Is Hell Real?

Because sometimes the people of God need a basic lesson in the nature of existence…

Picture-of-HellOn one of the roads leading into my small city a billboard has recently appeared. It is part of a larger campaign by a nationally known evangelist who is to have a revival in Knoxville. The sign is simple. In very large bright yellow letters (all caps), the sign says: HELL IS REAL. In small letters beneath it, in white, that can be read as your car nears the sign is the statement: so is heaven. Like the small bulletin boards outside of many Southern churches, this sign belongs to a part of our culture that has been with us a long time. But everytime I see this sign, my mind turns to the subject of ontology (the study of the nature of being). Thus I offer today some very basic thoughts on the subject of being – a classical part of Christian theology.

The first thing I will note is that you cannot say Hell is real and Heaven is real and the word real mean the same thing in both sentences. Whatever the reality of Heaven, Hell does not have such reality. Whatever the reality of Hell, Heaven is far beyond such reality.

St. Athanasius in his De Incarnatione, sees sin (and thus hell) as a movement towards “non-being.” The created universe was made out of nothing – thus as it moves away from God it is moving away from the gift of existence and towards its original state – non-existence. God is good, and does not begrudge existence to anything, thus the most creation can do is move towards non-being.

I’m certain that the intent of the billboard was to suggest that hell is not imaginary or just a folk-tale. It is certainly neither of those things. But in Orthodox spiritual terms I would say that hell is a massive state of delusion, maybe the ultimate state of delusion. It is delusional in the sense that (in Orthodox understanding) the “fire” of hell is not a material fire, but itself nothing other than the fire of the Living God (Hebrews 12:29). For those who love God, His fire is light and life, purification and all good things. For those who hate God, His fire is torment, though it be love.

And these are not simply picky issues about the afterlife – they are very germane issues for the present life. Christ Himself gave this “definition” of hell: “And this is condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).

It is of critical importance for us to understand that being, reality, life, goodness, beauty, happiness, truth are all synonymous with reality as it is gifted to us by God. Many things that we experience in our currently damaged condition (I speak of our fallen state) which we describe with words such as “being, reality, life, goodness, beauty, happiness, truth, etc.”, are, in fact, only relatively so and are only so inasmuch as they have a participation or a relationship with the fullness of being, reality, life, etc.

Tragically in our world, many live in some state of delusion (even most of us live in some state of delusion). Christ said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” We are not pure in heart, and thus we do not see God, nor do we see anything in the fullness of its truth. Our delusion makes many mistakes about reality. The most serious delusion is that described by Christ, when we prefer darkness to light because our deeds are evil.

I have in my own life known what moments in such darkness are like – and I have seen such darkness in the hearts and lives of others many times. The whole of our ministry and life as Christians is to move from such darkness and into the light of Christ. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship (communion) one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1John 1:7)

Is hell real? Only for those who prefer to see the Light of God as darkness.

Is heaven real? Yes, indeed, and everything else is only real as it relates to that reality. God give us grace to walk in the Light.

End of the ontology lesson.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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181 responses to “Is Hell Real?”

  1. leonard Nugent Avatar
    leonard Nugent

    Someone once told me that Hell is real and not only that, I could go there! 😛

  2. Dino Avatar

    What a beautiful leson that was! Thank you Father – asking for your blessing!

  3. Charlie Avatar

    well,leonard, I can’t imagine why the thought gives you a ‘happy face’; it scares the (well, you guessed it) out of me.

  4. Isaac Avatar

    I recently watched the Hellbound documentary created by Kevin Miller and have also been reviewing the arguments (among the Reformation and Post-Reformation traditions)for the big three views on hell (universalism, annihilationism, and conscious torment). What is common to all of these views is that they very much see hell as a separate reality from the Kingdom of Heaven on some level. Edward Fudge, a proponent of annihilationism, finds great relief in the notion that God will merely execute the wicked once and for all as their just punishment instead of keeping them alive to torture forever (and he is subsequently accused of being liberal in his theology and of soft-peddling the real nature of God). The universalists do a better job of upholding the love of God as demonstrated through Christ than the others in these traditions, but they often retain views like substitutionary atonement because they still believe God must punish sin by making someone suffer to meet the needs of justice (in this case Jesus takes our place).

    Then again, there are a fair number of Orthodox Christians who view hell and heaven more or less as American fundamentalists do and would not agree with the notion that hell and heaven are the presence of God experienced differently. All this tells me is that many people don’t really ask themselves what kind of God they actually believe in. Many times the Christian God is simply retribution or karma or vengeance embodied as a Person.

    I personally find a kinship with St. Isaac, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and other Orthodox universalists who believed that humans will not stay in their delusions forever, but after long suffering would finally come to the Reality of God and bow the knee so that God may be “all in all.” But this is a minority view in Orthodoxy and certainly not one I could tell a non-Orthodox person was anything beyond a private pious opinion.

    All that to say that using hell as a bludgeon seems to exist in those traditions where the love of God is questionable in their outlooks. They concede that God will forgive them through Christ, but seem to imply that those outside will be subject to his “Justice” which means the need to exact retribution on them for eternity. This seems like a schizophrenic view of God. It is at least a relief that among those Orthodox that did believe in hell as a separate place of conscious punishment and torture they nevertheless emphasized the love of God rather than the fear of hell even if their views were equally schizophrenic. I wonder what the difference is? Maybe it all goes back to Augustine and his influence on the west.

  5. Isaac Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    What would you say to those Orthodox that claim that the “heaven and hell as the love of God experienced differently” view is a recent invention? It does appear that a fair number of Orthodox on the ground view heaven and hell pretty much the same way any American fundamentalist does (including the belief that heaven and hell are Platonic spiritual locations separate from this cosmos rather than the transfiguration of this cosmos).

  6. Alan Avatar

    Isaac, How does your view of Universalism fit with the fact that Origen was condemned by the 5th Ecumenical Council for teaching universalism?

  7. Jacob Ramsey Avatar
    Jacob Ramsey

    Fr. Stephen,

    I used to ponder the idea of sin and hell as delusion when I worked in psych care. It was very apparent working with my patients that the line between sanity and insanity is uncomfortably blurry and really exists on a broad, dynamic spectrum. It was uncomfortable to notice that I and other sane people actually participate in some of the same delusions as the mentally ill, but in much lesser, less harmful degrees.

    I know it might seem unrelated, Father, but how do you think the Orthodox theology of icons informs our understanding of “reality”, both in the grand cosmic question and in our day to day lives?

  8. Isaac Avatar


    Sorry, but that didn’t happen so I don’t know how to answer that question. Do you think St. Gregory of Nyssa of St. Isaac of Syria would be held in the regard they were and are if that had happened and the Church had universally condemned the belief that all will be saved?

  9. Dominic Albanese Avatar
    Dominic Albanese

    in my way of thinking Hell the boilerroom version was invented by royals to keep the rif raf in line. As I have gotten older I do not see a prize for good or a punishment for bad. I think most of the current and post Orthodox scam artist et all have used the carrot and stick for thier own enrichment. As simple as I can see it, you do good and good will happen do bad and bad will happen, but since the true nature of eterinty is unknown no matter how many Abbots and Saints write different, the end time is light or dark and free will is the ticket to the uptown train or the express to nowhereville. out

  10. Charlie Avatar

    you seem to be overlooking God as loving; merciful, and as Saviour.
    (or maybe not?)

  11. Dan Avatar

    The mistake made hear is that because the torment of hell has been portrayed by man with fire and brimstone imagery that man has over dramatized it’s reality. In fact, though, man has under dramatized it because man can not fathom what it would truly be like to be separated from God, much like we can not fathom what it will be like to be in His presence.

    We know through scripture that angels eternally volley, “Holy Holy is the Lord God all mighty” throughout the arc of Heaven.

    May sound a little boring to even the most devout believer but OH how things will change once we are able to stop seeing through this dim glass.

  12. TLO Avatar

    Fr. Stephen – I confess that I struggled through this whole piece. Why is this a topic of conversation when what lay ahead of us cannot possibly be known until after we shuffle off this mortal coil.

    People have a hard enough time agreeing on how to interpret the pages that everyone can read, let alone declaring that which is beyond our ability to comprehend.

  13. Perry Robinson Avatar

    Did any apostolic see deliver universalism as part of the apostolic deposit?

  14. Isaac Avatar


    I’ve read much of what you have written over at EP and greatly appreciate it!

    My answer to your question would be “certainly not,” but my impression is also that the idea that some will experience God as fire has not been likewise “delivered.”

    In one sense you could argue that this version of paradise and Gehenna (the presence of God experienced differently) is a form of universalism since from God’s perspective they don’t exist. All of the material conditions of Paradise are present, but some or many are nevertheless in torment due to the condition of their hearts. I certainly believe this picture is far more preferable than other conceptions of hell, but I am not certain it is the end of the story. And for the record, the “River of Fire” and similar articles were very instrumental in my conversion to Orthodoxy, not a belief in universalism.

  15. leonard Nugent Avatar
    leonard Nugent

    If universalism is ever dogmatized then how one lives his life becomes irrelevant. Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we will be in heaven!

  16. Margaret Avatar

    I have found The Great Divorce by CS Lewis to be helpful in thinking of heaven and hell; but really nothing compares to the teaching and tradition of Orthodoxy concerning the fire of the living God. I am always reduced to saying “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” and so there is encouragement!

  17. Isaac Avatar


    I would never expect universalism to be dogmatized anymore than I would expect the Church to dogmatically claim that at least a portion of humanity will be damned forever as dogma (or why pray for the dead?), but your concern is strange because it seems to imply that the only reason to strive for theosis in this life is to avoid punishment in the next life.

    As an aside, we should keep in mind that the vast majority of universalists believe in Gehenna and that some or many people may be in a state of torment for “ages of ages” before they finally relent.

  18. Kev Avatar

    I don’t think that God ever punishes but I do think that He rewards. He rewards me often. I am learning to be grateful for His blessings. But I am baffled about why the human heart is so, that despite all the blessings it is still ungrateful. What a lot of work the Holy Spirit must do in us.

    I suppose that there are some who on seeing others get a reward will feel that they are being punished. But that is just plain childish. And that may give us an insight into what hell is.

  19. Dante Aligheri Avatar
    Dante Aligheri

    While I sympathize with this perspective, I have recently been reading a Catholic blog on patristics called” Ressourcement.” They had linked a series of blog posts by Fr. Al Kimel, an Orthodox priest. Fr. Kimel had both historical and philosophical objections to this “River of Fire” perspective as one unsatisfactory towards the love of God and underrepresented among the Fathers, East and West.

    As far as I can understand it, Fr. Kimel seemed to take a universalist view akin to that of St. Isaac the Syrian, Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, and C.S. Lewis in that Hell is both a “river of fire” but also purgatorial and therapeutic for those who choose to repent.

    I was wondering if you might be able to add some insight.

    Thank you.

