When Making Makes No Nuttin’ Difference


We have to be careful. It’s easy to misconstrue the Christian claim that God has created the universe out of nothing. In his popular book Theology and Sanity, Frank Sheed writes:

God made it. And He made it of nothing. What else was there for Him to make it of? … If God, having made the universe, left it, the universe would have to rely for its continuance in existence upon the material it was made of: namely nothing. (chap. 10)

It’s hard to resist the temptation of reifying nothing, to think of it as something; yet when we do so, we end up speaking nonsense. As Denys Turner states, “The making that is ‘out of nothing’ is not to be thought of as if there were some soupy kind of undifferentiated lawless stuff called ‘nothing’ out of which what there is was made by some explanatory causal process” (Thomas Aquinas, p. 142). The creatio ex nihilo simply denies that God made the world out of anything. Hence God’s creation of the universe cannot be identified with the big-bang beginning of which cosmologists speak:

There is a making here, but it is a making with no “out of” at all, no process, no antecedent conditions, no “random fluctuations in a vacuum,” no explan­atory law of emergence, and, there being nothing for the “some­­thing” to be “out of,” there can be no physics, not yet, for there is nothing yet for physics to get an explanatory grip on. (p. 142)

A making that is not a making, a creating that is not creation. We cannot grasp the divine act of bringing into being that which was not.


Language breaks.

Thought stops.

Just as we cannot conceive of God, so we cannot conceive of nothing. We can comprehend emptiness; we cannot grasp or conceptualize non-existence. We cannot think the nihil. Physicists may complain that it’s a waste of time speculating about metaphysical nothing­ness; but mystics and philosophers know that precisely at this point we confront the wonder of being. As Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked, “Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystery.”

We know what it means to make something.

  • We put a glass of water into the freezer, and ice is made.
  • We take a block of marble and chisel it, and a statue is made.
  • We dip our brush into a can of paint and brush it onto the canvas, and a painting is made.
  • We take planks of wood and hammer them together with nails, and a house is made.
  • We type a bunch of symbols into a computer, and a software program is made.

The list of making goes on and on. But the one thing we cannot do is make something out of nothing. We need something to make something. By our making we change things. A philosopher might describe a making as the actualization of the potentialities in matter. Aristotle wrote of two kinds of changes: accidental change (Socrates becomes pale) and substantial change (tomatoes, mushrooms, and beef become a stew). But when we speak of God making the world, we immediately see that it makes no sense to think of the divine act of creation as effecting either an accidental change (God modifying a substance) or a substantial change (God converting a substance into a different substance). Herbert McCabe elaborates:

There is nothing for the universe to be made of or made out of. In other words creation could not have made any difference to anything—there was nothing for it to make a difference to. If God created the world he operated at a different level, or in a different dimension, from making as we understand it. To bring it about, in this sense, that something should exist is not to make any difference to it or to anything else, it is not to change it in any way. It is just for this reason that Aquinas denies that creation is a change (Ia.45.2.ad 2). But what sense can we make of a making that does not change anything? (God Matters, p. 147)

Consider once more the case of creation: we know what it is to make, say, a statue by carving and altering a piece of wood; we are also familiar with a more fundamental change in which stuff is changed into a different kind of stuff, as in cooking or digestion—here not just a new shape but a new thing has come into existence. Now we extrapolate from here to speak of a coming into existence which is not out of anything at all, a making which is not an operation upon anything—evidently we cannot conceive this, we do not understand what we are saying. (p. 149)

It seems counter-intuitive to think of the creatio ex nihilo as not making a difference to the world. But to make a difference to something presupposes the present existence of that something. McCabe continues:

