Homilies on Jeremiah 5.4.

[60] C. Cels. VI, 26 (SC 3:242-44), in Origen, Against Celsus, trans. Frederick Crombie, D.D., in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4, emphasis added. I also changed Crombie’s translation of aioniou kolaseus as “eternal punishment” to “age-enduring punishment,” since this fits better with Origen’s use of aionion elsewhere. Quoted in Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Dare We Hope that All Men Be Saved?: With a Short Discourse on Hell, 2nd ed., trans. David Kipp (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2014), Kindle Ed., 71 percent.

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

[62] Ibid.

[63] 200 Chapters on Theology 2.9, 2.99; Ecclesiastical Mystagogy 24 (PG 91: 709d).

[64] Festal Letter 3.4. For more on Athanasius, see Ramelli, A Larger Hope, 86-92, or my second article on Maximus, since I spend some time going over Athanasius’ universalism.

[65] See Jordan Wood’s excellent discussion of this in his review of Hart’s book.

[66] Amb. 7.29 (PG 91: 1089c), trans. Constas, 117.

[67] Amb. 7.3 (PG 91: 1069b), trans. Constas, 77.

[68] Stromateis 1.84.1, trans. John Ferguson, Books 1-3: Fathers of the Church, Vol. 85 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1991), 87, emphasis mine.

[69] Ad Thal. 16.5, trans. Constas, 132.

[70] Ad Thal. 1.2.13, trans. Constas.

[71] DN (PG 3: 716c), trans. Paul Rorem, Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, (Mahwah, NJ, Paulist Press, 1987), 84-5.

[72] DN (PG3: 725b), 91.

[73] See Ramelli, A Larger Hope, 157. She also references several scholars who agree with her findings regarding Augustine’s original penchant for universal salvation: Karla Polllmann, Istvan Perczel, Michael Cameron, and Daniel Heide.

[74] PG 46: 524-529.

[75] Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, location 586 of 3096, Kindle ed.

[76] I say “hard” to differentiate from the “soft” type of libertarianism I see in the church fathers. They did believe that free will was given to creatures so that The Good might be chosen voluntarily, but they nevertheless saw the choice of evil as an ignorant choice.

[77] Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, location 1114 of 3096, Kindle ed.

[78] For more on this topic, see Taylor Ross’s article The Severity of Universal Salvation and Fr Aidan’s article on Bulgakov’s terrifying yet universalist understanding of the final judgment.

[79] See John Behr, Origen: On First Principles: Vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), xxv; Ramelli, Apokatastasis, 724-738.

[80] See Services of Initiation: Into the Holy Orthodox-Catholic and Apostolic Church, trans. and ed. Frs Michel Najim and Patrick B. O’Grady (LaVerne, CA: The Antiochian Orthodox Institute, 2017), 27-30, and the explanation for the alternate prayers in 133-37.

[81] Ibid.

[82] Ibid.

[83] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1978), 75.

[84] Basil, Intro. to in Enarr., Lipatov, 6.

[85] E.g. Or. 40.36.

[86] E.g. Ad Thal. 32.3, 63.4-5.

[87] Princ. 4.1, trans. John Behr, 248.

* * *

Mark Chenoweth received his M.Div. and Th.M. from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and is an adjunct professor at St. John’s University in New York. His articles have been published in scholarly journals such as St. Vladimir’s Quarterly, and he is hoping to soon begin a dissertation on the eschatology of Maximus the Confessor.

This entry was posted in Book Reviews, David B. Hart, Eschatology, Mark Chenoweth and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

94 Responses to The Deep Patristic Roots of Hart’s Universalism: A Response to Fr Lawrence Farley

  1. DBH says:

    Thanks, Mark,

    Your thoroughness is astonishing. But, as Mary Midgley said of Richard Dawkins, I would not have thought it necessary to break a butterfly on the wheel. Farley tends to evoke pity from me–genuinely–and for that reason I don’t bother with his complaints. He doesn’t get the point of what he’s reading, so why invite more confusion?

    Since you have breached the wall of silence for me, however, I would like to note a few things, mostly about how badly Farley reads.

    1) I never said that the majority view of the first few Christian centuries was universalism. Even when reporting the line attributed to Basil (who, by the way, probably was a universalist like the rest of his family, and who probably did not even write much of that part of the Regula), I point out that he may have been exaggerating or may have known only the leanings of his part of the oikumene. We simply don’t have the statistics. We simply know that universalism was quite a live option among many of the fathers in the golden age of patristic thought.

    2) You are right that there is no ad hominem rhetoric in the book. To make an ad hominem point here, however, Farley’s inability to see that is evidence of a certain hermeneutical incapacity on his part. You are wrong, however, that there is any excess of vituperation in the text. In relation to the true scandal of the infernalist view, my rhetoric was quite mild. The timidity of universalists in the face of this evil teaching lets the other side get away with preaching a barbaric belief, doing the most damage to impressionable children. There is no excuse for golding back.

    3) Just to clarify a point. Gregory of Nyssa would not have regarded Revelation as scripture. Origen thought it could be read as scripture, but only allegorically. Many of the greatest of the fathers, especially in the East, would not have though of it as part of the Bible. And, frankly, why would they? The Orthodox never had anything like the Council of Trent’s firm declaration of what books are canon. The rule of thumb up until the modern period might be: scripture is whatever is read as scripture in the liturgy. That leaves Revelation out. Revelation simply became part of the deposit almost by accident, and not definitively till some point in the fifth century; and, until Bibles started being printed regularly, it was something of a phantom presence. The faithful knew an ensemble of images of last judgment and so forth; but most would never have heard so much as a single verse of the book read aloud. That said, there is no evidence for an eternal hell in Revelation either, and–as I point out in the book–the universalist reading is stronger.

    4) If Farley cannot get even the minor details right–like what I say about the word “aionios”–then it seems to me that you are spending more time refuting Farley than Farley spent trying to understand my book. I’m touched you feel it worth your time, but I’m not sure it really is.

    5) I don’t know why people with no philosophical training (and no real capacity for philosophy) jump with such brio into arguments they can’t possibly understand when the issue touches on, say, God. It’s as if they think their faith is the same thing as a training in dialectic. Farley clearly doesn’t understand any part of the fourth meditation; he thinks the issue is whether someone is psychologically capable of doing something bad out of a perverse desire to be bad. He doesn’t grasp that the issue is the transcendental conditions of even the desire to be wicked. But I do, after all, mention satanists and the like in the book, which you think might have clued him in. He also doesn’t seem to realize what the implications are for the free will defense of hell. He also doesn’t realize that he’s at odds with the entire patristic and mediaeval Orthodox tradition, as well as with every significant Orthodox theologian and philosopher…well, ever. But he also doesn’t get any part of the whole book’s overarching argument. On Meditation One, for instance, he might as well be engaging with the lyrics of a Bob Dylan song or a fragment of Oxyrynchus Papyrus; it would be no more inapposite. I bring this up, because I have enough experience to impart this piece of wisdom: Never argue philosophical points with persons who don’t have the training or, at the very least, a good speculative mind; it’s a tar-pit, and once you wade in, every movement mires you more deeply in. Farley is out of his depth, but if you try to rescue him from drowning, he’ll just sink his fingernails into your ankle and try to drag you down with him.

    6) And, again: Until some critic can correctly state the book’s argument–as many of the book’s champions have shown to be far from impossible–and then offer a single solvent refutation of any step in that argument, I shall consider the manner settled. To coin a phrase, Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht Anders tun. Gott hilfe mir. Amen.

    And Amen.

    Liked by 6 people

    • DBH says:

      Oh, as for 1 Corinthians 3:14-15, it is written explicitly as a general principle, one that Paul is bringing to bear on a particular situation, but a general principle for all that. He nowhere limits the application of the maxim to the particular situation he is using it to clarify.

      If, in relation to, say, Trump’s attempt to steal the election, I enunciate the universal principle that “Sedition is a crime” or “Lies are damnable” or “Power corrupts,” the field of reference of those observations is not limited to that particular situation.

      And the verses in question follow that pattern. Rhetorically, this is not even open to debate. “Tis” is a “universally predicable pronoun” in any such formula. Not “any one of you,” but “anyone [ever].” Farley’s reading is inept. The reason the patristic evidence accords with my reading is simple: it’s what the Greek, grammatically speaking, clearly says.

      Whether it implies a universalist reading–well, what other is there that fits?