  20. Rhonda Avatar

    What a brave priest you are, Fr. Stephen, to bring up such a topic! Excellent article as usual 🙂

  21. Mike Avatar

    A little patronizing and even less enlightening. Whatever we draw out of the truths of the Fathers for general discussion must also be helpful in a pastoral sense or it is rife with the potential for delusion to come of our very efforts to clarify. Orthodoxy has had the luxury–for a long, long time–not to either have to speak truth into the culture at large of which it is a part or to have to relate the truths of the faith to the common person, so that (here’s a new idea!) evangelism can happen and souls can be saved. This commentary, as well-intentioned as it may be, is born of a cross between pedantry and spiritual luxury: pedantry because distinctions are called important, without truly showing why it should matter & luxury because the whole discussion occurs in a kind of vacuum which the billboard on that farm in the Bible Belt does not occupy. Leave it to the Bible Belt to not correctly understand ontology and leave it to Orthodoxy to render a simple message in such a complicated manner that, once again, it’s not communicable to the man on the street who needs someone to speak a good word about Jesus to Him and give that man a clear choice between heaven and hell. Sometime I wonder if the gnostic heresy of “knowledge for a special few” has not formed our Orthodox sensibilities a whole lot more than we are willing to admit.

  22. Rhonda Avatar

    I posted the links to several of Fr. Aidan’s articles to which you refer. They are currently stuck “awaiting moderation”.

  23. Rhonda Avatar


    No, not necessarily. In the strict sense of “universalism” that many Protestants proclaim today, yes…what is being said is that there are no eternal consequences for our temporal actions. I have yet to find any writings in the Fathers that affirm this stance.

    Our strong predisposition to “justice” rejects this. Our concepts of justice & especially divine justice (more accurately “judgement”) thus turn heaven/hell into nothing more than eternal reward/punishment for temporal actions.

    I wish more people would consider the difference between the meaning of justice vs. judgement before they so glibly condemn or threaten with the throes of hell. While many say “justice” when they refer to “God’s Justice”, a more accurate word for what they mean is actually “judgement”…guilty/not guilty. In judgement there is no room for mercy; a misdeed is either done or not done…one either measures up or one does not.

    God’s Justice on the other hand implies & even requires God’s mercy. I think that this is more in line with what St. Isaac the Syrian & others like him in the Fathers mean. God’s presence is a fire that heals, cleanses & purifies. What is being proclaimed is that the presence of God for the sinner will be one of healing & transformation from their former delusion, sinfulness or whatever caused their temporal rejection of His love. This will not be pleasant; i.e. it will be hell. Afterwards, will all delusion removed, the sinner will then be able to worship God & experience His presence as heaven. Although these words imply a sequence or time, ultimately in God’s presence there is no such thing for He is eternal & we are then existing in eternity.

    We would do well before even thinking of discussing heaven or hell about the reason that Christ came, died & resurrected for us. He did not come to eternally reward nor to eternally punish. Christ came not to make bad men good, but dead men live. I don’t remember who said that originally, but it fits. He came not to condemn, but to save. He came for the life of the world.

  24. Rhonda Avatar

    To answer TLO’s point: I do not know what heaven or hell will be. When it comes to such concepts the ultimate reality is & will be far beyond what we are able to conceive. But one thing I do know, heaven is good while hell is not. I sincerely hope in God’s mercy, when the time comes, for the former & not the latter regards my own eternal destiny! That is enough to know I think.

  25. Alan Avatar

    Leonard, you are spot on. What’s the point of the struggle? So we simply disregard all the passages about weeping and gnashing of teeth?

    Isaac, thanks for clearing that up for me (LOL). I’ve heard that about Origen numerous places, including Ancient Faith Radio, so pardon me for not just taking your word for it.

    Sadly, I see that the Orthodox faith is not immune to what plagues Evangelicalism, each person simply deciding what they wish to believe. Sad.

  26. Alan Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, Like many who follow your blog, I’m not Orthodox. Although I’ve attended many liturgies in recent years and read several O books and consider myself a serious inquirer and hope to one day become Orthodox. I have an honest question for you, but the very nature of my question will come across as confrontational, so I hope you forgive me and I hope you will answer.

    Your last two or three posts have left me in a state of despair. Despair because I HAD come to the point of believing that the O Church was the only hope left in the world for Christianity. But now you’ve posted that there was no historical Adam, and now today, there’s no real Hell, all dogs will go to Heaven, etc. I have to ask, How are these views any different from the liberal mainline Protestant denoms (Episcopal, Methodist, ELCA Lutherans) that long ago gave up on believing in the Bible? It seems apparent to me that the O church is just a generation behind the deep slide into the abyss that those churches went down. I’m so saddened to learn of this O view that the Bible is just a nice collection of stories, who knows is any of it is even true. I’m half afraid (seriously)that your next post is going to be on the fact that the resurrection of Christ didn’t really happen, but was actually meant to be just a nice metaphor for us. If we’re not going to believe anything in the Bible, then what can we believe, and on what basis?

    I’m not trying to be combative or snarky. I’m actually quite distraught at this point. I’m of course welcome to read any thoughts from anyone at this point.

    Thanks for your time.

  27. Alan Avatar

    Isaac, please see the attached link. It lists the 10 anathemas against Origen. Scroll down and read #9. By the way, I just happened to choose this one. There were many others I could have also chosen. I’ve never even heard that this point is in dispute.

  28. Alan Avatar

    Sorry for all of the posts tonight.

    If we’re not going to believe in a real Hell, then someone’s going to need to explain this, from the Antiochian Orthodox website:

  29. David Kontur Avatar
    David Kontur

    Father Stephen –
    There was an episode of the Twilight Zone that I remember watching as a teen in the 70’s. It showed this family that had all died and were together again celebrating and enjoying being together in what seemed to be a room in a house. They were content, and present to each other. Suddenly a young man and woman entered the room, as it turns out their lives had been a big refusal and rebellion- they too were in the very same room, but whereas for the family this room was a place of joy, presence and reunion, for the young couple it became a prison filled with boredom and with no escape – they could not even enjoy being with each other. I’ve never thought of hell as fire and devils with pitchforks – but always thought that that episode of the Twilight Zone captured in a concrete way how we create our own hell and that God never sends or wills any of us into hell, but we put ourselves there, even in this lifetime, when our lives become a refusal to love and a continuous flight from God.
    Thank you for your posting!!

  30. Rhonda Avatar

    Actually, Mike, Orthodoxy’s message is simple. So simple in fact that many just cannot fathom its depth! Many are not even aware that faith can have depth due to all of the shallowness they are taught. This is also true of many that call themselves pastors. Sadly many just do not want put out any effort into faith because they have basically been taught that such things are unnecessary (at best) or works based (at worst).

    As I said, Orthodoxy’s message is simple; we explain it to small children. I have yet to meet an Orthodox teen raised in the Church that cannot defend their faith to the most exuberant Protestant evangelist. Furthermore, Orthodox college students are absolutely awesome at this. There is a reason for this, they have been taught & immersed in the faith from the time of their baptism at around 40 days old rather than being corralled away until their teens so they don’t disturb the adults.

    “knowledge for a special few”? It is available to all, even more so with the advent of the internet which hardly qualifies as a “vacuum”; actually just the opposite. The postings of Fr. Stephen & so others like him reaches far more than just the Orthodox! Furthermore, it will for years to come thanks to search engines.

    Regards evangelism: Orthodoxy is one of the very few groups in America that is not hemorrhaging members & is actually one of the fastest growing, second only to non-denominational/independent. Sounds to me like we have some evangelization going on somewhere!

    Usually evangelization occurs as Orthodox Christians live their daily lives interacting with those they come into regular contact with rather than through “revivals” or “entertainment galas”. Face it, such events are done for one purpose…to make money through ticket, book & CD sales, not to mention solicitation for monthly donations. Many of lesser repute are outright charlatans that even the mainstream Protestants don’t like.

  31. Byron Gaist Avatar
    Byron Gaist

    Beautifully said yet again. How simple it sounds when you explain it, Fr Stephen!

  32. Rhonda Avatar

    I am sure that Fr. Stephen will answer your comment, but until he does, here is my 2 cents. You are by no means being combative or snarky (although I am too old to be sure of just what that means). I understand much of what you are questioning…do not despair! Your questions are actually quite normal 🙂 We get nervous when inquirers don’t have questions!

    You stated that you have “attended many liturgies…& read several O books”. Well & good, but do you have a regular relationship with a priest? That is what you need now to guide you. One cannot understand Orthodoxy without immersing oneself in Orthodoxy.

    Trust me on this. I had read numerous books about Orthodoxy & had done much research before I ever stepped inside of my mission parish. I thought that I knew so much & I did know more than most that walk through our doors; but in reality I knew nothing about being Orthodox! You just cannot learn that from books.

    Orthodoxy has a different mindset than the Western religious traditions. Neither can this be learned from books or even by reading Fr. Stephen’s blog, excellent as it is. The things you are questioning in your above comment are the wrong questions. This too is normal for inquirers & typical of the Western mindset. I will not address them directly (other than the Scriptures) because I do not feel that it would be helpful to you at this time. Just know this, when I first became Orthodox, I too believed in a Protestant-based literal & historic Adam…& guess what? The priest Chrismated me anyway! 🙂

    Both of my priests were former ELCA ministers. I too journeyed through those same groups. The Orthodox views are vastly different than those groups you mentioned or else I would not be Orthodox.

    Fr. Stephen blogs about the false ideas of religion that have become deeply ingrained into the American religious culture. One of those false ideas is how the Scriptures are understood & interpreted. He & all Orthodox Christians certainly believe in the Scriptures! Orthodox services are absolutely overflowing with Scripture references. But the Orthodox understanding of the Scriptures is vastly different from Protestantism.

    You did not mention any reading of the Church Fathers. Their writings are important to understanding how the early Church interpreted & how the Orthodox Church still does interpret the Scriptures.

    Anyway, I am sure that Fr. Stephen will answer your comment. For now though, I recommend that you stop reading about Orthodoxy & go discover Orthodoxy. Get in touch with Fr. Stephen outside of the blog-o-sphere & have him recommend an Orthodox parish close to you. Go find a priest & not only talk with him, but develop a continued & consistent relationship with him.

    Attend Orthodox liturgical services regularly & not only Divine Liturgy, but also Vespers services in the evenings (usually Wednesday & Saturday) & whatever else is offered in the way of services. Stay for the Fellowship meal after Divine Liturgy & feel free to ask questions. Ask about an inquirer or catechumen class & attend even if it has already been started. You will never be pushed to become Orthodox just because you have participated in services or classes.

  33. Rhonda Avatar

    “Sadly, I see that the Orthodox faith is not immune to what plagues Evangelicalism, each person simply deciding what they wish to believe.”

    No, this is not the case! The Church does not define, clarify or regulate via Tradition each & every thought that may enter the mind. Tradition merely sets the boundaries of the Faith much like parents may erect a fence around their yard. Their children are free to play anywhere inside of the fence, but not allowed to play outside of the fence where danger may exist. Outside of the boundary-fence of Tradition is danger-heresy-which one may not adhere to & remain in the Faith. An example of this would be that one is free to believe in the Trinity which has been explained many ways & with many examples, but one is not free to be a Unitarian. That is heresy. The priest may teach as he sees fit within the Tradition, but he may not teach outside of the Tradition. Tradition acts as a fence to keep us safe from dangers that will derail our Faith.

