There is only one possible Orthodox response
to this heretical Thomist coffee cup.
There is only one possible Orthodox response
to this heretical Thomist coffee cup.
If the greater hope is to be fulfilled, then it must be possible for those who die in a state of mortal sin—and thus outside of Christ Jesus—to repent of their sins and turn to God in faith. Yet how can such be possible? So many die without faith in Christ and his mercy; so many die in sin and iniquity; so many die with hearts possessed by hatred, greed, pride, and lust, so many in adamant rejection of their Creator. Why think everyone would eventually choose God if given even infinite opportunities?1 The history of human depravity suggests otherwise. We can easily imagine at least one holdout, if not billions. William Lane Craig speaks of transworld damnation: in every possible world, hell is populated. How do we know this? Because there is hell!
Why did God not create a world in which everyone freely receives Christ and so is saved? There is no such world which is feasible for God. He would have actualized such a world were this feasible, but in light of certain true counterfactuals of creaturely freedom every world realizable by God is a world in which some persons are lost.2
We may also speak of a given person as possessing the property of transworld damnation: in every feasible world in which that person exists, he or she always freely chooses to reject God and is therefore always lost. It does not matter how many chances one offers to the transworld damned. They remain obstinate in their rebellion and impenitence. “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb 9:27).
Multiple Church authorities, Eastern and Western, tell us that repentance is impossible after death: no post-mortem penance, no further opportunities to alter one’s orientation toward the Creator. Our eternal destinies are irrevocably fixed. There is only the waiting for the final judgment and the resurrection of the dead. Some have speculated that once the soul has been separated from the body, it loses its capacity for new self-determinations. Others propose that personal liberty presupposes the freedom to definitively close oneself to transcendence. If in this life we were on a trajectory toward the light and love of God, so it will be for all eternity; but if toward darkness and self-absorption, so also it must be.
One of the most terrifying scenes in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia occurs at the end of the The Last Battle. Aslan returns to re-create Narnia. But there is a group of dwarfs who seem to be trapped in their own little world:
“Aslan,” said Lucy through her tears, “could you—will you—do something for these poor Dwarfs?”
“Dearest,” said Aslan, “I will show you both what I can, and what I cannot, do.” He came close to the Dwarfs and gave a low growl: low, but it set all the air shaking. But the Dwarfs said to one another, “Hear that? That’s the gang at the other end of the stable. Trying to frighten us. They do it with a machine of some kind. Don’t take any notice. They won’t take us in again!”
Aslan raised his head and shook his mane. Instantly a glorious feast appeared on the Dwarfs’ knees: pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn’t much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear that they couldn’t taste it properly. They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in a stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he had got a bit of an old turnip and third said he’d found a raw cabbage leaf. And they raised the golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said “Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of trough that a donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.”
But soon every Dwarf began suspecting that every other Dwarf had found something nicer than he had, and they started grabbing and snatching, and went on to quarreling, till in a few minutes there was a free fight and all the good food was smeared on their faces and clothes or trodden under foot. But when at least they sat down to nurse their black eyes and their bleeding nose, they all said:
“Well, at any rate there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.”
“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”
The omnipotence of Aslan has reached its limit. His roar cannot pierce the self-generated deafness of the dwarfs. They have built a wall around themselves through which not even the divine Creator can make his voice heard.
This is a powerful story in which, I believe, we can all find ourselves. We know the possibility of hell within our souls. We know how easy it is to live in delusion and bitterness and hatred. We know the power of the darkness. And yet … is the story of the dwarfs the final word? Do we really have the power to so cordon off ourselves that not even the omnipotent Creator can roar his word and summon us to himself? Is divine Love really so impotent? Is the crucified and risen Christ so easily defeated?