      • My misgiving about your reading and patristic universalist reading is that Paul says that HE has laid the foundation, and everyone else is building on it. What exactly do you take him to mean when he says and “no other foundation can be laid”? That Christ is the foundation that is laid everywhere for all people? But then why did he say he had to lay the foundation? If you’d like to help here, I’m very eager to listen.


        • DBH says:

          Not MY reading. That reading appears nowhere in my book. I’ll get to that.

          But, first of all, you are not reading Paul’s text according to its own rhetoric. Yes, the specific issue is the foundation he laid. But the fathers in question read the following verses as a general principle, regarding not merely that foundation but every human work. Seen thus, 1 Corinthians 3:14-15 is a maxim, not a local observation. It seems the most sensible reading. Otherwise, what is Paul arguing? Why is he bringing up salvation at all, and why is he assuring his readers that–no matter what building may be erected–salvation will still come? If he were not enunciating a general rule here, he would be making a promise he could not be sure would be kept.

          14 εἴ τινος τὸ ἔργον μενεῖ ὃ ἐποικοδόμησεν, μισθὸν λήμψεται· 15 εἴ τινος τὸ ἔργον κατακαήσεται, ζημιωθήσεται, αὐτὸς δὲ σωθήσεται, οὕτως δὲ ὡς διὰ πυρός.

          More to the point, you are repeating Farley’s fantasy that I introduce those verses as a universalist pericope. I do not. I do not include them in the list of seemingly universalist verses. I simply say that the only mention of “hellfire” in Paul’s writings is found there–if at all. If you look at my book, you’ll see that I make no strong claim of the sort Farley imagines. Once again, the guy doesn’t read with much care.

          Liked by 2 people

    • DBH says:

      Hold back. Matter settled. I dictated the last paragraph, until my phone proved it couldn’t follow the German, so the joke’s on me.


      • Counter-Rebel says:

        Hello DBH. I am an Atheist who is partial to theistic universalism. One thing holding me back from Christianity, aside from eternal hell, is hell itself. Even if finite, it seems cruel to make people suffer intense pain for ages. Free choices, to me, seem random. The agent QUA cause is identical for both effects, so there is no way for the agent QUA cause to ensure the right effect arises. The cause is causally blind to what it’s causing, and the knowledge of the choice is in the effect–it comes too late. A spiritual coin toss. So I don’t understand why anyone would deserve even a small amount of punishment. Perhaps punishment is just a necessary evil in order to rehabilitate the sinner, even if–deep down–they don’t deserve it?

        Liked by 2 people

        • Justin says:


          I’m no DBH (I’m not worthy to stoop and oil his baseball mitt), and I do not purport to speak for him. However, your question hit me in a spot, and so I thought I’d share my layman’s view.

          Others have said, and I agree, that “hell” is not God actively punishing anyone–he’s not the white-bearded Zeus flinging lava, lightning, and sulfur upon the impenitent. Simply, hell is the consequences of the human choices being made (and not just the choices by the person in question). “Play with fire, and you get burned,” to speak colloquially. But, this also includes the idea that (and this is most difficult to accept), “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” We are plunged into hell over and against our choices. So, you are right, it’s a “spiritual coin toss.” Further, I would say that “hell” is the human condition. It is cruel to endure suffering and pain for ages. But God is not doing it.

          In my view (and likely not the Church’s or DBH’s, but I don’t presume), the Christian Gospel is that God is rescuing humanity from this fate, not punishing us with it. We have “free will” (whatever that is) to make the choices we can make–hopefully to demonstrate the love and image of God among our neighbors–but in the end God will rescue us from the hell we have been forced into. Whether in this Age or the Age to Come.

          I will stop here. I’ve put one too many matches to the tinder.


          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Justin, for some reason your comment was caught by the spam filter. I just discovered it this evening. Sorry about the delay.

            Liked by 1 person

        • JBG says:

          I too find the notion of “hell”—even of a finite yet indeterminate duration—deeply problematic…especially if conceived of as literal physical/mental torture. I don’t see how authentic goodness can come from abject torture.

          The CIA used the torture of water-boarding in, what they claimed, was the service of a greater good. And yet, we are repulsed by this and we should be. Human beings utilize pain and torture to achieve a desired end (punishment, confessions, etc) because of, frankly, their ignorance of another superior means.

          It’s almost as if, in rendering “hell” finite, one has immediately sanitized it of anything troubling.


          • DBH says:

            Silly analogy. The image used by the fathers is surgery, which hurts not because it is meant to do so, but because the diseased tissue resists. If you keep thinking of hell as a torment imposed extrinsically–which you want to do, for rhetorical reasons–then you are not talking about patristic universalist thinking at all. So, once again, an irrelevant argument.

            Liked by 2 people

          • DBH says:

            Try to ignore the crude images the human mind forms. Think instead of the experience of being forced to surrender your pride, or of being forced to face the depths of your own cruelty, and so on.


        • arthurja says:

          @ Counter-Rebel

          I agree with much of what you say except for the idea (more like conclusion) that it is hard to understand why *anyone* would deserve even a *small* amount of punishment.
          Though I would neither believe in nor love a *good* God who would condemn anyone to *eternal* punishment knowing exactly that they would be or become evil even before they were even conceived in this nasty reality we inhabit, I would also have a hard time believing in a *good* God that would just let some people go to Heaven directly after their death after having *already* escaped an earthly punishment that they clearly deserved.
          If God is the good itself, He probably values goodness – it is hard to conceive of any being that would be *truly* good *without* valuing goodness *at all*!
          Though I do believe that guilt is qualified in this broken world, we are still guilty of the evil that we do to *some* extent and even a *little* amount of guilt or attachment to evil warrants a *little* amount of punishment (from men) or purification (from God, the one God who, being goodness itself, cannot *simply* tolerate evil).

          On another note, if you’re interested in the *latest* evidence that God exists and that Christianity is true, I would advise you to study the events known as Our Lady of Soufanieh.
          I know how weird it sounds to suggest to someone who does not believe in the possibility of the supernatural to study a series of allegedly supernatural events, but the case has been studied rigorously by dozens of scientists and doctors including at least one team of Scandinavian experts led by the great Dr Knut Kvernebo and this is the most interesting and convincing case of an alleged series of marian apparitions in History – I have studied dozens of such cases so I know for a fact that that one really is very special.
          The events lasted two decades and ended in the early or mid 2000s, if memory serves me well.
          You’ll find plenty of reliable information on what happened there – including on the official website of Our Lady of Soufanieh, which does not *look* reliable (serious) but it actually is.
          An agnostic myself, I find it hard to find anything against the authenticity of these events.
          That being said, the alleged messages from Christ (yes, Christ appeared as well, apparently) do not lean towards universal salvation, unfortunately… If the visible phenomena (spontaneous stigmata and production of pure olive oil with impressive healing properties) are genuine, which I believe they either are or might very well be, the authenticity of these phenomena seem to validate the authenticity of the messages that accompanied them.
          If that is so, then Jesus really said “I will not abandon THOSE WHO DO MY WILL”, in which case He will abandon those who persist in refusing to do His will, in which case… No universal salvation, unfortunately.
          I must say that I am disturbed by those words.
          “I will not abandon those who do My will”.
          Please, Father, if you really exist, do not abandon any of your children.


          • Matthew Kirby says:


            1. On a traditional theological understanding, no post-apostolic revelation has any guarantee of accuracy in every verbal detail once it has been communicated to others via the immediate human recipient.

            2. Even if the words you quote were, verbatim, Christ’s, your interpretation is not logically necessitated at all. “I will not abandon those who do my will” MAY suggest by rhetorical implication but does not state explicitly that he will abandon the rest. It would remain a true statement whether or not Christ abandoned the others. Not only that, but you seem to be missing the universalist point that, in the end, via “fiery” purification if need be, ALL eventually conform their wills to God’s. Thus ALL eventually satisfy the condition abovementioned.

            Hope this helps.

            Liked by 1 person

          • arthurja says:

            I hope you’re right, Matthew.


          • Grant says:

            Well as someone who does accept the miraculous (as perhaps sceptical of particular reports) I would add to Matthew that all visions are received according to the interpretive lens and understanding of the receiver most times. As St Paul says, now we see through a glass darkly, only then shall we see Him as He is, this is true for me of events in Church tradition as well such as councils and such, the Holy Spirit doesn’t override the social, philosophical, theological and political inclinations, trends, views and context in which people are situated as a whole. His illumination leads towards Christ and can have moments of inspiration or transformative understanding, but even those moments are within what the person or persons know and what they can understand, and how they receive it. In a context in which universalism is considered false, the system and interpretive glasses by which they receive or understand what they see or say, is through the system they already have. That is why such moments, such as even council are speaking to us, rather than having spoken, we need to constantly receive and interpret them anew, where perhaps in new moulds and wine-skins better clarity can be had.