  34. Thaeda Franz Avatar
    Thaeda Franz


    I always enjoy reading your blog—I come from a Protestant tradition of “because the Bible says so” without much thoughtfulness or explanation. I converted to the RC Church over a decade ago but find my practice so very stale….I am now somewhat of a nomad….I wander here and there seeking spiritual bits that seem just enough to keep my spirit from starving, but never really finding home and nourishment. I hope to find such a home sometime soon. Peace to you and your dear ones.

  35. Michael Patrick Avatar
    Michael Patrick

    I think heaven is seen by many as an escape from hell. Defining hell thus clarifies in some way what heaven must be by contrast. This is futile, of course, because “whatever the reality of Hell, Heaven is far beyond such reality.”

    But I don’t think God messes around or is satisfied that we’ll grasp His reality through mere. No. He puts his own uncreated Glory out there for us to grasp — the deifying light of grace. The kingdom and heaven are not hidden or held back from us in any way.

    Unfortunately, Evangelicals settle for a kind of grace that’s nothing more than a benign favor or attitude toward us made possible by the justice wrought through Christ’s atoning death on the cross.

    But grace is the glory of God Himself – uncreated light by which we participate in His divinity and kingdom.

    Another mistake is to limit the power of Christ’s death. It destroyed death for ALL men and we’ll ALL be resurrected before the throne.

    By His full participation in our nature and death we are given to join with Him in divine love which is nothing less than heaven. The way is to literally seek His glory every day as David did entering the temple (His presence) to offer sacrifices, starting with himself, and the whole city (world) to God. Seen this way, the kingdom is truly at hand and ours to stand in. What a gift!

  36. Michael Patrick Avatar
    Michael Patrick

    Sorry: I mean to say “grasp his reality through mere concepts of heaven or hell.”

  37. Meg Photini Avatar
    Meg Photini


    Sure, the gospel is communicable to the man on the street; otherwise, it wouldn’t be the gospel.

    How about this: either heaven or hell can be real in your life now. Do you choose to accept the love of God, who loves you so much that he sacrificed his son for you to have new life, or do you reject it and live in the delusion that what you have is real life?

    It’s not all about the future. Today is the day of salvation–when I start partaking in the kingdom of heaven, by the mercy of God.

  38. PJ Avatar

    I am pulled in multiple directions by this matter. Ultimately, I feel that I can pray for, but not presume upon, the mercy of God.

  39. PJ Avatar


    You’re certainly not wrong. The Christian faith is eschatological: the kingdom is here, now, among us, within us. But — but — while we no longer live in the age of shadow, we still live in the age of icon. We do not yet see “face to face,” but still in a mirror darkly. The eucharist is the prime example of this. Whereas the Jews merely received the manna as a type, we receive the true God-Man in bread and wine; yet someday we shall receive Him as He really is!

    The great apocalypse — the final unveiling of the mystery of God — has yet to occur. The catholic religion maintains a delicate balance between a Hebraic sense of history and a Hellenistic sense of eternity. Pope Benedict wrote extensively about this in “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” specifically in the section on Liturgical Time. You might want to check it out.

  40. drewster2000 Avatar


    My heart goes out to you. Like Rhonda, I’ve probably been where you are. Unlike Rhonda, I’m not Orthodox. But I’ve traveled beside them for the last 30 years. With that perspective I hope I can shed a bit of light for you, but I probably won’t go in-depth on any of your questions because what you need to understand right now more than anything else is that there is hope – LOTS of hope in fact.

    The core of the matter is Jesus Christ. If there was no Incarnation and Resurrection, then we are the biggest of all fools. Even many Protestants understand that. What most of them do not fully realize is that this is everything, this is the essential crux of our whole lives. It is not just a theological point but what should drive our whole existence. The answer to life is not about getting the right facts straight but about dying daily, moment-by-moment, so that that Christ may be born in us and that more each day it may be Christ living in us instead of our old selves.

    Once we understand this in our hearts – and get about the business of it – then all else begins to fall into place:

    a. The Bible is the divine and inspired word of God but it is by no means without spot and blemish. How does this fact not completely obliterate our faith? Because our hope is ultimately in Christ, the Incarnation and Resurrection – not as historical facts but as realities as work in our very lives. If the Bible is incorrect in places, it is God in whom we trust to work through it despite its mistakes – the exact same way He also accomplishes works through us, as imperfect as we are.

    b. There was probably a historical Adam & Eve, but we won’t lose our faith if some scientist brings out evidence to the contrary, because our hope and faith rests not in historical veracity of everything the Bible says, but in the life of Christ. We read the Bible (especially the OT) the same way children listen to stories – not with cynicism but with an open heart for what they would have to tell us.

    c. We decide we believe in a young earth – or an old earth, or an in-between earth – but we don’t put any eggs in that basket. When we ask Jesus about it in Heaven, the answer won’t change our minds about who God is, His goodness and whether or not He actually loves us.

    d. Heaven and Hell: there is a great irony in this topic. It is the first thing we want to understand – maybe for fire insurance purposes or because it’s so fascinating – and yet it is probably the last thing we will be ready to understand. The more we know the God who created all things, the more we will intuitively gain an understanding of what Heaven and Hell are actually like – and that we already experience both of them in our lives, day in and day out.

    Alan: there are good answers, but to get there you have to drop all else and first embrace Jesus Christ and His life. Then and only then everything else will begin to fall into their rightful places and make sense.

    Take heart. This confusion and despair you feel, this too shall pass.

  41. Alan Avatar

    Thank you very much Rhonda and Drewster, I greatly appreciate your comments, they are quite helpful.

    Rhonda, just to be clear, I was not trying by any means to state that I know a lot about Orthodoxy. I was just trying to point out that I have more than a passing interest. Good advice about having a relationship with a Priest, and I will pursue that where I live.

    Drewster, thanks for your thoughts and encouragement.

    Finally, I believe that Fr. Stephen doesn’t allow links, so I can’t provide one. But the following quote is taken directly from the Antiochian website:

    “HELL, unpopular as it is among modern people, is real. The Orthodox Church understands hell as a place of eternal torment for those who willfully reject the grace of God. Our Lord once said, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched­ where `Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched’ ” (Mark 9:43, 44). He challenged the reli­gious hypocrites with the question: “How can you es­cape the condemnation of hell?” (Matthew 23:33). His answer is, “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17). There is a Day of Judg­ment coming, and there is a place of punishment for those who have hardened their hearts against God. It does make a difference how we live this life. Those who of their own free will reject the grace and mercy of God must forever bear the consequences of that choice.”

  42. Agnikan Avatar

    Interesting. In parts of eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, and southwestern Virginia, there are Primitive Baptists who believe in Universalism. Nicknamed “No-Hellers”, they don’t actually reject hell, but for them, hell happens on earth. After the resurrection, all will enjoy communion with God. Howard Dorgan wrote the definitive book on these Primitive Baptist Universalists, entitled “In the Hands of a Happy God: The ‘No-Hellers’ of Central Appalachia”. They may be universalists, but in all other ways, they are just like any other Primitive, or Old-Time, Baptist (e.g., Southern Baptist are too liberal).

  43. Dino Avatar

    This is a topic that is obviously hot! (forgive the cheesy pun please…).
    Perhaps there is no clear cut single teaching on the matter, but the teaching we do have (with all the margin that allows for) is sufficient. In fact we do not need much more than what we see in the parable of the Prodigal Son and his brother (which obviously is not that far from the ‘river of fire view’ as both are invited in the Father’s house but they interpret it differently – and that it is presented without a “forever and ever” almost as if we are in the state of “time is no more”)

    What Orthodoxy does respect is the experience of the purified, illumined and deified Saints, and their ‘dogmatic consciousness’ informed by actual experience rather than reading, talking and studiying.
    One of my favourite examples:

    The Staretz [St Silouan] both said and wrote that Christ-like love cannot suffer any man to perish, and in its care for the salvation of all men walks the way of Calvary.
    …‘by virtue of this love the monk’s heart sorrows over the people because not all men are working out their salvation. The Lord Himself so grieved over the people that He gave Himself to death on the cross. And the Mother of God bore in her heart a like sorrow for men. And she. Like her beloved Son, desired with her whole being the salvation of all…’
    In the really Christian sense the work of salvation can only be done through love – by attracting people. There is no place for any kind of compulsion. In seeking the salvation of all men love feels impelled to embrace not only the world of the living but also the world of the dead, the underworld and the world of the as yet unborn – that is, the whole race of Adam. And if love rejoices and is glad at the salvation of abrother, she also weeps and prays over a brother who perishes…’
    …The power of love is vast and pregnant with success but it does not override. There is a domain in human life where a limit is set even to love – where love is not supreme. This domain is freedom [“προαίρεση”].
    Man’s freedom is positive, real. It concedes no determinism in his destiny, so that neither the sacrifice of Christ Himself nor the sacrifices of all those who have trodden in His footsteps lead necessarily to victory. There may be some – whether many or few, we do not know – who will meet even this perfect love, this perfect sacrifice, with a rejection, even on the eternal level, and declare, ‘I want no part in it’. It was this recognition of this abyss of freedom which prompted the Fathers of the Church to repudiate the determinist theories of the Origenists. Belief in Apocatastasis, understood as universal salvation predestined in the divine purpose, would certainly rule out the sort of prayer that we see in the Staretz.
    What was made known to the Staretz in his vision of Christ outweighed all doubt and hesitation. He knew that it was the Almighty God that had appeared to him. He was sure that the humility of Christ which he had come to know, and the love which filled him to the limits of his strength, were the action of God the Holy Spirit. He knew in the Holy Spirit that God is boundless love and mercy, yet knowledge of this truth did not lead him to conclude that ‘anyway, we shall all be saved’.
    The Staretz was unlettered but no one surpassed him in craving for true knowledge. The path he took was, however, quite unlike that of speculative philosophers. Knowing this, I follwed with the deepest interest the way in which the most heterogeneous problems were distilled in the alembic of his mind, to emerge in his consciousness as solutions. He could not develop a question dialectically and express it in a system of rational concepts – he was afraid of ‘erring in intellectual argument’; but the propositions he pronounced bore the imprint of exceptional profundity…
    …Christianity is not a philosophy, not a doctrine, but life; and all the Staretz’ conversations and writings are witness to this life…

  44. Me Avatar

    Hell is real!

  45. Isaac Avatar


    I am aware of the council and all the controversy around it. The fact remains that St. Gregory and St. Isaac and others have not been condemned as heretics for describing universalism in the way they did. Then when you add the “hopeful universalism” of thousands if not millions of Orthodox who hope and pray that all men might be saved (which is the desire of God according to scripture)you would have something on the order of a major schism if all of these people are heretics.

    I don’t know if I believe in universalism, but I did discuss the question with my priest in terms of the parameters of what an Orthodox Christian can believe and, as I pointed out above, I would never claim it is the teaching of Orthodoxy that “all will be saved” since the Church would never make such a claim anymore than it would claim that “some or many will not be saved” as dogma. Orthodoxy is nothing like fundagelicalism and I have experienced both intimately. Even so, if you are looking for absolute dogmatic certainty for every single element of the faith then Orthodoxy will be a huge disappointment.

