Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Fathers and the Fire

          In my last two blog articles, I examined the biblical, patristic, and conciliar evidence for the traditional view of the Church that the punishments of Gehenna were eternal, and also examined the question of how belief in the eternity of those punishments could be consistent with the love of God.  I advanced the view that Scripture, the Fathers, the pronouncements of councils, and the general consensus of the Church since those councils all agreed that the punishment of Gehenna was eternal.  I also suggested that those in Gehenna were destroyed by their choices so that the faculty of free will as we experience it in this age ceased to exist in them.  In this final blog article I will examine some of the Father’s teaching to see how they viewed the pain of hell being consistent with God’s love.  Like the previous two posts, it must be somewhat cursory and limited, since this is a blog, not a book.  We approach the issue through the question, “How does God relate to those condemned to hell?”
            Let us begin by reviewing the Scriptures, and especially the teaching of Christ.  The Lord paints a consistent picture of divine rejection of the unrighteous.  Those who are unrepentant evildoers at the last judgment will hear Christ say, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you evildoers” (Matthew 7:23).  Those unprepared by repentance, portrayed in one of His parables as foolish virgins, will on that day pound at the door, saying, “Lord, Lord, open to us!”, only to hear Him reply, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.” (Matthew 25:11-2).  The lost will be cast out into outer darkness (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30), cast into Gehenna (Mark 9:45).  At the last judgement they will hear Christ say, “Depart from Me” (Matthew 25:41).  Taken together, these are unmistakable and vivid pictures of rejection, and perhaps at the basis of St. Paul’s assertion that the disobedient will “pay the penalty of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 1:9).  This last phrase, rendered here “away from the presence of the Lord”, is the Greek apo prosopou tou kuriou.  The preposition apo must here be rendered “away from” and not simply “from” (as coming from a source)—thus the Arndt-Gingrich Lexicon, which takes the preposition in this verse “to indicate distance from a point:  away from”.  The New Testament picture of Gehenna is consistently one of divine rejection.
            In understanding these words, we must first understand the situation in which they were spoken.  Christ wanted to portray the penalty for disobedience and unrighteousness in all its horror, to warn His hearers not to disobey and reject Him and His word.  In a sense, the Lord was speaking with the vehemence of prophecy, not in the measured tones of later theologians and apologists.  Like His counsel to the one tempted to sin to gouge out his eye rather than use it to sin (Mark 9:47), He speaks with holy hyperbole, warning us in urgent tones to flee from the wrath to come.  His descriptions of the unquenchable fire, of the undying worm, and of the unexpectedly locked door make us tremble, as they were intended to do.  Questions about justice and divine love did not arise, and would only have served to blunt the power of the prophetic warning.  We must be clear however:  Christ was not issuing empty threats, or bluffing.  And He was not simply threatening, but also promising.  He did not say, “Be careful to be righteous lest you go into eternal punishment”, but rather, “the unrighteous will go into eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46).  The Gospel is clear that the one who disobeyed the Son would not see life, but the wrath of God would remain upon him (John 3:36), and it is sadly certain that some have disobeyed the Son.  These texts therefore cannot be read as merely admonitory and cautionary warnings of a terrible possibility.  The Lord said such terrible possibilities were going to occur—such as in the case of Judas, the perished son of perdition, for whom it would have been better not to have been born (John 17:12, Matthew 26:24).
            The Fathers, while not contradicting this, took care to provide nuance.  Their concerns were different than those of their Lord, for their intended audience were not Jews of first century Palestine.  The Fathers had to deal with pastoral and apologetic issues, those arising from the challenges of  dualism and paganism.  Dualism (such as in Manichaeism for example), posited evil somehow parallel with and contending with the good, so that the existence of good and evil in the world witnessed to two rival powers.  The Fathers had to show how the existence of evil did not mean that there was another evil deity in the world somehow equal to God, but that God Himself was not the creator of evil, and that nothing He did was evil.  Paganism, on the other hand, pictured the gods as all too human in their capacity for rage, revenge, and vindictiveness.  The challenge for the Fathers here therefore was to show how God’s punishment of the wicked did not mean that He was vengeful and vindictive like the pagan gods denounced by the Church, but that He was loving, fair, and good.
            The Fathers did not deny the Lord’s teaching that the unrighteous were punished.  But they zeroed in and began to analyze the precise causes of the punishment, and in what it consisted.  And their basic answer was that God’s sentence upon the unrighteous was not based in any sense of personal peeve and arbitrary anger (as with the pagan gods), but was simply the outworking of the choices made by the unrighteous themselves.  God Himself loved all that He made, and desired the destruction of none.  We look at a few examples.
            St. Irenaeus writes, “To as many as continue in their love towards God, He grants communion with Him.  But communion with God is life and light, and the enjoyment of all the benefits which He has in store.  But on as many as, according to their own choice depart from God, He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord.  But separation from God is death, and separation from light is darkness...  Those therefore who cast away by apostasy these things being in fact destitute of all good, experience every kind of punishment.  God however does not punish them immediately of Himself, but that punishment falls on them because they are destitute of all that is good” (Against Heresies, 5,27,2).  For Irenaeus, the separation from God is not a matter of arbitrary divine decree, but the fatal choice of the unrighteous themselves.  They abide in darkness and death with all its misery as the inevitable result of refusing communion with light and life.
            The words ascribed to St. Anthony in the Philokalia make the same point:  “God is good, dispassionate, and unchanging…God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions…It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us…Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind” (Text 150).  The author’s point is that God does will the sinner’s destruction because He has been offended.  Rather, as Irenaeus said about God granting communion with all to love Him, the author insists that God’s love shines on all His creation.  The lost cannot see that light because of their sins which have made them blind.