Scripture itself provides the crucial hint that matters might be otherwise:
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 3:18-21)
After his death the eternal Son in his human soul invades hades and preaches the good news of salvation, not just to the righteous but to impenitent sinners. The Latin Church has traditionally restricted the rescue mission to the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets, but not so the Churches of the East.3 After the Lord destroys the gates of hades, he preaches the gospel to all the departed—none are excluded—and extends to all the gift of his victory over death. The Orthodox Church sings:
Our horrible death has been slain by your resurrection from the dead, for you appeared to those in hell, O Christ, and granted them life. (Sun.1. Mat. Can.O.9 [BB])
Hell was emptied and made helpless by the death of one man. (Sun.2. Mat. Can. O.6 [BB])
… who rose from the dead and emptied hell, wealthy before with many people (Sun.4 Mat. Sessional Hymn [EL])
Who now is not amazed, O Master, as they see death destroyed through suffering, corruption taking flight through the Cross, and hell emptied of its wealth through death. (Sun.8 Mat. Can. O.4 [EL-BB])
Going down to those in hell, Christ proclaimed the good tidings, saying: “Be of good courage, now I have conquered! I am the Resurrection; I will bring you up, abolishing the gates of death.” (St.3 GT Fes. StichLC [EC])
At present all is filled with light, heaven and earth and the netherworld.; let every creature celebrate the resurrection of Christ. (Paschal canon, third ode, first troparion)
Those who are held by the bonds of hell, in seeing your bounty, go towards the light, O Christ, on joyous feet, praising the eternal Pascha. (Paschal canon, fifth ode, first troparion)
Death gave up the dead it had swallowed, while hell’s reign, which brought corruption, was destroyed when you rose from the tomb, O Lord. (Sun.3 Mat. Can. O.4 [EL-BB])
Strange is your crucifixion and your descent into Hades, O Lover of mankind; for having despoiled it and gloriously raised with yourself as God those who were prisoners, you opened Paradise and bade it welcome them. (Sat.5 Gt. Ves. StichAp. [EL-BB])
Western Christianity does not grasp the radical significance of the harrowing of hell. During 25 years of preaching as an Episcopal priest, I do not think I preached on our Lord’s descent into hades even once. And then I read Met Hilarion’s book Christ the Conqueror of Hell, and Holy Saturday took on a very different meaning for me. Christ’s entrance into hades was not a one-time event, with no significance for anyone else. The gates of death have been broken, and hades is now filled with the vivifying presence of the glorified Son. In the words of St John Chrysostom:
This place of hades, dark and joyless, had been eternally deprived of light; this is why the gates are called dark and invisible. They were truly dark until the Sun of righteousness descended, illumined it and made hades Heaven. For where Christ is, there also is Heaven.4
Christ preached to the sinners of hades. Death was neither a barrier to their hearing the gospel nor to their repentance. We have no reason to believe that some, perhaps all, of the impious did not respond to our Lord in conversion and faith. How therefore can we dogmatically teach that there is no repentance after death? How dare we declare the impotence of omnipotent Love!
(14 May 2013; rev.)
 In their essay “Escaping Hell,” Andre Buckareff and Allen Plug propose that a God of infinite love would offer to the damned infinite chances to escape their punishment; also Valery Kuzev, “The Problem of Hell and the Second Chance Theory.”
 See Hilarion Alfeyev’s lecture “Christ the Conqueror of Hell,” which summarizes the thesis of his book of the same title.
 John Chrysostom, Homily on the Cemetary and the Cross; quoted in Alfeyev, p. 64.
Roman Catholic theology has traditionally held that all who die in mortal sin are eternally condemned and beyond repentance. Thus the Catholic Catechism: “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell.'”1 The irreversibility of the personal orientation of the departed is affirmed in the Latin dogma of the particular judgment.2 Hence if we knew that a particular person had in fact died in mortal sin—and we cannot know this, apart from special revelation—it would be improper, and futile, for us to pray for the salvation of that person. The Catholic Church prays for those who exist in a purgatorial state, but it does not pray for those in hell.3 The eternal destiny of the damned has already been decided; the judgment of God is irreversible. For this reason, most Catholics have judged doubtful the salvation of every human being. Some, certainly, will be saved—but all? Preposterous! Too many wicked people die without evidencing any remorse or repentance. Surely Judas, Lenin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Ted Bundy, John Geoghan must be damned. Indeed, through the centuries preachers and theologians have opined that the majority of human beings will be lost.4
The Orthodox Church has never dogmatized the particular judgment nor the irreversibility of orientation established at death; but since the 6th century most Eastern theologians have doubted the possibility of post-mortem repentance. The 7th century monk St John of Damascus opined that alteration of personal orientation is impossible after death: “For, just as there is no repentance for men after their death, so is there none for the angels after their fall.”5 Theologian John Karmires reiterates the Damascene’s view:
Death terminates the moral development of man; any further evolution is rendered impossible, and retribution begins.… After death, men are judged partially in a primary judgment conducted by God. This judgment has as its basis the faith of the individual, his appropriation of the Savior’s redemption, and his moral life as well. The soul, separated from its body, goes immediately, if good, into rest and blessedness; if bad, into affliction and grief in the so-called “middle situation.” In this situation, the soul experiences a foreview, a foretaste, and a foreknowledge of the full and complete retribution it yet awaits; be it enjoyment or damnation, blessedness or misfortune, prepared for them after the Last Judgment, only a relative blessedness or affliction being experienced in this middle situation. This applies as well to the saints and righteous, who “only perceive the blessings which await them,” according to Gregory of Nazianzus.