    I understand that you are frustrated, but I think you have maligned Fr. Stephen’s blog, which did not say that hell is not real they way you have put it. I believe he did argue that hell does not have a reality on par with the Kingdom of Heaven and so have thousands of other Christians as far as that goes. The point is that the sign seems to imply that Hell is the reality and Heaven is secondary. Hell, by nature, can’t have the same ontological reality as Heaven, but that does not make it not real. Also, the view that hell is not a separate realm but rather a way of describing how the wicked respond to the love and unmitigated presence of God is common and widespread enough in Orthodox thought to be considered at least one view of the Church.

  46. fatherstephen Avatar

    Alan (and others following his questions).
    Your questions are good – in fact, this post should generate such questions for some.

    I want to state immediately that you should be at peace about the state of Orthodoxy. This post is not meant to question the “reality” of hell in the sense that you are using the word – though it is meant to make us think a great deal more about what we mean when we say “real” – about which I’ll say more in a moment.

    Second, on matters of Biblical interpretation, I utterly reject that nonsense of liberal Christianity and its handling of Scriptures (much as I reject their handling by Protestant fundamentalists – they are two sides of the same coin). But, again, I want to press the point of understanding a mature reading of the Scriptures from a patristic perspective. Some may find that pressing less than helpful. If so, they can ignore these posts. But, I’ll say more on this in a moment.

    So – On reality. Modern though, including modern Protestant thought, tends to think of “reality” as consisting of only one kind of thing. So, if we say “real,” we mean “true,” “actual,” not “make-believe,” not an “imagination.” And this is the way the word is used whether it is referring to Green dragons, God, heaven, hell, what I ate last week, etc. It is this singular meaning and singular understanding of “real” that I am challenging. I think of this “singular” meaning for “real” as false and misleading. I often refer to it as “flat,” or “literalistic,” or a number of other ways. My goal is to help readers, on a popular level, understand better the Orthodox teaching on the nature of things – on the world as sacrament – on the character of truth and reality – and thus the nature of our salvation.

    The fathers, when addressing this topic, understand that truth, being (and thus “reality” and what is “real”) is a quality that belongs to God alone. As St. Gregory the Theologian said, “Inasmuch as we say ‘God exists,’ we don’t exist. Inasmuch as we say, ‘We exist,’ God does not exist.” What he meant by this is that the character of God’s existence is such that no other “existing” thing can be compared to His existence. The Baptismal prayer calls God, “hyperousia,” “beyond being.” St. Basil the Great calls God, “the only truly existing…” St. Athanasius notes that everything created was created out of nothing, and is thus “nothing” by its nature. If we were left utterly to ourselves, we would simply cease to exist because we were and are created “out of nothing.” Thus, according to St. Athanasius, the kind of existence we have is utterly a gift. It is sustained by the good will of the good God. But such an existence cannot be compared with the existence and being of God.

    But the good God who brought us into existence out of nothing, also intends for us the gift of union with Himself, which is the gift of eternal life, a participation in the Divine life. Thus the fathers use the language of the created participating in the uncreated (God). St. Maximus the Confessor even says that we become “uncreated” by grace. This is the doctrine that is called “theosis,” divinization.

    If divinization is thought of in terms of “being,” then it can be described as a movement from created existence towards uncreated existence (by grace).

    Now. I have used the word “real” in the sense of “God alone is real,” i.e. “God is the only truly existing one.” Those things are real that have participation in God. Those things that resist such participation, that rebel are not “not existing” (or else we couldn’t even speak of them), but they are moving in a direction that is opposite from true existence, and are moving towards what they came from (nothing). In the fathers there is thus a distinction between things that do not exist (ouk ousia) and things that are tending toward non existence (me ousia). Because existence is the gift of God, and God does not take back the gift He has given, the most we can do is move towards me ousia (relative non-existence, a “not real” reality).

    So. When I suggest that hell is “not real,” I do not mean that there is no such thing, but that the nature of what we call “hell,” is at heart a movement away from reality, a choice towards non-existence, something that is essentially inauthentic. C.S. Lewis’ imagery of hell as the “gray town” in The Great Divorce, is a very rich play on this thought.

    Second. On the Biblical stories.
    There are many kinds of stories in the Bible. Protestant fundamentalism has, more or less, decided that there is only one kind of story in the Scriptures and only one kind of truth that has any usefulness and that is a literal, historical kind of event. Thus the story of Adam and Eve is seen as only having value and only being of use if it is a description of a “factual” event. So that if I were present as an observer on the day of Adam’s creation, I would see the event of the clay being formed into the first homo sapiens, etc. This same kind of literalism is applied across the board to all OT stories. Either they are true in that way, or they are lies, fictions and worse.

    Protestant liberalism (in its most extreme forms) agrees with this kind of singular reading. They, however, use this singular approach to discredit anything that seems to be questionable as a “factual,” newspaper kind of event. And they use these attacks to undermine the authority of the Church, the faith, etc. This allows them to proceed to create their own truths and build the fantasy world of their own private dreams and continue to create misery in the name of God.

    Now. The fathers, when the topic is addressed (which is not the case in every use of Biblical stories, etc.), clearly understand that the stories in Scripture have a number of “levels” of meaning, a number of possibilities, a variety of uses. The story of Adam and Eve and the Creation is handled more literally by some of the fathers, and quite figuratively by others (I’ve referenced Peter Bouteneff’s work on the use of the Creation chapters in the first 5 centuries – I recommend it again for the topic of Adam and Eve). The issue of Adam and Eve and history is not a debate within the historic Orthodox Church. It was and is a debate between Protestant fundamentalists and Protestant liberals that arose with special vehemence in response to Darwin’s theories. It is their battle, not ours. Many Orthodox, living here in the West, have decided that the Orthodox should take sides in that debate – but I suggest that they are mistaken. The debate is a non-issue because both liberals and fundamentalists have a wrong understanding of Scripture and history.

    Orthodoxy, for some, and I hear a bit of this in your concerns, seems like a much stronger version of conservative Protestantism (the Tradition, etc. add support to the same conservative arguments). Orthodoxy is neither conservative nor liberal – it is Orthodoxy. It need have no reference to the conversations that are happening outside. Too many people bring the baggage of their former Christianity with them and try to graft it onto the trunk of the Orthodox tree.

    I have written numerous articles on the interpretation of Scripture. Many of them make the comparison between Scripture and Icons (a comparison made by the 7th council). Icons are clearly not photographs and they are not photographs for a reason. They depict what is true – in the sense of God, heaven, true existence, etc. – and not simply what we might see. Christ makes it quite clear that many people “see,” but “don’t see.” There are obviously more than one way of seeing. In that sense, there is more than one way of portraying “what happened.” Icons seek to portray the “truth,” of things. Obviously, many people saw Christ hanging on the Cross but failed to see the truth of Christ hanging on the Cross. An icon does not make that mistake. It shows the Truth of Christ on the Cross. In that sense, an icon is more “real,” than a photograph, because the ultimate truth of the event is clearly depicted whereas a photograph might miss it.

    Back to the Scriptures. What is the “truth” of the story of Adam and Eve. Fundamentalists think it is the photograph-style interpretation. But Christ says that He himself is the meaning of the OT Scriptures (Jn. 5:39). Surely Christ is the truth of the account of Adam and Eve in a manner that transcends the newspaper-like interpretation. The Pharisees could have seen the newspaper account as clear as anyone, but they did not see Christ and so crucified Him – and – ironically – fulfilled the truth of the creation of Adam.

    For the fathers are clear, the Woman taken out of Adam’s side, is the Church, His bride. He rests (sleeps) on the 6th day (Friday), and from His side God takes a rib and forms the woman. And on Friday, he slept (died), and “one of the soldiers pierced His side, and from His side flowed forth blood and water…” The fathers see this as the Eucharist and Baptism, that which births and creates the Church.

    You may take that is simply a “commentary” an allegorical way of reading the “historical account,” and that doesn’t bother me a bit. But the mistake is that of the Pharisees. When we make the newspaper-style reading the primary and real reading, we invariably fail to see that the other is the primary and true. Christ’s Pascha is the true reading of all things. Nothing has any truth except as it relates to Christ’s Pascha. That is the beginning of creation as well as its end and fulfillment.

    My writing means to “pound” on the problematic handling of Scripture by the Protestants and help others come to a more proper Orthodox understanding and way of reading. It occasionally jars and upsets, because most people are still stuck in the world-view of modern Protestantism.

    This has been a long reply…but I’ll go a little longer.

    The Newspaper-style understanding of truth is one of the reasons that Protestantism generally does not understand the sacraments (and is mostly non-sacramental). Things are things. Bread can remind us of Christ’s Body and His sacrifice, but it can only BE bread. And this is true for newspapers. But it is not the Truth. “I believe that this is truly Thy most pure Body…” Now, when we say, “This is truly,” do we mean that there is a lump of human flesh lying on the diskos on the altar? Does it mean that a photograph would show a lump of meat?

    Of course not. But Orthodoxy clearly thinks that we “see” a reality that is more real than that of a photograph. The bread is truly His most pure Body. The “Kingdom which is to come” is truly present now. “Thou hadst raised us up to heaven…” All of these outrageously non-Newspaper ways of speaking are true and only those who are truly in Christ can say them, mean them, see them, and thus, through them, be saved.

    Adam and Eve raise interesting historical questions…but the history parts of that particular story are not what matters about it.

    The history of Christ’s crucifixion is important, too, and in a way that is not the case of the Creation account. First, that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered death and was buried… are also true in the newspaper-sense of the word, and are attested to in that manner independent of the Scriptures.

    But, like an icon, the gospels reveal His death, burial and resurrection (which certainly has every kind of truth – newspaper and otherwise) in their ultimate and truest way. They show us Christ’s Pascha as the New Creation, the Passover, Jonah from the Whale, the Bridegroom coming forth from the Bridal Chamber, the 3 young men in the fiery furnace, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, etc. And our Baptism plunges us into Christ’s Pascha and His Pascha becomes our new creation and life in Him.

    This is the Orthodox faith. It is not a private opinion or a decision about what I would like to believe. It is larger than me or you and we may be plunged into it. But it will not be managed like the newspapers of the fundamentalists or the fables of the liberals. It is the faith of the fathers – the Mystery hidden from before all ages…

  47. fatherstephen Avatar

    On universalism…

    Some reading this post think it favors and endorses some form of Universalism (that everyone will be saved). They read and misunderstand. “Real” is something that describes God and being “real” describes something that is moving towards God and towards the “gathering together in One all things in Christ Jesus…” (Ephesians 1). That, if you read the article carefully, is what has been said.

    Hell, like sin itself, is a movement away from true being, that being and existence which is the gift of God and only finds its fulfillment and fulness in union with Him.

    Does hell exist? Is there actually a hell? In the way that question is generally meant…Yes. Of course there is. I am not denying it at all. What I am saying is that hell is a form of existence that has as its character a less-than-real quality. It is less-than-real because it is a form of existence in which those who are “there” are in rebellion against God and are trying to move away from the true existence which only comes through union with God in love.