            And even more so with visions and miracles, the perspective of the receiver defines what they see and how they understand it, even when it is from God, and of course no Church grants such visions revelatory weight over the Gospel itself. If it is true, that is to where it points (after all to repeat St Paul here, even if an angel of God brought you a different gospel, let him be accursed, and a reminder that even Satan can appear as an angel of light, meaning there are other supernatural agencies out there which don’t have the best intentions).

            Another aspect of I will not abandon those who do my will might be seen alongside possibly Christ’s statement when told his mother and brothers were calling for Him that those who do the will of His Father or his mother, brother and sisters, which can also stand alongside the Johannine letters that God is light and in Him is no darkness. If we say we have fellowship with Him while we walk in the darkness (of this world) we lie and don’t practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses from all sin, and that would be to walk in love towards one another, in forgiveness and to turn from the darkness of the world. Such as, if you don’t love those you can see, who are Christ to you, how can you say you love Him who you don’t see, and so on. In this aspect what this vision is saying simply underlies this point, those who are true Christians, are with Christ, He will in no way abandon nor leave, and are shown to be His by their lives. It doesn’t chance or affect His intention or love for all, or His commitment to all, as in the Gospel according to St John, He will draw (drag) all people to Him, and none given Him (which is all humanity) by the Father shall He lose, and He will keep searching until finding the last sheep, the last coin and so on and so on. Eventually all will proclaim Christ is Lord by the Holy Spirit to their salvation, and so achieve the will of the Father (that all be saved and achieve the knowledge of God the Father) and so all be never be abandoned. After all, besides Christ, only Holy Mary ever achieved living to the will of the Father perfectly, so taken in the negative such a view would mean Christ would never abandon only His mother, and in that case were all screwed.

            But again, visions can be helpful, but only if they genuinely point to Christ, and He is found and revealed in the Gospel, if anything brings you another one, let it be accursed for it false. He and he doesn’t not expect you abandon your reason, Christ often extorted people to understand the signs of the times, to be able to discern the fruit of a message, whether it produce good fruit or bad, to be able to see whether something was false or true, good and truthful or not, His expectation of our ability to judge between that which is good and true, and to perceive a true revelation and what is truly good against that which is evil and destructive is put forward many times. It underlines that faith follows reason in Christianity, never against it, Christ expects people to use their reason and to discern what is true. He expects us to judge the fruit of the tree, and infernalism is clear to see, the list of suffering and death laid at and justified by that evil teaching is clear through the annuals of the last 1500 years. The fruit of that tree is bad, we should turn away from it.

            Liked by 1 person

          • arthurjaco says:

            @ Grant

            “Well, as someone who does accept the miraculous (as perhaps skeptical of particular reports)”

            Ah, trust me, I’m very skeptical as well and hence it takes a lot to impress me, but Our Lady of Soufanieh is about as legit as they come.
            I would say that Soufanieh is what’s closest to an absolute proof that God exists – if it weren’t for the problem of evil and suffering and for the problem of Hell, I would have probably converted back to Christianity just based on these events.

            I do agree with you on what you say next (about the rotten fruits of infernalism, among other things), but I should also add that the fruits of Our Lady of Soufanieh have been incredibly good and numerous.
            Spontaneous and complete healings (very impressive ones, in some cases) were reported in the thousands (if memory serves me well, and it usually does) and medical reports (some of which I have read myself) were written and/or recorded about these healings.
            I seriously doubt that Satan and his fallen angels would actually heal anyone from any ailment, let alone thousands of people.
            That does not look like something Satan would do.

            But anyways.

            This is off-topic now and since I do not want to end up like Ananias, with Fr Kimel striking me dead instead of the Holy Spirit, I shall stop talking about Soufanieh.


          • Grant says:

            Well I suppose it could be argued that if the long-term objective is to promote infernalism and division then perhaps fallen angels could produce short term healing to achieve that larger purpose but tend to agree with you and would feel is both conspiracy theorist thinking and it tends not to conform to ‘kingdom of Satan’ as illustrated in the Gospels, linked with suffering and destruction.

            Of course it might be fallen agencies taking advantage of genuine miracles to spread a distorted message to attempt to pervert a good thing. But I mostly think it’s probably a matter of the recievers, they think infernalism is true and understand what they perceive on that basis (similar I suppose to Marian encounters in Islam, I don’t doubt some of them but don’t think it means the Theotokos is endorsing all Islamic beliefs but rather is being recieved as the person is likely to understand and apprehend it for their good and engagement in Christ and God where they are). Basically people’s understanding and interpretation of what they see, hear and encounter is not the same what they encounter truly or fully means, their own context colours what they understand and perceive.

            There are afterall allot of acounts of healings from other belief systems, quite a number are probably genuine and is God healing them, but it doesn’t distrub my Christian convictions (just as no doubt genuine Christian miracles by themselves wouldn’t disturb their belief either necessarily) as I don’t think the Father waits until we have correct beliefs or understanding of Him to do us good (it’s kind of His thing 😉 ) anymore then we see Christ doing. Most didn’t understand Him properly but He healed them anyway. The disciples didn’t understand Him, He kept with them, empowered and used them anyway, St Peter even could get it wildly wrong, and sometimes even after the Resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit, even after God’s revelation of the inclusion of the Gentiles he still made mistakes and misunderstood (hence his brief spat eith St Paul). If it’s true for him, how much more so for us 🙂 .

            (Written on my tablet so worse than normal grammatical errors probably, apologies for that).

            Liked by 1 person

          • arthurjaco says:

            @ Grant

            Don’t worry about the grammar, we understand what you’re saying perfectly well.

            I basically agree with you on everything and (as with Matthew) I hope you’re right.


        • Andrew Klager says:

          You might find this chapter I wrote a number of years ago a helpful and concise articulation of what Orthodoxy has traditionally thought of as “hell,” little more or less than the experience of our encounter with the Triune Godhead as incompatible with our deficient ontology that therefore becomes an object of transformation and healing (as painful as this experience might be). The chapter may, therefore, help answer some of your questions and give you a viable more palatable notion of “hell,” while my discussion of culpability especially on p. 242 (but also throughout for context) may be of most interest to you:

          Liked by 1 person

        • Iain Lovejoy says:

          Have you looked at the “River of Fire” talk by Alexandre Kalomiros reproduced on this blog a couple of posts ago? It explains a notion of “hell” that has nothing to do with punishment.


        • I don’t know if this will help, but I had a very tiny experience of hell, which I speak of in a book I am hoping to publish:
          “This is but one of many quotes of the Early Fathers you can find which declare that for the wicked there will be suffering. Its intensity will correspond to the degree of wickedness with which the soul has pleasured itself in this life. This is the Orthodox faith and eschatology. There is no place called hell. There is something far worse for the sinful – the very presence of God which strips away every lie, every self-delusion, and every falsehood. The abortionist will see in searing and graphic detail what he did to innocent children. Perhaps he will be made to experientially feel every cut he administered in the same manner the dying child felt it. I don’t know. But what I do know from experience is this – it is a burning torment which is the most awful thing you will ever experience.

          I know this personally because I was given a minuscule taste of it after the death of my first wife. I had spent my life being driven by Christian fear-mongers who threatened me with eternal fire if I did not believe correctly and did not win souls to Christ. One even went as far as to say that nothing was more important than serving Christ, even one’s own family. In the grip of this brainwashed farce of a religion, I became driven and self-righteous. I was sure I had the correct religion, and since my family didn’t share my views, I was cold and indifferent to them. I gave more time to my church and its activities than to them, desperately working to be sure God loved me and would receive me into His Kingdom rather than toss me into hell. At Thanksgiving and Christmas I was a judgmental boor, constantly badgering people about “getting right with God”so they could go to heaven. While the message was technically correct, the tactless manner in which I clubbed people over the head with it was not.

          Only after Karen died was I brought one night to see just what a jerk I had become. At the urging of two friends who were Carmelite nuns, I went back to a monastery I had visited before, attempting to see if the life of a monk was now in God’s plan for me. On my last night of a three month stay, I had an interior illumination which shook me to my core. In this illuminated moment, with clarity I remembered my dear wife, sitting alone upstairs, watching TV, without her husband there to be with her. Every night I came home, made dinner, and went downstairs to spend hours on the computer. For the first time I clearly realized how selfish this was. The knowledge of this truth was like waves of fire raining down on my conscience. I cannot begin to adequately describe in words the agony of this knowledge, but fire is a good description. That is exactly what it felt like. There was nowhere to run or hide. All I could do was weep and beg God to forgive me for what I had done. All pretense of being a “good Christian” was stripped away in the raw, naked truth of how selfish I had been. True Christian, self-giving love would have put aside my desires and would have given my time to Karen.

