The Purpose of Mystery, Paradox and Contradiction

trin3Orthodox Christianity is deeply associated with the word “mystery.”  Its theological hymns are replete with paradox, repeatedly affirming two things to be true that are seemingly contradictory. Most of these things are associated with what is called “apophatic” theology, or a theology that is “unspeakable.” This same theological approach is sometimes called the Via Negativa. This is easily misunderstood in common conversation. An Orthodox discussion takes place and reaches an impasse. Inevitably, someone will remind us that some things are simply a “mystery,” etc. But this “unknowableness” is actually a misuse of mystery and its place in the Church’s life. For though mystery, paradox and contradiction frame something as “unknowable,” they do so for the purpose of knowing.

To know is not the equivalent of mastering facts. Knowledge, in the New Testament, is equated with salvation itself (Jn. 17:3). But what kind of knowing is itself salvific? In the simplest terms, it is knowledge as participation.

Then they said to Him, “Where is Your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither Me nor My Father. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also.” (Joh 8:19)


O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me. And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them. (Joh 17:25-26)

Christ is by no means speaking of knowledge as information. Instead, it is knowledge that “dwells” in them. Such knowledge cannot be gained by the simple sharing of information nor by the acquisition of a system of ideas. It is experiential, on the one hand, but in a manner that is itself transformative.

We experience things all the time. It is possible to say that we are changed by experience. But it is another thing to say that the experience itself now dwells in you and communicates a new life to you. At its very heart, this is the nature of revelation. And this is key within the life of Orthodoxy. What dwells in us as “knowledge,” is, in fact, Christ Himself as knowledge. Christ Himself is the revealer, the revealing and what is revealed.

It would be possible to “master” Orthodoxy as a system of thought. One could know a set of doctrines and teachings, and even be able to enter into discussion and argument. But this in no way actually constitutes true knowledge of Orthodoxy, much less Orthodoxy as saving knowledge.

The Orthodox faith is a making-known-of-the-mystery. And this is utterly essential. The Orthodox faith is not static content, but the dynamic reality of the living Christ. It is, properly, a revealed faith, and cannot be had in any other manner. And strangely, the mystery is as essential as the knowing. Only that which is hidden can be revealed.

It is a common mistake to treat the New Testament itself as the revelation of God, or the collection of the information newly revealed through Christ. We historicize Christ’s work as a set of teachings, an assemblage of theological information that we may now discuss, dissect and comprehend, rendering into nothing more than religion. However, the New Testament (and the fullness of the Church) have the mystery within them, but must first be encountered as mystery before they can be encountered as knowledge.

Paradox and contradiction, hiddenness and mystery are all inherent means of saving knowledge. Their presence within Scripture and the liturgical tradition are not mere styles of communication. They provide an access into a form a knowledge that cannot be communicated in any other manner. They are not mere screens shielding wonderful knowledge from our view, a knowledge that once revealed can then be shared without reference to the mystery. Because the kind of knowledge that is saving knowledge both causes and requires an inner transformation, it cannot be shared in a manner other than that through which it was first acquired. The single most important means of saving knowledge in the Tradition is the liturgical life of the Church. It is there that we sing the mystery. The hymns of the Church delight in paradox and contradiction. They urge the heart to enter into this mystical bounty. Those who have no experience of Orthodox liturgical worship can only wonder at this. Those who do, I daresay, understand exactly what I am saying.

We can say that it is not merely the rationalization of Christian teaching that is problematic, but even the efforts to make plain and straightforward and easily accessible what can only be known through mystery, paradox and contradiction. For this reason, it is true that most engagement in theological speech is done by those who don’t know what they are talking about. What passes for “theology” can easily be little more than one swine discussing pearls with another.

True theology is as much a matter of how we know as it is what we know. Further, everything about our own condition also matters in both what we may know and how we may know it. Saving knowledge cannot be isolated from the whole of who we are and how we are. The experience encountered in paradox and mystery is frequently a necessary condition for knowing the truth. We may very well come away with knowledge, and yet be speechless.

I studied Orthodoxy and the Fathers for over 20 years before I was received into the Church. But there were some things that I only began to know on the day of my reception. More than that, a slow process began in which everything I thought I knew was changed. The manner of knowing the faith as a communicant made the content of faith something other than what I thought I knew. Christ is quite clear that purity of our heart is essential in the knowledge of God. St. Silouan says that we only know God to the extent that we love our enemies. So it is always right to ask of ourselves, “What is the state of my heart as I approach this mystery?”

This draws me to the topic under discussion in my most recent article. The final end of all things is a mystery. Many aspects of it are hidden within paradox. It is of little value to simply decide what you think and declare an opinion. In many ways it is similarly in vain to simply repeat the doctrines of the Church as though you knew what they were talking about. The mysteries of God are not information to be acquired: they are saving knowledge. Thus, when we draw near to the question of the final disposition of all things, we rightly regard it as a mystery. It is a mystery that we are, in fact, encouraged to enter. The mystery is not there simply to say, “None of your business.”

When we see statements such as those found in St. Isaac of Syria that point towards a total apokatastasis of all things, it should not be an occasion for suddenly declaring him to be right or wrong. He is a Father of the Church. His work is an invitation to an encounter with Christ. Until we encounter Christ within the paradox of that mystery, we don’t know anything on the topic.

There is a story within the Scriptures that, like the ascent of Moses on the Holy Mountain (I have in mind St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses) also points towards the mystery of God with particular attention to the matter of judgment. Consider the story of the hospitality of Abraham (Gen. 18). Abraham entertains the three figures, described both as angels and “the Lord.” Indeed, the language shifts between singular and plural, presenting a paradox to any reader (and, we may assume, to Abraham as well). But the attention of the visitors turns to the matter of Sodom and Gomorrah and we read:

And the LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice, that the LORD may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him.” (17-19)

God chooses to share the mystery of the coming judgment with Abraham, “for I have known him.” The story continues with the conversation concerning the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, with Abraham interceding for mercy. Abraham “argues” with God for the salvation of all. Abraham is the “friend” of God, from whom God will not “hide” His intentions.

In the paradox of God’s mercy and His love, together with the paradox of an eternal hell and the apokatastasis of all things, we are invited, like Abraham, to an encounter with God. It is both a place of deep mystery and of union with God. A pure heart requires that we stand with Abraham in the presence of God and argue on behalf of the unrighteous. As I have noted, in arguing for them, we argue for ourselves as well, for we dare not number ourselves among the righteous.

My intention in writing about this topic has not been to engage in theological argument, but to perhaps usher others into the confrontation with God. There is a reason that we read of such confrontations within the lives of the saints. They are not contentious souls, except when it comes to pursuing God. Following the lead and urging of the saints, we pursue God even into the judgment itself. Father Zacharias of Essex, commenting on the work of the Elder Sophrony says that in the fulfillment of our true calling in God:

Man becomes what Job prophetically desired to see, that is, someone who, in imitation of Christ, is stretched out between heaven and earth, putting one hand upon the shoulder of God and the other on man’s shoulder. It is precisely then that man, as he prays for the entire world, becomes ‘royal priesthood’ [1 Pet: 2: 5,9]. This Christ-like all-embracing love is the sign which bears witness to the restoration of the primordial ‘image’ in man…. From Christ, Our Way and Our Life

This prayer for the entire world includes even the unrighteous in hell. We do in our prayer what Christ has done in the fullness of His being. We do not pronounce on hell, but we pray there. It is the last measure of our union with Christ. It is the fulfillment of St. Paul’s cry to know the “communion of His sufferings.” It may very well feel like darkness and paradox, but it is also light and life.

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.


126 responses to “The Purpose of Mystery, Paradox and Contradiction”

  1. newenglandsun Avatar

    Good thoughts on participation Fr Stephen. I brushed into a Modalist on YT recently who was rigidly anti-Trinitarian and as I was trying to show him how the scriptures present to us God as a relation of the beings of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and these three are relational beings each the one God, what I started to realize was that there’s lots of Evangelicals who prefer to make arguments from scriptures showing God is a Trinity but they seem to neglect the relational aspect of God. The Trinity is an invitation into participatory life with God and is not meant to be understood per se but rather is meant to be lived. When we are baptized, we are baptized into Trinitarian life. So at the same time I was trying to help this Modalist see the Trinity in scriptures what occurred to me is that seeing the Trinity in scriptures requires much more than mere intellectual arguments but also requires a lived experience and relationship with the Trinity itself.