This clearly depends on driving some kind of wedge beteen being and being-this-sort-of-thing, a difficult wedge to drive since the Aristotelian is surely quite right to deny that any sense can be made of ‘existence’ as a detachable or abstractable quality or element common to things that exist. Creation does not make any difference to anything, it is not a matter of transition from one kind of thing to another kind of thing, it does not, so to say, take place at the level of substance, it is not a substantial change, it is the ‘change’ from non-existence to existence. In thinking of something as creature we are not thinking of it in contrast and distinction from other creatures, we are thinking of it, or trying to think of it, as existing instead of not existing. We merely fool ourselves if we think that we are here deploying concepts of sheer ‘existence’ and ‘non-existence’—they are simply words we use in our attempt to point to some more fundamental account of things than having-come-into-existence-out-of-something-else, to some coming to be more fundamental than substantial change. (p. 150)

When God makes the world, he does not make it different; he makes it to be. We cannot comprehend this radical kind of making—it makes no sense in an Aristotelian worldview or perhaps any worldview—yet we are compelled by the radical transcendence of God to speak of it nonetheless. Hence we use words like “make” and “create,” understanding all the while that our language is necessarily metaphorical and apophatic.

(16 December 2013; rev.)

(Return to first article of series)

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Ex Nihilo Nonnihil Fit: “from nothing something comes”


Can we imagine the universe spontaneously emerging from nothing? I would have thought that the answer would obviously and logically be no—as long as nothing is understood as it was in classical philosophy and theology: the absence of any thing and therefore the absence of potentiality—no energy, no stuff, no matter, no bodies, no physical particles, no electro-magnetic fields, no radiation, no quantum fluctuations, no quantum gravity, no vacuum states, no empty space, no laws of nature; naught, nada, absolute non-being. In other words, nothing that a physicist can study, measure, conceptualize, or theorize about. In the words of Parmenides: “For thou canst not know what is not—that is impossible—nor utter it.” Nothing in this metaphysical sense is literally indefinable, inconceivable; it points to a boundary beyond which thought cannot go, for there is no where for it to go, no reality to apprehend. Hence the ancient dictum: ex nihilo nihil fit, “from nothing nothing comes.” The dictum is rightly understood as a self-evident truth of reason. Its obverse is contra­dictory and therefore meaningless. As the Epicurean poet Lucretius sings:

Nothing can be made from nothing—once we see that’s so,
Already we are on the way to what we want to know.

Beings cannot emerge from nothingness. This is why ancient philosophers insisted that, in one form or another, the cosmos is eternal. We can imagine a demiurgic deity giving form to the cosmos from pre-existent matter; but we cannot imagine an absolute beginning for the cosmos. We cannot think of the universe as not existing. And this is why the Christian assertion of creatio ex nihilo was rejected by pagan philosophers as nonsense.

But apparently some physicists believe that they can conceive of something coming forth from nothing. Lawrence M. Krauss advances this proposal in his book A Universe from Nothing. I have not read the book (alas, it’s way above my pay grade), but I have read several interviews with Krauss, as well as his article “The Consolation of Philosophy.” One point seems clear. When Krauss speaks of the nothing of physics, he is not speaking of the nothing of the philosophers. Regarding the latter, Krauss has no interest and dismisses it as a distraction. In his above-cited article, he writes:

Instead, sticking firm to the classical ontological definition of nothing as “the absence of anything”—whatever this means—so essential to theological, and some subset of philosophical intransigence, strikes me as essentially sterile, backward, useless and annoying. If “something” is a physical quantity, to be determined by experiment, then so is ‘nothing.’

Hence when Krauss hears the existential question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” he immediately transposes it into a physics question:

As a scientist, the fascination normally associated with the classically phrased question “why is there something rather than nothing?”, is really contained in a specific operational question.  That question can be phrased as follows: How can a universe full of galaxies and stars, and planets and people, including philosophers, arise naturally from an initial condition in which none of these objects—no particles, no space, and perhaps no time—may have existed?  Put more succinctly perhaps: Why is there ‘stuff’, instead of empty space?  Why is there space at all?

