The “Heresy” of Hopeful Universalism: Kallistos Ware, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Ralph Martin

May we hope—as opposed to dogmatically affirming in pesky universalist fashion—that all will be saved? The fact that so many Orthodox and Catholic Christians (though no doubt representing a minority within their respective traditions) would now say yes demon­strates that a dramatic development of doctrine is taking place within the two ancient Churches. Who before the 20th century taught the possibility that hell will ultimately prove empty on the last day? If there were such hopeful universalists in the second millennium, I’m sure it’s a short list.

But all changed in the 20th century. In France, Orthodox theologians like Paul Evdokimov and Olivier Clément began to publicly entertain the possibility, though not certainty, of universal salvation.2 Their hopeful universalism then began to circulate through the rest of the Orthodox world via the influential essay by Met Kallistos Ware: “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?” (1998). He concludes his essay with these words:

Our belief in human freedom means that we have no right to categorically affirm, “All must be saved.” But our faith in God’s love makes us dare to hope that all will be saved.

“Is there anybody there? said the traveler,
Knocking on the moonlit door.”

Hell exists as a possibility because free will exists. Yet, trusting in the inexhaustible attractiveness of God’s love, we venture to express the hope—it is no more than a hope—that in’the end, like Walter de la Mare’s Traveller, we shall find that there is nobody there. Let us leave the last word, then, with St Silouan of Mount Athos: “Love could not bear that… We must pray for all.”

Note the Metropolitan’s insistence that all expressions of a strong universalism remain dogmatically excluded in Orthodoxy. We cannot be 100% certain that all will be reconciled to God—humanity’s freedom of choice remains in the way. Everyone retains the power to everlastingly resist the summons to repentance and faith. Yet still we may hope, the good bishop maintains. The divine resources are infinite. Our Creator may yet find a way through the impenetrable thicket of creaturely egoism and pride to save all. I am confident, though, that pre-19th century Orthodox bishops and theologians would have condemned Ware’s hopeful universalism as heresy.3 They would have judged it a spiritually dangerous innovation and departure from the catholic faith. Yet today even traditionalists like Dr David Ford of St Tikhon’s Seminary have adopted a hopeful universalism and regard it as compatible with the teachings of the Orthodox Church. Even in Orthodoxy, apparently, doctrine develops.

In Catholicism the figure of the great Hans Urs von Balthasar stands as the preeminent theologian of hopeful universalism. His first book on the topic, Was dürfen wir hoffen? (1987), received vigorous criticism, which he answered in Diskurs über die Hölle (1988) and “Apokatastasis” (1989). These writings were then translated into English and published in a single volume Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved?” With a Short Discourse on Hell. Balthasar identifies within Scripture two sets of seemingly contradictory statements:

  1. God wills the salvation of every human being.
  2. Human beings may definitively and irrevocably reject the infinitely loving God, thereby condeming themselves to everlasting separation (i.e., hell).

We should not attempt an artificial reconciliation of these statements. The shadow of the cross envelops us. “We stand completely and utterly under judgment,” Balthasar comments, “and have no right, nor is it possible for us, to peer in advance at the Judge’s cards.”4 We cannot know that anyone (whether one, some, or many) will be damned, but our freedom for sin compels us to acknowledge this terrible possibility; nonetheless, God’s universal salvific will encourages us to fervently pray for apokatastasis. Yet we must not presume. Balthasar leaves us with this solemn warning:

If we take our faith seriously and respect the words of Scripture, we must resign ourselves to admitting such an ultimate possibility [i.e., eternal damnation], our feelings of revulsion notwithstanding. We may not simply ignore such a threat; we may not easily dismiss it, neither for ourselves nor for any of our brothers and sisters in Christ.5

Balthasar’s position continues to be attacked today, perhaps most aggressively by Ralph Martin in his books Will Many Be Saved? and A Church in Crisis. I have not read these titles, but Martin has summarized his criticisms of hopeful universalism in his 2014 essay “Balthasar and Salvation.” He zeroes in on Balthasar’s approbation of Edith Stein’s early speculations on divine grace and human freedom. It’s probably best to cite the entire passage which Balthasar approvingly quotes:

We attempted to understand what part freedom plays in the work of redemption. For this it is not adequate if one focuses on freedom alone. One must investigate as well what grace can do and whether even for it there is an absolute limit. This we have already seen: grace must come to man. By its own power, it can, at best, come up to his door but never force its way inside. And further: it can come to him without his seeking it, without his desiring it. The question is whether it can complete its work without his cooperation. It seemed to us that this question had to be answered negatively. That is a weighty thing to say. For it obviously implies that God’s freedom, which we call omnipotence, meets with a limit in human freedom. Grace is the Spirit of God, who descends to the soul of man. It can find no abode there if it is not freely taken in. That is a hard truth. It implies—besides the aforementioned limit to divine omnipotence—the possibility, in principle, of excluding oneself from redemption and the kingdom of grace. It does not imply a limit to divine mercy. For even if we cannot close our minds to the fact that temporal death comes for countless men without their ever having looked eternity in the eye and without salvation’s ever having become a problem for them; that, furthermore, many men occupy themselves with salvation for a lifetime without responding to grace—we still do not know whether the decisive hour might not come for all of these somewhere in the next world, and faith can tell us that this is the case.