    That is the “lesson in ontology” that the article means to offer.

    By extension, I mean for it to be a way of thinking about life in this world and the path of salvation.

    Everything that rebels against God hates true existence, true Being. Lies, hatred, greed, lust, murder, envy, etc., all hate true existence. They try to create false worlds. The hatred we have for our enemies tries to create a false world, defined by the hatred itself. But lies, hatred, greed, lust, murder, envy, etc. are not real, they do not have true existence. They were not brought into existence by the only truly existing God. They are false creations of our own and they are destined to pass away. They cannot truly exist forever because they have no true existence. They are figments of our evil imaginations.

    Some people (all of us at times perhaps) make an alliance with this false existence. They unite themselves to lies, hatred, greed, lust, murder, envy, etc. The “reality” they inhabit begins already to resemble hell and what they inhabit begins to foment its misery everywhere around it. The misery is not real – it is the misery of our tending towards non-existence.

    Some people make an alliance with the only truly existing God. They unite Themselves to Christ in Holy Baptism and Communion. They marry the Truth and renounce Satan and all his minions, etc. The reality they inhabit begins already to manifest and reveal the heaven that God has bestowed upon us, the Kingdom which is to come.

    Now. Will all be saved? Leonard is wrong when he says only an eternal hell makes evangelism effective (“otherwise why not eat, drink, be merry?”). He is wrong because the misery of hell, even in this life, the fruit of living out of union with God, is motive enough to want to live otherwise. Indeed, until we get our heads out of the question of “what’s going to happen to me after I die,” and begin to ask the question, “What’s happening to me now?” will we even begin to live the truth of salvation. The “after death” version of salvation is simply a perversion of the preaching of the gospel.

    But. Will all be saved? I don’t know (and neither do you). St. Isaac of Syria suggests that hell is ultimately (and he seems to think in very long, long terms) curative and not just retributive. It is given to us for our correction and healing and not for punishment. I like what he says, but his thought in this matter is not the dogma of the Church.

    Some versions of universalism have clearly been condemned by the Councils of the Church. I certainly do not mean to offer any suggestion to the contrary.

    But, in the mode of St. Isaac and St. Silouan, I gladly suggest that there are fruitful meditations to be had on the subject – that we can consider these things in a manner that is fruitful and not just argumentative/speculative.

    I certainly would endorse St. Silouan’s thought that anyone who contemplates even a single person in hell should do so with tears and anguish. Create in me a clean heart, O God.

  48. PJ Avatar

    “I certainly would endorse St. Silouan’s thought that anyone who contemplates even a single person in hell should do so with tears and anguish.”


  49. PJ Avatar


    Your words about how we read Scripture are particularly striking today, after having listened to Mormons for the past couple hours. I came away burdened with a terrible sadness about their blindness, which is deep and profound. (No doubt they would say the same about me.) The saddest part was that they use the selective patristic quotes to their advantage (according to them, Athanasius was a polytheist), yet they cannot begin to enter into a patristic, catholic, orthodox reading of Scripture. At first I was amused, then upset, finally depressed. The radical importance of the canon — the rule of truth — against which Scripture and Tradition are measured cannot be underestimated.

  50. […] Source: Glory to God for All Things blog […]

  51. Aaron Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    This last comment of yours is an excellent synopsis of the concerns I had growing up as a fundamentalist and the response to that “literal” reading of scriptures.

    Also, I think that you clarify of some of my questions I had about the article itself in this comment as well, though in a round-about way of course. So, to be sure I read you correctly, you are claiming that this life is “real” (and has value?) insofar as it is a gift given by God who is the source of reality. I was concerned when reading the article that you were susceptible to the Nietzchean critique of Christian nihilism – that this world has value insofar as it connects with the other world. I find that a strong critique of much of Christianity, especially where Christianity devalues bodily, material, present existence. I am still concerned that your argument is susceptible to that critique. It seems important to me to emphasize that our present existence is a gift (as you do) but also that one might say (and correct me if I’m off track) this existence is “real” insofar as Christ took it on, both in the fact that Christ took it on AND that in taking it on connected this reality (human nature) to that reality (divine nature).

  52. Laura Avatar

    Father, this is one of the most succinct explanations of interpretation I’ve read yet. It should be in the body of a post, not lost in the comments!

  53. fatherstephen Avatar

    Good question – especially viz. the Nietzschean critique. This life (all creation) is “real” and intended to be “real” from its inception, in that it is created as a direction and movement. Nothing can have this kind of “reality” apart from God. Thus, in some places I have said, “There is no such thing as the secular world.” This is not necessarily profound – it’s just saying that everything created has its existence from God and as a gift from God. But nothing has existence “in and of itself” other than God Himself.

    On Nietzsche – this does not devalue this life, this world, or anything in them, but it reveals their true value. Everything is sacrament and a means of communion with God.

    Imagine otherwise. Let’s say you eat some bread (in and of itself). You eat, the bread perishes. You perish. What was the value? What was the meaning?

    Nothing is devalued simply because it’s value is found in its relation to God. God is the ground of all being. Nothing has meaning, reality, apart from its ground.

    Those who have sought to ground meaning in things themselves, have proven repeatedly the emptiness of such an effort. Human beings, no longer valued as the image of God, are reduced to commodities and things – used and abused by the powerful for their own purposes. Only the imago Dei preserves even a hope of human dignity.

    This is so far from Christian nihilism. It is the Christian materialism – the Christian humanism – the Incarnation of Christ and the Divinization of Creation itself.

  54. fatherstephen Avatar

    Later today, God willing, I’ll be editing the comment into the next post. I was thinking the same thing.

  55. Isaac Avatar

    If it appeared that I thought that Fr. Stephen’s blog post seemed to support universalism that is not the case at all. In the “River of Fire” article (which is probably the most well known description of this Orthodox concept of hell) Kalomiros makes it very clear that those in torment can no longer be redeemed. They have passed the point of no return.

    I don’t think discussions of hell matter because we can dogmatically know exactly what it is, but because of what it says both about God’s nature and also the heart of Christians. There are versions of hell in American fundamentalism that appear to contradict the teachings of Jesus and the biblical statement that “God is Love.” I would argue that those who actually enjoy the thought of the wicked going to hell are less than charitable and that all Orthodox Christians should at least pray that all will be saved even if they won’t. I was raised in fundamentalism and for a fair number of fundamentalist heaven just won’t be heaven unless certain people are in hell.

    This is especially important because people are leaving Christianity in droves in the west in part because they can’t reconcile a loving God with an eternal torturer. I think Orthodoxy offers an alternative to that view that is not universalism. I can just about guarantee that for every person who reads that sign and has a pang of conscience a hundred are disgusted by it and want nothing more to do with what they perceive to be Christianity.

  56. Connie Avatar

    Dino, I want to take exception to your assertion that St. Silouan could not be certain of the ultimate salvation of all those whom he loved, and that his tears and prayers were proof of that uncertainty.

    I would be interested to know what you make of Romans 11. St. Paul talks about it being possible to graft back a branch that has been cut off. And that the Israelites were enemies for the sake of the gospel but were still loved of God. And that he would “let you in on a secret,” that in the end all Israel would be saved! (11:26) I know earlier St Paul had equated Israel with the new Christian believers, but clearly the context in that last verse that ALL Israel would be saved indicated he was talking about his “lost” brethren. I’m sure you are much more familiar with this than I. But it does appear that even as St. Paul wept and prayed over his “lost brethren” he believed that in the end they would be saved.

    As you know, anyone who has experienced the hideous strength of the downward pull of the Devil would be consumed with horror and pity for those who have succumbed utterly to him and thus have to suffer the consequences of their choices. The fact that there is ultimate victory through Christ does not lessen the pity or the prayer. When St. Silouan said, “Love could not bear that,” I believe he was saying just that. Eternal conscious suffering could not be countenanced by a loving God, no matter how self-inflicted the suffering might be. The wretch would still be a human being, and our incarnate Lord who has been tempted in all things common to man will find a way to bring him to repentance, i.e. to fan the divine spark that is in him. The Devil loses, the Lord wins. 🙂

    (Just my two cents worth, as one Orthodox Christian who does believe in the certainty of universal salvation.)

  57. Alan Avatar

    Isaac, thank you for your kind responses, I greatly appreciate them. Also, I like your more detailed response to my question. As you (and Fr. Stephen) can tell, I’m trying to “emerge from over 40 years in Evangelicalism” and trying to re-orient my thinking and my outlook is proving to be challenging. Thus, I’m most appreciative of those (you, Fr. Stephen, Rhonda, Drewster) who have offered up thoughts that are most helpful to me (and others of course as well).

    Not that it matters what I think, but for the record, I’m fine with saying that I don’t know about Hell and about universalism. But I was much more troubled when I thought that you and others were saying dogmatically that there is no hell and that if there is, nobody will end up there. I’m fine with saying “I don’t know.” In fact, the mystery is one of the main attractions of Orthodoxy to me.

    Even after Fr. Stephen’s many posts of the topic of how to properly read the Scriptures (and the purpose) I find that I’m still having trouble getting that.

    Thanks again.

  58. Alan Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, First of all, thank you so very much for your kind, gracious, and lengthy responses to my questions. They are most helpful and most appreciated. I need to go back and re-read them over and over to really let them sink in.

    Secondly, if Isaac is correct and I have maligned your blog, then I sincerely apologize and I ask your forgiveness. That was not my intent. Your blog has been a Godsend to me on my journey.

    Thanks again.

  59. Isaac Avatar


    Sorry for the misunderstanding. If it appeared that I was claiming that all would be saved that is certainly not the case and certainly not the teaching of Orthodoxy. Like Fr. Stephen said, nobody knows. I am sympathetic to what St. Isaac, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Silouan, and even Met. Ware have to say on the subject, but they did not or do not have the authority to teach that all will be saved either. I do think it is good to pray that all will be saved (this is the desire of God according to the scriptures) and it is bad to speculate about who is and isn’t going to hell (which was a pastime in the fundamentalism I was raised in).

    It is hard to acquire an Orthodox mindset. I have been Orthodox for five years and both our sons were born into it. I was reflecting the other day that if they continue in the Church into adulthood they will have a mindset that I will never acquire in my lifetime because I started so late. I understand the fears of compromise and I don’t think you need to worry about that in Orthodoxy, but the Orthodox way of approaching things like scripture sort of defies the way I was taught to view it growing up, so it is easy to confuse a layered approach with the bloodless approach of liberal Protestantism which is really just atheism with the job benefits of being a member of the clergy.

  60. Dinos Avatar

    who am I to speak on St Silouan’s or Father Sophrony’s behalf? they manage to combine the uncombinable (the heaven of love with the ‘hell’ of love) in their hearts which in turn gave birth to the prayer for all of Adam -of a magnitude unimaginable to us.
    The quote is straight from the book onSt Silouan and it is all F. Sophrony’s words.