In an NPR interview, Krauss states:

And I guess most importantly that the question why is there something rather than nothing is really a scientific question, not a religious or philosophical question, because both nothing and something are scientific concepts, and our discoveries over the past 30 years have completely changed what we mean by nothing. In particular, nothing is unstable. Nothing can create something all the time due to the laws of quantum mechanics, and it’s—it’s fascinatingly interesting.

“Nothing,” Krauss remarked in the 2013 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, “is the most important part of the universe.”1

Yet as interesting as all of this is, Krauss’ nothing has nothing to do with the metaphysical notion of nothing. As David Bentley Hart observes, all cosmological theories are irrelevant to the fundamental query, Why something rather than nothing?

Herein lies the annoyingly persistent logical error of those physicists (like Alexander Vilenkin, Victor Stenger, or Lawrence Krauss) who claim that physics has now discovered how the universe can have spontaneously arisen from “nothingness,” without divine assistance. It does not really matter whether the theoretical models they propose may one day prove to be correct. Without exception, what they are actually talking about is merely the formation of our universe by way of a transition from one physical state to another, one manner of existence to another, but certainly not the spontaneous arising of existence from nonexistence (which is logically impossible). They often produce perfectly delightful books on the subject, I hasten to add, considered simply as tours of the latest develop­ments in speculative cosmology; but as interventions in philosophical debates those books are quite simply irrelevant. As a matter of purely intellectual interest, it would be wonderful some day to know whether the universe was generated out of quantum fluctuation, belongs either to an infinite “ekpyrotic” succession of universes caused by colliding branes or to a “conformally cyclic” succession of bounded aeons, is the result of inflationary quantum tunneling out of a much smaller universe, arose locally out of a multiverse in either limited constant or eternal chaotic inflation, or what have you. As a matter strictly of ontology, however, none of these theories is of any consequence, because no purely physical cosmology has any bearing whatsoever upon the question of existence (though one or two such cosmologies might point in its direction). Again, the “distance” between being and nonbeing is qualitatively infinite, and so it is immaterial here how small, simple, vacuous, or impalpably indetermi­nate a physical state or event is: it is still infinitely removed from nonbeing and infinitely incapable of having created itself out of nothing.2

As close to nothingness as the scientific notion of nothing may get, it still ain’t nothing if it can generate something. Ex nihilo nihil fit.

Six years ago a blogger who goes by the alias Rubati provocatively suggested that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is just an expression of atheism:

Now that I think about it, I think Milton has a good point when he rejected creation ex nihilo and argued that the creation must necessarily have come out of God’s infinite life and being and not “from nothing”. Theists often point out that the idea that the universes simply popped into existence out of nothing, or that something can come out of nothing, is senseless and irrational, but the (classical) theist says exactly the same thing, that God created the world “ex nihilo” or out of nothing. Thus, the atheist and the “classical” theist are basically saying the exact same thing: that the world came out of nothing. The only difference is that the atheist merely removes the completely superfluous God out of the process. (“A Question About Ex Nihilo Creation“)

Mr Rubati has misunderstood the creatio ex nihilo doctrine. When classical theists assert that God has created the cosmos from out of nothing, they are making three intercon­nected claims:

  1. The cosmos is not God.
  2. The cosmos need not have been.
  3. The cosmos depends completely on its Creator for its existence.

The principal purpose of the creatio ex nihilo is not to explain but to dogmatically exclude theological understandings deemed incompatible with classical theistic belief—pantheism, deism, polytheism, emanationism, creation from pre-existent matter. Divinity donates being to the universe, but the universe is not divine. It’s not as if God takes a part of himself and shapes it into a finite something. He bestows upon creatures an ontological integrity and nature of their own yet not their own, for their existence is dependent totally on the continuous gifting of being.

But Mr Rubati does have a point: when the God of classical theism is distinguished from the world he has freely brought into being, and thus apprehended in his radical tran­scen­dence, the line between theism and atheism becomes harder to draw. That’s because the infinite Creator is not a some-thing with determinate boundaries. He is not other as created beings are other to each other. He is not simply different but transcends the difference. God is the  ontological source and ground of all that exists. He is Being and beyond being, pure actuality and absolute plenitude—ipsum esse subsistens.