All-merciful love can thus descend to everyone. We believe that it does so. And now, can we assume that there are souls that re­main perpetually closed to such love? As a possibility in princi­ple, this cannot be rejected. In reality, it can become infi­nitely improbable—precisely through what preparatory grace is capable of effecting in the soul. It can do no more than knock at the door, and there are souls that already open themselves to it upon hearing this unobtrusive call. Others allow it to go unheeded. Then it can steal its way into souls and begin to spread itself out there more and more. The greater the area becomes that grace thus occupies in an illegitimate way, the more improbable it becomes that the soul will remain closed to it. For now the soul already sees the world in the light of grace. It perceives the holy whenever it encounters this and feels itself attracted by it. Likewise, it notices the unholy and is repulsed by it; and everything else pales before these qualities. To this corresponds a tendency within itself to behave according to its own reason and no longer to that of nature or the evil one. If it follows this inner prompting, then it subjects itself implicitly to the rule of grace. It is possible that it will not do this. Then it has need of an activity of its own that is directed against the influence of grace. And this engaging of freedom implies a tension that increases proportionately the more that preparatory grace has spread itself through the soul. This defensive activity is based—like all free acts—on a foundation that differs in nature from itself, such as natural impulses that are still effective in the soul alongside of grace.

The more that grace wins ground from the things that had filled the soul before it, the more it repels the effects of the acts directed against it. And to this process of displacement there are, in principle, no limits. If all the impulses opposed to the spirit of light have been expelled from the soul, then any free decision against this has become infi­nite­ly improbable. Then faith in the unboundedness of divine love and grace also justifies hope for the universality of redemption, although, through the possibility of resistance to grace that remains open in principle, the possibility of eternal damnation also persists. Seen in this way, what were described earlier as limits to divine omnipotence are also canceled out again. They exist only as long as we oppose divine and human freedom to each other and fail to consider the sphere that forms the basis of human freedom. Human freedom can be neither broken nor neutralized by divine freedom, but it may well be, so to speak, outwitted. The descent of grace to the human soul is a free act of divine love. And there are no limits to how far it may extend. Which particular means it chooses for effecting itself, why it strives to win one soul and lets another strive to win it, whether and how and when it is also active in places where our eyes perceive no effects—those are all questions that escape rational penetration. For us, there is only knowledge of the possibilities in principle and, on the basis of those possibilities in principle, an understanding of the facts that are accessible to us.6

This is a insightful passage and would be profitably read alongside David Bentley Hart’s meditation on human freedom in That All Shall Be Saved. We may wonder how Stein can declare that eternal damnation remains a genuine possibility when irrevocable human rejection of grace is “infinitely improbable.” Martin too shares our perplexity, but his chief concern lies with Stein’s assertion of the possibility of post-mortem salvation. He reminds us that according to the formal teaching of the Catholic Church divine judgment occurs precisely at the moment of death: anyone who dies in a state of mortal sin is immediately condemned to eternal damnation. The possibility of repentance after death, therefore, is definitively excluded. In support he quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs. (CCC 1035)

Q.E.D., I suppose. Balthasar and his supporters would no doubt reply that the Church has never definitively declared that anybody has died in mortal sin. Martin would likely rejoin that given everything we know about the history of human beings, the possibility that at least one person if not billions have died in a condition of spiritual death is infinitely probable. Let’s not indulge in perverse fantasy. After witnessing the horrors of Nazism, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (aka Edith Stein) appears to have come around to this more pessimistic view: “The possibility of some final loss appears more real and pressing than one which would seem infinitely improbable.”

Which finally brings me to the occasion of this article. Dr Larry Chapp, one of the foremost American scholars on Balthasarian theology, has just published a blog article on hell and hopeful universalism in response to Ralph Martin: “Universalism, Balthasar, the Massa Damnata, and the Question of Evangelization.” Stay tuned for part 2.



[1] Kallistos Ware, “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?”, The Inner Kingdom, p. 215.

[2] Paul Evdokimov, “Eschatology,” In the World, Of the Church, pp. 11-35; Orthodoxy, pp. 330-340; Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, pp. 296-307. Also see Alexandre Turincev, “An Approach to Orthodox Eschatology,” Greek Orthodox Theologial Review 58 (2013): 57-77. I have not included the great Sergius Bulgakov in this list because he was a vigorous proponent of what we might call dogmatic universalism. But his influence upon Evdokimov, Clément, and others of the Paris school is palpable.

[3] I cannot, of course, prove this claim, given the absence of Eastern hopeful universalists during the second millennium and therefore the absence of theological controversy; but I deem it reasonable nonetheless.  Second millennium doctrinal statements on the last things are clear and leave no room for even the slimmest hope for apokatastasis. See, e.g., The Confession of Dositheus, decree 18: “We believe that the souls of those that have fallen asleep are either at rest or in torment, according to what each has done;–for when they are separated from their bodies, they depart immediately either to joy, or to sorrow and lamentation; though confessedly neither their enjoyment nor condemnation are complete. For after the common resurrection, when the soul shall be united with the body, with which it had behaved itself well or ill, each shall receive the completion of either enjoyment or of condemnation.” Again I ask, Who are the pre-20th century hopeful universalists?