  61. leonard Nugent Avatar
    leonard Nugent

    Isaac you said….your concern is strange because it seems to imply that the only reason to strive for theosis in this life is to avoid punishment in the next life…..That’s not what I said. What I said was that if universalism was ever dogmatised there would be nothing to strive for. I have no plans to strive for theosis after the resurrection.

  62. Isaac Avatar


    Can you explain further why you say that? I am not sure if you are writing that because of a misunderstanding about universalism (as it is generally presented anyway) or if you are pointing to something else that I am missing. I have heard a lot of people say that “if universalism is true, then why even be a Christian” which seems like a pretty blatant admission that they see being a Christian primarily in terms of fire insurance, but perhaps you mean something different and I am missing it. If it helps, most universalists appear to believe that the wicked will suffer in hell for maybe “ages and ages” before they are redeemed so even from the point of view of fire insurance universalism doesn’t get people off the hook.

  63. fatherstephen Avatar

    Theosis might not be static according to St. Gregory of Nyssa. For him, it implies always, “Higher up and further in!”

  64. leonard Nugent Avatar
    leonard Nugent

    Isaac I have great hope for the universal salvation of mankind. My hope impels me to pray for this unceasingly. I neither presume it or despair of it. The golden mean of those two errors is hope. By the way only a truly great saint, one that is beyond anything I could ever be works for no reward even if we try to deny it.

  65. leonard Nugent Avatar
    leonard Nugent

    Father that’s exactly how I conceive of theosis. An ever deeper entering into the mystery of the Holy Trinity!

  66. leonard Nugent Avatar
    leonard Nugent

    And He went through the cities and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem. 23 Then one said to Him, “Lord, are there few who are saved?”

    And He said to them, 24 “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able…..He never answers the question. Instead he offers some pretty sound advice

  67. Isaac Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I was just thinking of that before you typed it. It came as quite a surprise too because I had always imagined heaven as a static thing but, like many things in Orthodoxy, St. Gregory seemed to convey something I always believed deep down.

    As an aside, I hope you will consider writing a general introduction to Orthodoxy that is comprised of writing akin to the posts you wrote as answers above. There are some pretty good books out there, but I still feel that is lacking. Fr. Meletios Webber came very close with his book, but giving it to an American reader coming from, say, a Baptist background is problematic. I am still looking for that one book I could give to people interested in Orthodoxy (after first saying just come to services) with confidence.


    I don’t disagree with that at all, and I don’t think it is even an entirely bad motivation to want to avoid hell as far as that goes. I get what you are saying now. My response was based on a misinterpretation of your earlier post.

  68. Connie Avatar

    Dino, I have the book and the quote (p. 108). The problem is that the quote within the quote was from St. Silouan but the rest of it looks like commentary from Archimandrite Sophrony. I don’t know how to decipher it. Even on the next page when Fr Sophrony quotes the verse, ‘And if I be lifted up from the earth’ I will draw all men unto Me.’ he adds to it by saying, “Thus Christ’s love hopes to bring all men to Him.” Is this specifically what St. Silouan said, or is Archimandrite Sophrony simply trying to toe the line with what He sees the Church Fathers as believing?

    This must sound like nitpicking. I have a great deal of respect for what you say and simply wanted your reaction to what seemed like an inconsistency to me. But in actuality I would have to brazenly say the inconsistency was Fr Sophrony’s. (“Belief in … universal salvation predestined in the divine purpose, would certainly rule out the sort of prayer that we see in the Staretz.”

    At the risk of being even more brazen, let me quote the actual words of St. Silouan on the same page (108). When asked how anyone could love all men, he answered, ‘To be one with all, as the Lord said, “that all may be one”, there is no need to cudgel our brains: we all have one and the same nature, and so it should be natural for us to love all men; but it is the Holy Spirit who gives the strength to Love.’ It is the very fact that “we all have one and the same nature” that confirms to me that the Love of God will win out in the end.

  69. fatherstephen Avatar

    “That we all have one and the same nature…” Indeed that one nature was “saved” in the Incarnation of Christ, who assumed the one human nature of us all. But the problem isn’t with our nature…it’s with Personhood. The nature (of anything) is only encountered hypostatically (personally). We will each of us have to give ourselves to our nature (and our Lord who has taken that nature upon Himself). When we are asked, “Do you unite yourself to Christ” (at Baptism), we are not uniting our nature – it is an act of the person.

    Indeed, to a certain extent, it is proper to say that the whole of human salvation is now the story of the salvation of Persons, the nature having been taken up in Christ.

    Like St. Silouan and St. Isaac, I have hope and trust in the love of God. I have no doubt about that love. What I do not know, and what none of us have been given to know, is the mystery of the Person, which is even now unfolding. I would assume that if the love of God is sufficient to “woo” us from ourselves and to union with Him, then love wins. It’s not the love, it’s our own resistance that gives me doubts.

    And that is a nature of a mystery…we do not know.

    There is so much that we do not know. Another important example, in the mystery of Personhood, is the precise character of Personal existence in Christ. “It does not yet appear what we shall be.” If I was now already complete, and thus truly existing and a fully personal manner, in the hypostatic fullness that is promised, and not in this troubled state of the false self, then I would know what the character of Personal existence will be.

    There are occasional hints in some of the (rather oblique) sayings of some of the holy fathers, and in some of the contemporary elders of the Church. I have heard enough to surmise that such a personal existence differs so greatly from that of my false self. And when most of us think of “life after death,” it is the survival of the false self that we most often want. We want it so terribly that we will not embrace a true personal existence even now, when it is already possible. It is that perversion that seems so persistent that makes me shudder.

  70. Anastasia Avatar

    Father, bless. Thank you!

  71. Perry Robinson Avatar


    Your remark seems to put a specific gloss on the traditional doctrine and a different doctrine on an epistemic and apostolical par. Such seems not to be the case.

    While the Issuant account (I am taking this designatig term from Kvanvig for ease of use and clarity) which takes the difference to be in the effect of the glory received may not be explicitly justifiable, the traditional doctrine simpliciter clearly does without question. The Issuant account is just one way to cash it out.

    Universalism is not a way to cash out the traditional doctrine. It is rather a denial of it. The two then are not on a par. One is one way Orthodox can cash out the traditional doctrine and the second is not Orthodox doctrine.

    The Issuant account is not a species of universalism, for universalism is a thesis about the scope of salvation and the temporary status of any suffering in the eschaton.

  72. Phil Avatar


    Concerning Origen, universalism, and the Fifth Ecumenical Council: the 10 anathemas against Origen you cited are not those of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (AD 553), but were promulgated by the Synod of Constantinople in AD 543/544. (The page you linked to explains this.)

    However, the Fifth Ecumenical Council *did* anathematize Origen by name in its eleventh canon:

    “XI. If anyone does not anathematize Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Apollinaris, Nestorius, Eutyches and Origen, as well as their impious writings, as also all other heretics already condemned and anathematized by the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and by the aforesaid four Holy Synods and [if anyone does not equally anathematize] all those who have held and hold or who in their impiety persist in holding to the end the same opinion as those heretics just mentioned: let him be anathema.”

    Furthermore, the Fifth Council also elaborated another fifteen anathemas, spelling out and condemning specific Origenist doctrines. These 15 anti-Origenist anathemas of the Ecumenical Council are listed further down the page you linked to, under section 3.5. The anathemas relating to universalism are #1, #14, and #15:

    “1. If anyone advocates the mythical pre-existence of souls and the monstrous restoration (apokatastasis) which follows from it, let him be anathema.”

    “14. If anyone maintains that one day all rational beings will again form a unit, when the individuals and the numbers are removed with the bodies; and that the destruction of the worlds and the laying aside of the bodies will follow upon the knowledge of rational things, and that the abandonment of names and an identity of knowledge and person will result; further, at the fabled apokatastasis only spirits alone will remain, as it was in the feigned pre-existence—-let him be anathema.”

    “15. If anyone says that the life of spirits will then be like the earlier life when they had not yet descended and fallen, so that the beginning and the end will be like each other, and the end the measure for the beginning, let him be anathema.”

    The specific form of “universalism” proposed by Origen and condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council was a sort of deterministic destiny, tied up with (and implied by) Origen’s ideas about the pre-existence of souls and other heretical Neoplatonist doctrines. This is not at all what St Isaac, St Silouan, et al were advocating. Their very different “universalism”, grounded in their experience of God’s infinite love for His creatures, is not a dogma of the Orthodox Church, but it isn’t condemned either.

  73. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There is a key, perhaps, in Jesus description of the fiery lake of hell being prepared for the devil and all his angels but we go there by choice. I’ve always wondered about that. Even Satre posited that we chose hell over heaven because we are more comfortable in hell.

    There is a question in their some where.

  74. Agnikan Avatar

    Is hell comfortable (for those who choose it)?

  75. Connie Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I appreciate your attention to my comment. I’m not sure I followed everything you said. 🙂 But as for St. Silouan’s comment about our common nature, I took it to be simply a common desire in every human being at root to love God and be loved by Him. I don’t see how the fact that we all have gone astray and believed the lies of the Devil and substituted all manner of other things for that love takes away that one basic desire that we are born with. St. Silouan seems to be saying that identitying with all other human beings is rather easy. I believe it is so in this light (our common desire for love and our common propensity to slide into “nothingness.”)

    You say, “I would assume that if the love of God is sufficient to “woo” us from ourselves and to union with Him, then love wins. It’s not the love, it’s our own resistance that gives me doubts.”

    I am not capable of arguing why I believe no one could eternally resist the love of God any more than I can articulate why I believe it is the nature of all God’s judgment to lead us to the Truth. I also cannot explain why knowing myself to be a chief of sinners makes me so one with all sinners that I personally feel that the loss of one single sinner would be a defeat of God’s purposes to the greatest magnitude, and hence unthinkable. I know this stops all argument, but I wanted to express my deeply heartfelt belief.

    I will try not to belabor it any longer.

  76. Perry Robinson Avatar

    Isaac & Co.,

    Here are some thoughts.

    Isaac the Syrian’s thought depends on a specific view of impassability. God cannot change in any way and cannot suffer. If God were wrathful, then this would imply a change in God. This is impossible. Therefore, God must only be love and relate to creatures in love.

    Likewise, God cannot suffer. Consequently on the Cross, the Logos doesn’t suffer but “the man” with the Logos suffers on the Cross.

    In short, if this is right, Chalcedon is wrong (along with Cyril of Alexandria among others). Biblical and conciliar Christology seems like an awfully high price to pay for his universalism.

    If person is the apex of being, then everything here turns on what persons can do with themselves. That is, can persons determine themselves? Do they have the power of self determination or not? If God can find some creative way to bring everyone around, then it seems not. So the question is, can people fix their characters a certain way or not?

    If they ultimately they can’t because God has some nifty trick up his sleeve, then I for one can’t see how this doesn’t make everything worse. If God could bring everyone around, why not do it sooner? or in sum, if God has sufficient power and motive to eliminate evil, then there should be none. Therefore there is not a God with sufficient power and motive to eliminate evil. (Omnipotence or omnibenevolence but not both.) That seems to lead to atheism real fast. The trajectory of American universalism seems to move along this path and that seems like no accident in my judgment.