If God is not a something, then perhaps he is nothing. Consider this passage from John Scottus Eriugena:

We believe that he made all things out of nothing, unless perhaps this nothing is he himself, who—since he is extolled as super-essential above all things and is glorified above everything that is said of understood—is not unreasonably said to be “nothing” through excellence, since he can in no way be placed among the number of all things that are. For if he himself is at once all things that are and that are not, who would say that he is or is not something, since he is the being and more than being of all things? Or, if he is not something, by excellence and not by privation, it follows that he is nothing, by infinity.3

Suddenly the creatio ex nihilo takes on surprising and illuminating meaning: ex nihilo nonnihil fit. Parmenides is turning over in his grave.

(Go to “No Nuttin’ Difference”)



[1] On the different notions of “nothing” in physics, see Ethan Siegel “What is the Physics of Nothing?” and “The Four Scientific Meanings of ‘Nothing’.”

[2] The Experience of God, pp. 96-97.

[3] Commentary on the Dionysian Celestial Harmony 4.73-82.

[4] This article is a revision of three articles published in 2013 and 2014, now combined.

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“It is the Church’s pride, it is the Savior’s command, not to be concerned only about our own welfare, but about our neighbor’s also”

The Apostle says: “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”

You will be doing everything for the glory of God if, when you leave this place, you make yourselves responsible for saving a brother or sister, not just by accusing and rebuking him or her, but also by advising and encouraging, and by pointing out the harm done by worldly amusements, and the profit and help that come from our instruction. You will also be preparing for yourself a double reward, since as well as greatly furthering your own salvation, you will be endeavoring to heal a fellow member of Christ’s body. It is the Church’s pride, it is the Savior’s command, not to be concerned only about our own welfare, but about our neighbor’s also.

Think about what high honor you raise yourself to when you regard someone else’s salvation as a matter of extreme importance. As far as is humanly possible you imitate God himself, for listen to what he says through the prophet: “Whoever leads another from wrong to right will be as my own mouth” (Pr 28:10). In other words, “Whoever tries to save those that are negligent, and to snatch them from the jaws of the devil, is imitating me as far as a human being can.” What other work could equal this? Of all good deeds this is the greatest; of all virtue this is the summit. And this is perfectly reasonable. Christ shed his own blood for our salvation; and Paul, speaking of those who give scandal and wound the consciences of people seeing them, cried out: “Because of your knowledge a weak brother or sister is destroyed—someone for whom Christ died!” (1 Cor 8:11)

So if your Lord shed his blood for that person, surely it is right for each of us to offer at least some words of encouragement and to extend a helping hand to those who through laxity have fallen into the snares of the devil. But I am quite certain that you will do this out of the tender love you bear your own members, and that you will make every effort to bring your neighbors back to our common Mother, because I know that through the grace of God you are able to admonish others with wisdom.

St John Chrysostom

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It’s Tortoises All the Way Down!

“In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth. Yet the earth was invisible and unformed, and darkness was over the abyss, and a divine wind was being carried along over the water.” (Gen 1:1-2)


That the one God is the creator of the world Christians have confessed from the beginning of the apostolic mission. What is perhaps not so clear is what the first-century Christians meant by this confession. The classical Christian view asserts that God has created the universe from out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo); but many biblical scholars argue that this view lacks clear support in Holy Scripture. The creation account in Genesis can certainly be read as saying that God created the world by bringing pre-existent matter to form (creatio ex materia), and this is how some of the second-century apologists expressed the doctrine of creation: “And we have been taught that God, in the beginning, in His good­ness made everything out of shapeless matter for the sake of men,” St Justin Martyr declared (1 Apol. 10), thus bringing Christian doctrine into conformity with the Timaeus of Plato. And in the early third century Clement of Alexandria affirmed a similar belief:

O King, great Giver of good gifts to men,
Lord of the good, Father, of all the Maker,
Who heaven and heaven’s adornment, by Your word
Divine fitly disposed, alone make;
Who brought forth the sunshine and the day;
Who appointed their courses to the stars,
And how the earth and sea their place should keep;
And when the seasons, in their circling course,
Winter and summer, spring and autumn, each
Should come, according to well-ordered plan;
Out of a confused heap who created
This ordered sphere, and from the shapeless mass
Of matter did the universe adorn. (Pædagogus 3.12)

The creatio ex materia has long dominated in process theology circles and appears to be becoming increasingly popular among some evangelicals. Philosopher Thomas Jay Oord, for example, affirms the prevailing scholarly exegesis of Genesis 1 that “God creates out of something, even if the ‘something’ is initially vague, disordered, or messy” (“A New Doctrine of Initial Creation“). As an alternative to the traditional creatio ex nihilo, he proposes instead creatio ex creation en amore:

The basic idea of creatio ex creation en amore is that God has always—everlastingly—been creating out of that which God previously created. There was never a time God was not creating, and there was no first creation. Just as God has always existed and is without beginning, God has also been creating out of what God previously created, and this is without beginning.… In the traditional view, God hasn’t been always creating. In my alternative, God has always created out of that which God created previously. And God will continue to do so into the future.

However, the doctrine that God creates something new from something God previously created emphasizes that God acts first in each creative moment. Each moment begins with God’s creative and giving grace. Creatio ex creatione en amore merely adds that this creative process had no absolute beginning. There has been no first moment of God’s creating, because there has never been a first moment in God’s everlasting life. (“An Alternative Doctrine of Creation“)

Oord’s account of creation reminds me of the famous anecdote as recounted by Stephen Hawking:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s tortoises all the way down!”

If one were to put to Oord the unfair question “But what was there before there was matter?” one can imagine him mischieviously replying: “There’s ‘something’ all the way down!”

The Mormon Church also rejects the creatio ex nihilo as a corruption of the biblical revelation, appealing both to contemporary biblical scholarship and early Church testimony (see Keith Norman, “Ex Nihilo,” Blake Ostler, “Out of Nothing,” and Richard Hopkins, “Counterfeiting the Mormon Concept of God“). Of course, the Mormon conception of deity is dramatically different from the orthodox conception. Mormon theologians, like the new evangelicals, believe that the Mormon presentation of God fully accords with the biblical witness.

In this article I will not argue that the ecumenical doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo is explicitly stated in Holy Scripture. I accept it as the dogmatic teaching of the Holy Orthodox Church. That the doctrine does not explicitly appear in the extant writings of the Church Fathers until the second half of the second century does not give me a moment’s pause. As John Henry Newman observed a century and a half ago: “The absence, or partial absence, or incompleteness of dogmatic statements is no proof of the absence of impressions or implicit judgments, in the mind of the Church. Even centuries might pass without the formal expression of a truth, which had been all along the secret life of millions of faithful souls.” Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the creatio ex nihilo is how easily and quickly it was embraced by Christian theologians, once it was formally proposed as a faithful expression of the apostolic revelation. It does not appear to have generated much controversy at all. Rather, the response of the Church was more like “Yes, of course that is what we believe. Thank you for putting it into words. This is what must be true if Jesus be risen from the dead.” Thus at the end of the second century Tertullian speaks of the doctrine as belonging to the rule of faith (Praescr. 13).

The dogmatic status of the creatio ex nihilo is demonstrated not just by the consensus of Orthodox bishops and theologians but by the fact that the doctrine became the presuppo­sition for theological reflection on the Trinity, christology, sacraments, life in the Spirit, and eschatology. Remove this foundation stone from the theological edifice, and the building comes crashing down around us. That’s why it is irreformable dogma.

It’s “nothing” all the way down!

(13 December 2013; rev.)