[4] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved?” With a Short Discourse on Hell, p. 166.

[5] Ibid., p. 235.

[6] Ibid., pp. 218-221; emphasis mine.

(Go to part 2)

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29 Responses to The “Heresy” of Hopeful Universalism: Kallistos Ware, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Ralph Martin

  1. Steven says:

    My hope is that more within Roman Catholicism will embrace the possibility of universal salvation, as seems to be happening within Orthodoxy. I can’t remember if Karl Rahner accepted the possibility of universal salvation, but I know Herbert McCabe optimistically suggested the possibility at the end of chapter 16 of God Still Matters:

    “It is a difficult thing to reject the gift of God who is so deeply in love with us. It is difficult to harden our hearts against such love. Again and again God brings us the grace of contrition for our sin; again and again we refuse him as he humbly begs us to come back to him. It is very hard to hold out for a lifetime against such love; and perhaps nobody every does.”

    Roman Catholic theologian Waclaw Hryniewicz published a book called The Challenge of Our Hope: Christian Faith in Dialogue, in which he defended universal salvation from the perspective of Catholic theology. There’s another book, probably not too influential or heard-of, published by a Jesuit and his co-authors in 1994 called Good Goats: Healing our Image of God, which also defends universal salvation. These are all very aged or deceased theologians I’m aware of, and while I immensely appreciate their contributions to our church I do hope there are more up and coming theologians who will take up the mantle of defending universal salvation as a legitimate tradition within Catholicism.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I remember reading that McCabe quote years ago, long before I was willing to entertain anything stronger than a hopeful universalism. I think it planted a seed in my mind and conscience.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Robert Fortuin says:

    Universal salvations brings me to the question about the purpose of evangelization. What’s the use if all will be saved anyways? If not to save souls, why then? Could it be to disclose and affirm that it is God who decisively acted in Christ? That salvation is in and through Christ alone? To show us what salvation looks like and to afford us to begin the process of transformation by way of initiation into Christ’s death and resurrection? Universal salvation maintains that, to put it evangelistically, a decision for Christ has to be made in one’s life at one point or another, no way around that one. But what about the urgency of evangelization, is there such? If we see the Gospel as the announcement of truth, beauty, and goodness in a world mired in falsehood, ugliness, and evil – it would seem to me urgency has not been lessened at all. The gospel: glad tidings to reduce the number of hapless in hell, or the proclamation of hell’s end? The icon of the harrowing of hell points to the latter – hell has come to an end, it has been destroyed. As the soul’s final destination hell has ceased to be, there at the last is God’s presence alone and none besides.

    Liked by 4 people

    • ‘If we see the Gospel as the announcement of truth, beauty, and goodness in a world mired in falsehood, ugliness, and evil – it would seem to me the urgency has not lessened at all.’ Amen.

      I’m not sure I ever saw evangelism as so much ‘urgency’ (as what that word implies to me) as ‘labour of love.’ Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive glory, and honor, and power, and dominion, and praise!

      And why should those for whom He died languish in the torment of sin and fear any longer than necessary, even if ultimate salvation is assured?

      I remember when I had not really considered Universalism, but I did believe that one had to want to be and to remain a bad person to go to hell – and that, even if one had heard of Jesus, if one had heard of him from someone disreputable and nasty, it might not count. I was terrified of torture (or at least I was, having spent years refusing to be a Christian in fear of it), and, having finally seen Jesus Christ to be worthy everything and a priceless treasure, I’d decided that was what everyone else in the world needed, too – not a different government that wasn’t tyrannical, or a changed society, but Jesus Christ! So that’s why I wanted to be a missionary or evangelist – and why I still do! I loved seeing your reply so much!

      Liked by 2 people

    • Steven says:

      “The gospel: glad tidings to reduce the number of hapless in hell, or the proclamation of hell’s end? The icon of the harrowing of hell points to the latter – hell has come to an end, it has been destroyed.”

      That’s wonderfully stated. If you don’t mind, I may have to borrow that for my own blog in the near future, with due credit to you of course.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      I’d agree that it is an announcement of salvation but it is also still a “saving work” , I would have thought, for two reasons:
      Firstly, are we better off saved in this life than not?
      Will we better off living this life in Christ, or living it in sin? Is it preferable to be saved by timely and kind words from a friend or by our being cast into outer darkness and repenting only on seeing the full horror of what it is to be without God and what we have become?
      Secondly, the point of evangelism is to proclaim and bring about, or at least make ready, God’s Kingdom and reign here on earth.
      Human earthly suffering through sin is real and serious and bringing the living world to Christ is its solution: why would we not bother to do this? Also, even for the dead, while those who die before the kingdom comes about on Earth will indeed live again in it, the living world must first be saved for them to have anywhere to be resurrected in. It is true that it is Christ’s return that will seal the coming of the Kingdom, but we are told we are supposed also to be preparing the way.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ware’s essay is interesting. He seems to qualify the hope so much near the end of the essay, and and this seems to be what many Orthodox walk around endlessly repeating: we may dare to hope that all may be saved. That’s THREE qualifications. That’s a lot!