            The point is made forcefully by St. Isaac the Syrian as well.  In his Homily 84, he says, “Those who are suffering in hell are suffering in being scourged by love…It is totally false to think that the sinners in Gehenna are deprived of God’s love…Love’s power acts in two ways:  it torments sinners, while at the same time it delights those who have lived in accord with it.  This is torment of Gehenna:  bitter regret.”  Isaac’s concern is to exonerate God from all accusations of vengefulness and unfairness.  God wills the salvation of all, and pours out His love upon all.  God’s love, and goodness, and righteousness are rejected by the sinner, whose sins make him experience it as torment.
            And finally, we look at the modern witness of St. John Maximovitch.  In a sermon published by Orthodox Word in 1966, St. John spoke of the final punishment of the unrighteous:  “The end of the world signifies not the annihilation of the world, but it transformation…Fire is a purifying element; it burns sins.  Woe to a man if sin has become a part of his nature:  then the fire will burn the man himself…the very state of a man’s soul casts him to one side or the other…When the body has died, some may think that sin is dead too.  No!  There was an inclination to sin in the soul, and if the soul has not repented of the sin and has not freed itself from it, it will come to the Last Judgment also with same desire for sin.  It will never satisfy that desire and in that soul there will be the suffering of hatred.  It will accuse everyone and everything in its tortured condition, it will hate everyone and everything.  A fiery Gehenna—such is the inner fire.” Bishop John here reproduces the teaching of the earlier Fathers, saying that God’s wrath is not directed against sinners but their sins, and it is only as the sinner clings to his sin and judgment falls upon him.  The torment of Gehenna is an inner fire, kindled from the sinner’s hatred of everyone and everything.
            I believe that this view is consistent with that stated in our previous blog.  The fire which is within the sinner and which arises from unsatisfied desire and hatred—this is the fire of Gehenna.  It is unquenchable because of the impaired state of the lost.  His capacity for joy has been eroded and burned to nothing.  Only impotent lust and rage remains, the flickering of a phantom, which accuses everyone and everything.
            In the patristic citations cited above we have seen the Father’s concern to demonstrate that God’s judgment upon the condemned does not arise from any arbitrary passion of peevishness.  Obviously no Father was a carbon copy of another, for each had his own special nuances and refinements.  But enough common ground existed among them so that one can speak of a patristic consensus.  God is good and only good, and never does evil.  If a man is separated from God at the end, it is only because he has himself chosen that separation.  The sunshine of God’s love and goodness and righteousness will beam upon all in the age to come and fill the cosmos.  Those who will dwell in the outer darkness only remain there because they have preferred darkness to light and made themselves blind to that which will fill the world in the age to come.  

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Christian Universalism: The Morality of Gehenna

          In a previous article I attempted to examine the Scriptural, patristic, and canonical evidence for a belief in Universalism, the belief that eventually all will be saved (including, according to many universalists, Satan and the demons).  I concluded that the evidence all went the other way, and I reaffirmed the traditional teaching that the punishments of Gehenna will be eternal.  I acknowledged in passing the legitimacy and even the necessity of trying to explain how a belief in the eternity of Gehenna can be combined with a belief in the love of God.  I will attempt to do that now.  But I stress that my aim is limited to trying to understand how a belief in Gehenna can be moral—making it palatable is beyond my power or intention.  My goal in discussing hell is the same as C.S. Lewis’ goal when he discussed it, for, as he said (in his chapter on Hell in his The Problem of Pain), “I am not going to try to prove the doctrine [of hell] tolerable.  Let us make no mistake; it is not tolerable.  But I think the doctrine can be shown to be moral”.
            Orthodox writers can collect a number of voices who agree with Lewis that hell is not tolerable, and Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) has gathered a few of them in his essay “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?” in the anthology The Inner Kingdom.  There we learn of St. Silouan of Mount Athos gently rebuking a hermit who delighted in the damnation of atheists.  Silouan responded that one in paradise looking down on the suffering of another in hell-fire should pray for the salvation of that one, for “love could not bear this”.  Whether St. Silouan meant that one should pray for those in Hades awaiting the final judgment or that one should pray for those damned after the final judgment is not entirely certain, but his main point stands:  a tender heart would grieve over the salvation of the damned and should not delight in it.  (Tertullian apparently and famously thought otherwise, but a tender heart should also consider his historical context.  It’s easier to feel compassion for one’s persecutors if one hasn’t suffered under them.)
            We begin by examining the arguments of those impugning the traditional doctrine of Gehenna as eternal. 
            One objection to this doctrine revolves around the incommensurability between the sin and its punishment.  One feels it would be monstrously unfair of God to punish a few years of sin and rebellion with an eternity of suffering.  If “an eye for an eye” is the classic expression of justice, how could an eternal hell be just?
            This objection assumes that time and eternity are both linear, and that seventy years in this life and age equal an approximate number of years in the next life and the age to come.  But there is no reason to think that eternity is as linear as time, or that it is like time as we experience it, continued after the Last Judgment.  Rather, time and eternity are related to one another as the foundation is to the house built upon it.  If the foundation is laid wrongly and askew, the house will be even more askew, and the higher the house is built, the more askew it will become.  We see this even in the drawing of lines.  Say I draw a line as a base and then draw another line, intending to draw the second line at a 90 degree angle from the first, but instead drawing it at an 80 degree angle.  Obviously the further the second line extends, the further it will go from its intended 90 degree place.  At few feet from the base, it will be a certain distance “off”, but at a few miles from the base it will be even further off.  Increasing the amount of distance from the base will do nothing to correct it.  