    I actually used to be an Arian and it is not until an Eastern Orthodox Christian brought up the concept of theosis when I started to reconsider my heresy of Arianism that I held to. It was by no means a sophisticated argument for the Trinity but rather it was an invitation to participate in Trinitarian life. This is why I think it is difficult to convince heretics they are in error. They have perceived that there is none of this life and are caught up in their over-emphasis of one aspect of the truth that they simply refuse to see the other aspects. Not certain if that made sense and hopefully you can correct me.

  2. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In theology, everything comes down to soteriology.

  3. Robert Avatar

    Excellent thoughts on this important topic!

    Many heresies can be rightly understood to be attempts to explain (i.e. simplify, make accessible to human knowledge) mystery and paradox, to reduce the tension between the apparent contradictions upheld by the mystery. Arianism is a prime example, the inability and refusal to affirm one God and the multiplicity of Persons. Iconoclasm is another paradox – the invisible God imaged. Yet another example – the suffering of the impassible God, and so forth.

    Modern materialism (i.e. “matter is ultimate reality”) is yet another project of reducing the mystery of our existence to a mechanistic understanding of the universe.

  4. Mark Avatar

    In his song “Tears In Heaven”, Eric Clapton asks, “Would you know my name, if I saw you in Heaven?”. I know some of the history behind the song, but the question still seems profound to me. Certainly just the mention of Heaven leads to many quandries; where is Heaven, for example? And then, where in relation is earth? The whole notion of what we consider to be reality (physical or otherwise) is challenged. I am rightly left realizing how small I am and how fathomless is God.

    More importantly, to me anyway, is the notion of personhood. “Would you know my name in Heaven?” It has been one of the paradoxes you speak of: “He who keeps his life will lose it and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” I’ve never heard a sufficient answer. I am grateful that God has been slowly disabusing me of the fear I’ve had for so long that “this” is all there is and that I must clutch it tightly; that somehow death is non-existence – an unspeakable tragedy.

    One of the “things” that attracted me to Orthodoxy was the notion of mystery: that there were “things” (sorry, ideas, notions – words fail, spaces?) that were beyond rational formulation. Not necessarily understanding exactly, but at least expression.

    One of the things I noted and very much appreciated about the movie “Avatar” was the “greeting” often used among the “Navi”, the alien race: “I see you”. It was explained later that this was more than an objective statement. It was akin to, “I know you” where to know is, if I remember, that Greek word “epiginosko”.

    In His first message after the temptation in the wilderness, Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, freedom to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed and to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” This was both a summary of His mission and a description of mankind in general (and, of course me in specific). It has really only been a recent “revelation” that this was and is my condition too. Father Stephen, your writings have contributed greatly to “seeing” my condition as well as the hope that is mine (and ours) is Christ.

    When I was a boy, I was given swimming lessons. Part of the training was learning how to float. We were told to lay back, and relax and… well, float. I never could. My feet always seemed to drag me down. I’m beginning to think that “salvation” is rather like learning to float in the love of God.

    Sorry for the rambling. Once again you’ve given me a great deal to ponder.

  5. Robert Avatar


    I found a powerful the retention of a person’s name (and thus identity and personhood) to be the saints. We know them by their name, from their concrete, personal, earthly existence. We celebrate their lives, recall their names, on particular days. Their icons are not random, arbitrary images left to the whim of the imagination of an artist.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In Greek, one of the words meaning “to know” is “oidein.” It is a cognate of the Latin “videre” or “to see.” Seeing and knowing are deeply linked in language. Indeed we say, “Oh, I see,” meaning, “I understand.”

    I understand the “is this all there is?” struggle. Strangely, one of the things that helps me (battling secular materialism), is to remember how utterly remarkable and impossible mere existence is. We take this materiality for granted, as though we actually know anything about what it is, why it is, or how it is. It is no less remarkable that we will have an existence that transcends this. The God who gives us this existence is the God who will give us any existence whatsoever. It is a fruitful meditation, I think.

  7. newenglandsun Avatar

    “Many heresies can be rightly understood to be attempts to explain (i.e. simplify, make accessible to human knowledge) mystery and paradox,”
    How true, Robert!
    Yesterday for Western Christians (I’m High Anglican) was septuagesima. Our scripture reading was focusing on St Paul’s reflections on how the spiritual life is like a race that we are trying to pursue a goal and our Gospel reading was on the parable of the servants of the farmer receiving the same exact wage.
    The homily focused on this paradox. For one, salvation is not something we deserve. But then again, neither is it something we can be stagnant about. We must be constantly pursuing what moral philosophers would call “the highest good” and what we Christians would identify as God.

    Speaking of icons, I’m actually in the process right now of raising money to purchase icons (of the statue kind, there’s no place for us in our worship spot for the painting kind) for my own parish (which actually meets in a mausoleum that is lent out to us). It’s one of those small things I do–give to the church–but I figure it is a starting point. I’ve found some good ones of St Michael, St Gabriel, and St Raphael as well. It will add more beauty to our altar I’m certain which has just a simple cross on it.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    We had a small statue of St. Michael trouncing on the devil in my son’s room when he was young (he’s about 29 now). I love a prayer he composed and prayed each night:
    Dear, St. Michael, guard my room!
    Don’t let anything eat me or kill me.
    Kill it with your sword!
    Kill it with your sword!

    It was a very good prayer. Nothing ever ate him or killed him. I recommend it.

  9. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    What an insightful description of the difference between thinking about God, the normal Western approach, and knowing God in an experiential way, the true way of knowing. I find it interesting that the Hebrew word for “I know” means to experience. We use it in slang when we say yada, yada, yada. We are really saying I know. Than you Father.

  10. newenglandsun Avatar

    “yada” is Hebrew for “to know”. You can now think of “yada, yada, yada” in a whole new way.

  11. Byron Avatar

    you continue to make the point that true knowledge of Orthodoxy and saving knowledge is not available to the likes of me as such.

    To me, this brings up the question of how would someone who claims a lack of belief experience God in such as way that they experience salvation? Forgive me, but I’m not clear on what you are asking here.

    To see the restoration and eternal hell as paradoxical, moreover, is not an experiential insight that is unavailable to the unbeliever. It is a theological claim that is problematical precisely because it strays from that which was once for all given to the people of God, in particular, that it is appointed unto man once to die, but after this, the judgement.

    You seem to base your statement very heavily in the modern concept of intellectual knowledge and not on experience of God at all. It is true that, in God’s time, all will experience resurrection and “restoration and eternal hell” but to state that it is only a theological claim is to miss the point, I believe. This is rather an end result of God’s presence upon our corruption. The “judgement” being spoken of is the Love of God upon us; our reaction to it is either “restoration” or “hell”. Someone who does not experience (or experiences and refuses) God here could not possibly gain saving knowledge because they do not take part in the process of salvation; they refuse to experience it.

    If I have misunderstood your comments please forgive me.

  12. Onesimus Avatar

    Theological knowledge is not postulated from abstract ideas (except in the West). Theology like any ology is empirical and revelatory.

    To say that such and such is only a theological claim may work for a rationalist…but the Church operates in the realm of Theology as experiential truth revealed.

    You deny that the revealer exists. Therefore you deny there can be empirical revelation. What is there to discuss? Catholic answers .com is the place for speculative formulations about logical so called “theology”.

    One can’t possibly have a sensible conversation about cardiology if that person denies that the heart is a real organ and that it can be empirically known, but still want to “cardiologize” about it.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Well Chris,
    You’re wrong, I think. You have assumed a dogmatic approach viz. the finality and eternity of hell, that is, paradoxically, not shared by all of the Fathers. They exist. Their writings exist. They are not condemned. They are not only not condemned, many of them continue to be seen as among the most important and central of Orthodox writings. Your position simply dismisses this. You, in fact, don’t know what you’re talking about. You have a position that you think correct but runs counter to many of the deepest elders within the Church. But your only account for this is “modernism.” If I am guilty of theological modernism, then it would be real news out there.

    This conversation is pretty much at an end. PJ, by the way, is a good and faithful Catholic. A good man. But I disagree with the comment you cite. What I have done is not obfuscation and for the reasons I have stated.

    That is all.

  14. Mark Avatar

    Fr. Stephen and Robert
    Thank-you for your responses! It is encouraging to know that I am not alone in my struggle.