    As much as I love Ware, I’m not sure if he intended to convey such timorousness, and this is unfortunately how he’s been interpreted. I think he qualifies himself too much at the end. My guess is, all the qualifications are basically affirming free will, not that there’s a darn good chance that some may be lost.

    The reason I think this is because he says that for Gregory of Nyssa, this was still A HOPE. He says that Gregory was FULLY CONFIDENT in this hope, and THEN says that Gregory’s position is “within the bounds of strict orthodoxy.”

    Take a look:

    “while holding fast to his belief in an ultimate restoration…significantly, [Gregory] has never been anathematized for this, either in 553 or in more recent times. In expressing his HOPE that all will be saved, Gregory of Nyssa is FULLY AS CONFIDENT as Origen…This final restoration, Gregory clearly states, WILL embrace even the devil.

    …Despite this bold claim, Gregory of Nyssa has never been condemned as a heretic, but on the contrary he is honored as a saint, It suggests that, if dissociated from speculations about a precosmic fall, a carefully qualified expression of universal hope is acceptable, EVEN WITHIN THE BOUNDS OF STRICT ORTHODOXY.”

    NOW, THAT “hope” is not the timorousness we find in David Ford or Fr Andrew Damick, where as Fr Aidan has said elsewhere is more like a “wish.” Ware calls it a hope because he seems to think that if we called it a certainty, this would cancel out free will. And he doesn’t seem to think Gregory of Nyssa thought of it this way. So this is far different understanding of “hope” than something rather wishy washy.

    Also, Fr Aidan, where do you get the sense that Evdokimov’s beliefs were different from Bulgakov’s? From what I’ve seen from him, it’s difficult to tell either way. He says that Gregory of Nyssa’s theologumenon is by far the best theological option. But Bulgakov would say that, and Bulgakov also believed in free will, which Evdokimmov also affirms. Do we have reason to think he purposely diverged from his teacher on this point? And Turincev is just as forthright as Bulgakov. Turincev sounds like Hart from what I’ve read!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hate how much we end up abusing the word ‘Hope’ in English to mean something wishful, not confident.

      But, to me, even ‘dare’ may be read in two different ways.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mark, thank you for forcing me to re-read Evdokimov. It’s been several years (at least five) since I last read his essay “Eschatology.” You may be right. His universalism is stronger than I remembered. Yet … unlike Bulgakov he never outrightly asserts “all will be saved.” That is the conclusion that he wants us to draw from the arguments he offers, I think; but he refrains from the categorical assertion of apokatastasis. Where Bulgakov is bold and unequivocal in his universalism, Evdokimov is a bit more modest. His is an irenic universalism.

      Consider, for example, his brief discussion of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (pp. 29-30). He rightly states that Justinian’s assertion of eternal damnation was “only a personal opinion, and even St Gregory of Nyssa, who was opposed to it, never condemned it.” Presumably, therefore, neither should we. Evdokimov too opposes eternal damnation, but does he actually condemn the doctrine, as Bulgakov does? He goes right up to the edge, but …

      But what leads me to put Evdokimov in the hopeful universalism camp with Ware is the following sentence: “The Eastern Church does not put limits on the mercy of God or on the freedom of man to eternally refuse his mercy” (p. 31). One can find statements in Bulgakov that parallel this. But I do not find any statements in Evdokimov (correct me please if I’m wrong) that parallel this stunning claim by Bulgakov: “It is impossible to appear before Christ and to see Him without loving him.” Herein lies Bulgakov’s confident hope for apokatastasis.

      But I am happy to be convinced that Evdokimov shares Bulgakov’s confidence that God will restore all to himself–no ifs, ands or buts. Persuade me! 🙂

      As for Metropolitan Kallistos, I need to reread his essay, but at the moment I remain fairly confident (but only “fairly” so) that he is accurately described as a hopeful (not dogmatic) universalist. I see him standing closer to Balthasar than Bulgakov.


  4. Can you imagine being a Catechumen and reading Clement’s original “The Living God” with Turincev’s essay attached? That would be quite the Catechesis! Woe

    Liked by 1 person

  5. My comments on Evdokimov come out of a lack of knowledge. I’ve skimmed and seen plenty of quotes, but I’d never seen anything that made me think he differed from Bulgakov. You know much more than I do on the topic. I just wondered if perhaps you were taking his “hopeful universalism” for granted since it tends to be the norm. Perhaps your quote about eternally refusing God’s mercy does put him at odds with Bulgakov. Bulgakov affirms free will but I’ve never seen anything from him that says something about the ability to eternally refuse God. I wonder if Evdokimov would say that it’s possible that each of us COULD refuse God forever, but God would not create a world where that would actually happen.

    Irenic Universalism. I like it! Maybe this is how I would describe myself. You are certainly right that Evdokimov never says anything very dogmatic about it, though he does seem to affirm that hell will have an end. Maybe what Gregory Nazianzen was to Nyssen Evdokimov is to Bulgakov.

    I agree. Ware is a hopeful universalist. But when people just quote the end of his essay, which makes him sound extremely hesitant to say much of anything, they ignore the other bits where he says Gregory’s of Nyssa’s “hope” is entirely within the bounds of strict orthodoxy. I would love it if he would write something on Hart’s book. I imagine it would sound a lot like Louth’s review but I’m sure they would have their own small differences with each other.