The souls in the middle situation possess full awareness and self-consciousness, but they remain “unchangeable” (unable to improve their condition), inasmuch as only during this present life, while we have access to grace through repentance, that we can be reconciled to God through Christ. After death, “there is no more opportunity for repentance.” Thus it is that “this is the time of repentance; that will be the time of judgment” [John Damascene].6
Speaking for the Orthodox Church of the 15th century, St Mark of Ephesus taught that serious sinners cannot be saved after death, presumably because of their incorrigibility. Lesser sinners, however (i.e., those who died in faith with unconfessed venial sins on their soul or those who who died before demonstrating the fruits of repentance for their confessed sins), can be saved through the prayers of the Church.7 This appears to have been a widespread belief in the patristic Church, both East and West.8 The revered Elder Cleopa of Romania taught a similar understanding in the late 20th century. On the one hand, the impenitent are damned forever:
Truly, God is forgiving and long-suffering towards those who fall into sin in this life, for the time of our correction is now, in this life, and the acquisition of His forgiveness depends on our own repentance. In the life on the other side of the grave, however, we no longer are able to repent, to change our minds, given that there God does not judge us according to His omnipotence and goodness, but in accord with His impartiality and righteousness, rewarding each according to his deeds. If God were to forgive all the sins of men without justice or fairness, what would be the point of continually alarming us with the terror of the eternal torments if, in fact, they didn’t exist? How is it possible for God to tell us lies instead of the truth?… God offers eternal joy to the righteous, who struggled for a time to carry out good works here on earth, but as a just and righteous God, He also chastises eternally the ungodly that transgressed in this temporal life. Why is it so? Because the wounds incurred from sin that are not healed in this life through the appropriate repentance will remain infected eternally in the presence of God…. It must be clear that he who dies in grave and disastrous sins is separated from God forever and in particular will not be able, in the next life, to be amended. In the life beyond the grave his sins will remain with him eternally and thus the torments will also continue to exist forever.9
On the other hand, prayer for the departed is efficacious for those who have not “sinned unto death”:
It is indeed possible for someone to be redeemed from perdition, but not through the purgatorial fire as the Roman Catholics contend (their offering of expiation presented for the living and the dead notwithstanding). The Lord, as ruler of the heavens, the earth and the infernal regions has the power to remove a soul from Hades, as Scripture testifies: ‘The Lord killeth and maketh alive; He bringeth down to the grave and bringeth up.’
The power and sacrifice of Christ, which is offered to whosoever seeks it, is unlimited and His goodness so great that only He is able to rescind the eternal anguish of man. We know that God asks that we love our fellow man and looks on this love with joy. We we are truly praying for others, there is nothing greater than love. God hears the prayer of the Church very clearly, especially when the prayers of Christians are united with the suppliant voices of angels in the heavens, and that of the Lady Theotokos…. Between Hades and Paradise there does exist a great chasm indeed, as our Lord has told us. Yet, this chasm does not have the power to impede the mercy of our great God, Who hears our prayers for the reposed. We do not suppose, as do the Roman Catholics, that there exists a purgatorial fire, but we say that only for those who sinned very severely (or mortally) and did not confess their sin is the passage from Hades to Paradise impossible. For those who sinned more lightly this pathway is not definitely closed, given that in the future judgment each one’s place, either in heaven or in hell, will be decided definitively, inasmuch as after this judgment someone whose orientation was Hades can no longer pass over into Paradise. For those who sinned unto death, our prayers are completely futile: “There is a sin unto death. I do not say that he should pray about it” [1 Jn 5:16]. However, the situation for the other souls, for whom we pray, as it is our duty, is not exactly the same…. We do not pray for those who have committed sins against the Holy Spirit, for such sins will not be forgiven, neither in this life, nor in the one to come. Rather, we pray for those who committed lighter sins for which forgiveness—when we pray—is also possible in the other world, inasmuch as we love them to inherit eternal life.10
Although it may appear that the positions of St John Damascene and Karmires and St Mark Eugenicus and Elder Cleopa conflict, I suspect that the conflict is in appearance only. The Damascene of course believed in the efficacy of prayers for the departed.11 He would probably explain that those who are forgiven through these prayers did not need a conversion of will: they were already oriented toward God, however imperfectly. We will call this the classic Orthodox view.