(Go to “Ex Nihilo Nonnihil Fit”)

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Exorcizing the God of the Gaps


The rise of modern science created a problem for Christian theology. If God is not scientifi­cally needed to explain why water freezes at 32°F or why the stars come out at night, if the universe is just a self-powered machine that can be intelligibly apprehended as a nexus of causes and effects, then does that not mean that God is unnecessary? Perhaps the deistic deity of Voltaire, who creates the universe and sets everything in motion, is all that is required—and even he may seem superfluous.

Yet why did the practical atheism of modern science (i.e., the methodological exclusion of divinity from scientific hypothesis and investigation) generate such concern and upset? It’s almost as if the catholic doctrines of divine transcendence and creation got forgotten some­where along the way. The Church should have taken the lead in telling the scientists of the world “Don’t treat Almighty God as a finite thing. He is not an inhabitant of the universe. He should not be invoked to scientifically explain regularly occurring phenom­ena. You are confusing uncreated being and created being, primary causality and secon­dary causality.” But it appears that the Church did not do so, and as a result Deism and eventually atheism were born. David Bentley Hart’s analysis of the emergence of Deism well states the problem:

The dissolution of the geocentric cosmos, with its shimmering meridians and radiant crystal vaults and imperishable splendors, may have been an imaginative bereavement for Western humanity, but it was a loss easily compensated for by the magnificence of the new picture of the heavens. Far more significant in the long run was the disappearance of this older, metaphysically richer, immeasurably more mysterious, and far more spiritually inviting understanding of transcendent reality. In the age of the mechanical philosophy, in which all of nature could be viewed as a boundless collection of brute events, God soon came to be seen as merely the largest brute event of all. Thus in the modern period the argument between theism and atheism largely became no more than a tension between two different effectively atheist visions of existence. As a struggle between those who believed in this god of the machine and those who did not, it was a struggle waged for possession of an already godless universe. The rise and fall of Deism was an episode not so much within religious or metaphysical thinking as within the history of modern cosmology; apart from a few of its ethical appurtenances, the entire movement was chiefly an exercise in defective physics. The god of Deist thought was not the fullness of being, of whom the world was a wholly dependent manifestation, but was merely part of a larger reality that included both him and his handiwork; and he was related to that handiwork only extrinsically, as one object to another. The cosmos did not live and move and have its being in him; he lived and moved and had his being in it, as a discrete entity among other entities, a separate and definite thing, a mere paltry Supreme being. And inasmuch as his role was only that of the first efficient cause within a continuous series of efficient causes, it required only the development of physical and cosmological theories that had no obvious need of “that hypothesis” (as Laplace put it) to conjure him away. (The Experience of God, pp. 61-62)

350px-CMB_Timeline300_no_WMAP_zpsb1f30e0d.jpg~original.jpegThe problem lies in the confusion of ontology and cosmology, of not properly distinguishing between creatio ex nihilo and the beginning of the universe. This confusion may be found, for example, in Robert Jastrow’s interpretation of the Big Bang theory. According to the theory our present universe began approxi­mately 13.798 billion years ago as an infinitely dense singularity, which then rapidly expanded and eventually became the universe that we know today. Jastrow boldly identifies the Big Bang moment with God’s divine act of creation. Acknowledging the inabil­ity of science to explain the original singularity and the reason for its expansion, Jastrow writes: “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason,” he writes, “the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to con­quer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries” (God and the Astronomers, p. 107).

Precisely at this point Jastrow blunders. The Big Bang theory addresses the beginning of the universe as it is presently ordered. It does not assume, as Diogenes Allen points out, “that there was nothing before that small, dense mass” (Christian Belief in a Postmodern World, p. 47). The cosmological theory simply takes us back in history as far as we can see. Perhaps our universe was preceded by a different universe that had collapsed into a black hole, thus providing the singularity from which our universe emerged. Perhaps it’s all explained by the theory of the multiverse. We do not know and perhaps can never know. But our ignorance does not authorize us to identify the Big Bang with the eternal event of God speaking the world into being (Gen 1). That would be to fall back into a God of the gaps. As Allen warns, “Whenever we are at the boundaries of scientific knowledge, there is the danger of turning God into a creature by inserting the Deity into a scientific account” (p. 47).