          Believe me, if I could make you feel what I felt that night, you would run to your church and fall on your knees to beg God to forgive whatever sin has you in its grip with its false delights. For the deeply wicked, I cannot begin to imagine what they face when the stand in the presence of the One who is Truth. Every petty tyrant will see himself not as the bold warrior or great defender of his country he fancied himself to be, but as a murderer, thief, and beast. Every fornicator, adulterer, and sexually impure person will see the truth about himself and how he simply used others for his pleasure. It will be agonizing beyond any earthly description to face this raw truth.

          Yes, there is hell, but the good news for every sinner is that it is not just punishment or justice, but it is designed to reform the sinner, to free him from his lusts, to change his very person into the likeness of Christ. St. Athanasius said, “God became man so that man might become god.” Because of sin, the process of becoming deified is a long, arduous, and sometimes quite painful one. It can be accomplished here, with difficulty and pain, or it will be accomplished in the next age, with a suffering that anyone who tasted even a small bit of it, would run now into the arms of Christ and His Church to escape it in the future.”

          You see, it is not that God punishes, but rather that He heals, and the healing is painful in direct proportion to our facing the truth of what we did. Our illness is the things we have done to others, for sin is ultimately refusing to act in love and doing instead the selfish thing which hurts others. I hurt my wife by not being there for her. The night that I realized deeply the sorrow she felt being all alone. I was immersed in the misery of fully knowing how badly I had treated my Karen, all the while thinking myself some sort of fine and dedicated Christian.

          This was healing me of self-deception, and it hurt. A lot! Honestly, it felt like time was standing still and the pain and sorrow would never end. Yet I desperately needed this to become the better man I am today.

          Liked by 1 person

          • arthurjaco says:

            I felt the same thing for an entire year and I still do, sometimes… I should have known better back then but I did not. “Ignorance is a form of bondage”. DBH is right there as well.

            I would say that the same thing can be said for you, so please try to not beat yourself up too much about what you could not have avoided anyways given what you *thought* you knew and what you obviously didn’t know (or rather realise) with perfect clarity at that point in your life.
            I’ll admit that that’s easier said than done, I know, but reason dictates that you should not beat yourself up – which is true for me as well, and yet…
            After all, we only fully realise what we’ve lost and how many opportunities we’ve missed when what we cared about is already gone.

            Perhaps this will sound weird because I’m going to be talking supernatural here and perhaps this won’t because Christians *are* supposed to believe in the supernatural after all, but maybe you should try to communicate with Karen.
            Fr François Brune, an erudite French priest and theologian who left the Catholic Church for the Orthodox Church a few months before his death in 2019, which surprised literally no one since he had always admitted to being closer to Orthodoxy than to the Catholic Church, which he criticised frequently because he despised the theology of Augustine and of Aquinas (who can blame him for that?), became certain that communicating with the dead is possible in this life – not *guaranteed* to work every single time, but *possible*.
            Well actually, he said this wasn’t a matter of certainty anymore but a matter of experiential knowledge since he frequently communicated with his late brother and sister himself as well as with people he had worked with when they were still alive, a “fact” which was confirmed by other people.
            I don’t know whether Fr Brune was right, deluded, mistaken or gullible.
            However, I know he was an intelligent, very knowledgeable and very honest man who dedicated his life to his Lord (he could have chosen to marry and have kids when he left the priesthood but he never did) and to research on life after death, so I think there might be something to his findings.
            Now I know that trying to communicate with the dead is usually frowned upon in Christianity (especially protestantism) but even the Catholic Church in Spain and in Italy (not in France because our clergy used to be so closed to the supernatural for so long) was supportive of Fr Brune and his colleagues.

            Fr Brune did not believe in an eternal Hell, by the way.
            All his communications with the “dead” pointed in the same direction : the “dead” affirmed that they were constantly blissful because they were permanently in the presence of God, completely surrounded by a boundless and incredibly intense Light of infinite love.
            This basically sounds like permanent positive NDEs.
            Furthermore, the “dead” said that human souls keep evolving in virtue (if they so choose, but they can *always* change their mind on that matter and freely choose to take the virtuous path again) in order to progress towards God after death, up until they finally reach Him and rest eternally with Him.
            The “dead” basically affirmed that there are many “levels” or “steps” (allegories, of course) until one reaches the state (rather than place) we call Heaven and that one’s soul starts at this or that “level” depending on the level of virtue and of vice that it reached on Earth.
            About this, Fr Brune once commented “There are many mansions in the house of the Father”.
            The road can be short or long and difficult or pleasant : *this* depends on us.
            Eventually though, the road leads, sooner or later, to the Kingdom.

            Thus, Fr Brune concluded that although there’s what could be called Purgatory (even many of them, in a way), there’s no such thing as an eternal Hell of suffering (though maybe he believed in the possibility of annihilationism for the most hardened souls, but even this I am not sure he did) because the “dead” said that death does not permanently seal the soul’s attachment to virtue or sin, contra what Thomas and others have said.
            If his and his colleagues’ research is correct, then God shall indeed be all in all eventually.

            I don’t know whether you will try or not to communicate with Karen and I don’t know whether, if you *do* choose to try, your attempts will bear any fruits.
            BUT, if they *do* bear fruit, and if you *do* feel better as a result, I’ll be happy to have contributed to your relief.
            If not, at least I’ll have contributed to this blog by pointing out another (apparently openly) universalist contemporary Orthodox author and theologian.

            Have a nice week-end!

            Liked by 1 person

          • arthurjaco says:

            Some of the voices of the “dead” were recorded by Fr Brune and his colleagues, by the way, and can be heard on Youtube and elsewhere – Fr Brune would occasionally share them with the public.

            There’s only two real options here : either somebody’s lying (but again, that would have to be somebody else than Fr Brune, for he seemed to me to be very close to Christian perfection), or this is true.

            Liked by 1 person

      • Counter-Rebel says:

        Also — what are your thoughts on Origen and Universalist fathers keeping universalism a secret? If eternal hell is child abuse (I was a Catholic…intense depression and anxiety), then it seems awfully cruel that they would keep it hidden. What about the traumatized children listening to Origen or Gregory preach eternal hellfire when they didn’t even believe in eternal hellfire? Bearing false witness?


        • Grant says:

          I’ll just add that for myself (here I different from a few of my fellow universalists here) don’t see hell in terms of God punishing people, such as roasting them until they are purified or forced into ‘seeing the light’, or sent through a series of Buddhist like hells, but rather I think it is best to see this using John 1 and 3 and Matthew 25 as guides. In John 1 Jesus is the light of the world, and yet people don’t wish to come into the light and hid in the darkness because their deeds are evil, and Matthew 25 shows this suffering and hell of that darkness, where Christ is refused, where He is refused in the suffering and needy, creating hell and suffering for both them and for the person(s) who was to be Christ for them, and for them to Christ to them. It’s important to emphasis that I don’t see he parable relating a later punishment for failure rather then unveiling of that ongoing hell (fully present now, just see the suffering around you), exposed in it’s full truth in His clarify light.

          This brings back to John 1 and 3, then His light when encompass all, everything, within and without, outside us, inside us, in our entire being, healing and clarifying all. But there won’t been any darkness to hid, any illusions to hid behind, no rationalizations to avoid how diminished we are in places, how damaged and incomplete our relationship and unity with others upon which we depend, we’ll be in the truth and see Him as He really is and therefore see ourselves as we really are and is we should be, the illusions will be removed, and we’ll see the affects of hell as it is now laid bare then, and the extent to which we fell into it, participated in it decay of ourselves or others, and conversely how we turned away and towards the path of restoration and growth with Him in unity of fellow humanity. I tend to favour the understanding of age-lasting correction in Matthew 25 being just that, age-enduring correcting, for those so lost in darkness for the physician to come in after the more gentle attempts and healing, when the patient has going into complete irrational delusion to bring the stronger medicine of the full light, clarity and restoration of the resurrection to free and heal them. This of course simplifies a complex gradient, and to engage and respond to His prompting to to love and compassion now, to respond to those in need now, is to take steps to depart from hell already, to engage people in love and more engage true life and your own healing as much as theirs, and let the fire of His love blaze in you both.