    Please forgive a short story. I was a boy of less than 10. We (mother and sister and I) were visiting relatives in Oregon. Shortly after going to bed I was visited by a dream or vision – I don’t know which – that consisted of blackness. I was terrified and as the scene held me I knew that I would die. This wasn’t communicated in words, I just knew it. I screamed out for my mother, but (bless her heart) all she could say to comfort me was, “It won’t happen for a long time.”

    I mention this because it was one of the foundational experiences of my youth and it wasn’t communicated rationally (is that even the right word?). I just understood it, in an instant. I’m sure it affected my outlook on life in general.

    It has also been like the Morgul-knife wound that Frodo sustained that bothered him in later years though the physical threat was gone. Again, I relate this because I do marvel at existence and the manifold wonders of the natural world around me. I know, but this type of argument is like trying to deal with the problem of pain with a book on neurology. I once had “apologetics” as a hobby, but winning arguments isn’t the same thing as being saved. Mercy is far more “winsome”.

    To be more positive (I’m trying) and encouraging, I believe we are/I am surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses – saints of all ages and “degrees”, like a sports stadium in which all the spectators are veterans of the game (yes, more than spectators). I think the knowing you both speak of is like the peace that passes understanding, of the same kind but greater than the dark event I related. I hope for the day in which I will know even as I am known.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Again, you understand too poorly what you’re talking about. You think when you say “the judgment,” that everybody knows what that means and that you know it as well. You do not, apparently. What is the Judgment?

    First, the Judgment Seat of Christ is the Cross. It’s not some tribunal or legal thing. It is the Cross. And here is Christ on the Judgment: “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that through Him, might be saved.” And “this is Judgment (krisis), that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. (Joh 3:19) And “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out.” (Joh 12:31) This last statement referring specifically to His death on the Cross.

    But you clearly have some definitive idea in your head of what the judgment is. I’m saying that you don’t know, and that those who speak carelessly about it don’t know either. Even the dogma of the church has to be known in its depth, and in the fullness of its mystery.

    There is very much to be said (or known), that your “then comes the judgment” simply short circuits for some forensic model worthy of Anselm.

  16. Janine Avatar

    I have understood hell to be the same fire that was in the burning bush; it’s a fire of love that we either let burn away what isn’t compatible with it or not. The pain is holding onto the things that can’t stand the heat, so to speak. So, there’s a compatibility.

    Also, I always think of “to know” in the sense of getting to know or knowing someone — like the way I know or am still getting to know my husband of 36 years.

  17. Richard Avatar

    Apophatic epiginōskō

  18. Justin Avatar

    “Most engagement in theological speech is done by those who don’t know what they are talking about. What passes for “theology” can easily be little more than one swine discussing pearls with another. True theology is as much a matter of how we know as it is what we know.”

    Speak on, sweet lips which never told a lie!

  19. Byron Avatar

    I have understood hell to be the same fire that was in the burning bush; it’s a fire of love that we either let burn away what isn’t compatible with it or not. The pain is holding onto the things that can’t stand the heat, so to speak. So, there’s a compatibility.

    Janine, I had not heard of the burning bush fire used this way (or perhaps I had but had forgotten it) but I recall an Icon that depicts a river of fire flowing from under the throne of Christ being discussed in this manner.

  20. Janine Avatar


    Thank you for your comment. I would assume they are all the “same” fire, or rather representative of the same thing. (Anyway, I leave it to those who know better to correct me!) I see where this fire in the icon comes from: it is the description of the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7:9-10 –

    “As I looked,

    “thrones were set in place,
    and the Ancient of Days took his seat.
    His clothing was as white as snow;
    the hair of his head was white like wool.
    His throne was flaming with fire,
    and its wheels were all ablaze.
    A river of fire was flowing,
    coming out from before him.
    Thousands upon thousands attended him;
    ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.
    The court was seated,
    and the books were opened.

  21. Byron Avatar

    I would assume they are all the “same” fire, or rather representative of the same thing. (Anyway, I leave it to those who know better to correct me!)

    Yes, I do as well. I understood it as God’s Love for us, depicted as a cleansing fire.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Byron and Janine,
    This would certainly seem to be correct. Everything that God made “was good.” He has made nothing evil. Whatever the fire is, it is not evil.

  23. Brian Avatar

    This river of fire is presumably the same image as the water/river flowing from the temple Ezekiel saw.

    It is most certainly not evil, but I wonder if “it” (or rather the mystical reality “it” is an image of) should be conceived of or meditated upon as created.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I would generally think of it as uncreated.

  25. newenglandsun Avatar

    Not only is the Hell-fire uncreated but the Hell-fire is in fact God himself. The penitent will be drawn closer to God than the impenitent as the holiness of God will be completely and utterly intolerable for them. But regardless, to be away from God in such a manner is an utterly horrifying punishment for one to bear. Which is why many saints throughout the history of the church completely laid down their own lives so that others may be drawn to the great fiery beauty that is YHWH.

    That’s all I have to say about Hell. The rest is completely a mystery that I prefer to let the theologians get worked up over. The best way to learn something about Hell is to desire to be the only one damned so that the rest of the world may believe. In spite of all the theological diversity on the nature of Hell, this position seems to be the universal position that has been embraced.

    Also, apologies for the western-style “penal” language with respect to this. I use these terms from time to time but with a literary disclaimer quite often. The reason is because these terms are still used in scriptures but not with the idea of forensic models of atonement in mind.

  26. Pete Avatar

    You’re right Father, all of this is saving knowledge or it is nothing at all. Thank you for sharing this meditation with us. Drawing from the things you say, I wish to not only agree with you but to echo your comments. The context for all of this is our Lenten journey. We aren’t just talking about hell (or heaven) as some far off thing in time and place; that because of this can only be conceptualized.

    The lived experience of the saints is to be numbers with the unrighteous. If I can be saved than truly anyone can be – this is experienced to the point of “what do you mean?, I am saved or will be saved? This is an absurdity, what about these that I’m numbered with? The only response is prayer and petition. This is the ultimate alignment (fullest expression) of our Lenten journey, which is the express image (icon) of reality.

    Our response to The Great Gift should be just this.

    Our journeys through lent and Holy Week are rooted and shared ontologically now. His saving act is a once and always act entered into time, but its ontological origins are outside of it.

    All of this is happening Now and it is The Mystery. Yes, the mystery that reveals and does Not hide.

    In our own time, we start to develop a sense of these things; that is our growing awareness of these things as an ontological reality…. with eyes to see, we start to see.

    To clarify even further, Father, as you said, the cross is the judgment seat. Christ said of his crucifiers that they would be forgiven because they didn’t know what they were doing. We do not know where God’s mercy ends and on the other hand, we know experientially that we have really encountered hell; have embraced hell, this of our own making.

    Look at our Lenten journey; we are primordial man expelled from the garden. We enter the first week of Lent and the mirror put before us is the canon of St. Andrew. This is who we are….this is who we are. We are an ontological tragedy. Hell is the final judgment, but alas….

    Those in darkness have received a great light!

    If all we have are the doctrines and can express them well, we have nothing. We are called to enter in at the strait gate. And this is great joy! He did it first. We follow.

    Heb 12:2 looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

    Something happened between the cross and his glorification.

    Thank you father for your terrific blog!

  27. Justin Avatar

    Alright, lemme clear this up once and for all: HELL IS PROTESTANT HEAVEN.

    The Holy Tradition tells us that hell will contain only 2 people:

    First, I will be there: “Think to yourself, ‘Surely I alone will perish and the whole world will be saved.’ ” (Desert Fathers).

    Second, Jesus will also be there with me: “Where can I flee from You? If I make my bed in hell, even there You are.” (Holy Scriptures).

    Just me and Jesus. See? Protestant Heaven.

  28. newenglandsun Avatar

    If I was Catholic, I’d give your comment a Nihil Obstat 🙂
    You nailed it right on the head.

  29. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    Justin you made my day.

  30. H. Ian Attila Avatar
    H. Ian Attila

    Fr. Stephen,

    What brings you to the conclusion that the 5th Ecumenical council does not explicitly, and on no uncertain terms, condemn all forms of universalism?


  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    H. Ian,
    It’s not a conclusion. But there is a debate about the document itself. It seems not to have been the work of the Council but of a small number of bishops and the Emperor Justinian, and was added to the Council, or something like that. It’s an interesting discussion. However, the subject of the condemnation was certain “Origenistic” teachings, and universalism in general. The fact that there are major Fathers who hold to some form of a total apokatastasis without condemnation certainly raises questions.

    It is a fine point in Patristic studies and in the dogmatic teaching of the Church. There are reasons why there is and has long been discussion around the topic. The content of the Tradition forces the conversation.