Readers will immediately note the similarities between the Catholic and Orthodox positions, the key difference being the unfortunate dogmatization by the Catholic Church of the three-part schema—hell, purgatory, heaven. Why unfortunate? Because it definitively excludes the possibility of repentance in the after-life for persons guilty of mortal sin. While some Eastern Christians might agree with this exclusion, the Orthodox Church has never dogmatically imposed it. The Church continues to pray for all the departed. On the Feast of Pentecost this prayer is offered at Great Vespers:
On this universal and salutary feast, deign to accept petitions for those imprisoned in Hades, thus giving us great hope, and relief to the departed from their grievous distress and Your comfort. Hear us, humble and pitiable, as we pray to You, and give rest to the souls of Your Servants who have departed this life, in a place of light, a place of renewed life, a joyous place, shunned alike by pain and sorrow and sighing. And place their spirits where the Righteous dwell, counting them worthy of peace and repose; for the dead do not praise You, Lord, nor do those in Hades dare to offer You glory, but it is we the living who bless and entreat You and offer You propitiatory prayers and sacrifices for their souls.
In recent years Met Hilarion Alfeyev has emphatically affirmed the efficacy of prayer for the salvation of the damned:
Is it possible at all that the fate of a person can be changed after his death? Is death that border beyond which some unchangeable static existence comes? Does the development of the human person not stop after death?
On the one hand, it is impossible for one to actively repent in hell; it is impossible to rectify the evil deeds one committed by appropriate good works. However, it may be possible for one to repent through a ‘change of heart’, a review of one’s values. One of the testimonies to this is the rich man of the Gospel we have already mentioned. He realized the gravity of his situation as soon as found himself in hell. Indeed, if in his lifetime he was focused on earthly pursuits and forgot God, once in hell he realized that his only hope for salvation was God (Lk. 16:20-31). Besides, according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, the fate of a person after death can be changed through the prayer of the Church. Thus, existence after death has its own dynamics. On the basis of what has been said above, we may say that after death the development of the human person does not cease, for existence after death is not a transfer from a dynamic into a static being, but rather continuation on a new level of that road which a person followed in his lifetime.12
If the Church dares to pray for all the departed, dare we limit what God can do in the hearts of even the most wicked?
(12 May 2013; rev.)
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1033.
 “Particular Judgment,” Catholic Encyclopedia.
 “Prayers for the Dead,” Catholic Encyclopedia.
 See Avery Cardinal Dulles, “The Population of Hell.”
 John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith II.5.
 John Karmires, A Synopsis of the Dogmatic Theology of the Orthodox Catholic Church, pp. 113-114.
 See Seraphim Rose, The Soul After Death, pp. 196-210.
 See Brian Daley, The Hope of the Early Church.
 Elder Cleopa, The Truth of our Faith, pp. 215-217.
 Ibid., pp. 127-129.
 See “The Church’s Prayer for the Dead.”
 Hilarion Alfeyev, “The Descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern and Western Theological Traditions.” In his lecture “Orthodox Worship as a School of Theology,” Alfeyev reports that when he heard that the Coptic Church had removed from its service books all prayers for the damned, he queried a Coptic bishop about this decision. He was told that the change was made because according to official doctrine “no prayers can help those in hell.” Alfeyev replied that in “the liturgical practice of the Russian Orthodox Church and other local Orthodox Churches there are prayers for those held in hell, and that we believe in their saving power.”
Yesterday I discovered that for the past several years I have misunderstood David B Hart’s view of the fall of creation. I shared my misunderstanding on Facebook and Twitter, generating some interesting responses. Perhaps the most interesting—and certainly the most provocative—reflection came from Jordan Daniel Wood, who succinctly summarized the position of St Maximus the Confessor. I just had to share his reflection here on Eclectic Orthodoxy.
* * *
On three separate occasions, Maximus says Adam’s fall occurred “at the same instant he came to be.” I spend about 35 pages of the upcoming book trying to explain what this means. Most scholars simply act as if he didn’t mean this, but rather that Adam did enjoy some moments, however fleeting, of actual sinless—almost deified—existence. But I think that’s wrong, and that his clear claim that Adam’s fall and coming to be were “simultaneous” (hama) means just that: from his very origins in this world of phenomena Adam is fallen.