          We see illustrations of the beginnings of this in the New Testament, when St Peter first saw the miracle of the fish, he catches a glimpse of who Christ is and seems himself as he is, and says ‘depart from me Lord for I am a sinful man!’ or say St Paul where I think we see a better glimpse of this reality, the Lord appeared before him, His light banishing the illusions that bound him terribly in murderous self-righteousness. In His light St Paul say himself as truly was. As St Isaac says of Gehenna, it is the grief and sorrow of the heart that knows it has betrayed love, that if there is suffering is what it is. Yet is to correction, as with St Peter or St Paul, Christ is there with them, to pick them up, as with the Prodigal son, He is the light that exposes and reveals the terrible wounds and conditions we are in so we can turn and be healed. That’s not to say it’s not hard, people do a lot to avoid facing the truth or admitting a fault or even just something they might embarrassed about, they go through allot of unnecessary suffering and pain to avoid these things, even though it’s completely irrational and once done can see it was sily to do so. And as I say, I see Matthew 25 as both now and them, on the one hand then the terrible suffering will be ended but we will see and be shown it’s full affects upon us, and that will be hard but healing. Now it’s terrible but as with addicts we can hid for it’s truth, and can avoid the more gentle promptings and urgings to begin turning away and dealing with such problems and engaging life for ourselves and others, before the fuller treatment comes.

          To put it another way, there are moments you see yourself as you both really are and should be, and moments you do feel you have failed love towards someone, a taste of that, but it is one that heals, as for how long it takes for someone to come to terms with I don’t no, could be quick. But I don’t personally think there is any direct punishment, hell as we already see it all around us is both exposed and put a stop too. I know none of this answers you first question, and maybe it’s all mystic claptrap to you, but it case it helps there it is.

          As for your second point I utterly agree, unfortunately in my judgement many of the early fathers such St Origen, St Gregory etc still retained the old classical prejudice against the common plebs as ignorant masses best told what is good for them to hear rather than truths they were considered too undeveloped and brutish to here. To be fair they were much better and more considerate, caring and saw more solidarity with them than almost any of their pagan contemporaries or ancestors, but the prejudice remained (and remains). As such though, they ceded ground and gave the field to the infernalists, since they showed no such reticence, and indeed how the universalists choose to frame their homilies only seemingly supported the infernalist case. An own goal if their ever was one, an example of prejudice proving your own downfall. But it was definitely a big mistake, and I don’t it even achieved it’s objective, when infernalism was full believed by most to be true, it didn’t cause sinning to stop, or reduce it, at best it just drove despondency, fearfulness, anxiety, and of course violence, burning, torture and execution (because if a false idea can lead people to be tortured forever, well then, any means becomes justified to stop it).

          Anyway, best of luck to you which ever way you go, and hope DBH gets back to you with real answer with good meat on them 🙂 .


          • Counter-Rebel says:

            Thanks for taking the time to answer. We’ll see what DBH has to say. For now, I’m more attracted to pagan universalism or Reform Jewish universalism than Christian u., given the points I made.


          • Grant says:

            Following what you understand to be the truth and to live towards love is the most important thing, if you are following the truth as you know it, we’ll find our way home in tne end no matter the areas we may err. If you go against what you believe to be the truth or what your reason tells you, you’d be living a lie and that wouldn’t do anyone any good. So basically follow what you think is true, with orthopraxy being allot more important than orthodoxy (what you do vs what doctrines you subscribe too).

            Long way around to say, if that is where you feel the truth is to be found follow it and explore those traditions, even if as I believe Christianity is true, Christ is there as well to be encountered, and in the world and people around you. And if not, hopefully God and Truth and Love is still be encountered an known in my tradition.

            Nice to chat with you, and I hope for all the best for you.


        • DBH says:

          It was common practice in those days among the elite of every religion: milk for infants, meat for adults. It was wrong, perhaps, but universally accepted.

          Retributive punishment is worthless and unworthy of God. The painful process of being separated from one’s own false self—one’s cruelties, falsehoods, betrayals—is healing. The Christian universalist view of hell was always the latter, hence the common imagery of cauteries and surgery. That’s what salvation is for the very damaged. You will find similar ideas in all universalist traditions, Abrahamic or Asian.

          Liked by 1 person

          • JBG says:

            DBH: “The painful process of being separated from one’s own false self—one’s cruelties, falsehoods, betrayals—is healing. The Christian universalist view of hell was always the latter, hence the common imagery of cauteries and surgery. That’s what salvation is for the very damaged. You will find similar ideas in all universalist traditions, Abrahamic or Asian.”

            It seems to me that the ultimate goal is transformation. True, some transformation may incur great emotional pain (shame, guilt) but there are many examples of people who are dramatically transformed without the attendant pain.

            In Buddhism, there has always been a robust debate regarding instant awakening vs gradual awakening. What seems undeniable is that instant awakening does indeed occur, even if exceedingly rare. The individual’s entire worldview and orientation is dramatically altered in “the twinkling of an eye”. These events come from out of the blue, often to people who didn’t even consider themselves spiritual or believe such a thing was even possible. Now, it is not as if all effort immediately ceases but from that moment onward, all is undertaken with an abiding, pervasive sense of joy and peace. I suppose one might say that they have been firmly established in the Good.

            If the ultimate goal is transformation and “instant” transformation is at least possible, hopefully all might be transformed in this manner.


          • DBH says:

            In every form of Buddhist thought (except heterodox Nichiren schools), just as in Christian universalist thought, the “pain” of transformation is determined only by the ferocity of resistance to transformation. And in both traditions a hyperbolic and hellish imagery often hides that from the eyes of average believers. This is an unfortunate reality.


          • JBG says:

            “…the “pain” of transformation is determined only by the ferocity of resistance to transformation.”

            And yet, if you read accounts of these epiphanic awakenings, it is clear that in many cases resistance was not something that was even remotely possible, as they were entirely overtaken by the Good, or what Shin Buddhists call Tariki (“Other Power”). In these moments, there is neither assent nor resistance. I suppose one may approach the gift of epiphanic awakening just one does salvation as a whole—an unmerited act of grace.


          • DBH says:

            Not true. Shin Buddhism is entirely a devotional tradition with an emphasis on “grace.” The transformative experience is one that follows upon a devotional surrender and discipline of the nama. But that’s no different from any religion’s understanding of grace. For those who do not seek the aid of Amida or the bodhisattva in question, and who resist that grace in this life, there are Narakas that may involve ages of suffering. I don’t see your point.


          • JBG says:

            I only mentioned Shin to stress the Otherness of the power, as opposed to “self-power”, including the self-power ostensibly needed for surrender.

            The point is, there are spontaneous awakening experiences that happen to people unbidden; moments wherein the person is absolutely inundated with knowledge, love, bliss, and an absolute assurance of the “rightness” of existence.

            This often occurs to a person that had little or no interest in spirituality and has even happened to many that harbored blatant antipathy toward anything religious and were mired in anger at life and admittedly had led cold, selfish lives.

            One thing is clear, the experient has no active part in this—the experience does not involve or depend on something they do (including giving assent or surrendering) but rather something that is done to them. Being entirely overcome in an instant, with no remainder of “self” remaining, is a hallmark of the experience.

            While the experience might only last a few seconds, it is described as timeless and the transformation can be permanent. The shift in worldview, values, and priorities ensues. The sense of peace and joy, although diminished as compared to the peak of the experience, can also endure indefinitely.

            I would have thought that “sudden awakening” was just a Zen legend of Huineng, but there are many modern accounts of comparable experiences. I have a collected a number books over the years that document such experiences.

            Transformation, to the degree that has been termed “enlightenment”, can happen suddenly, without warning and, if we take the word of those that have experienced this, wholly without our consent. I know that the latter will be a thorn in the side of those that absolutely deplore the idea of being showered with unfathomable goodness without their consent, which is an exceptionally strange stance, to say the least.


          • DBH says:

            You’re making a distinction without a difference. Some find transformation effortless, some do not. All depend on grace.


          • rephinia says:

            Since the topic came up, is there a ‘Bibliographical Postscript’ you’d recommend for Buddhism as you did for other faiths in The Experience of God?


        • I don’t think their basic psychology is TOTALLY wrong. Fear of punishment does motivate one to “behave,” but I think St. Isaac’s strategy is the better one to follow today, especially because so many people are looking at Christianity from the outside and see an eternal hell in the same way as Hart sees it. I know scholars disagree about this, but I think St. Isaac was the only one to preach universalism in his homilies while arguing that a temporal hell is still a sufficient deterrent.