  32. James Avatar

    Thank you father for your wonderful blog and the discussion that ensued. I was about ready to grab a bowl of popcorn and enjoy the discussion had it gone further, lol. Some things are in the realm of mystery and no further penetration can happen without our continous growth in the participation of our common purification which leads into theoria. Orthodox theology is so beautiful and yet ever so mysterious. Keep up the good work!

  33. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Am I crazy to wonder how heaven and hell can be a total dichotomy when so many other things that seem obviously dicotomous are not: such as God wholly other and wholly imminent. Jesus fully God and fully man?

    Is there any limit to where Jesus will go in search of those who have strayed?

    Even the river of fire analogy is not as strict as it seems in light of 1 Cor. 3.

    While I know I have no claim on dwelling with Jesus in His Kingdom, His rather persistent pursuit of me no matter how often I turn away and ignore Him, insult Him, etc gives me great hope not only for myself but for everyone.

    Isn’t that the Good News? Death swallowed up in Victory?

    He always gives the increase. He always sees me a great way off and comes to greet me. I marvel at how this can be, yet it is. I am a great way off yet but He still finds me, taps me gently on my shoulder and says “Remember me, my child?”

  34. Anonymous Cloud Avatar
    Anonymous Cloud

    I’d suggest that some of our difficulties with the language concerning seeing and knowing are anachronistic with regards the Fathers and the Apostles. They are not dealing with a cartesian dualism such that Wittgenstein’s delineations in the Tractatus or even Kant’s limits of language are useful to us.

    As I see it, while the apophatic may be “knowable” in our special sense, it is not knowable in terms of denotive logic any more than one can paint the actual kingdom of heaven into an icon. We aren’t the Author of creation. In terms of logic, the apophatic isn’t like a muddy pool of water through which we cannot see at present. It is something that is beyond logical conception. Again, the confusion comes in confusing different uses of ‘knowing’. A man may know his wife but he cannot conceive her. 😉

    It is not, in my view, necessary for Christians to endlessly rehash the debate between Barlaam and Gregory Palamas. The uncreated light is “knowable” in the sense the Church means that … not in the sense Wittgenstein means it. To trade on an ambiguity (endlessly) is unhelpful. The kind of seeing modern philosophy speaks to is seeing the picture of a halo around the head of a saint in an icon or stained glass window. The kind of knowledge the Church speaks of is to see God’s very act of creation, to see the double-mindedness in ourselves, to see God’s judgment and redemption … it is to “see” the kingdom of heaven. I suppose it is prophetic but not in the sense of telling the future but in seeing God’s sovereignty, power and presence made manifest. It is to “see” our own face illuminated and to know its source … although that is perhaps not a simple idea. Put more simply this is the Good News of the Gospel revealed to such as St. Simeon the New Theologian and St. Paul on the road to Damascus.

    It seems noteworthy that while the tongue of fire is “upon the head” of the one who sees, he sees it in others. The vision is given showing forth that Light in others so it functions as a call to service, to edification of the Body. Judging by St. Paul’s example, it is given for the sake of the one to whom it is given as well … not as a reward for sanctity or effective meditation techniques.

  35. Robert Avatar

    Michael, I think the point of the apparent dichotomies or paradoxes as we encounter them in Christianity is that we are to uphold both realities, without changing either. In Christ we have a union of the two natures, but without confusion, the two natures remain unchanged in their nature proper to itself. God is other and immanent, yet we deny pantheism and deism. So in the case of hell/heaven I am not sure pointing to paradox is helpful – distinctions are not erased or reduced.

    But perhaps you mean it in another way, in which case I would like to hear what you think.

  36. Robert Avatar

    Anonymous Cloud,

    Agreed, and this brings us back full circle to the “Modern Project” – particularly its epistemological presuppositions and methods which cannot be reconciled with that of the Fathers. “Never the twain shall meet.”

  37. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Robert, most conversations about heaven and hell tend to picture them as immutable places somewhere else and some time else with the current life in between somehow.

    I am suggesting that that is neither accurate nor helpful. Of course neither is simply a state of mind.

    Hell is created after all. Created for the devil and his angels. Not for us. If all creation is being transformed …. ?

    …as long as any of creation is untransformed there will be hell?

  38. Robert Avatar

    I wouldn’t call hell created – like evil, it is derivative, like a parasite it depends on its host.

    As long as the untransformed gnomic will is allowed to remain free to choose, hell is allowed and universalism finds its limit.

  39. Brian Avatar

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to circle back to H. Ian’s question about the judgment of the Fifth Council:

    “If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary, and will one day have an end, and that an apokatastasis will take place of demons and of impious men, let him be anathema.”

    You wrote in reply:

    …there is a debate about the document itself. It seems not to have been the work of the Council but of a small number of bishops and the Emperor Justinian, and was added to the Council, or something like that. It’s an interesting discussion. However, the subject of the condemnation was certain “Origenistic” teachings, and universalism in general. The fact that there are major Fathers who hold to some form of a total apokatastasis without condemnation certainly raises questions. It is a fine point in Patristic studies and in the dogmatic teaching of the Church. There are reasons why there is and has long been discussion around the topic. The content of the Tradition forces the conversation.

    It cannot be denied that “there are major Fathers who hold to some form of a total apokatastasis without condemnation,” and this does indeed raise questions that are worthy of meditation. And yes, the context of this anathema was far larger than this one sentence. Nevertheless, this was included. Moreover, two additional Councils followed the Fifth, and these, to the best of my knowledge, did not correct, alter, or clarify the judgment of the Fifth Council. Nor did any controversy (again, to the best of my knowledge) ensue over things added to the work of the Fifth Council by a small number of bishops and the Emperor Justinian. Given the controversy and conflict that surrounded any council that was in any way questioned or not universally received by the catholic Church, it would seem virtually unthinkable that obvious and intense controversy over this judgment of the Council could fail to arise within the 200+ years that separated the Fifth Council from the Seventh if the matter were not somehow considered settled.

    I am truthfully not interested here in arguing. That isn’t the point of this comment. I have much to learn. But I have to be honest. When you write of “debate about the document itself” it strikes me as being in a category similar to that of modern historical criticism (i.e., we have reason to question the validity of _______ or our ‘assumptions’ about ________ ). Perhaps I am mistaken. If so, I would be grateful if you would clarify. I am naturally suspicious of Patristic studies that seek to question rather than humbly and obediently affirm. Far too many are simply delusional.

    Having said this, I thank you sincerely for what you have written on the topic overall. It is far more profitable for the soul than mere mental assent to a dogmatic pronouncement could ever be.

  40. Panayiota Avatar

    I do feel a sense of peace from reading and thinking about these articles. I keep thinking about the Eucharist, and receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. I wonder if those who have fallen asleep receive the Gifts.
    I pray for my unbelief, because no matter how much I hear that Christ enters hell for me, I keep thinking of the great chasm between Lazarus and the rich man.

  41. Panayiota Avatar

    As I re read, I was struck by a comment that you made to Mark, (1/25 @ 1:54) about our existence. I began to think about the gospel of the Ten Lepers. I thought of the connection of our existence with gratitude. An intimate connection with the Trinty. Not just some ideas I choose to believe.
    An unbelieving biologist once told me that we are just a collection of cell. I can see how one could think that without the experience of gratitude, mystery and paradox.

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The details and fine points of the patristic question, I would think, do require at least the informed input from a range of Patristics scholars. Sometimes things are nearly as neat and tidy as we presume. For example, the great theologian, Fr. Georges Florovsky, mounted a great return to the Fathers in his work in the 20th century. His scholarship show that there was a very deep “Western Captivity” within a lot of Orthodox thought, imported primarily from Catholic sources. His massive Ways of Russian Thought in 2 volumes is essential reading for anyone seriously engaging in Orthodox theology in our time. Much of his work has been refined, but he has changed the face of Orthodox thought through his work. He returned it to its sources.

    That work was “critical.” It is never enough to take something at face value, because there are too many “faces”. It is right to prayerfully enter into the meaning and understanding but the Tradition has never eschewed scholarship. We don’t need less, we need better. Western critical studies reach bad conclusions because of a bad heart, and not otherwise.