    Since we’re talking about Russian theologians, I was very pleased to see this from Berdyaev: “The greater part of Eastern teachers of the Church, from Clement of Alexandria to Maximus the Confessor, were supporters of Apokatastasis, of universal salvation and resurrection.”

    I was surprised to see Maximus listed here. Bulgakov mentions Gregory of Nyssa’s more silent followers and says their numbers are underestimated but I’ve never seen him specify who he thinks they were. I wonder from where Berdyaev got the idea that Maximus was a supporter . It’s possible Berdyaev read Balthasar since when he wrote that (1952), Balthasar had already published his book in German on Maximus. He also could have read Michaud or Grummel, though my hope would be he and/or Bulgakov came up with that assessment independently! Here is the Berdyaev piece that quote comes from:

    As for Berdyaev himself, I can’t comment, though I know Paul Gavrilyuk says he and Soloviev opposed Bulgakov’s necessary universalism and were themselves both hopeful universalists.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Slight correction. Although Berdyaev’s essay was PUBLISHED in 1952, it must have been published posthumously since the dates they give for his life are 1874 – 1948. It’s still possible he read Balthasar since Balthasar’s first edition of Kosmische Liturgie came out in 1941, though I don’t know if it included a section on Maximus and universalism. I don’t currently have access to either of the German versions to know for sure. Anyway, where, if anywhere, Berdyaev got his info on Maximus is an interesting question. I do hope the answer is either from his own reading or from Bulgakov, Soloviev or Florensky.


      • Berdyaev is difficult to pin down. There are some statements in his The Destiny of Man which are explicitly for apokatastasis. Nevertheless, he says he rejects Origen’s position. Perhaps he misunderstood Origen.

        “Faith in Christ and in Christ’s resurrection is faith in victory over hell. The belief in an eternal hell is in the last resort unbelief in the power of Christ and faith in the power of the devil.” (The Destiny of Man, 280)


      • A few more from Berdyaev’s Destiny of Man: “It is impossible to be reconciled to the thought that God could have created the world and man if He foresaw hell, that He could have predetermined it for the sake of justice, or that He tolerates it as a special diabolical realm of being side by side with his own Kingdom. From the divine point of view it means that creation is a failure. The idea of an objectified hell as a special sphere of eternal life is altogether intolerable, unthinkable and, indeed, incompatible with faith in God. A God who deliberately allows the existence of eternal torments is not God at all but is more like the devil. Hell as a place of retribution for the wicked, which is a comfort to the good, is a fairy tale; there is not a shadow of reality about it; it is borrowed from our everyday existence with its rewards and punishments The idea of an eternal hell as a rightful retribution for holding false and heretical beliefs is one of the most hideous and contemptible products of the triumphant herd-mind. From the objective point of view, from the point of view of God, there cannot be any hell. To admit hell would be to deny God.”

        “Paradise is impossible for me if the people I love, my friends or relatives or mere acquaintances, will be in hell– if Boehme is in hell as a “heretic,” Nietzsche as “an antichrist,” Goethe as a “pagan” and Pushkin as a sinner. Roman Catholics who cannot take a step in their theology without Aristotle are ready to admit with perfect complacency that, not being a Christian, Aristotle is burning in hell. All this kind of thing has become impossible for us, and that is a tremendous moral progress.”

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        • I would qualify one thing about Berdyaev. In TDOM, he also advocates for the ability of a soul to nihilate. He, much like what you see from Stein, is never going to allow anything to trump human freedom, precisely because it is the very thing that is the Imago Dei for him (contra reason, much like one of his favs, Shestov). His problems with Hell are due to it being antiquated and illogical. He does see it as a necessary step towards human development and goes at great lengths in the essay titled “Hell” (found in TDOM) to explain why. His problem with Origen is that it is overly rational, and while logically sound doesn’t necessarily fit his own existential tastes/reality as we perceive it….He wouldn’t agree with, say DBH (who I know was a reader of Berdy in his youth) about what exactly freedom looks like. The view in which you are basically “coerced” or forced to come to that knowledge one way or the other and thus resulting in a necessary salvific end, to Berdyaev, infringes upon human freedom as he sees it in his kind of Neo-Kantian/Existential lens. (The Beginning & The End and Spirit and Reality may also need to be read…TDOM is mostly the “final word” but how he gets there is found throughout other seminal works.)

          Now to also qualify his hopeful universalism…..It would almost be near impossible for someone to not be saved ultimately, but he does leave that door open. It’s just that one isn’t annihilating into nothingness as we would see it. It is very much a Böhmian sense of the nothingness of God….You’d end in the very same fount from which you began. There is even conjecture about how many lifetimes it may take you in the text as well. In a way, your eschatology is your protology, just not in the same way.

          It’s all kind of hard to pin down. His issues with Bulgakov are from the younger Bulgakov. He never read the “Big 3” which I think would have changed his opinions on Bulgakov. He would consider himself a universalist, but he isn’t going to let human freedom and what the creative act means to him fall outside of his system.