This forms a kind of analogy between the relation between time and eternity.  During this life, within time, a person makes decisions which effect his heart and his life and even his ability to make future decisions.  (We see this last in the case of drug addiction:  an addict is not free to choose not to use the drug, because his previous choice to use the drug has resulted in impaired ability to freely choose.)  If in this life one chooses darkness over light and continues along that path so that darkness becomes second-nature, then this darkness and rebellion becomes the foundation upon which eternity must be built.  One thereby sets oneself up for darkness and misery in the age to come.
Thus hell is not a matter of God choosing to torture a sinner for an eternity because the sinner sinned for seventy years.  Eternity will last forever no matter what (that is what “eternity” means)—the only question is:  on what foundation will one’s experience of eternity be built?  If for seventy years the sinner has laid a foundation of rebellion and destroyed his ability to repent and be nourished by joy, then the eternity built upon it will be one of misery—not because God chooses the amount of punishment deserved, but because of the nature of time as foundational to eternity.
Another objection to the traditional doctrine of hell is the assertion that it somehow makes God into implacable tyrant.  Surely, says the objector, faced with the pain and suffering of hell, anyone would repent!  This being so, how could a loving God not forgive the now-penitent sinner and rescue him from his punishment?  The objector paints a picture of God petulantly saying, “No, sorry, you had your chance, now it is too late!”  (We do find this portrayal of hell in some primitive versions of it.  See, for example, the Qur’an:  “The dwellers of hell will say to its keepers: ‘Implore your Lord to relieve our torment for one day!’…But vain shall be the cries of the unbelievers”, Surah 40:49-50.)
            Smuggled unnoticed into this picture of the penitent person in hell crying for mercy is the unexamined assumption that the people in hell remain more or less as we knew them in this life.  (This was also assumed in the example brought to St. Silouan by his hermit friend.)  We think of people we have known who were not really religious, but who were not openly evil either.  We remember their good points, their virtues, perhaps their sense of humour.  We remember their smiles as well as their frowns, and above all the times that they were good, and the times they admitted that they were wrong.  It is this person, intact, as remembered, that we imagine enduring the pains of hell, and it is this which tears at our heart.  Certainly love could not bear that.  But I would suggest alternative picture of the lost.
            We see this alternative described by C.S. Lewis in his chapter on Hell already mentioned, and portrayed dramatically in his book The Great Divorce.  There those in hell were literally shadows of their former selves.  All that identified them as the persons that others knew or even as human had been burned away by the sin lurking and growing inside them.  Or, to vary the metaphor, the cancer of sin and self-will had eaten away all their humanity, including their free will.  All that was left was sin—the hideous lust, the unrelenting rage, the suicidal self-pity.  If we could look down from paradise into the place of punishment (as in St. Silouan’s scenario) we would not see a human being, much less the human being we knew (such as the atheist imagined by St. Silouan’s hermit friend).  All the created humanity of the person with its potential for love, knowledge, self-transcendence, joy, and especially repentance, had long since eroded away to nothing. 
            In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis offers us as an example of this horrible transmutation in an old lady, soaked in self-pity, perpetually grumbling and whining.  Her damnation consisted of the fact that she was no longer simply a grumbler, but only a grumble.  As Lewis’ guide and theologian puts it:

“The whole difficult of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing.  But ye’ll have had experiences…It begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it.  And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it.  Ye can repent and come out of it again.  But there may come a day when you can do that no longer.  Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.”

The besetting sin or the interior spiritual cancer may not be grumbling or self-pity.  It may be lust or anger or pride or a thousand other sins which smother the soul and erode its capacity for joy and repentance.  But the final result is the same.  Sin ultimately destroys the human soul, as fire destroys wood and reduces it to ashes.  Looking at the pile of ash after a conflagration, one would never guess that it had once been a beautiful wooden statue.  It is the same with the damned:  to quote Lewis again (from his The Problem of Pain), “What is cast into hell is not a man:  it is ‘remains’.”
This view of the damned may help us in dealing with several objections.  It may help us to see how “love could bear this”, because what would be borne and witnessed from paradise would not the torment of a human being, but the inevitable end of a process of self-destruction.  The sting to the tender heart comes from the thought that “the torments of hell are going on now, and people are suffering”.  But in one sense the people we knew or anything recognizable as a human being no longer exist. 
Hell and heaven therefore are in no sense parallel to each other, as the objection presupposes.  They are not two different compartments of reality, with heaven on the top-floor penthouse and hell in the basement.   The saved in the final Kingdom of God will not stop and reflect on the disturbing thought, “Somewhere people are suffering in hell”, as we may now stop in our peaceful and affluent neighbourhoods and think, “Somewhere in the world wars are going on and people are dying”.  To quote Lewis again, “The thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing”.   The “remains” of human beings that constitute hell, the pile of ash—the lust, and rage, and self-pity, the psychic flickerings of rebellion and determined withdrawal into self that are all that remain out of what was once a person—these scarcely constitute reality.  The Biblical picture of the end is one in which “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).  In that new heavens and new earth, righteousness will dwell (2 Peter 3:13).  This is the vision which St. Paul described as God being “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28), and this vision is true.  Hell forms no part of this world, or of this reality.  The entire cosmos will be lit up with the light of God.  The lost will not dwell in this world; they will inhabit no corner of the cosmos.  They are to be banished from it altogether, cast into “the outer darkness” (Matthew 22:13) beyond the rim of reality “where being fades away into nonentity” (Lewis, in The Problem of Pain).
            Another objection centers upon the supposed immorality of mere retribution.  The objector asks, “What is the point of punishment?” Some punishment can be therapeutic, leading to the reform of the person punished.  Some punishment can be a deterrent, warning others not to sin as the person being punished has sinned.  But hell, the objector points out, fulfills neither of these two functions.  According to the traditional understanding of an eternal Gehenna, hell’s pains will not produce repentance in the damned, so they cannot be therapeutic.  And there will be no one left not already saved to profit by the example of their suffering, so hell cannot function as a deterrent either.  Surely then the only point of their suffering is simple revenge—which everyone admits is unworthy of a loving God.