    Further, as to hopeful universalism, as a species of contingent universalism, it gives the impression that it solves the hard problem of hell (how to reconcile divine goodness with the seeming evil of hell) when it only masks the problem. Here’s how.

    Even if in this world, everyone ends up going to heaven as a matter of the arrangement of things and the way things just happened to go in this world, there are other logical possible situations (logically possible worlds) were some people never get out of hell and God doesn’t and can’t save all. If that is so, then the incompatibility remains. God’s goodness would be contingent on the way the world in fact went and that seems like a very large price to pay. In this way contingent universalisms fail to really address what we want them to in dealing with the problem of hell.

    Fr. Kimel’s treatment or redeploying of Steenberg’s objections to the Issuant account is something he needs. The strategy seems to be to undermine the Issuant account’s coherence and credentials to cut out the theological space it occupies so that one is then forced to choose between universalism or a more penal model. But since the latter is untenable, the former is the only real option. This seems to be the implicit disjunctive argument he is attempting to make, or it is at least the apparent trajectory of his posts.

    I for one do not find Steenberg’s objections to be insurmountable. In fact I find them to be quite easily answered. Kimel’s problem and that of any universalist is to explain why it was not delivered by the Apostles.

  77. Isaac Avatar


    Regarding your first response:

    I don’t disagree with that. I should have pointed out that the view of hell as being “God experienced as fire” has a much different place than universalism. And for the record I believe that this is the nature of hell i.e. the vision described in modern articles from Kalomiros, Metallinos, Romanides, and Chopelas. I think a very strong case can be made for it starting with scripture and moving to early Fathers and right up to the present time. But I also have to acknowledge that a fair amount of Orthodox Christians reject that idea and have a picture of hell that is nearly indistinguishable from the traditional view of the west (a created “place” where the wicked consciously experience tortures for ever and ever without end). Between those two views, do you think you could make a case that the former has much firmer ground to stand on and should therefore be viewed as the more representative view? I agree that universalism doesn’t even come close to meeting the criteria of the Vincentian canon. Would you argue that “hell is the experience of God’s presence by the wicked” does? I would love to see you make the case since I haven’t seen anybody do so convincingly on internet yet or in any book I have come across. I believe it is the “correct” view, but I don’t know if it has the kind of authority where it should be accepted by Orthodox Christians as the teaching of the Church. I’ve certainly come across a fair amount of criticisms on the internet that it is a novel view pushed in the last 30 years or so by a few heretical priests.

    I will get to your second post later…

  78. Mark Basil Avatar

    I think there are saints who know God’s love so deeply and profoundly that they have good reason to hope- to reasonably hope- all will be saved. Somehow.
    It is their experience of God’s love that communicates this to them. I do not think any of them followed a line of reasoning the way you so eloquently articulate it. Is there not a deeper way of knowing? A knowledge that surprasses understanding– a knowlege rooted in communion; friendship with God?
    You and I have not attained to this. But some have- and from this place they hope- reasonably hope- for the salvation of all. It seems your way of determining that it is unreasonable, is not this “knowledge that surpasses understanding.”

    “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
    When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
    Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

    I think there is a quality of love- saintly love- that so identifies with the most wicked with a merciful heart while simultaneously participating in the love of God that it knows Love is greater than anything imaginable, even the experience of darkness in the most withered and withdrawn sinner.
    This, at least, seems to be the place from which mystics speak. They do not “reason” to the hopeful salvation of all the same way you “reason” to it’s unreasonableness.
    They’re knowledge comes from a broken and contrite heart. It knows that “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

    -Mark Basil

  79. fatherstephen Avatar

    I am a simple man…it’s rather difficult for me to follow the scholastic terms: Issuant Account…implicit disjunctive argument…yada yada yada. I also have a fair number of foreign readers for whom formalistic English will not be accessible. Lastly, I think you succumb to a form of Orthodox scholasticism where logic is trumping everything. It can make for tight arguments, but there are other things that get left out.

    For example, I do not think that St. Isaac is driven by impassibility. I think he is driven by his comprehension of God’s love. St. Isaac does not argue for a lack of Divine freedom, God must love. It’s not at all his language. You’re turning St. Isaac into a version of kind Calvinism. And it’s simply inaccurate.

    Lastly, and I draw a line here…I think the ad hominem jab at Fr. Kimel, “something he needs,” (I am assuming you are referring to the tragic death of his son) is out of bounds. If you feel nothing over such things, then it is your own heart that is wounded, and not his. I read Steenberg’s (Achim. Irenaeus) objections and thought that they only shifted the problem. But, since those articles and responses were not posted on this blog, it is a distraction to bring them up. There are exquisite Orthodox minds, far more knowledgeable in the fathers than any of us (Alfeyev, Ware, Louth, et al) who seem to know St. Isaac and yet not make the kind of judgments which you make in such a facile manner. We could suggest in an ad hominem fashion that this failing of theirs is due to some perversion within their character (certainly not within their intellect). But then we would be suggesting that you (or Fr. Irenaeus) are a better man. There we get on very shaky ground.

    I have not within this blog, ever sought to endorse St. Isaac’s conclusions – that would be outside the bounds that I’ve set for my writing. I am very generous towards him (as are Ware, Alfeyev, et al).

    You’re welcome here, but please write within the ambience of Glory to God’s conversation, rather than Energetic Processions (a fine blog). It will contribute to the give and take.

  80. PJ Avatar

    “You’re turning St. Isaac into a version of kind Calvinism.”

    It’s funny you should say that. Over at Fr. Kimel’s blog, I referred to Isaacian universalism as “optimistic Augustinianism.” To me, Isaac and Augustine often seem like two sides of the same coin.

  81. fatherstephen Avatar

    🙂 Yes. But it first requires that Isaac be turned into a scholastic.
    Do you read Isaac, by the way? He is exceedingly non-scholastic – closer to poet. I think only poetry can go to the place of the heart. He is, of course, one of the great hymnographers of Orthodoxy. St. Isaac’s theology “sings.” That is the rarest of compliments, raising him to the holy company of St. David, St. Ephrem, St. Romanos, etc. It is a choir led by the Mother of God, the sweetest hymnographer ever to breathe the air of this world!

  82. Peyton Avatar

    Re: Universalism – sort of. Charles Williams, in his novel “Descent into Hell”, writes of a character sensing himself going hand-over-hand down a rope in a black space. He knew that at any time he could stop the descent and climb back up the rope, but didn’t bother to do so. At some point he realized that there was no longer a rope.

  83. Alan Avatar

    @ Phil, thanks for your thoughts, I appreciate the response.

    @ Peyton, Wow…..I like that account. Thanks for sharing.

  84. Dino Avatar

    I do not know if I am correct, but I think that what makes those deified persons who encountered God first-hand, having seen the Hypostatic Light (such as St Silouan, F. Sophrony, F. Aimilianos), talk of an all conquering love, while at the same time however, combining this with the seemingly uncombinable – Man’s capability of perdition even at the face of such Love (as in the prodigal’s eldest brother)- is based not on their knowledge of God as much, but on their deep knowledge of Man’s nature. They have (in other words) acquired through experience a dogmatic consciousness of anthropolgy too.
    Father Stephen brilliantly provided an explanation.
    All that we can do, I sometimes think, is pray and unify to God, that part of humanity (ourselves) which is in our power to be unified to God…
    One’s salvation has the most powerful repercussions on the entire body of humanity.
    I might clearly and consciously desire to have God for me and for others. And when the Truth of all is revealed in that unending Day, my interpretation of what I perceive will then be what we term paradisial. But if another has chosen and cultivated and turned into second nature the desire to eat, drink, be merry, and succumb to every whim and sin of an ego that has displaced God (man’s heart retains that ability or he is not human) and wants as little of the True God as possible, then in the revelation of Christ as all in all, this would be interpreted as highly undesirable, no?
    Now, just as a temtpter (who tempts me to try something I interpret as ugly e.g. try a particular drug) can be much more tempting if he is very much like me, and seems fine doing it, and his example gradually convinces me of the harmless fun to be had if I gave it a try etc. leading me to the wrong state of interpretation; so too, my joyful example of what union with Christ is, can “tempt” another who does not see that interpretation (ie: that this union is actually Heaven) better than anything…
    I cannot however, get into speculation about what happens once time is no more…

  85. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The great problem is that the tempter often sounds a great deal like me to me. Much like the rich man who wanted to tear down his barns and build more. I have avoid some great sins because as much like me as the voice was I could tell, by God’s grace, that it was not.

    The greatest temptation I have found is in thinking a sin is actually a virtue or at least justifying it that way.

    Still, I think it is clear that hell, whatever it may be, was not prepared for us. Jesus does not want us there, yet we find ways to ignore and resist His love. Tomorrow. Yet at sometime we will face what the rich man face and “this night will your soul be required of you…”

    The readiness is all.

    Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand and death has been spoiled.

  86. Perry Robinson Avatar


    I can’t have your toothache. They could have experiences and they be wrong, even if they sound nice, compassionate and such. Such things are well known in the history and life of the Church. Likewise, given that individual saints can and have erred, I can only go with what the church says. So given that there is knowledge beyond the propositional, which I happily accept, I have to think about what I can know and what I ought to believe relative to the safe harbor of the Church’s teaching.

  87. Perry Robinson Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    Thanks for the reply.

    There may be things left out, but what is included is not overturned by them. That is just to say there is more to the story than logic, exitentially speaking, to be sure, but there isn’t less. As you well know, we aren’t Apollinarians.

    As to my reading of St. Isaac, I am just going off the assessment of Bishop Hilarion who does gloss St. Isaac that way in his monograph on St. Isaac. He is quite explicit about it in his book in the section on universalism. If I am misreading him, its only because Hilarion (among others) read him that way regarding impassability as a basis for his views. And Bishop Hilarion’s work is often referred to support a universalist position. And I wasn’t reading him in a calvinistic way, but a Nestorianizing way undergirded by view of impassability common among Nestorians (Theodoret of Cyrrus also exemplifies it for example). Given his unredacted remarks on Christology, that is not really controversial or so it seems to me, and others who write on him at a professional level. I can only go off what I read on that score. And while I am no expert in St. Isaac, is there some other work you would recommend that I read where Hilarion’s reading is corrected?

    As far as the alleged ad hominem, I did no such thing, nor intended any such thing. Nor could it be implied by what I wrote. When I spoke of need, I spoke of it in the context of his *arguments* for universalism and this is *why* I described how the implicit argument worked. So please believe me when I say, there was nothing personal in what I wrote.

    I only referred to Steenberg’s arguments because they were gestured at via Fr. Kimel by others so i was just discussing what was already on the table.

    As far as my own person goes and what I feel, I wasn’t aware that that was on the table. But in sum, I get it, which is why I have not said more and I am not alone in this across clergy and laity. It may not seem like restraint on my part, but out of my heart, it most certainly is.

  88. PJ Avatar


    I have read Isaac, though not nearly enough of him. And, while he certainly isn’t a scholastic, he is fluent in the language of mysticism, which is often technical and esoteric.