    With regard to the Council: here is the text of the Council’s condemnation of the apokatastasis:

    If anyone shall say that all reasonable beings will one day be united in one, when the hypostases as well as the numbers and the bodies shall have disappeared, and that the knowledge of the world to come will carry with it the ruin of the worlds, and the rejection of bodies as also the abolition of [all] names, and that there shall be finally an identity of the γνῶσις and of the hypostasis; moreover, that in this pretended apokatastasis, spirits only will continue to exist, as it was in the feigned pre-existence: let him be anathema.

    You can see, it’s a very limited condemnation of a very specific Origenistic idea. It is from the Letter of Justinian that the more sweeping condemnation is drawn. And the actual canonical status of that letter is a matter of debate.
    It would be of note that Justinian’s letter would condemn a good number of Fathers whose names have never been impugned and who remain saints and teachers of the Church. That itself rightly raises the sorts of questions we have at hand. And these fathers and their work is well known. Since you suggest the argument from silence (the later Councils said nothing more), no later Council anathematized or said anything about the great fathers whose work would be impugned by Justinian’s letter.

    Last night I was reading St. Gregory of Nyssa’s De Resurrectione, a fine bit of work. It is theologically sound (as we expect out of any of the Cappadocians). But he clearly and consistently says that the purpose of hell is the destruction of sin, not the punishment of the sinner. And he says that when that work is ended, they will be restored to wholeness with God. Theologically, he makes an important point: sin is extrinsic to our nature. His treatment of the apokatastasis is everything being restored to its nature. And it is in the same vein that David Bentley Hart reasons when he raises questions about the natural will and the gnomic will in this regard (the gnomic will being the locus of sinful choices).

    I don’t raise all of this to argue for anything, other than to say that the “debate” or “discussion,” is not without merit and is not the result of some group of crypto-liberal Orthodox.

    For myself, when it comes to this question, it is as I’ve written. We must confront and enter the paradox and at the heart of it find Christ. My own leading and direction in the matter are found in St. Silouan and the Elder Sophrony. Met. Hierotheos Vlachos has described Sophrony as a “Church Father,” in that he not only had a profound grasp of theology (with a good critical mind), but knew what he was talking about experientially, i.e., he’s a saint.

    As for the “debate,” I personally wish that a number of Orthodox bloggers who have rushed to condemn any discussion or exploration of the topic had simply held their peace. I’ve seen no condemnation of the discussion that actually did anything more than uncritically quote what they think to be an authoritative source (Justinian’s letter), accuse others of having a bad heart and impure motives (when they don’t know them at all), and themselves engage in no reflection or understanding in the matter.

    The single most devastating question ever raised in our modern times, by an Orthodox writer, is the speech of Ivan Karamazov, in the chapter “Rebellion,” in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. It deals with the question of the suffering of innocent children and the goodness of God. Indeed, I think Ivan would not have been satisfied with a full-blown apokatastasis. But any Orthodox believer who is going to engage the modern world should read the chapter and engage the question. It is that engagement that I hear and see at the heart of the “debate,” at least on the part of those who speak of some sort of apokatastasis.

    Many of those who attack them offer very poor, wooden or rote answers to the question that satisfy no one, other than someone who has hardened his heart to the suffering of the world. “Love could not bear that,” to quote St. Silouan.

    It’s morning here, and those are my thoughts.

  43. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Panayiota, I would say that biologist has ceased to wonder and ask in humility: How can this be?

    A set of Legos is a collection of cells. What can be done with them even by simply human agency is marvelous.

    He started his work with “assume no God…..” and has selected and interpreted the “facts” to suit his hypothesis. Unlike our brother Dee.

    Why are there over 10000 species of spider that we know about each with essentially the same collection of cells? Many in the same ecosystem.

    God loves to make things. He rejoices in His creation. It is His joy that sustains us is it not?

  44. Mihai Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I believe that those who have persons close to them who are mired in unbelief and in a great deal of suffering and tragedy because of it are in a position to understand this topic a lot better.

    I am in such a position and, though most often my heart is hardened and indifferent, I sometimes catch a glimpse into the tragedy and understand the position from where you write. It is then that a burning need for prayer arises. And never, not even once, did I think about this topic with an attitude of “whatever…everyone will be saved regardless, so there’s no need to do anything”, like some opponents sometimes suggest.

    Although I do understand that this is the kind of false understanding that a great number would happily embrace.
    I don’t think it is a topic that can easily be discussed publicly.

  45. dobergirl Avatar

    As usual, we talk too much. Father, forgive.

  46. Natalia Avatar

    Father Bless,

    The day you posted, Is the Universe Tragic?, was the fifth anniversary of my little brother Mark’s death. Each time I pray for his soul I am overcome with grief for him. This man was so kind and tried so hard for most of his life to over come alcoholism and actually died from the effects of withdrawal.

    I had just prayed the Trisagion Prayer for the Dead,

    “…Every sin by him (her) committed in thought, word, or deed, do You as our Good and Loving God forgive; seeing that there is no man who shall live and sin not, for You alone are without sin. Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and Your Law is truth; for You are the Resurrection, the Life, and the Repose of Your servant Mark, departed this life, O Christ our God; and to You do we send up glory, with Your Eternal Father and Your All-Holy, Good and Life-creating Spirit; both now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.”

    Upon reading your post I wept with gratitude to our Lord for your words that really do reflect this prayer. Nobody loved him more than God. God knows.

  47. Justin Avatar

    Fr Stephen: where can I/we acquire the “Ways of Russian Thought” volumes you mentioned? I can’t locate it under that title – Is it also called “Ways of Russian Theology?” Is it perhaps in his “Collected Works?”
    -Thanks! 🙂

  48. Christopher Avatar

    “As for the “debate,” I personally wish that a number of Orthodox bloggers who have rushed to condemn any discussion or exploration of the topic had simply held their peace. I’ve seen no condemnation of the discussion that actually did anything more than uncritically quote what they think to be an authoritative source (Justinian’s letter), accuse others of having a bad heart and impure motives (when they don’t know them at all), and themselves engage in no reflection or understanding in the matter.”

    I would not characterize the reaction in so negative a matter. I have seen folks quote St. Photius the Greats explicit and unqualified rejection of St. Gregory’s of Nyssa’s speculations on “restoration” for example (this is even on Orthowiki’s discussion of the matter if memory serves). Surely St. Photius is “authoritative”! In any case, the universalists have moved past “discussion”, they are not openly declaring the Tradition to be “wrong” (just read Eclectic Orthodoxy) and even have a pejorative label for it, the “infernalist” Tradition. It is well past the point of “discussion” and is now an open theological and dogmatic controversy, and the two “sides” can not be simply reconciled.

    I for one am willing to give a bit of room to the reaction as everybody admit’s that certain players on the universalist side are A+ rhetoricians and philosophers (such as Hart). That does not mean they are right in their claims. What we need is a “Joyful Infernalist” of appropriate weight to come along and help the Church articulate a rebuttal. As for me, God willing I will be standing in church on the Sunday of the Last Judgement without any hint of “re-formulation” or “infernalist” resentment…some obviously will have a different disposition…

  49. Christopher Avatar

    “This is true, but the point is that the Church’s self-understanding is open to revision given the leeway afforded by the failure of later Councils to anathematize. There are different problems that arise if the historical consensus is to be challenged in this way, even if it is possible to do so within Orthodoxy. What tends to be overlooked is that it is possible to dispute the consensus, not because the Church has not been sufficiently decisive for some, but because the ultimate end of all things is a mystery.”

    Never heard it put quite this way before. Are you saying that each successive council has to “carry forward” (by which I assume you mean an explicit recording of them – or do you mean something else?) the anthema’s from the previous councils for them not to be open to “revision”, by which is mean what exactly? Does it mean any layperson or clergy can simply say “I don’t believe that”? As to your last sentence, what do you mean by “dispute the consensus”. Can I say “Christ is NOT risen” and then claim “the dogmatic claim that Christ is risen is a “mystery” and is not “decisive” at least in *my* case”? Clearly I am pushing it but what you say appears “open” to say the least…

  50. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The author of Eclectic Orthodoxy, Fr. Aidan Kimel, is perhaps my dearest friend. We have some history together, including mourning the sudden death of his first son. I have wept with him. I also know his heart and his mind. Whatever criticism one might offer of his writing, I would ask kindness towards him and every benefit of generosity towards his person. He is a very good man. More than that, he is a man of deep conscience whose Orthodoxy has come at a steep price. When he writes, I listen carefully because I know the source. We approach things differently and for our own reasons. But you will not know a better man.