            The objection requires us to look carefully at what is involved in damnation and what are the causes of hell’s sufferings.  Once again the objection presupposes a psychologically intact person in hell, a human being as we experience human beings, persons capable of repentance.  It presupposes a picture of God standing outside the prisoner’s cell, ordering external punishments, and that those punishments are the cause of the suffering.  But what if the suffering is not solely (or even principally) the result of external divine orders, but the result of the self-chosen constitution of the damned themselves?  If joy and life come only through self-denial, self-transcendence, and communion with God, what would be the result for someone who has destroyed all capacity for these things?  God cannot give joy to someone lacking the capacity to receive it, any more than the sun and rain could nourish a flower which has plucked itself up by its own roots.  The damned have chosen not to be open to the light, and so must ever be in darkness.  If the damned refuse to eat the only food the cosmos provides (which is self-transcendent communion with God) they must go forever hungry.  As is often said, the doors of hell are thus locked from the inside.  The damned are locked within themselves, smothered by their own adamant choice, their capacity for self-transcendence eroded to nothing, and therefore are doomed to eternal hunger and misery.  Like men who have torn off their ears in a fury of self-mutilation, they have become deaf to the sound of joy and incapable of receiving it.  Their suffering does not find its ultimate root in divine retribution, but in their own eternally-fixed rebellion.
            Yet another objection comes with an assertion that human will ultimately will choose light and joy by virtue of it having been created by God.  Defenders of the Church’s traditional understanding of hell as eternal have always had recourse to the dignity and freedom of the human will.  Briefly put, people are free to choose or reject God, and God will not violate their freedom by forcing them to choose Him.  They have the freedom to reject Him, thereby destroying their own capacity for love, joy, and self-transcendence if they insist upon doing so.
            For some objectors, like Dr. David Bentley Hart, recourse to the sovereignty of the human will is futile.  In his essay God, Creation, and Evil, he asserts that “there could scarcely be a poorer argument”.  He explains thus:

“Free will is a power inherently purposive, teleological, primordially oriented toward the good, and shaped by that transcendental appetite to the degree that a soul can recognize the good for what it is. No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably”.

In a later note, he elaborates by saying that one cannot choose or not choose God the way you
would a cup of coffee.  One desires and chooses anything, he says, because one has an original intellectual appetite for God.  He reminds his readers of what St. Maximus the Confessor teaches—that the natural will can will only God.
            Here the philosopher smacks up against the exegete.  Philosophical arguments about what the human will is or is not capable of are interesting, but must take an epistemological backseat to the teaching of Scripture—and the Fathers would agree.  And, as we have seen, the Scriptures are fairly clear that Gehenna’s suffering is eternal.  But we must still interact with Hart’s assertions about the human will.  I would respond that Dr. Hart simply underestimates the power of evil. 
It is true that the natural will can will only God, but no one apart from Christ has such a free and untainted natural will.  To quote Dr. John Meyendorff:  “For Maximus, when man follows his natural will, which presupposes life in God…he is truly free.  But man also possess another potential, determined not by his nature, but by each human person, the freedom of choice, of revolt, of movement against nature, and therefore of self-destruction…this is the gnomic will, a function of the personal life, not of nature” (from his Byzantine Theology). 
The sad truth is that the human person is quite capable of misusing the inherently purposive, teleological, primordially oriented toward the good power of the will and perverting it into something entirely different.  Dr. Hart might reply that such a thing could not be described as “free will”.  I would not quibble about the term.  But the fact is that a human being can reach such a depth that he does indeed will evil as evil, deliberately choosing to cut his own nose to spite his own face.  Hart may reply that such a “deliberate” choice is not a “free” choice, but this doesn’t change the fact human beings are nonetheless capable of such self-destruction.  Though lamentable, it is clearly observable that to see the good is not necessarily to desire it insatiably.  Some people become capable of perverse rejection of the light, simply because they want to.  Why did you do that terrible thing?  Because.” No appeal to reason or to joy can penetrate such self-chosen perversity.  All such appeals founder on the terrible fact of the swollen and insane will. 
Here we come to impenetrable mystery of evil.  If Hell is “so nearly Nothing”, then evil also partakes of perverse unreason.  And to see evil in its essence, we must turn from debating about men and look for a moment at the devil.  It is true that universalists assert the eventual salvation of the devil, or at least (like Origen) allow for its possibility.  But as the devil now is, we see in him the very form of evil.  At the risk of overdosing the reader on C.S. Lewis, I would refer to his portrayal of the devil-possessed figure of Weston, the “Un-man” in his Perelandra.  In this figure, we see unmasked the inner nature of evil as “a union of malice with something nearly childish...Deep within when every veil had been pierced [there was] nothing but a black puerility, an aimless empty spitefulness”.  In the devil we find an abyss of unreason, a perverse fixity and commitment to rebellion, even when it is known to be futile and self-defeating and leads to damnation.  It is this evil, this disease, which swallows up and consumes the human will.  If Christ possessed an unfallen natural will, and all men now possess a gnomic will, another term must be found for this damned will, which chooses puerile spitefulness in the face of joy.  Such a will currently exists in the devil.  How could one deny that it could not also come to exist in men in the next life?