    Nonetheless, his writing is very beautiful. But, then, St. Augustine is also capable of remarkable beauty:

    “If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying “Amen” to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear “The body of Christ”, you reply “Amen.” Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your “Amen” may ring true! But what role does the bread play? … [L]isten … to what Paul says about this sacrament: “The bread is one, and we, though many, are one body.” Understand and rejoice: unity, truth, faithfulness, love. “One bread,” he says. What is this one bread? Is it not the “one body,” formed from many? Remember: bread doesn’t come from a single grain, but from many. When you received exorcism, you were “ground.” When you were baptized, you were “leavened.” When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, you were “baked.” Be what you see; receive what you are. This is what Paul is saying about the bread. So too, what we are to understand about the cup is similar and requires little explanation. In the visible object of bread, many grains are gathered into one just as the faithful (so Scripture says) form “a single heart and mind in God”. And thus it is with the wine. Remember, friends, how wine is made. Individual grapes hang together in a bunch, but the juice from them all is mingled to become a single brew. This is the image chosen by Christ our Lord to show how, at his own table, the mystery of our unity and peace is solemnly consecrated.”

    Isaac and Augustine lived in much different worlds. Their characters weren’t all that similar. And yet their is a strange and definite correspondence between their respective eschatologies — one is the inverse of the other.

  89. Dante Avatar

    Agnikan and Michael Bauman,

    While I don’t know if Scripture or Tradition has anything to add about that, the poet Dante Aligheri might have suggested something similar. Christian philosopher Eleanor Stump wrote an article on this (which can be found online) in order to explain how Dante conceived Hell, which like Thomas Aquinas’ view was located at the farthest, most weighty point from God at the center of an Aristotelian cosmos, was an artifice of Divine Wisdom and Love (!).

    And, I believe either Sts. Teresa of Avila or Catherine of Siena (not sure which) saw Hell as the only possible place for those who did not want heaven, still held in existence by the love of God. For them, Hell was like a mental facility or an asylum (please pardon the analogy) where sin could no longer hurt the world and human souls trapped in their self-destructive, illusionary natures could still act out without harming anyone – kind of like C.S. Lewis’ Greytown. Of course, most Western Catholic theologians saw natures as fixed beyond death out of habituation.

    In a video interview (which can be found on Youtube), Dr. Stump (who is Catholic) tries to explain historically why that was considered the case but admits some difficulty with it. She even entertains the idea that for souls which could repent and persist in the Really Real Reality of Paradise (working out of C.S. Lewis’ idea of eternal time working itself backwards in a soul’s subjective experience) Hell becomes Purgatory – at least until the Final Judgment when Heaven and Earth come together.

    On an additional note, I’ve seen Catholic theologians beginning to take alternative views (more in line with the equally diverse perspectives of the many Fathers?). Besides the obvious and controversial Hans Urs von Balthasar, Peter Kreeft, for example, has adopted the “River of Fire” theology. Stratford Caldecott (who writes excellent articles at the online magazine Second Spring and with whom I’ve communicated in the past) has revived the Harrowing of Hell not unlike Metro. Hilarion Alfeyev.

    I suppose that the best thing to remember at the beginning and end of all these thoughts are the words of Bl. Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

    Death has been conquered.

  90. Isaac Avatar

    Bishop Hilarion’s book on St. Isaac is handy, but there is really no reason to go to secondary sources. There is a great new edition of St. Isaac’s homilies from Holy Transfiguration Monastery that would keep anyone busy for a lifetime reading them and then Sebastian Brock’s translation of the more recently discovered “Second Book” would complete the set (although this is an academic publication and very expensive for a mere softcover book).

  91. Justin J Avatar
    Justin J

    Perry, you write: “If I am misreading him, its only because Hilarion (among others) read him that way regarding impassability as a basis for his views. And Bishop Hilarion’s work is often referred to support a universalist position. And I wasn’t reading him in a calvinistic way, but a Nestorianizing way undergirded by view of impassability common among Nestorians (Theodoret of Cyrrus also exemplifies it for example).”

    ***You’re not misreading but maybe over-reading? Bp. Hilarion makes very clear that Saint Isaac is no dyophysite. He explicitly distances the Christological thought of Saint Isaac from that of Theodore Mopuestia, for example, highlighting Saint Isaac’s use of the “mingling” (“hultana”) of God and creation at the Incarnation. Though not completely commensurate, this gets pretty close to perichoresis (and I think this is Bp. Hilarion’s main point). Please reread pp. 49-60 in Bp. Hilarion’s book that you cite. So while Saint Isaac may rely on Theodore Mopuestia’s teaching that torment is not unending, I don’t think Bp. Hilarion means also to assert that this shared belief comes from a shared Christology–something he earlier argues against (i.e., a shared Christology).

  92. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thanks for the clarification. I’m sensitive in certain regards (the ad hominem question). Forgive me for even thinking it – my own darkness clearly makes me suspect others. I’ll go back to Hilarion myself and read more. Thanks. Met. Hilarion is clearly better read than I in St. Isaac. I had not seen the impassibility per se as such an issue in my own reading.

  93. leonard Nugent Avatar
    leonard Nugent

    I’m not sure I’m being understood about what I’m saying about dogmatic universalism. It’s the difference between a professor saying you are all guaranteed an A in my class and a professor saying if you work hard you are guaranteed an A in my class. The last thing corresponds to Theosis

  94. leonard Nugent Avatar
    leonard Nugent

    Be assured I don’t dispare of Universal salvation but I don’t presume it either

  95. leonard Nugent Avatar
    leonard Nugent

    Thus, “the image of God as Judge is completely overshadowed in [St] Isaac by the image of God as Love (hubba) and Mercy (rahme).” Archbishop Hilarion points out that Hell (Gehenna) is a mystery, but created by God to perfect those who had not reached it during their lifetime. Actually, St. Isaac’s view of hell is closer to the Western Church’s view of purgatory. The separation of the “sheep and the goats” (Mt 25: 32-46), need not be final…..Part of the mystery may be the fact that the door of hell may very well be locked from the inside. That the person is so filled with hate he prefers hell to the act of humility that is required of unlocking the door and coming out. Sometimes children act like this when they are sent to their rooms and told they can come out when they are sorry.

  96. Mark Basil Avatar

    Thanks Perry.

    The Church has not taught that all will not/cannot be saved. So then can we hope that all might be saved? Yes.
    Many of those who draw nearest to God and know his love in ways most of us cannot imagine, tend to become more and more hopeful for the salvation of all
    There is a certain logic in this. That is where I come from.
    Logic and study have their place, but there is a more excellent way. When I listen to the Elders of the church- in whom Holy Tradition dwells bodily- I am encouraged to see the only one in danger of damnation is my own self- and to repent. As for everyone else, I will try to soften my heart enough to hope for the salvation of all.

    Purity of heart is need to see things as they are. Logic will be purified in my own repentance; I will try to hold lightly what seems logical to my darkened mind now.

    I wonder if we see the teaching of the Church slightly differently? I believe truth dwells only in merciful hearts. Hearts brimming with co-suffering love; these are the Apostolic deposit. This transfigured heart, alone, is holy tradition.

    Blessed Sophrony, in his book about St Silouan’s life, recounts, “In the vast sea which is the life of the Church the true Tradition flows like a thin pure stream… When anything of self is introduced the waters no longer run clear, for God’s supreme wisdom and truth are the oposite of human wisdom and truth. Such renunciation appears intolerable, insane even, to the self-willed, but the man who is not afraid to ‘become a fool’ has found true life and true wisdom.”

    -Mark Basil

  97. fatherstephen Avatar

    On necessity. I’ll be re-reading Hilarion. But, I can’t say I’ve mastered the written arguments of Fr. Aidan, but we have many private conversations. I don’t even see him as having an argument in the sense of logical necessity. Rather I see the necessity of Divine Love (not a necessity that binds God, but a necessity incumbent upon us because of the revelation of Divine Love). This is a very different thing. I only know God as He is made known to me in Christ. The love of God made known in Christ Jesus constrains me in certain ways – it is this constraint that I hear in Fr. Aidan’s writings and conversations.

    I hear the same constrain in the teachings of St. Silouan and others (as given us by Fr. Sophrony). I find it of interest that we have had a number of contemporary saints/elders who have echoed such thoughts. There are reasons many hope for a salvation from hell in our modern world. And I give no consideration for those who simply think of such things for reasons of mere liberalism. I have no regard for such thoughts.

    But I do wonder at the modern phenomenon. One reason, I think, is that many, many Christians (or wannabe’s) have utterly thrown over certain versions of Christian tradition, and with it, entertain thoughts that a generation ago would not have been whispered. I also think there is in many quarters a predictable backlash to the harsh claims and teachings of cultural Calvinism, which has colored the thoughts of cultural protestantism rather strongly.

    I hear in the universalist sympathies a hunger of love – for a transforming love that has the power to heal everything and all things. That sounds like a legitimate hunger – particularly as our world has seen so much of the opposite.

    I file St. Isaac, St. Silouan, and their like under the heading of hope. They do not offer a dogma, but suggest a hope. That hope directs the heart and draws forth prayer. There is no conciliar decree against the hope of St. Silouan or St. Isaac.

    One of my favorite akathists is the Akathist for the Departed found in the Jordanville Book of Akathists. It is clearly for “private” usage, though I suppose it might be used within the Church. It prays very boldly indeed and extends the love of God, through hope, about as far as can be imagined (not as far as St. Isaac, however).

    May God keep hope within our hearts – in a world that frequently feels so hopeless.

  98. […] For All Things). It was the response to a comment posted by a reader to another of his articles, Is Hell Real?. It is simply […]

  99. Connie Avatar

    Father Stephen, it is a joy to read this last comment of yours.


    “what makes those deified persons who encountered God first-hand … talk of an all conquering love, while at the same time however, combining this with … man’s capability of perdition even at the face of such Love … is based not on their knowledge of God as much, but on their deep knowledge of Man’s nature.”

    I have often thought that the difference between me as a universalist and others in Orthodoxy is not our view of God (we agree that He is Love and all His judgments derive from Love) but our view of man. We see, of course, in this life, all kinds of resistance and rebellion. We only have to look at our own base natures, our egotistical thoughts, who we are when we’re angry (the heart is deceitful above all things), to empathize with those who would find the presence of God distatesful (or torturous). C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce amply illustrates that slide into nothingness. My own heart does too.

    Is man truly capable of resisting God forever? I believe that at the heart of every person is a divine spark that wants only to love and be loved. (Can anyone who has had children deny this?) I believe everything a child seeks when he goes the myriad splintered ways of his own devices are but substitutes for that love. But however wrong and deceived the person becomes as an adult, I could not take the child out of the adult in this world or the next! It can never be! Don’t ask me why I believe this. The child is still there within, and if that resistance continues to his death, then being cast into the outer darkness or the fire of God’s consuming Love will burn away the chaff and reveal the child again. It is very simple. 🙂 One can ask, if God is truly capable of bringing everyone to repentance why not do it sooner? I believe the answer to this is also very simple. We all need the darkness, whether in this world or the next, to see the light. By some mysterious interweaving of all things there is an educational process we all must go through. God has consigned all to disobedience so that He might have mercy on all (Romans 11:32).

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