    Thus, I am protective of him and his work. On the Sunday of the Last Judgment, my mind will, hopefully, be in hell where I hope not to despair. As for St. Photius and St. Gregory of Nyssa, I suppose they have worked it out by now. I never like arguing with saints, one way or the other.

  51. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Christopher, on the matter of councils and consensus:

    I have heard “consensus” bandied about with ease in debates surrounding all of this. It’s a tricky thing. First, being sure that everyone being read or cited is actually talking about the same thing and for the same reasons. Obviously the Councils stand and are authoritative. They do have to be studied and understood, and that actually requires some genuine scholarly research, competency and scholarship.

    There is, with regard to the anathemas in the 5th Council, a long conversation about the exact authority of the Justinian condemnations, versus those in the Council itself (and they differ in important ways). That is a simple fact, and cannot be dismissed as some modernist issue. Second, there is a clear stream to be found within the patristic witness that, in fact, holds a hope for all, and this has not disappeared, or been suppressed or anathematized.

    I think “hope” is as far as we can speak on the matter. Certainty is not something that has been given us to say with regard to this hope. I think to dismiss the hope says too much and forces the tradition to say something that it has not said with the kind of assurance that would be sufficient for me.

    As someone noted earlier, how can we pray if we have no hope? But we are indeed taught to pray, and to pray for all.

    I will agree that affirmations that declare that hope to be a certitude go beyond what the Tradition allows. As such, it can at most be a “pious opinion.” And I regard it as such. But pious opinions can be of value, particularly if they have more piety than opinion about them.

  52. Panayiota Avatar

    Thank you for your comment.
    Yes it is His joy that sustains us. We should marvel daily, more like…unceasingly at the fact that we are part of His creation.
    His love is generous, it is extravagant.

  53. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    My lovely wife’s pious exclamation which has gotten through many rough times: Yea God!

    Mystery, paradox and contradiction are there to help us realize that there is more in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies. No matter how much we think we know, the reality is always more subtle and deeper than we can comprehend.

    That is why it takes the encounter with Jesus and the ongoing interrelationship such an encounter brings to begin to get it.

    The contradiction of Saints Photius and Gregory of Nyssa may not be a contradiction in the fullness of time when all things are made new.

    All things…hmmmm

  54. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Transformation, transfiguration, our made order properly reflecting God’s order.

    Such a gap that is not crossable in a creation where the last vestiges of death (entropy) still seem to hold sway.

    Yet there is the Risen Christ–filling all things. The Word continually being made flesh.

    Maybe that is what our friend Dee saw?

  55. Pete Avatar


    I wish to add a few comments on the crux of the matter as you say,

    “I don’t raise all of this to argue for anything, other than to say that the “debate” or “discussion,” is not without merit and is not the result of some group of crypto-liberal Orthodox.

    For myself, when it comes to this question, it is as I’ve written. We must confront and enter the paradox and at the heart of it find Christ. My own leading and direction in the matter are found in St. Silouan and the Elder Sophrony. Met. Hierotheos Vlachos has described Sophrony as a “Church Father,” in that he not only had a profound grasp of theology (with a good critical mind), but knew what he was talking about experientially, i.e., he’s a saint.”

    Agreed Father, endless discussions about the mechanics of how things work or raising questions as problems to be solved is to miss the point. We reduce the Church to issues by doing so. Below are two keys points/scriptures that I think you referenced already.

    Eph3:9 And to make all [men] see what [is] the communion of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ

    Phil3:10 That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the communion of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death.

    Truth is experiential. We come to know this in time. St.Paul speaks of this experience as a descent now. There is no life, but this common life. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” This life is offered; poured out on the cross; crushed in the grave..

    We should probably simply admit that when we read St Silouan we are reading something of profound experience and be humbled by it. We have work to do, but this is not an intellectual exercise, lest we become like those that imbibe this as a kind of spiritual pornography – this is the way my spiritual Father, that led me into the church, used to say it.

    I sense too, that “When the day is over, and all I have done is have a conversation or two on the matter, there is an emptiness, even the emptiness of hypocrisy – if the day has not included serious engagement in prayer at the level of the heart and an actual union with Christ in His trampling down death by death. This is the meaning of my word “swine discussing the meaning of pearls.””

    Mechanics mean nothing, explanations mean nothing. “For every argument there is a counter-argument, but who can argue against life?”

    St. Gregory Palamas

    I would rather stick to the life giving words of St Silouan. To be a saint is to be sensitive; to see the world with loving eyes and to pray for it. As long as the Church lives she produces the intent of her life; i.e., saints.

  56. Christopher Avatar

    Father, on friends as you know “Greater love has no man than this”, so no pressure! 😉

    On the 5th Council, I had reason to spend quite a bit of time with Origen source material recently and I do have a different perspective now. I side with the minority view that he was in fact a neoplatonist who viewed his Christianity through said lens. The majority view is of course that his neoplatonism was (barring some errors) “controlled” by his deeper/fundamental Christianity. Whatever his personal disposition was, his legacy is what it is and I would call it a “crack” in the very heart of the Church’s dogmatic efforts. Clearly, the 5th council treated the issue with what I will term kid gloves. They took the most blatant form of origenism (something I am not at all convinced he would ever actually articulated based on his “subtlety”) which is explicit neoplatonism and condemened that. Origen”ism” is in fact a much more subtle thing, a way of doing theology and an attempted synthesis of ‘ontologies’ that deserves a much more thorough understanding and condemnation than the rather obvious “the One and the Many, oh, we don’t believe that”. I also commend Hart for his explicit mention of his debt to Origen in his “God, Creation, and Evil” article.

    I re-read that article this morning to see if I had missed anything. It struck me even more the second time: Hart is a *moral* philosopher trying to make sense of the Christian story. He is applying a *moral* calculus, and thus he never rises above a *moral * evaluation and when summed reaches a conclusion that of course follows “…the issue is the reducibility of all causes to their first cause, and the determination of the first cause by the final”. Before this, he says rightly (in a calculus of good and evil) “…that what is hazarded has already been surrendered”. This is exactly where he gets God wrong,, because this is exactly what God does, he risks all and surrendered all because being Love, He can do this (as Love can do all things) and by doing this Persons become more than a recapitulation of a cause that Hart would have them be (how very neoplatonic this theologizing is of Harts’ is). Love is a Person, not a moral calculus or disposition or set of logical necessities and thus Love can risk even an eternal hell (as morally repugnant that is – even more as Hart rightly calculates, hell is *meaningless* and thus “semantically empty”). Love, Life, and the mystery of Persons however transcends this mere moral calculus and thus contains even more meaning, and the Tradition retains this meaning in a way a mere moral calculator can never understand (and thus has to reject). Perhaps the meaning of eternal hell is exactly this – that all is risked, nothing held back, and He truly is All in All by imparting to everyone the most riskiest thing of all. My prayer is that Hart can one day see this…

  57. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Well put, and gracious. I like the “risk of an eternal hell.” And it becomes true risk inasmuch as God does not leave His creatures alone. He is with us even there.

  58. Byron Avatar

    I would not have thought that “outer darkness” is a standing before the Cross and loving darkness more than light (although that insight has its place); at least, it does not strike me as consistent with the weeping and gnashing of teeth, nor the pleading for mercy (“…when did we not minister unto thee?”).

    An interesting statement: “…standing before the Cross and loving darkness more than light”. I can see this reflecting those who, like the Dwarves at the end of The Last Battle in Narnia, refuse to see anything more than a stable although they are surrounded by beauty and wonder. Which Saint was it that said, “The greatest pain is that of lost love”? Perhaps that realization, as one stands before the Cross (the Judgement Seat of God) is the reason for the weeping and gnashing of teeth…. Just thinking out loud.

  59. Robert Avatar


    It appears you misread Hart. He does not suggest that persons are a recapitulation of a cause. He argues quite the opposite rather, viz. that persons condemned to unending suffering pay the cost of a final cause that includes eternal damnation. Furthermore his point is that we can’t really speak of Divine risk if the consequences of said risk are shouldered (eternally no less) by those that are damned.

    An additional observation – it appears to me what is overlooked in this conversation is the preexistence of the soul, a (if not, the) key teaching of Origenism. The universal restoration of all was taught to be a necessary return/restoration of all to their nameless, personless, bodiless pre-existence. The Fifth Council soundly condemned this form of restoration.

  60. Brian Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I have been out of town and unable to thank you for your thoughtful reply early Thursday morning.