          • Could not the quotes from Nick and from Merciful Layman be harmonized by saying that while we could hypothetically reject God for eternity, God would never actually create a world where anyone WOULD. Through God’s providence, he arranges our world so no creature DOES eternally reject Him. In other words, eternal damnation is a possibility for me, but not for God.

            That would make sense of his emphasis on human freedom and on his insistence that “it is impossible to be reconciled to the thought that God could have created the world and man if He foresaw hell, that He could have predetermined it for the sake of justice, or that He tolerates it as a special diabolical realm of being side by side with his own Kingdom.”

            Liked by 1 person

          • JBG says:

            Mark Chenowith: “Through God’s providence, he arranges our world so no creature DOES eternally reject Him.”

            It seems that one can only meaningfully reject one’s conception of God…and one’s conception of God is never God.

            Since God is ultimately not a being—not a “Him”—I suppose rejecting God is tantamount to rejecting goodness. In practical terms, this may look like a deliberate and obstinate refusal to engage in loving human behavior—empathy, kindness, charity, selflessness.

            Such a person might deem this response to life as weak and deluded—utterly divorced from the cold hard facts of existence. Even in this case, rejecting goodness still derives from a distorted, myopic conception of reality.

            Can a sound mind reject goodness solely for the sake of rejecting goodness? To my mind this is laughably absurd. To anyone that makes such a claim, the onus is on them to demonstrate its intelligibility.


  6. Mark,
    The definitive thing that can be said about Berdyaev is that Hell is a non-starter….there would never be an infernalist position to him. It’s sickening and degrading. It makes a mockery of God, and if you read his intro to Böhme’s “Six Theosophic Points” as well as TB/TE and TDOM, you can pick up on why. We know that much, just as you quoted above etc. Where the tension comes in, as you also pointed out, is where does freedom have its limit? So as you asked, could it be a hypothetical reality as far as Berdyaev is concerned? Very much so. I don’t have the text in front of me but as I said he has moments where you get this sense of annihilationism being a very real end for him. Some would gawk at that claim…including many here. As DBH and others have posited, it appears as if it is an all or nothing claim about the end. If God is who he says he is there can be no other ending. I will say this though in Berdyaev’s defense, He was tracking along that same path and fully recognizes the claim that Origen and others are making. He isn’t ignorant after all. However, what he sees in the creative act is what he stresses in the ultimate final moment. The freedom to be. You too, as a human, are not just human, but a “micro-theos.” (The Divine and Human Text is good on this.) If God creates in any meaningful sense, then to Berdyaev, man’s reflection of the divine is precisely his ability to create as well and not only create but create freely. The appearance of the “God-Man” makes this definitively true.

    This is where we get into the duality (some would say its all provisional, some would say it’s definitive….either way, you can’t escape it in Berdyaev’s philosophy) that seems to emerge. This is very much due to his reliance on Böhme. Yet, I think there is a way to tie it all together and still make him a part of our camp. (BTW….this is the guy who said, much like Alyosha that he would refuse his entry into Heaven if his cat wasn’t there. So take that for what it’s worth. He sees everything, even down to the wonderful parts of his life that his cat provides, as building the real world.)

    The word you see over and over again is phantasm. The creative act to Berdyaev is always tantamount to a divine act. It’s why in TDOM he can compare a great Russian saint and then Pushkin and say they are the same. It’s why he can throw around names like Böhme, Nietzsche(also, he is highly sympathetic to him via Shestov and recognizes his creative genius), etc and say they all will be in Heaven. Any act that tracks along the positive side of a transcendental is real(good, just, etc). It builds the world as God intends it to be and yet is us freely manifesting the ultimate gift we have of Freedom. We become contributors to the real. We help it to fully become, to be fully realized and when the end comes, those works, will stand through the fire (As St. Paul suggests). (This is where he, like Schelling, would argue with Hegel and say that Beauty is the highest of all things, even over the good.)

    There is a negative side to this though, a kind of provisional shadow. Your ability to create can create a false world. A world in which you become so trapped in yourself that you believe it to be the real (kind of seems like CS Lewis borrowed a bit here). We know psychologically that this happens often (Lacan, etc). Yet, when the end comes, and that world is melted away, those who choose to create in that way will ultimately realize that nothing remains. They are left with the only real thing, which in the end would be face to face with the Divine. (I kind of imagine Jesus standing there as the skies and trees melt away, only to show the real skies and trees that people never realized were there…I think that would be a bit jarring and while that may be elementary, I can’t imagine seeing the world I thought I knew just melt away and another one actually be there.) So if, seemingly, someone did manage to have something left over, that thing becomes the reminder that God was indeed even there in whatever good comes from the irrational.

    The choice at that point is still kind of nebulous for Berdyaev and is what makes it hard to really pin down his “camp.” He isn’t ever going to say the decision ultimately isn’t yours. That would destroy his whole system. If, you do choose that nothingness, you aren’t really choosing nothing at all. You are just choosing the ground of Being itself…the ex Nihilo. You’re choosing God, just not in the sense that we may think. So to Berdyaev, you aren’t “annihilating” but making a full return to the fount of being itself. You are always ever there in the nothing (which is why he thinks 80 years isn’t fair to a God who lasts an eternity when you could return to the fount over and over only to be remade until you finally figured it all out.)