This is especially so since after human beings leave this world through death, they will share with the devil one thing:  a direct vision of God.  At one time, our tradition asserts, the devil was an unfallen angel, and like all angels enjoyed the direct vision of God.  Hart might insist that to see the good truly is to desire it insatiably, but the devil once saw the good truly and he did not desire it insatiably.  Instead, he rejected it absolutely, with the result that his will was transformed into what it now is—not a gnomic will like ours, capable of deliberation and choice, but one fixed in hopeless rebellion and futile spite.  It seems that there is something in the combination of the direct vision of God and definitive choice that fixes the human will into its final choice.  Those oriented towards the light see God after this life, and the choice for God fixes them into a place of joy, bringing healing and true eternal freedom, restoring their natural wills.  Those oriented towards the darkness see God and their rejection of Him fixes them into a place of eternal ruin, as their humanity and capacity for joy and repentance utterly break apart.  Their gnomic wills become transformed to a will like the devil, their souls decaying and collapsing into ash and phantom nonentity.  That is why Christ condemns them into a place prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41), because they have now become petrified ruins, devoid of hope, like the devil and his angels.  It is not true that the will ultimately will choose the good because the will was created by God.  The devil’s will was once also created by God, but the Scripture is clear that he will be “tormented day and night forever and ever”, as one who has forever rejected the good (Revelation 20:10).
Finally, we examine the objection that the eternity of hell involves the defeat of God’s will.  God wills that all men be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), and God sent His Son to save the whole world (John 3:17).  How could it be that God’s will suffer defeat, and that love could not finally win?  Our reply brings us to the final mystery, as well as to the necessity of asking ourselves about the nature of God’s final victory.
Much of the pang and disquiet one feels about asserting that God’s will shall not be finally done comes from the fact that this flies in the face of our desire for a happy ending.  By using the term “a happy ending” I do not mean to denigrate.  For me scarcely anything is more important than a happy ending; the desire for one is built into our spiritual DNA, and is almost indistinguishable from the virtue of hope.  Animals take things as they come; human beings hope for happy endings.  A desire for a happy ending is part of what it means to be made in the image of God.
That is why the Scripture asserts emphatically that history will indeed culminate in one, in what Tolkien famously called “a eucatastrophe”.  Julian of Norwich declared that at the end, “all manner of thing will be well”, echoing St. Paul’s declaration that at the end God would be all in all.  We have suggested above that this will be so, in that all the cosmos will be filled with the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.  All that is, all that exists, will then be filled with light and joy.  The lost have no place there, for they will have declined into mere phantoms, fading into nonentity, as creatures who no longer are.  This fact may be mourned, but it cannot stand in the way of joy.  Otherwise the lost would possess a kind of veto over the saved, and their misery possess a veto power over joy. 
Here is the final and all but impenetrable mystery—that joy will triumph in spite of those who would wish otherwise, and the world will not eternally be held captive to wills that refuse it.  God’s victory and our triumph and joy do not forever hang upon the devilish dog in the manger and the black puerility that would destroy it.  Mere and sterile philosophizing might declare that the loss of the single soul means the overthrow of God’s will and the defeat of love’s sovereignty.  It is not so.  A glance at the final verses of the Apocalypse (Revelation 22:14-15) reveals that it is not so.  In that apostolic and apocalyptic picture, outside the city are the dogs and murderers and idolaters and everyone who loves lying.  They have chosen their own cramped and airless souls instead of joy, and have been pushed outside the city, into the outer darkness, beyond the rim of the world.  Inside the city, God is all in all, and every manner of thing is well.  Everyone in the world is blessed, for they have washed their robes and have the right to the tree of life.  Love’s victory does not depend upon us, and cannot be thwarted by anyone, including the churlish impenitence of the lost.

The doctrine of hell is not tolerable.  But it is consistent with morality and with a belief in the love and final victory of God.  Its presence in the Scriptures does not indicate an inconsistency there, but simply that reality and the depths of the human response to God are more varied and complex than philosophers might first imagine.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Christian Universalism: Will Everyone Finally Be Saved?

When they are in fashion, fads are never recognized as fads.  Those under their influence and promoting them feel that they have come across An Important New Truth, or (if Orthodox) An Important But Neglected Part of Our Tradition.  Recognizing them as fads or, (worse yet for Orthodox) as deviations from genuine Tradition, would only serve to dismiss them from serious consideration.  Thus fads never  ’fess up.
            I suggest that the latest interest in Universalism, the belief that everyone will eventually be saved, is the latest fad (or, if preferred, that it is currently fashionable).  Evidence of this may be found in the fact that the view is being promoted by a number of different people who have little contact with one another and with little else in common.  Thus we find it promoted by a scholar such as David Bentley Hart in his essay God, Creation, and Evil, and also in more popular form (I am being polite), by Rob Bell in his best-seller Love Wins.  (My review of the latter may be found here.)  Admittedly the conviction that everyone will eventually be saved (including Satan and the demons) has been expressed from time to time throughout Christian history (as has the unrelated conviction that Christ is not fully divine), but, like the latter Arian opinion, the majority of Christians have decided to pass on it.  For people like the Orthodox who believe that God guides His Church and that therefore consensus matters, the solid fact of Christian consensus about the eternity of hell is surely significant.
            Orthodox scholars rarely stand on their hind legs and boldly proclaim that everyone will be saved.  Like Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, they simply ask “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?” (see his essay by that title in the anthology The Inner Kingdom), and then go on to answer, “Why yes, of course”.  Metropolitan Kallistos thus begins by declaring the question open (much like he recently declared the question of whether or not women may be ordained priests as open in the latest revision of his The Orthodox Church), and then proceeds to examine the evidence.  We will do the same here, and examine the Scriptures, the Fathers, and the teaching of the Fifth Ecumenical Council.  Since this is a blog and not a book, the examination must of necessity be somewhat limited.