          I get the sense from reading Maximus, that he applied the verse about “if you cause any of these little ones to fall” to preaching hell to the “lazy.” You would be held accountable on judgment day if you preached universalism to someone and it caused them to sin MORE. Origen talks about God deceiving us for our benefit, etc. This would certainly be evidence that these early Christians didn’t accept anything like the categorical imperative! Today, you could almost apply the opposite strategy. Christianity now loses more adherents from preaching an eternal hell than the other way around. This seems like a pastoral issue to me. The pastoral goal has always been the same but the way to get people there will vary greatly depending on the culture.

          Liked by 1 person

    • Geoffrey McKinney says:

      Regarding your third point above (“scripture is whatever is read as scripture in the liturgy”): I have long asked myself how something can be considered as “Scripture” when it is not read in the liturgy. All of the New Testament other than the Apocalypse is liturgically read in the Orthodox Church, as are all 150 Psalms, but only about 15% of the rest of the Old Testament. I do not see in what meaningful sense one can say that the Apocalypse and most of the Old Testament can be considered as canonical in the Orthodox Church.


    • You, too, don’t see Revelation as “evidence” for an eternal hell, but maybe even the opposite?

      My views on Revelation are not well-enough articulated for me to write much of a post or essay on them, on how Revelation doesn’t imply an eternal hell for me, but I do know that I’ve used very Revelation-based imagery (the Lake of Fire for one) in a highly symbolic novel I’m releasing later this year that’s not quite strictly universalist (I think), but definitely invites the possibility, if not more, so that kind of told me how I feel about Revelation. It’s great to see your thoughts are similar!


    • As I say in the piece, I have no illusions about convincing Farley of anything. He’s already responded to this on his blog saying that even if Athanasius, Cyril, all three Cappadocians and Maximus were universalists, there was a later consensus that formed and that’s all that ultimately matters. We disagree. That’s fine.

      My goal was so that someone new to Orthodoxy who doesn’t have the time to spend investing days and days into the topic wouldn’t just stumble onto his blog and think, “Oh, well I guess Farley’s way must be the Orthodox way.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Right. Farley & Company assume a very specific understanding of dogmatic infallibility as if it itself enjoys dogmatic authority and then employ it to shut down debate of universalism. Roman Catholics can at least point to Vatican I & II to support their notion of infallibility, but to what dogmatic text do the Orthodox infallibilists point to? It’s a vicious circle. All the rest of us can do is to refuse to play their game.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Alura says:

          In one of his comments to this article, he appealed to consensus of the fathers, whose mechanism upon closer inspection seems quite nebulous. Is there some sort of literature or scholarship out there on the idea of consensus of the fathers in Orthodoxy? I’m curious about finding out more about the concept, but I have no idea where to begin.


          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            As far as I can determine, Orthodox theologians have written very little on consensus, dogma, and infallibility. They seem to be content to simply assert it when convenient for them. And they have written almost nothing on the hermeneutics of dogma. If you should come across anything of interest, please pass it on to me.

            Liked by 1 person

          • arthurjaco says:

            @ Alura

            Correct me if I’m wrong (my knowledge of Orthodoxy is still very limited), but doesn’t the number of those who can be considered Fathers of the Church actually evolve constantly in the Orthodox Church, with new Orthodox Church Fathers appearing each and every century?
            Given their influence on the Church, wouldn’t people like St Silouan, St Sophrony and St Paisios (among others) be considered “modern Fathers of the Orthodox Church”, for example?

            My point is : if that is the case, wouldn’t that make any kind of “consensus of the fathers” inherently unstable (as opposed to static), thus lessening its importance significantly?


          • Alura says:

            @ Arthur,

            As I understand it, the list is still open in Orthodoxy. And the point you brought up is one of the things I have been wondering myself, especially if there is a dispute as to who is a father for any given individual.

            Liked by 1 person

          • arthurjaco says:

            Ah! Thanks for confirming, I trust in your judgment.


          • arthurjaco says:

            In Alura we trust.


          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Alura, you may find of interest “Orthodoxy, Dogma ….”

            In his response to Mark’s article, Fr Lawrence replies that the article is irrelevant because at some point in the Church’s history she has rejected universal salvation. This appeal to authority (argumentum ad verecundiam) functions as a closure to discussion. No matter how philosophically and theologically cogent the case for universal salvation may be, we need pay it no mind, because the Church has already definitively rejected it. This rejection is assumed to be infallible and irreformable, even though the Orthodox Church has never dogmatically promulgated an understanding of doctrinal infallibility nor specified the criteria that a teaching must meet to achieve irreformability. After all Orthodoxy has never had a Vatican I and Vatican II, nor have her theologians, unlike Catholic theologians, devoted their energies to this issue. Everyone, of course, has an opinion, but no one can point to an authoritative Orthodox pronouncement on infallibility. Bulgakov is therefore well in his Orthodox rights to simply deny infallibility, which he does in The Orthodox Church. Some Orthodox may vigorously disagree with him, but they cannot declare him to be a heretic on this point.

            It’s all quite frustrating because the game is over before it begins. It doesn’t matter whether apokatastasis might be true. All that matters is maintaining the doctrinal status quo. At least Catholic theologians are required to demonstrate that a specific teaching has fulfilled the criteria of infallibility, but Orthodox theologians and pastors don’t even have to do that. All that have to do is adamantly declare “The Church has spoken, case closed,” and we are all supposed to shut our mouths and minds and pretend that eternal damnation is really not as horrific as it manifestly is.

            End of rant.

            Liked by 4 people

          • Alura, and Jaco,

            Email me, and I can send you something you will probably find of interest in regard to whether the church has an infallible magisterium or anything like that. My email is my first initial followed by my last name

            I’m afraid of getting misrepresented by some very traditional people that might see the quote if I post it publicly.

            Liked by 2 people

          • “Consensus” in this case means whatever everyone got accustomed to assuming after they forgot there had been a question. Unless I’m missing something major, there weren’t even fierce debates on the topic: for the most part you just had various divines pressing their viewpoints with relatively little, at least non-systematic engagement of the opposing view. That accidental triumphalist approach is certainly an oddly passive, non-conciliar way of deciding unquestionable authority. It also ignores counterexamples like the one Dr. Chenoweth cited (Schmemann’s campaign for frequent Communion) and no doubt others.

            Liked by 2 people

          • arthurjaco says:

            “Consensus” in this case means whatever everyone got accustomed to assuming after they forgot there had been a question.”

            I just HAD to like this.


      • DBH says:

        Look, Farley is a fundamentalist, and he simply does not have the mental training to argue this through. He writes attacks on arguments he doesn’t understand, proclaims “dogma” based on his vague sense of what must be Orthodoxy, and basically makes a spectacle of himself. He can’t be convinced because he doesn’t have the intellectual range to understand even what he thinks he believes. You can simplify your arguments only so far before you’re playing his game rather than engaging in a real debate. These are not the people you should bother arguing with. Let them cling to their dismal view of God. Who suffers most from their poverty of moral imagination and perception?

        Maybe the fathers were right about “milk for the infantile.” You’re asking Farley to accept a vision of reality for which he’s not intellectually or emotionally ready. Maybe he really needs his vicious and irrational God to be able to get by without–oh, I don’t know–eating people. Your article names a good many modern Orthodox scholars with real and impressive accomplishments to boast of. Theirs are the opinions worth paying attention to.

        Liked by 3 people

  2. voteforgreg says:

    With regards to 3), would it be fair to say the liturgical use of works as “scripture” is a part of the sanctifying process of scripture?


  3. This describes some phases of my thoughts about hell, too: “too undeveloped at that point to safely put them in either the universalist, annihilationist, or eternal hell camp.”

    The line of universalist thinking about the 1st Corinthians 15 passage resonates so deeply with me! I would love to say something, but I can’t think of anything to add to what has been written and the quotes from such as Gregory and Maximus. At least I will say it is near the core of my own thoughts about the Eschaton and Apokatastasis.


  4. Grant says:

    I haven’t got much to say to this other than a kind of disturbed and horrified reaction to Fr Farley’s belief and conviction that he needs the threat of being tortured forever to make his life meaningful and bother doing anything (or worse, the thought of other people getting tortured forever, which I hope at least is not the case). While I appreciate the time you took to present the universalist case Mark, just taking a step back and looking at that sentiment presents a dark, twisted mirror to live in and under, a shadowy life defining itself by abuse and the promise of it, where the threat of eternal torture gives life itself meaning, not love, not goodness, not even joy or wonder, not God Himself, but fear and the need for the threat of torture forever, for himself and perhaps others.