    The last thing that has to be overcome, to Berdyaev, isn’t death. It’s desire. The desire that builds out the world…and which we misuse due to the fall…must be reclaimed as well. (If you know you’re Böhme, you can see where he leans on all of this.) Freedom, will always overcome desire to Berdyaev in the end. It will end the duality that appears to be the face of things. Why? Because God is free to be what God wills Himself to be. What are those things? The very things that we always talk about. So in the end, whether you choose God as we see Him in the wonder of building the world out (energy perhaps for some) or you choose Him as the nothingness you would rather sink into (essence perhaps for some), you are still choosing Him. And in the end, all will be all….and all will be God. Even when the nothingness runs out…even when that fount of creation is tapped fully out….you will be with God and in God. There is no escaping that.

    Phew….that was long winded. I don’t know much, but I have a special place for Berdyaev. I could be wrong on all this. Most of you are far smarter than I, but that’s at least how I perceive it to work through his work. If I’ve misstepped, I’ll gladly take correction. I hope that kind of helps.


    • Bob Sacamano says:

      Would it be fair to say then, that the essential difference between a Berdyaev and a DBH is whether “choosing” nothingness proves to be an expression of freedom or delusion? Even if Berdyaev’s “annihilation” still finds its home in the ex nihilo of God, it would seem the actual *person* is annihilated in a very real sense; if all of one’s histories and affiliations and creative endeavors melt into nothing (even if that “nothing” is God Himself) whatever remains may be “saved,” but is it redeemed? And is it a true person who retains the capacity for creative freedom? If not, then can we coherently say that one may freely choose the destruction of one’s own freedom?


      • Robert Fortuin says:

        Right, and would such be rational?


        • To him, certainly. Good and Evil have their own problems in TDOM. The good can become evil, and evil can become good. He is an existentialist after all. He explains himself pretty clearly in the text as to why he would disagree about the “good” being the only rational act. He wants to, again like Shestov, find a way to harness the idea of moving beyond good and evil (a la Nietzsche but in a theological way) due to how we perceive those actions and their effects . It’s why being, to him, can’t be grounded as the divine and that God would even have to be beyond that. If the claims we make about Him are true, then the clear tension of existence means being can’t be as “simple” as some would claim.

          So when we say rational, there is already a semantic difference and presuppositions built into that for him. Doesn’t mean he’s right, or maybe wrong, but he’s not ignorant to the views we’ve already discussed…especially being tied into the world of Soloviev, etc.

          This is all fun to talk about. He’s a guy, along with Semyon Frank, who I think gets neglected in the conversations of the Silver Age. It’s Bulgakov all the way down haha.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Robert Fortuin says:

            It’s difficult to have a meaningful conversation with someone for whom “the good can become evil, and evil can become good.” Not much different from those that claim, as some staunch Calvinists do for instance, that a good and loving God predestines newborns to everlasting hell. But in any case I never understood Berdyaev in that way – I may have been reading him on my own terms.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Robert,
            Well what’s he’s discussing is what we may “do” to justify an act. We say things are good but in the end, the staunch amount of murder that may have to occur to result in an ultimate good, for example…. is it really good for that to happen? He sees the good, sometimes, going to extraordinarily evil lengths in the name of the “good.” And, then vice versa….it’s why he becomes disenchanted with revolutions as well. He also, would be staunchly against any Augustinian/Thomistic/Calvinist view because of what it does to the freedom of a person. So think of it as an existential statement and not just a myopic transcendental philosophical view. TDOM spells all this out…He even explains this his “ethics” text in the first chapter. So again, not saying he’s right or wrong, but he would abjectly deny that assertion, and at least tries to demonstrate it.


          • mercifullayman says:

            One slight correction I need to make, which mah help amplify any further discussion…. Berdyaev like DBH, explicitly states that Autonomy does not equal “freedom.” I went back to re-read TDOM as it had been awhile. So they are in similar camps there. But they would still diverge in different ways….more so in how they define an ethos and even pathos, moving from that point. I’ll own that misstep, but the vibe you get from him, even with that delineation, has the caveats I discussed.


      • As far as the choice, Berdyaev’s sole issue with the position DBH and others (aka Origen, et al.) espouse (including myself….remember, I really enjoy the guy, I don’t agree with everything he says.) is that it is too overly rational. It belies existence in its fullness and how it expresses itself. He’s specific on that. Now the thing I would interject in terms of person is that an entity whose entire existence “melted” as I said, is the world in which it has created, not the intellect/soul/anima itself. I don’t see that distinction as any different than the distinction that St. Maximus offers in terms of split will being deified, and in a sense, returned to its original state. To completely remove the “person” would be a person of sheer pure evil. Does such an individual exist? I guess that would be the question I would be left with in interpreting that. To Berdyaev, freedom would be defined contra DBH. That’s really the point. To him, specifically in a similar vein as Shestov in Athens & Jerusalem, it is reason that led to the apple being eaten. So reason, becomes a vehicle which has its own issues. As I said, freedom can never be superseded because freedom is in a sense, God himself as well. Freedom to him can never be constrained. To do so, would make someone never truly free. Even if we define it (and I agree) as only being free when you are seeking your own good, to him, he wouldn’t. That’s a product of his time as well.