God is the transcendent, infinite, unconditioned, absolute source of all existence. He is not a demiurge. He is not an engineer who has brought all the parts together to form an autono­mous self-powered machine.  He is not an entity that we plug into the gaps in our knowledge of the world.  He is the Creator.

(11 December 2013)

(Go to “Tortoises All the Way Down”)

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God in Science: No Need for that Hypothesis

It’s funny how one can remember something read decades earlier but cannot remember the contents of a book read only last week. Back in seminary I read a little book by Arthur A. Vogel titled The Power of His Resurrection. I recall very little of it, except one impor­tant point: the divine transcendence must be given logical priority over the divine imma­nence, as the latter depends on the former. God’s ontological difference from us makes possible his intimate presence to us and his salvific involvement with us. God does not compete with the universe. The world does not need to give way to make room for divinity. This understand­ing of transcendence—the Creator’s radical difference from everything he has made ex nihilo—became a critical principle in all of my subsequent theological reflec­tion. Incarnation, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, sacraments, providence, predestina­tion, human freedom—all look different when seen in the light of God’s radical difference.

God-of-the-Gaps_zpse091c12f.JPEGConsider the question of divine agency: how does the infinite Creator interact with his creation? Many have noted that the rise of modern science was made possible by the adoption of a mechanistic construal of na­ture. The universe became understood as a closed system of natural causes. The exclu­sion of divine causality produced remark­able experimental results, as it compelled scien­tists to look for natural explanations for natural phenomena. Upon reading Pierre-Simon Laplace’s discourse on the variations of the orbits of Saturn and Jupiter, Napo­leon asked him, “But where is God in all this?” The great astronomer famously replied, “Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.” The Laplacean presupposition underlies all scientific experimentation, resulting in the explo­sion of scien­tific knowledge over the past few hundred years. If the divine Creator is not the answer to the gaps in our scientific knowledge, then we must continue to investigate the world in order to fill in the gaps.

Some scientists were loath to abandon God completely, either for reasons of faith or reasons of science. Even as great a scientist as Isaac Newton would occasionally posit the activity of God in order to explain discrepancies between his theories and the way things really worked. Philosopher Diogenes Allen elaborates:

Newton, whose views had great authority because of his achievements in mathematics, optics, and celestial mechanics, was troubled by the way nature was treated as virtually autonomous by the new mechanistic model. Except for the initial moment of creation and God’s initial design of nature, it appeared that the cosmos operated on its own accord. As Aleandre Koyré put it, the workaday God was replaced by the God of the Sabbath, that is, once the work of creating the world was complete, God rested because nature, once made, could run itself. Newton resisted this understanding of God’s relation to nature. On the basis of the scientific knowledge of his day, he pointed out that God was still needed to sustain nature’s order. For example, according to his calculations, there were slight irregularities in the orbits of the planets which would in time cause the solar system to collapse. Unless those irregularities were corrected by divine intervention, the solar system could not continue indefinitely. This was but one of several things which God needed to do to keep the machine in running order. (Christian Belief in a Postmodern World, p. 45)

Thus the transcendent Creator became a “God of the gaps,” with the deity being invoked to explain present scientific inability to account for regularly occurring phenomena. Scien­tists, however, eventually demonstrated that gaps in our scientific understanding of the world could, at least in theory, always be corrected by further research, experimentation, and innovative ways of interpreting the data. There is no reason to posit a supernatural being when human ignorance is the problem. Modern science is now programmatically committed to the exclusion of the supernatural in scientific investigation. There’s no need for that hypothesis.