            We begin with the Scriptures, and in particular with the Old Testament.  Most discussions I have read about this topic tend to ignore the Old Testament as irrelevant to the subject at hand, but given the fact that the apostles would have consulted the Hebrew Scriptures for all subjects, this seems unwise.  In the Old Testament we find the following consistent themes:
  1. God loves everyone, even idolatrous Gentiles such as those of Nineveh (e.g. Jonah 4:11);
  2. God hates sin and judges sinners (e.g. Psalms 11:5, 34:16);
  3. God judges sin with some reluctance, preferring the repentance of the sinner to his destruction (e.g. Ezekiel 33:11).
In all of these themes (the Scriptural citations for each could easily be multiplied) we see that although God loves everyone and judges with reluctance, He does nonetheless judge with severity those who persist in sin because He is implacably hates sin.  This binary theme of God as the lover of righteousness and hater of sin runs throughout the Old Testament.  God is the judge of all the earth, and His punishing judgment and severity falls upon those who rebel against righteousness.  Some might suggest that these themes have little ultimately to do with the subject of hell, since the judgment threatened in the time of the Old Testament had to do with this life and not the next.  Admittedly, the Old Testament texts do not deal much with the life of the age to come.  But there is one text that does:  Daniel 12:2, which declares that “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt”.  The word rendered here “everlasting” is the Hebrew olam, which given its context of the age to come after the resurrection of the dead, means precisely “eternal” or everlasting in the traditional sense.  There is therefore no reason to think that the judgments of God upon the sinner have no application to the life of eternity. 
            The theme of the age to come of course comes to the fore in the New Testament.  And here, Christ speaks quite categorically:  the punishments of Gehenna are eternal.  He warns of the impenitent being bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness where men will weep and gnash their teeth (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30), and there is no suggestion that this punishment will be temporary.  Indeed, He teaches that in Gehenna, the “unquenchable fire”, the “worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43, 48).  If the Universalists are correct, then the worm will indeed die and the fire will indeed be quenched, but Christ here says the opposite.  In His parable about Lazarus and the rich man, Christ explicitly says that there is a great gulf fixed between paradise and the place of punishment, so that none may cross over from the place to punishment into paradise (Luke 16:26).  Granted that this is a parable and not a behind the scenes peak at eternity, it remains an odd thing to say if in fact everyone in the place of punishment will indeed eventually cross over into paradise.  Also important to the discussion is the fact that Christ describes the two fates awaiting men after the final judgment either as “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”, and “eternal punishment”, or as “eternal life” (Matthew 25:41, 46).  Note that the same word “eternal” (Greek aionion) is used in v. 46 to describe both the eternal life of the saved and the eternal punishment of the condemned.  One can debate the meaning of the word aionion if one likes, but the word must have the same meaning in both halves of v. 46.  It cannot mean, for example, “the unrighteous will go away into age-long punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”.  If the life of the righteous is eternal, then so must be the punishment of the unrighteous.  One may assert that St. Paul proclaims universalism if one likes, but no one has ever suggested that Christ did.  All of His words about the fate of men in the age to come are emphatic that hell is eternal, and contain not a hint of universalism.  One cannot bypass this fact when promoting universalism, as many seem to do, but must rather explain why it is that Christ is so uncompromising in His words about hell.
            In his examination of the New Testament evidence mentioned above, Metropolitan Kallistos writes that “these and other ‘hell-fire’ texts need to be interpreted in the light of different passages from the New Testament which point rather in a ‘universalist’ direction”, by which he means “a series of Pauline texts”.  This is not so much using Paul as a lens through which to view Christ’s teaching as it is misusing Paul as a means of discounting the teaching of Christ, for if Paul indeed taught universalism, then Christ was simply wrong.  One cannot oppose Christ to His apostle like this and reject all of Christ’s teaching on hell simply because one prefers what one imagines is the teaching of Paul.  Obviously one must interpret both Christ and His apostle so that their teachings are mutually compatible.
            And in fact St. Paul does indeed conform with his Lord, and teach that the punishment of hell is unending.  Take for example 1 Corinthians 6:10 and Galatians 5:21, where Paul teaches that the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God.  There is no suggestion that actually they will inherit the Kingdom of God after all, but only after a lot of suffering.  Or take for example Ephesians 5:6, where he writes that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.  If by “wrath” Paul meant only “temporary anger which will eventually give place to acceptance and bliss”, his warning loses most of its force.  Or take for another example 2 Thessalonians 1:9, where Paul describes the lost as “suffering the punishment of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord”.  If the banishment from the Lord’s presence were only temporary, it would hardly be eternal destruction.  As it is, it looks as if Paul is here echoing Christ’s teaching about the lost being bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness.
            And then there is the Book of Revelation.  This Book is clear to the point of being almost lurid that the pains of hell are unending:  “if anyone worships the Beast and its image…he also shall drink the wine of God’s wrath poured unmixed into the cup of His anger and he shall be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.  And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever [Greek eis aionas aionon] and they have no rest day or night” (Revelation 14:11).  The devil and his angels, far from being eventually redeemed because love wins, will be “thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur…and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” [Greek eis tous aionas ton aionon] (Revelation 20:10).  If the words eis aionas aionon does not here mean “unending”, then words have no meaning.  Indeed, if a man wanted to express the concept of unending punishment, how much more emphatic than this could he get?  One may, if one likes, presume to be more loving and tender-hearted than the apostolic author of these words.  One may lament the fate of the lost, while condemning those who believe that hell is eternal as heartless and insensitive members of a “hellfire club”, but of the author’s intent in writing those words there can be little doubt:  the punishments of hell are unending and eternal.  How such a view can be moral and consistent with belief in a loving God can and should be debated.  But for Christians who believe the Scriptures, the truth of this teaching is sure.  Our faith must be rooted in the Scriptures, not in our own views of whether or not we think something is consistent with love as we understand it.  A belief in hell may or may not be consistent with love, but what is certain is that it is taught in the Scriptures, and this must be the deciding factor for us.  The upshot of all this may be summed up by John, the beloved disciple and the apostle of love:  “he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides upon him” (John 3:36).