        The nebulous part is that he never comes out and says its definitively possible for someone to do that. He just kind of leaves the choice open. He just says it would be irrational to make that choice after all of the evidence you perceive. So the door is open, but is it likely? Who would make that choice? To him, existence and what we know of nature matters. No one would. Even the most delusional person, when all is stripped bare, would return to a state of pre-delusion precisely because that is a false world. It’s self correcting and the real is now real, the tiny pieces of us even at our worst when good emerges, will realize what is/was always meant to be. That claim, at least in my view, is no more different than St. Paul’s. When all is tested by fire……even the wheat and chaff….the ash remains. Is it still itself? Can you accurately point out where the grass was? Yes and No. The Idealist camp that he and many other Russians borrow from (sans maybe Frank, who is so Cusanian that he moves away from the others) must inform this as well. He isn’t going to track the Neo-Platonic line. The end winds up the same in many ways however. In a way, one could say DBH completed the equation that Berdyaev has identified. He kind of completes the circle and maybe shows why he’s wrong about that claim about the overly rational. But….the idea of freedom and creativity and what it means to us as humans, etc. is quite stunning.

        We are talking about a Silver Age Russian after all…context matters as well. Had he had all the pieces figured out, then we wouldn’t need people like DBH in the first place to hammer these arguments home. I can only play a (terrible) devil’s advocate for what he might say.


        • JBG says:

          Mercifullayman: “That claim, at least in my view, is no more different than St. Paul’s. When all is tested by fire……even the wheat and chaff….the ash remains. Is it still itself?”

          But in some sense, isn’t this true for everyone? Who isn’t changed (and always in the process of changing) by the horrors that they must confront in this very life? Who comes out of it the same as they went in?

          Unless there is some indestructible core of each individual (as that eternally unique personality) that endures the harshest of trials—a core personality perhaps unknown even to ourselves—then the person born into the world is never the same one that is saved.


          • Well I would agree that simply put A is not A(to my own detriment, I’m sure). I, personally, think there is more to the contradiction of being that people like Hegel and Heraclitus have pointed out. That is precisely the point Berdyaev, I believe, is making in regards to a final view. You are and yet are not the same….and in the end…it is the realization of what you should have been that would be so jarring. And further, the fact that aspects of your life did still remain and stand the test of what comes, proves exactly that what you will become was always fully there. What I would consider that indestructible core is the very person we are in the mind of God. That doesn’t mean that it is already what it is, but the full potency of a fully realized anima, and in the end, it will ultimately become what it was always fully intended to be. Some figure it out now, some figure it out later, but eventually we all do. And that I think that’s Berdyaev’s point.


  7. For those wondering about the text we’ve been discussing, below is the table of contents from
    The Destiny of Man:

    PART i
    I. T he Problem of Ethical Knowledge – i
    I. Philosophy, science and religion.— 2. Subject and object. Objectification in knowledge.— 3. The task of ethics.— 4. The fundamental
    problem of ethics. The criterion of good and evil.
    II. T he Origin of Good and Evil – – – – – 23
    i. God and man.— 2. The Fall. The origin of good and evil.
    IE. M a n – – – – – – – – – – 4 5
    I. The problems of philosophical anthropology. Types of anthropological theory.— 2. Personalism. Personality and individuality.
    Personality and society.— 3. Sex. The masculine and the feminine.—
    4. The conscious and the unconscious.— 5. Freedom of w ill and ethics.
    I. T he Ethics of Law ——–84
    I. The dualism of good and evil.— 2. The primitive moral consciousness.— 3. The social character
    o f the law.— 4. Normative
    ethics. Pharisaism.
    E. The Ethics of Redemption – —– 103
    i. The good under grace.— 2. The morality of the Gospel and the
    morality of the Scribes and Pharisees.— 3. The Christian attitude to
    the sinful and the wicked.— 4. The Christian morality as the morality
    of strength.— 5. Suffering. Asceticism. Love.— 6. The Gospel
    message of the Kingdom of God.
    EL The Ethics of Creativeness – – – – – – 126
    i. The nature of creativeness.— 2. The creatively individual character of moral acts.— 3. The part of imagination in the moral life. The
    ethics of energy.
    IV. Concrete Problems of Ethics – – – – – 154
    X. The tragic and paradoxical character of the moral life.— 2. O n
    truth and falsehood.— 3. Conscience and freedom. The critique of
    pure conscience.— 4. Fear, terror and anguish. The dull and the
    commonplace. Phantasms.— 5. Love and compassion.— 6. The
    state, revolution and war.— 7. The social question, labour and technical progress.— 8. Sex, marriage and love.— 9. Human ideals. The
    doctrine of gifts.— 10. Symbolism and realism in ethics.
    I. Death and Immortality ——- 249
    II. Hell – – – – – – – – – – 266
    III. Paradise. Beyond Good and Evil . . . – 284

    I only post this to show you where some good reference parts are for further inquiry. If you’re interested in more feel free to let me know. Sorry, Fr. Kimel. I didn’t mean to hijack the thread. Just kind of happened.


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