    This is a dark, warped world defined by abuse, I pity and pray for him, and for those he ministers too, to be trapped in and under that kind of terror snd abuse, may Christ set him free.

    Truly this thinking is the result of a diseased neurosis in and amoung and we abuse ourselves and our children bringing them up to believe in it. It’s horrifying and nauseatingly when you think how okay most Christians are with it, even if not to Fr Farley’s extreme. As for him, he needs much pray.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. What the deuce says:

    If these allegedly universalist fathers so adamantly kept an honorable silence before the masses, why aren’t you honorably following them in that too?

    Btw, the church does read the Apocalypse liturgically, in the Vigil. Read the Typikon.


    • What the deuce says:

      *See the Typikon.


    • DBH says:

      Because those fathers were wrong to have done so.

      The Apocalypse is not read in any ancient liturgical text of the Orthodox Church, including the Vigil. So, again, most of the fathers of the East in the fourth century did not consider it scripture. On Patmos, there is now some use if the book, and has been since the late middle ages. Some local churches under Alexandria reputedly have added some readings too.

      It’s a political masque of the first century. Not impenetrable—I never said that—but many of the images are now uninterpretable. It’s not, to my mind, an eschatological treatise, but rather an apocalyptic allegory about an imminent divine intervention in history.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Sonya says:

      Why not keep ‘honourable’ silence? Because societal norms change. Because psychological understandings change. Because threats of violence do not effect us as they once might have, if they ever did.


      • What the deuce says:

        No good reason here to truncate the Gospel.


        • Grant says:

          Who’s truncating the Gospel, isn’t that the very question at hand? Answer Hart’s argument and prove infernalism is right and Christianity still coherent, otherwise what you would demand is a denial of the Gospel in favour of blind and false fideism.

          The truth is what matters, because the Truth is Christ.

          Liked by 1 person

        • arthurja says:

          I guess St Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St Gregory of Nyssa, St Macrina the Younger, St Didymus the Blind, St Evagrius Ponticus, Rufinus of Aquileia, St Theodore of Mopsuestia, St Diodore of Tarsus, St Theodoret of Cyrus, St Eusebius of Caesarea, etc, must have all “truncated” the Gospel, then.
          You should be a bit more careful with the words you use, I think.


          • What the deuce says:

            Yes, I should be more careful because my last comment was not clear. Forgive me, and let me clarify. If the traditional view of hell is “another gospel,” which has been claimed here, then universalism truly represents the good news: i.e. that thing lots of people ought to be believing. Thus any supposed “honorable” silence concerning universalism does indeed mutilate the message of Christ. As DBH said above, those fathers were wrong to have done so. They truncated the gospel of universalism.


        • arthurja says:

          Oh, I see, my bad.


  6. Tom says:

    Point of order, Chairman. Are the hyperlinked numbers of the footnotes (whether in the body of the post or the footnotes list) supposed to take one somewhere or provide some info when clicked?


  7. Yes, they’re supposed to take you to the text with the footnote or the footnote if you’re in the text. Guess it doesn’t work. Hmm…I took the whole thing from Word, and modified in WordPress before I sent the html to Fr Aidan. Sorry about that. Not sure what to do about that.


  8. Theophilos says:

    I’m a history educator, and I am fascinated by these comments on Buddhist eschatology but know I’m a little out of my depth :). I know, Dr. Hart, you were trained in Eastern religions. Are there any recommendations out there for excellent starting literature on Buddhist eschatology?


  9. Colin MacIntyre says:

    David, why did the fathers of the East in the 4th century reject Revelation as scripture, whereas church fathers before and after welcomed it? Was it simply because of Gaius’ conviction that it was a heretical forgery of Cerinthus, or something more?


    • DBH says:

      You’re a little confused. In some parts of the church it wasn’t accepted until the fifth century; in others it was embraced early. Conversely, many books were widely adopted as scripture—Hermas, Gospel of the Hebrews, etc—that later disappeared everywhere. The scriptural canon was not determined until fairly late, and to this day is not uniform throughout the world. Rome did not officially pronounce on the canon until the 16th century. The Eastern churches never have. So it’s very much a matter of slow coalescence.

      I have little regard for Revelation. I think it a relic of a moment in Christian history that long ago cane to nothing. I think its author an enemy, for instance, of Pauline Christianity. And I don’t think it’s a book about the end of time. But I know others find something in it.


      • Fr John Behr thinks the author of Revelation is actually who Paul is referring to when he says, “I knew a man who was caught up into the third heaven…” He opts for quite an early date.

        Not really related to anything much here, but I just found that suggestion fascinating. Never really looked into whether it’s plausible or not.

        An enemy of Pauline Christianity? Never heard that before. I’ll have to look at your new testament translation to see if you discuss this. That doesn’t sound like a view that’s going to get you in trouble with anyone at all.😮


      • Colin says:

        Forgive me, but it seems like you simply restated my point that it was accepted both earlier and later. But my question was, why, i.e. what were the reasons for its rejection? Is this information lost to history or are there canonical council discussions or something that one could survey? Thank you for your kind reply.


        • DBH says:

          No, I answered your question. Again, no one rejected it as such. It simply didn’t come to be regarded as scripture everywhere for some centuries. If there was a particular reason why it did not seem scriptural in one place or another, no one really left a record. It simply hadn’t caught on there. It wasn’t part of local tradition.


        • DBH says:

          The real imponderable is why anyone did adopt it. Maybe just the feeling that the book needed an ending.


          • rephinia says:

            I really like your brothers chapter on the Bible in Strangers and Pilgrims where he discusses how the shape of the New Testament mirrors that of the Old Testament, and Revelation at the end does fit in nicely in that regard. And maybe Revelation 21:3-5 is just worth it.


          • Could it be that the Preterists are correct and it defines the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem, using highly symbolic language? If so, this could mean that the Bible, rather than being the book which begins with the Fall and ends with the end of all time, rather begins with the Fall and ends with the completion of the age in which Christ lived (Matthew 24:3), ushering in another age which is now the age of the universal invitation to all to enter the heavenly Jerusalem? (Brad Jersak – Her Gates Shall Never Be Shut). In a past response you referred to Revelation as possibly referring to an event long ago accomplished. Preterist eschatology, although spotty in places, seems to make a good case for this being so.

            Now we have the heavenly Jerusalem come down to earth, the Church, who invites all without reservation. Despite the numerous (and often bizarre) visions and dreams of an impending apocalypse and end of the world, bolstered by frequent references to Matthew 24 and Revelation, I just can’t see it. No one knows how long this current age will last. And then there is the end of Revelation, which speaks of aion tou aion yet to come. I think we may well be, even after 2,000 years, just at the beginning.

            Seeing Revelation as the end of the story? Yes, I think it wraps things up nicely. If we can just convince theologians that it is done, we can perhaps put to rest all the fervent visions of Christ returning with a fiery sword in hand and get to the business of preaching the Good News that salvation is for all and the our loving heavenly Father wills this for all.


          • Colin says:

            Or that its later chapters contained some of the most beautiful imagery in all of Scripture, however crudely written. 😅

            Liked by 1 person

  10. dianelos says:

    So Gregory has written this: “Evil will come to nought and will be completely destroyed.”

    I’d like to point out that if this proposition is literally true then infernalism is necessarily false. Because infernalism entails that evil will exist for all eternity.

    Come to think of it the idea that God by creating the world would also make eternal evil – that God would share all eternity with evil – is an obvious theological absurdity.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. arthurja says:

    To anybody (though preferably Dr Hart, Dr Chenoweth or Fr Kimel, if they’re not too busy),

    Do you know whether many patristics scholars agree with Dr Ramelli’s assessment that St Methodius, St Anthony, St Cassian and St Pantaenus (I believe she talks about him as well) were universalists?

    I am not asking for any quotes from any of these saints : I am merely asking whether that’s a popular opinion among modern patristics scholars or whether Dr Ramelli is a bit lonely there.

    I’m asking this because I know that Dr Hart and others have said that although Ramelli’s work is praiseworthy, they would not necessarily agree with her on ALL of the names that she puts forward in it.
    I’ve also heard Dr Hart list Clement, Origen, Gregory, Macrina, Theodore, Diodore and Isaac as universalists (unsurprisingly and uncontroversially) plenty of times, but those four above? I do not recall him saying anything about them.