            Since this teaching about the eternity of hell is so unambiguous, Paul’s other words (which everyone acknowledges contain more ambiguity) must be interpreted in the light of them.  In 1 Corinthians 15:28, for example, Paul teaches that at the end, all will be subject to God, so that He “will be all in all”.  In its context, it is doubtful if this means more than simply all of God’s enemies including death (the main subject of the chapter) will be destroyed, and in the new heaven and new earth, righteousness will finally reign (compare 2 Peter 3:13).  This is compatible with the lost no longer being found in the new heavens or the new earth, but in the darkness outside, excluded from the Kingdom (compare Matthew 13:41-43, 25:30). 
In other passages Paul writes that just as Adam’s sin brought death to all men, so Christ’s work brought justification and life to all (Romans 5:18), and that “as in Adam all die so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).  Here Paul is speaking of the possibility of all men enjoying eternal life, not of the certainty of their eventual salvation.  Paul teaches here that in Christ all have been made alive, and their redemption has been purchased—but whether one chooses to be and to remain “in Christ” depends upon their personal choice.  According to Paul, life has indeed come to all, but that life is in God’s Son.  No one will enjoy this life unless one is in the Son, “in Christ” (to use Paul’s term) and unless one remains in Him “stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel” (Colossians 1:23). Christ is truly the Saviour of all men (1 Timothy 4:10), but for men to be enjoy that salvation, they must believe, otherwise they will be condemned.
In perusing the New Testament teaching, John’s gospel in particular, along with his epistles, shines not only with a universal offer of salvation to all the world, but also with this fundamental binary approach—the choice between light or darkness, faith or unbelief, salvation or condemnation.  For St. John the key to enjoying this salvation is acceptance of Jesus as Lord and God.  John is emphatic that Jesus came to save the whole world, and equally emphatic that a man must believe in Jesus to be saved.  Thus “he who has the Son has life”, while “he who has not the Son of God has not life” (1 John 5:12). Universalism destroys this fundamental apostolic binary.  A view of history as one of eternal cyclic return—of all the cosmos falling and then eventually returning to saving unity—might have resonated for many in Origen’s day and inspired his own view of apokatastasis, but it is alien and incompatible with the Hebrew and binary approach to life and salvation found in John’s Gospel, and in the rest of the New Testament.
            We turn now to a brief look at the Fathers.  Here is not the place to enter into a detailed examination of what these ancient Christian writers wrote, and what they meant by it, and whether they would be happy to be thus hauled into court as witnesses for Christian universalism.  In the case of Origen, we may doubt this last:  he said that although all will be saved, this teaching ought to be kept secret, and shared only with the spiritually mature.  Presumably this excluded promoting this teaching on blogs.   
            In the vast array of the Fathers, only a few are regularly cited:  Gregory of Nyssa (along with his mentor Origen), and Isaac the Syrian.  We note in passing that some have debated whether or not Gregory of Nyssa may be considered a universalist in the sense we are discussing.  Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos argues in his book Life After Death that Gregory of Nyssa did not in fact contradict the view of the Fifth Ecumenical Council that the punishments of Gehenna were unending.  Where such scholars disagree about patristics, I am happy to walk away quietly and leave the question open.  But even if Gregory of Nyssa did actually teach that all will be saved, his was still simply a single individual opinion.  It could be, as some suggest, that many other Fathers have written from a universalist perspective.  Being a parish priest and not a patristic scholar, I have not read everything written by the Fathers, would be happy to hear their voices, especially set in context, finding out in which book or essay they wrote their universalist opinion.  But that Gregory of Nyssa and Isaac the Syrian are the only ones constantly quoted by proponents like Ware and Hart does little to bolster the view that many of the Fathers thought like this.  One always hears about Gregory and Isaac, and hardly ever about anyone else.  It is difficult to not to conclude that Gregory (with his mentor Origen) and Isaac the Syrian and few others stood over against the vast consensus of practically everyone else.   
            At the risk of opening up a game of duelling patristic citations, in the east one might quote from St. John Chrysostom:  “There are many men, who form good hopes not by abstaining from their sins, but by thinking that hell is not so terrible as it is said to be, but milder than what is threatened, and temporary, not eternal… But that it is not temporary, hear Paul now saying, concerning those who know not God, and who do not believe in the Gospel, that ‘they shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction.’ How then is that temporary which is everlasting?”  (from his third homily on 2 Thessalonians).
            Then in the west we may quote from St. Augustine of Hippo:  “I am aware that I now have to engage in a debate with those compassionate Christians who refuse to believe that the punishment of hell will be everlasting…On this subject the most compassionate of all was Origen, who believed that the Devil himself and his angels will be rescued from their torments and brought into the company of the holy angels…But the Church has rejected Origen’s teaching…Is it not folly to assume that eternal punishment signifies a fire lasting a long time, while believing that eternal life is life without end?  For Christ, in the very same passage, included both punishment and life in one and the same sentence when He said, ‘So those people will go into eternal punishment, while the righteous will go into eternal life’”  (City of God Book 21, chapters 17, 23).
            In this last citation we note that Augustine asserted that “the Church has rejected Origen’s teaching”.  He appears to refer to an existing consensus, which rejected the apokatastasis taught by Origen.  This consensus would later come to be expressed in the canons of future Ecumenical Councils.  The views of the Fathers are important, but perhaps not as important as the traditions of these Councils, for an Orthodox thinker may disagree with St. Augustine or St. John Chrysostom, but he may not disagree with the conclusions of the Ecumenical Councils and still regard himself as genuinely Orthodox.  This is not a matter of “rigorism” or being exclusionary, but simply a matter of recognizing the normative authority of the Ecumenical Councils for those claiming to be Orthodox.