    In the course of my journey these past four days I had the opportunity to consult a Patristics scholar and Church historian I know about what, precisely, is meant by Justinian’s letter having been “added” to the work of the Fifth Council. What I learned is worth sharing, as it serves to explain how such an addition did NOT of itself spark a great controversy within the Church at the time, as any other (more or less) unilateral addition to the work of a Council that purported to speak for the catholic Church surely would have.

    In highly simplified terms, this anathema could be considered a ‘proposal’ that was put before the Council but on which the Council itself did not rule. Rather than being “added” to the work of the Council, it was merely INCLUDED in the overall records of the Council and sometimes (much) later mistaken for being part of the conclusions of the Council itself. This is ‘a horse of a different color’ than being an addition, as well as something I did not know. If I misunderstood what you meant by “addition” I apologize.

    It isn’t as if we can therefore conclude that this somehow ‘changes everything.’ But it certainly changes my understanding of the Fifth Council. You said it best: I think that “hope is as far as we can speak on the matter. Certainty is not something that has been given us to say with regard to this hope.

  61. Christopher Avatar

    Robert, at this point I will have to disagree with you. The “cost” or consequences of his moral calculus are based on the mechanics of this calculus, which is the key to his *moral* understanding of God. This understanding and mechanics are what his subtitle “The Moral Meaning of creatio ex hihilho” are all about. This sentence is key:

    “…the issue is the reducibility of all causes to their first cause, and the determination of the first cause by the final”

    When you plug in good and evil into such a calculus (i.e. philosophical necessity) you assume a “first cause” (i.e. God) in moral terms (God can only be good because he IS good ontologically). So the equation can only spit out what is plugged in. While Hart does not use the term “recapitulation” he uses “return”. This is all neoplatonic reasoning 101, and it comes into the Fathers because it was such a large part of the intellectual ground of the culture (just like for us something called “modernism” is). Origenis the most famous and largely successful proponent of this.

    As far as the preexistence of souls, based on my reading of him I actually doubt Origen believed this (though it might be a necessary consequence of neoplatonism in general) – which is why I think the condemnation of the 5th council took an exaggerated form of Origenism and condemned that – they actually did not want to address *real* Origenism that is found in some of the Fathers because, well perhaps they liked it? I am not sure, but what they condemned is a bit of a caricature so something was going on. In any case, the preexistence of souls does not come into play in this Nyssa/Isaac/Hart line of universalism…

    Like I said above, the Tradition contains an understanding of God that transcends the moral and moral necessities, and even risks all (because Love can do all things), even “things” that are beyond a moral calculus’s ability to sum and thus to understand…

  62. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. I made a comment to this effect on Fr. Lawrence Farley’s blog last night. The question was whether Justinian’s letter had the force of the Council, and I think it is highly dubious. At the very least, there is a reasonable case to consider it quite dubious. Further, the Council itself acted on the question of the apokatastasis and officially only condemned a very strange version – and was quite specific. They could very easily have issued a blanket condemnation, but did not.

    In addition to this, the 7th Council, cited St. Gregory of Nyssa as “the Father of Fathers,” a rather strange thing to do if one whose positive views on the Apokatastasis are very well known, was actually faulty in such an area. It is fair to draw the conclusion that the Conciliar mind of the Church by no means held a blanket condemnation, but left room for theological opinion in the matter.

    Those facts certainly leave a great deal of room for those, who like myself, or more authoritatively, Met. Kallistos Ware, and many others, believe that it is appropriate to have hope in the matter. I think that those who have reacted to such things with the statement that there is a consensus of the fathers, etc., condemning any form of apokatastasis, have simply overplayed their hand and said far too much.

  63. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    While it is possible to fall into error through too much Neo-Platonism, it is, as you say, part of the intellectual ground of the culture of its time. I think it is incorrect to compare it to modernity. Much of its language, and not a few of its concepts are, in fact, part of the very grammar of the faith. I think it rather more the case that the Platonism of antiquity was a fortuitous matter of grace. Just as the Old Testament represents God’s work in preparation for the coming Messiah, so, too, the intellectual world of Hellenism. While we should not throw the former over for the latter, it is simple historical fact that we pray, sing and teach in the cadence, words, and many ideas of Platonism. It obviously has to be used with discernment. But you seem to be using it as a charge to dismiss something that already has a rightful place.

    For myself, I agree that Hart’s reasoning on the basis of moral necessity is somewhat problematic. I simply cannot abide the word “necessary” in the same sentence as God. My own reasoning would use a different approach and starting point. Nevertheless, there are things worth taking from Hart’s work.

  64. Christopher Avatar


    I agree with you, Platonism/neoplatonism has a different relationship to Christianity historically and “idealogically” than something like modernism. It is a complex one, but in a nutshell (as far as I currently understand it) Platonism is naturally more conducive for many reasons, not the least of which is it is a realist philosophy.

    That said, it has its limits. There is also a strain of neoplatonic “ontology” that is anti-thetical to Revelation, and attempts to meld/synthesis/compromise the two fail. This is where Origen got it wrong though there seems to be some debate as to just how far he got it wrong. I obviously side with those who see alot wrong rather than a little (I was a bit shocked at how nonchalantly, smoothly and {most importantly} uncritically he would switch between exegesis and neoplatonism – my honest assessment is that he was working from a true belief that they were the same thing – a sort of “double revelation”). Not coincidentally, one of the areas this problematic comes to the fore is when the we really dig into the lapse and it’s consequences, soteriology, etc. – when we really start to speculate and thus “philosophize”. I suppose it comes down to where you put the limits of the “Grace” that was working in Hellenism. I don’t deny this, or that He works everywhere and in all things, up to and including “modernism” and beyond.

    What’s interesting to me is that what I understand of the “universalist and Orthodox” movement so far, is how much it leans to one side of this Origenistic tension that seems to run down the middle of the Fathers…

    p.s. Have you read that article “Have we traded the Holy Spirit for Ideology?” by Gayle Woloschak? I would be interested in your impressions if it interests you…

  65. Robert Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    I’m sure you will abide and agree with the words and meaning of this sentence: “God is absolutely necessary for our existence.”

    There’s not a hint of Platonism, old or new.

  66. Robert Avatar


    Not that this will change your mind, but it should be pointed out nonetheless – Hart bases his position on that most un-Platonic theology of of creatio ex nihilo.

  67. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. That sentence works.

  68. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Good point. It would be useless to try and place Hart in an Origenist slot, or a Platonist slot. He has real depth. His writing can be off-putting – he’s a true academic. But he’s not a man of fashion or trends. He is extremely well trained in philosophy and theology. Indeed, I think he may be one of the finest intellects writing today. That doesn’t make him right about anything. However, I find that when I do the work, read him, and carefully follow and understand what he is saying, I benefit. And when I disagree, I am made to work harder. He’s actually something of a new phenomenon: An Orthodox theologian who has mastered Western thought.

  69. Christopher Avatar


    I pray God that you can help “change my mind”!!! (but only when it is *necessary* for my salvation 😉 ) Let’s zero in on Hart’s understanding of ex nihilo because it is central. Let ‘s get dialectical (think Olivia Newton-John) because I am a dialectical thinker that only rarely escapes the limitations thereof. Does Hart believe God *necessarily* creates neoplatonic style (this is an easy one)? What aspects of that creation are *determined* by the attributes of God (notice how hard Hart works on disabusing us of certain understandings of attributes)? When we say “God is Love” (1 John 4:8 – note to “know” is only possible by loving), following St. John, do we say this dialectically (so that it in fact becomes an attribute – this is *necessary* because dialectical thinking can not “get to” or grasp an essence because an essence is the ground dialectics stand on and thus an essence has no opposite to be opposed to…{catching my breath}). When Hart explicates his understanding of “God is Love” AND it’s meaning in relation to creation does he do so dialectically, or is use of the term “moral” something else?

    On the one hand, Hart understands the limits of his moral critique when he says things like “To be clear: I am not attempting to subject God to an “ethical” interrogation” and “Maybe every analogy fails” but then (literally in the next sentence) he will say “What is not debatable is that, if God does so create, in himself he cannot be the good as such, and creation cannot be a morally meaningful act” Question: did Hart in that last sentence reason by analogy, dialectically, or is there a difference?

    What does “Revelation” mean in all this? Is it content for a dialectic, OR perhaps an external corrective of it? Is it “filler” to color in the spaces a dialectic leaves or seems to leave behind? OR, is something that fundamentally transcends it (think Colossians 2:8 as more than a circumstantial warning)? Is platonic reasoning reducible to mere dialectical reasoning, or is there something more to it? If so, is it analogous to Revelation or the Christian “story”?