    Not that I would be surprised to learn that it is a common opinion among patristics scholars that St Anthony and St Cassian were at least “hopeful” universalists.
    After all, we know that desert monks were heavily influenced by Origen from the third century onwards while St Cassian was an origenist at heart.
    However, I am much more skeptical about St Pantaenus and St Methodius since I do not believe that much of what Pantaenus wrote has survived the passage of time (even though the fact that he was Clement’s teacher should not count for nothing) while Methodius was an opponent of Origen (though not necessarily of his apokatastasis?)

    I confess that I have only read the extracts of Ramelli’s book that can be read legally (a couple dozen pages) but in my defence, that’s because of the book’s price and because I don’t want to download it illegally – that would be way too unethical for my liking.

    Thanks a lot in advance, good day to you.


    • David says:

      I can’t address any of your points, but I take it that you are referring to Dr Ramelli’s beast of a book “The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis”?

      In case you or anyone else reading this happened to be unaware, I thought I’d point out that that Dr Ramelli has also published a smaller volume titled “A Larger Hope?, Volume 1: Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich”.

      (she also contributes to the second volume in the series, “A Larger Hope?, Volume 2: Universal Salvation from the Reformation to the Nineteenth Century” although I believe that Robin Parry, aka the Evangelical Universalist, is the lead author)

      Anyway, I understand this distills the key points from her earlier more comprehensive study, and is certainly much much more affordable – although still not exactly cheap in dead-tree format, it’s extremely well priced on Kindle.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My criticisms of her are that I do think she has taken some passages and legitimately thinks they are universalist passages when they’re not. There’s an instance in Chrysostom and one in Athanasius where they both actually seem to be implying an eternal hell and she takes it as evidence for universalism. And I think some of her translations tend to be too universalist. However! As far as her judgment of who she thinks was a universalist and who she doesn’t, I’d say, 95 percent of the time, I agree with her.

        Yes, her hermeneutic lens for reading the early fathers is a universalist one and every once in a while, it doesn’t work, but her universalist lens is a far more convincing lens than the “infernalist” lens! It’s a different lens than scholars before her were used to and therefore a revisionist one, but a far more plausible one.

        I think Hart only mentions Gregory, Origen, etc. in his books because using someone like Athanasius would just be a distraction since his goals are not Ramelli’s.

        Liked by 1 person

        • arthurjaco says:

          She argued that St John Chrysostom was perhaps a universalist after all?
          I’m not an expert (unlike her) but that sure sounds like a bold move to me…

          I admit that although Ramelli seems to be such an exceptional scholar, I had feared that her clear sympathies for universalism might have taken their toll on her objectivity.
          I’m therefore very glad to know that you still agree with her about 95% of the time.

          Just out of curiosity, Mark, are you ordained as an Orthodox priest or something?
          I’m asking this because I’ve seen pictures of you (creepy? maybe) where you wear the black habit of Orthodox clergymen.
          Are you both a theologian and a priest?
          Is it legit to call you “Father”, or…?


          • No, she does not claim Chrysostom was a universalist. She claims that he’s very inconsistent in what he says and some of his sermons have universalist elements. Her section on him in Apokatastasis is MUCH MUCH better than in A Larger Hope. In Apokatastasis, she makes a really interesting case that he knows better when he makes bad arguments against universalism. For example, he says that we know universalism is false because it says aionios, even though he too sometimes uses it to mean age. And I don’t remember where, but I’m almost positive she said that for 1 Cor. 3, Chrysostom tries to say that when it says “saved,” it actually means “damned”! Haha. Chrysostom was such a good exegete that I do wonder if he was just following the “preach hell, teach universalism” line of thought. We will never know. His teachers were very explicit universalists and he did quote some of Origen’s commentary on Romans word for word in his sermons. Who knows what the heck he thought.

            She does say that the paschal homily (read every Pascha in the Orthodox church) wrongly attributed to Chrysostom is universalist though. Sure seems like it! And if it’s not Chrysostom’s, there’s no reason to think it isn’t.

            Liked by 2 people

          • Nope, not a priest! I was always better at writing papers than I was at remembering which way to turn in liturgics in seminary. I realized I could never pray in the same way if I was always doing something during the liturgy and it stopped appealing to me.

            The picture of me in a cassock is because everyone at seminary wore cassocks.

            Liked by 1 person

          • arthurjaco says:

            My, Patristics do look tricky for dilettantes…
            I would have never even entertained the thought that Chrysostom *might* have been (strong emphasis on “might”) some kind of “closet” universalist.
            I mean, given his commitment to hating Jews, I had always assumed that he believed at least *they* would never enter the Kingdom of God.

            Thanks for the clarifications about you wearing the cassock despite you not being a priest. I was slightly confused about that.


      • arthurjaco says:

        @ David,

        I actually didn’t know that that work was a recapitulation of Ramelli’s earlier book and I hadn’t noticed that its Kindle format was so affordable.

        Thanks a lot for these pieces of information, have a good day!


    • Honestly, most of the names you mention, I haven’t looked into that much. I’m pretty sure I did see Perczel support her on St. Anthony. And what she says of Methodius is fairly convincing. Her book is too large for a scholar to go through it person by person. The people I focused on in the article I have looked into because of their enormous importance in Orthodox theology. For what it’s worth, I’d have to see more on Cassian to have an opinion. Her case in A Larger Hope was too small for me to form an opinion.

      I’ll look into some of the other names later today if I have time. I’m blessed to be connected to a University where a PDF is available of her Apokatastasis through their website whenever I want it. Thank God!

      Liked by 1 person

      • arthurjaco says:

        You recall that Perczel supports Ramelli on St Anthony?
        My, that’s good to know! Perczel is not just anybody!

        Ah, university and its advantages… My God, if only I had known how important it was to take studies seriously back then. Perhaps I’d have a PHD, too.

        But I digress, nevermind.

        Thanks a lot for your comments, that’s very nice of you, Dr.


    • Alura says:

      With what I’ve read of recent scholarship on Cassian, usually in the context of the so-called Semi-Pelagian controversy, most scholars understand Cassian as stating that God wants all people to be saved, but that this result doesn’t necessarily happen. I guess you could say they read him as a sort of libertarian on the free will matter. The idea of Cassian’s universalism just never occurs to most current scholars, so no one has really set out recently to rebut it.

      That said, I think Ramelli’s case is very convincing. If you read Hanson’s Universalism from 1899, he also argues Cassian was a universalist and cites one or two German theologians or historians of dogma from the 19th century that agree in that assessment of Cassian and disapprove of Cassian for those very reasons. There are portions of the Institutes that indicate a belief of universalism. But the most convincing piece of evidence is chapter 7 of Conference 13.

      Liked by 2 people

      • arthurjaco says:

        @ Alura

        “With what I’ve read of recent scholarship on Cassian, usually in the context of the so-called Semi-Pelagian controversy, most scholars understand Cassian as stating that God wants all people to be saved, but that this result doesn’t necessarily happen. I guess you could say they read him as a sort of libertarian on the free will matter.”

        Yeah, that’s also the impression that I got about St Cassian, unfortunately…
        I really need to read Ramelli’s case, though. She sure knows better.

        Thanks a lot for the references that you’ve just provided, I’m going to have a look at them.

        I understand Hanson is widely considered to be one of the greatest 19th century universalist scholars. I hope his universalism did not lead him to neglect objectivity.


  12. Pingback: Orthodoxy & Universal Salvation: Are the Two Compatible? | Shameless Orthodoxy

  13. Henry says:

    I’ve been thinking recently that “unending punishment” and universal salvation are not even really mutually exclusive. It is possible that punishment could be unending, yet the punishment is infinitesimal or vanishes relative to God’s infinite love (beyond infinite, truly). Even in the quantitative realm of mathematics, there is Cantor’s idea of infinitely many infinities, and God is beyond any quantitative infinity. So even just conceptually, it is possible to reconcile “unending punishment” or “everlasting fire” with universal salvation.

    I don’t personally believe unending punishment, but my point is that even if one believes the strongest reading of the fifth ecumenical council, that all of the various anathemas and Justinian letters and so on were historically accepted and valid, it seem that it does not necessarily even imply that universalism is false.

    Liked by 1 person

    • arthurja says:

      I do not disagree with what you’ve just said but I’d still like to point out that the notion of endless punishment seems very hard (if not impossible) to reconcile with that of an all-knowing and all-powerful God of infinite and unconditional love, and (obviously) absolutely pointless – even if it were to be mitigated with eternal bliss, that is.
      But yeah, good point, I think.
      Now, could that idea be found in Scripture or can it merely *make sense* scripturally?
      I’ll let others decide, I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

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