            When we look at the Fifth Ecumenical Council, we find associated with it a series of fifteen anathemas directed as heretical teachings of that day associated with the name of Origen.  Though no one doubts Origen was condemned by the Council (his name was included along with Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius and other ancient heretics in Canon 11), considerable doubt attaches to whether the fifteen anathemas were the genuine work of the Council.  Some suggest that they were the work of bishops meeting before the Fifth Ecumenical Council.  Either way, the Council Fathers certainly knew of them and approved of them (as even Metropolitan Kallistos acknowledges), since they condemned Origen by name, lumping him in with other ancient heretics.  These anathemas therefore may be allowed to stand as illustrative of why the Council Fathers anathematized Origen in Canon 11.  (These anathemas were confirmed by the first canon of the “Quinisext Council” held in 692, which spoke with approval of how previous Council Fathers “anathematized and execrated…Origen”.)
            Origen of course produced much good work in his day (St. Gregory the Theologian referred to him as “the whetstone of us all”), but much of his speculation was later deemed erroneous and heretical.  The abiding point of the anathemas therefore has to do with Origenism as it was known in the sixth century with its erroneous teachings, and less to do with the historical figure of Origen himself.  What was it that the Church was determined to anathematize?  We gain some idea from looking at the fifteen anathemas themselves.
            The first one anathematizes anyone who “asserts the fabulous [i.e. mythical] pre-existence of souls”.  The fourteenth anathema rejects the teaching that “all reasonable beings will one day be united in one when hypostases as well as the numbers and the bodies shall have disappeared…and that in this pretended apokatastasis spirits only will continue to exist”.  Clearly the doctrine of apokatastasis considered here appears in Origenistic dress.  But would the Council Fathers have been much more accepting if the doctrine appeared without Origen’s teaching of the pre-existence of souls and their eternal return?  St. Augustine would not have been much mollified, nor St. John Chrysostom.  Nor would Justinian, who called the council: one of his nine anathemas against Origen reads, “If anyone says that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary, and will one day have an end, and that a apokatastasis will take place of demons and of impious men, let him be anathema”.  It is possible, I suppose, that although the Emperor seems to have rejected the notion of apokatastasis in principle, the Council Fathers accepted it in principle, and only anathematized it because of its Origenistic framework, but this seems a bit of a stretch.  If the Council Fathers had no problem with apokatastasis as such, one wonders why they mentioned it at all in their condemnation of Origen.  At least they could have made clear that it was Origen’s use of the teaching that they found objectionable, and not the teaching itself.  It all reminds me of the special pleading of John Henry Newman, who argued in his Tract 90 that the 39 Articles (then considered authoritative for Anglican clergy) did not condemn the doctrine of purgatory in principle, but only “the Romish doctrine concerning purgatory”, when clearly the framers of the 39 Articles would have little sympathy for any doctrine of purgatory at all.
            At the end of the day what ultimately matters is less the historical minutiae of the Council’s background (fascinating though it may be to scholars) than the abiding consensus of the Church through the centuries--a consensus reflected not only in the Church's iconography regarding the Last Judgment, but also in her hymns.  Consider, for example, the stich for the Vespers of the Sunday of the Last Judgment:  "the whole vale of sorrow shall echo with the fearful sound of lamentation, as all the sinners, weeping in vain, are sent by Your just judgement to everlasting torment".  The Church later read the Council as condemning not only Origen’s teaching in particular, but also as condemning the concept of an ultimate apokatastasis in principle.  One may lament this reading of the Council (as some do) and spend much effort trying to correct it and promote universalism as a live option (perhaps even rehabilitating Origen).  But surely an age-long Orthodox consensus has a weight of its own?  For centuries Orthodox Christians have believed that the doctrine of an ultimate apokatastasis was off the table, and this cannot be ignored.  It is a narrow and legalistic reading of our tradition that that ascribes authority only to the pronouncements of the Ecumenical Councils, as if everything not explicitly condemned by them were live options.  Liberal scholars, of course, are happy to dismiss centuries of tradition and belief as the ramblings of the ignorant and uneducated, but pious Orthodox will give this tradition its due weight.  And when the Scriptures are so clear, and when the consensus of the Fathers so weighty, and when the occasions when the Ecumenical Councils which considered the question all point in the same direction, we may conclude that we have found the mind of the Church.  We live in a day when much of Holy Tradition is being challenged in the Church, and many questions which were considered closed are now being considered open.  It is not surprising, therefore, if the Church’s condemnation of the apokatastasis is among them.
            It remains to consider the question:  if a desire to rehabilitate a belief in the apokatastasis is indeed a fad, why does it arise in our culture now?  A full response cannot be attempted at the end of an already over-long article.  But I think that is not unrelated to our culture’s loss of its sense of sin.  As mentioned over a century ago by C.S. Lewis, the modern West has lost its sense of sin.  In ancient times, all men, be they Jew, pagan, or Christian, believed that they stood guilty before the divine judgment seat.  That is not to say that there was no cause for theodicy, but at very least one felt shame for one’s own sins.  Thus when Christ said in passing that men were evil [Greek poneros; Matthew 7:11], no one batted an eye, for everyone knew it was true.  We no longer believe that, and so (in Lewis’ famous phrase) we have put God in the dock, with ourselves as His judges.  In this frame of mind the very existence of hell is a stumbling block, and something which cries out for justification, if not revision.  There is a place for considering and explaining how the existence of hell is consistent with God’s love.  But we set ourselves up to err if we do not first feel the shame for our own sins, and proceed from there.
Next:  The Morality of Gehenna