But not only is the “God of the gaps” bad science, it is also bad theology. Allen explains:

There are profound biblical objections to such a “God of the gaps,” as this understanding of God’s relation to the universe has come to be called. By “gaps” it is meant that no member or members of the universe can be found to account for regularly occurring phenomena in nature. God is inserted in the gaps which could be occupied by members of the universe. This is theologically improper because God, as creator of the universe, is not a member of the universe. God can never properly be used in scientific accounts, which are formulated in terms of the relations between the members of the universe, because that would reduce God to the status of a creature. According to a Christian conception of God as creator of a universe that is rational through and through, there are no missing relations between the members of nature. If, in our study of nature, we run into what seems to be an instance of a connection missing between members of nature, the Christian doctrine of creation implies that we should keep looking for one. If planets inexplicably deviate from orbits which would in time cause the solar system to collapse, we are to look for some mass which is exerting force to account for the deviations. (In the case of Saturn’s orbit, a new planet, Uranus, was discovered; in that of Mercury’s orbit, it took Einstein’s entirely new theory to account for its eccentricity.) But, according to the doctrine of creation, we are never to postulate God as the immediate cause of any regular occurrence of nature. (pp. 45-46)

But if God is properly excluded from scientific inquiry, what is his role, if any, in the processes and events of the universe? Is he merely a watchmaker who got the watch working and now stands on the sidelines and watches time go by?

(10 December 2013; rev.)

(Go to “God of the Gaps”)

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“Why be surprised if people who set their hearts on Christ and want to follow him renounce themselves out of love?”

“If anyone wishes to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and come after me.”

Our Lord’s command seems hard and heavy, that anyone who wants to follow him must renounce himself. But no command is hard and heavy when it comes from one who helps to carry it out. That other saying of his is true: “My yoke is easy and my burden light.” (Mt 11:30). Whatever is hard in his commands is made easy by love.

We know what great things love can accomplish, even though it is often base and sensual. We know what hardships people have endured, what intolerable indignities they have borne to attain the object of their love. What we love indicates the sort of people we are, and therefore making a decision about this should be our one concern in choosing a way of life. Why be surprised if people who set their hearts on Christ and want to follow him renounce themselves out of love? If we lose ourselves through self-love we must surely find ourselves through self-renunciation.

Who would not wish to follow Christ to supreme happiness, perfect peace, and lasting security? We shall do well to follow him there, but we need to know the way. The Lord Jesus had not yet risen from the dead when he gave this invitation. His passion was still before him; he had still to endure the cross, to face outrages, reproaches, scourging; to be pierced by thorns, wounded, insulted, taunted, and put to death. The road seems rough, you draw back, you do not want to follow Christ. Follow him just the same. The road we made for ourselves is rough, but Christ has leveled it by passing over it himself.

Who does not desire to be exalted? Everyone enjoys a high position. But self-abasement is the step that leads to it. Why take strides that are too big for you—do you want to fall instead of going up? Begin with this step and you will find yourself climbing. The two disciples who said: “Lord, command that one of us shall sit at your right hand in your kingdom and the other at your left” had no wish to think about this step of self-abasement. They wanted to reach the top without noticing the step that led there. The Lord showed them the step, however, by his reply: “Can you drink the cup that I am to drink?” You who aim at the highest exaltation, can you drink the cup of humiliation? He did not simply give the general command: “Let him renounce himself and follow me” but added: “Let him take up his cross and follow me.”

What does it mean to take up one’s cross? It means bearing whatever is unpleasant—that is following me. Once you begin to follow me by conforming your life to my command­ments, you will find many to contradict you, forbid you, or dissuade you, and some of these will be people calling themselves followers of Christ. Therefore if you meet with threats, flattery, or opposition, let this be your cross; pick it up and carry it—do not collapse under it. These words of our Lord are like an exhortation to endure martyrdom. If you are persecuted you ought, surely, to make light of any suffering for the sake of Christ.

St Augustine of Hippo

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The Path Upward: Liturgy, Universalism, and George Seferis

by Christopher Howell

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

~ T.S. Eliot ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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