Crucial here, though, is another insight: this world of phenomena is not yet the world, not yet creation, and so not yet even begun—except in Christ, whose historical Incarnation is the true beginning of Adam and of the true (and only) world. This false world began in a false beginning. And that false beginning (Maximus follows Gregory of Nysa here) is at once the condition and consequence of Adam’s primordial transgression. Now I think (and argue at some length) that for Maximus “Adam” means something like “the whole of human nature as it subsists in and as the entire set of human persons” (there is no Man in itself). Thus the false beginning of this false world is the condition and cause of all human sins; and God’s acceptance of this false beginning is at once his act of creation and his reaction to the fall—in the same act. Now Maximus moved beyond even Gregory by reconfiguring the Origenist pair “judgment and providence” in the most astonishing way: Evagrius, for example, understood judgment as God’s salvific reaction to the primordial fall (the creation of finite difference) and providence as God’s ubiquitous work of guiding all fragmented being back to its primordial union. Maximus identifies providence with the hypostatic union—the Son’s conception in Mary—and judgment with the crucifixion, even as these retain their Origenist function. The Incarnation is simultaneously the ground and goal of God’s universal providence. The cross is the condition and consequence of our universal sin. On the cross the Son suffers, experiences, the very “principles” of the false world we create and thereby grants hypostasis to even that possibility. A most astounding thought: Christ hypostasizes in his Passion the very conditions of our rejecting him! But because he realizes the conditions of the fall as simultaneously his response to our fall, he unites even our false world, the fallen world, the sum total of all our free foolishness and mad stupidity (sin)—all this is simultaneously united to his divinity, the very power of resurrection.
So Maximus has taken Gregory’s formal principle (creation as cause and response to sin) and Evagrius’s formal metaphysical pair, judgment and providence, and filled these with the positive content of the Incarnation: Christ both activates and overcomes the conditions and consequences of every sin of every rational being in his Passion (judgment) and thereby secures the deification of all creation in principle (providence), which deification is implicit all the logoi of this world. Thus false world bears within its own principles the seeds of its destruction, which is also its true salvation, true creation of the true world and “Adam.” Christ is God’s act of creation. Christ is thus bearer and destroyer of the false world we illicitly “create.” Christ thus suffers that we might be free, even though we are fools. He does so because there is no limits to his erotic love for us and thus no limits to his kenosis, to his degree of self-abasement that he might destroy all and so save all from their own delusions, which they attempt to incarnate through their own persons. The true Incarnation makes possible and obliterates all false incarnations. So yes, “Adam” fell from the very start; but no, he wasn’t really the true Adam. We are caught in between these two, in a “world” whose dark depths do still indeed bear the logoi of God’s true world, for Christ lies there “as if in a womb” (Amb 6), awaiting his birth in all.
In the parable of the talents the Master entrusted money to his servants and then set out on a journey. This was to help us understand how patient he is, though in my view this story also refers to the resurrection. Here it is a question not of a vineyard and vine dressers, but of all workers. The Master is addressing everyone, not only rulers, or the Jews.
Those bringing him their profit acknowledge frankly what is their own, and what is their Master’s. One says: “Sir, you gave me five talents; another says; You gave me two,” recognizing that they had received from him the means of making a profit. They are extremely grateful, and attribute to him all their success.
What does the Master say then? “Well done, good and faithful servant” (for goodness shows itself in concern for one’s neighbor). “Because you have proved trustworthy in managing a small amount, I will give you charge of a greater sum: come and share your Master’s joy.”
But one servant has a different answer. He says: “I knew you were a hard man, reaping where you have not sown and gathering where you have not winnowed; and I was afraid, and hid your talent.” “Here it is—you have back what belongs to you.”
What does the Master say to that? “You wicked servant! You should have put my money in the bank,” that is, “You should have spoken out and given encouragement and advice.” “But no one will pay attention.” “That is not your concern. You should have deposited the money” he says, “and left me to reclaim it, which I should have done with interest,” meaning by interest the good works that are seen to follow the hearing of the word. “The easier part is all you were expected to do, leaving the harder part to me.”
Because the servant failed to do this, the Master said: “Take the talent away from him, and give it to the servant who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has more will be given, and he will have enough and to spare; but the one who has not will forfeit even the little he has.”
What is the meaning of this? That whoever has received for the good of others the ability to preach and teach, and does not use it, will lose that ability, whereas the zealous servant will be given greater ability, even as the other forfeits what he had.
St John Chrysostom