    “…Without a doubt it is Jesus to whom all things are subject and who exercises power over all things, and through whom all things are subject to the Father, for through wisdom (i.e. by word and reason) and not by force and necessity are all things subject.” [think about this quote in the context of this discussion before you Google it 🙂 ]

    p.s. I do admit Father and Robert, my mind is changed in that I believe this is a discussion worth having whereas at first I did not. However, Fr. Stephen is right in that the “answer” is in the doing (of loving) through prayer and putting oneself in hell before everyone else, an eschatological kind of “no man left behind”. This however, is possible only because of “mystery” – that which transcends the dialectic – BOTH kinds, universalist necessities as well as Augustinian “infernalist” ones…

  70. Robert Avatar

    Yes Father, agreed on all points.

    For a brilliant elucidation of the main points of Hart’s position is an absolute must read.

  71. Robert Avatar


    You ask so many important questions, I am not sure where to start, but more importantly, I don’t want to derail the discussion here and wear out Fr. Stephen’s welcome.

    I suggest we take this discussion to Fr. Kimel’s blog to the above mentioned article on DBH, I am posting there as “ApophaticallySpeaking”.

  72. Christopher Avatar


    Thanks for the invite and while I have posted there a couple of times (and lurked more) I believe discussion of this issue over there is vanity (in that universalism is not a position, but preached as the truth and of course the rest of the Tradition is “infernalist”).

  73. Mark Basil Avatar
    Mark Basil

    “For myself, I agree that Hart’s reasoning on the basis of moral necessity is somewhat problematic. I simply cannot abide the word “necessary” in the same sentence as God. ”

    Fr. Stephen, can you help me understand God’s relationship to logic and ‘necessity’ a bit better? I think Fr Tom Hopko’s primary explanation why there is tragedy, suffering, and (I would assume by extension, eternal hell), is that God could not have created us and our cosmos as it is without such ‘inherent tragedy’.
    On the contrary Kalomiros in the River of Fire insists that it is a faulty notion of God’s being subject to some sort of “Necessity” that leads to erroneous understandings of atonement and eternal hell stemming from a “necessary justice” constraining God’s compassion/mercy.
    Then DBH seems to be saying (as you noted) that God is constrained by the moral content of his Goodness to bring about a final restoration of all things. Is this in some ways using the same logic as Fr Tom to come to the opposite conclusion? That is, for God to be Who and What He is- totally unconstrained by anything foreign to his perfect Goodness- He must be able to accomplish his ultimate will that all will be restored.

    What is God’s relationship to logical necessity in light of all of this? In what senses can, and cant we, speak of things being “necessarily” thus in a sense that constrains even God?

    Thank you for any help;
    -Mark Basil

  74. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mark Basil,
    It’s a very good question. We can say that something is necessary because of God, but not the other-way-around. Fr. Tom Hopko, if I understand him, spoke of our freedom entailing tragedy, suffering, etc. I think it can be pondered that way. Our freedom certainly brought suffering, etc., into the world. And it is clearly the case in Scripture, that God knew this about us before we were created. I think “necessary” is the wrong term, however. I think we can say that God saw that for us to become what He freely intended for us to become, that suffering, tragedy, etc., would be part of it. And so, the Lamb was slain “from the foundation of the world.” The Cross (the remedy of our ills) is already there before our ills came into existence.

    I will offer these thoughts:

    There is a certain way in which it is correct to speak of the “suffering” of God as inherently belonging to the Trinitarian life. I do not mean “painful.” But “kenosis,” self-emptying, is not merely an economic manifestation of the Trinity (the historical Christ empties Himself) but belongs to the very ontology of God. The eternal begetting of the Son from the Father is an eternal “emptying” of the Father into the Son, etc. This is the content of the statement, “God is love.” Self-emptying-man is therefore, “suffering” man. We refused our legitimate suffering in the Garden, we refused to bear the suffering of “not eating” what was forbidden. Instead, we chose an existence that was the suffering of our own choosing – death and all its concomitant consequences.

    But the self-emptying God also saw His own life among us and His own union with our death. He redeems by freedom what we had created as our own necessity (death). In destroying death by death, He makes it possible for us to choose life, through freedom. Freedom is associated with personal existence. Personhood and freedom go together. There can be no necessity in personal existence (because it is love and love is always free). St. Athanasius saw us as falling away from a personal existence and back towards a “natural existence,” that is, we were drawn back towards the nothingness out of which we were created. Christ establishes us in the freedom of true personhood, such that we exist, not according to nature, but according to personal freedom. Love becomes the content of our being.

    There is a “logic” of natures, that is the logic of necessity. “I must be what I naturally am.” But this fails when we enter the realm of true personhood. “My existence becomes a gift of pure freedom.” The self-emptying of the Divine Persons is not in any way a necessity, but a free act of the Persons.

    I’m not even sure that it is correct to speak of a “logic” of personhood. There can be no “rules” that govern the existence in personal freedom. It is, if you will, a place where logic breaks down. DBH comes close to positing God’s goodness as a natural necessity, when His goodness is pure freedom and gift. The “logic” of morality seems inappropriate.

    It is possible, on the other hand, to say that we can infer from God’s manifest goodness, that He wills only good for all created things. It stands that we can say that the salvation and final restoration of all things is possible, because God is free. There is nothing that requires an eternity of hell or suffering. God pronounced that the creation was “good.”

    Again, as I have stated previously, I cannot state as an article of faith that the Church teaches a final restoration of all things – because the Church hasn’t done so. If someone argues that such a final restoration will not happen, then they do so on the basis of some perceived revelation (Scripture). But it is not true that such a lack of restoration is in any way necessary. There is no justice that demands a never-ending suffering.

    So, I think, on reflection, that I’m pretty much eliminating necessity as a category no matter how you reason. Logical necessity may very well be a lack of imagination. That is why I have suggested paradox and contradiction as important parts of our life as the Church.

  75. Robert Avatar

    Father & Mark,

    We do hold that of necessity God cannot contradict himself. But this is not a true necessity of God, a necessity understood as contingency, flaw, or other such shortcoming.

    It is in this first sense that it is argued by DBH and others that evil, as privation of good, cannot be allowed to exist eternally, if: 1). God is good, 2). God created all ex nihilo, and 3.) God will be all in all. To hold otherwise, to allow for the eternal persistence of evil, is to erect an eternal duality, a Good vs. evil without end. And this, it is argued, would be a logical and metaphysical contradiction as evil has no true ontological basis for its existence (it was not created by God), and certainly does not exist in God.

    It is from such a necessity of God – there is no contradiction in God and only the Good truly exists – that universal restoration is understood.

  76. newenglandsun Avatar

    To add to this problem of evil discussion–
    In scholasticism, there is distinguished between natural evil and evil. Natural evil is necessary and is part of nature and is only evil in a very relative sense as the natural evils can also bring about necessary goods. Things like hurricanes, death, the food chain, etc. This is natural evil which is evil because on first glance it seems as if good cannot be reconciled with it yet we know that good is often brought about from natural evils which relegate natural evils to the mode of relativeness. They aren’t necessarily neutral either. Scholastic theologians usually hold (on account of Is. 45:7) that natural evil is a necessary part of the sovereignty of God as he works all things together for the good of all (Rom. 8:28).

    Then there is sin. This is the kind of evil that stems from human fallenness. It is not natural at all but is rather a distortion of the natural intention of God which was for humanity to be in a divine state (Gen. 1:26-27). It is this kind of evil that is in conflict with the will of God and it is this kind of evil that is ultimately condemned (Rom. 8:3-4). Because God is all good and all holy, this kind of evil which is in inherent conflict with his will cannot co-exist with it and must ultimately be destroyed. Which is why taking the eucharist in a manner that fails to discern the spiritual reality of the body and blood of Christ as well as taking in a state of mortal sin will actually lead a soul to grave destruction.

    Apologies for my scholasticism. As I mentioned, I’m a Western Christian (High Anglican). As such, while my approach is not entirely scholastic, I do find many scholastic arguments helpful to providing an understanding of God even if ultimately the words and descriptions do fail.

  77. Mark Basil Avatar
    Mark Basil

    Thank you for your response Fr Stephen, it has been very helpful. It will take me some time to understand some of it more fully.

  78. Robert Avatar


    It is important to understand “necessity” as it is used variously, as I noted in my last comment.

    There’s no necessity in God – He has no need for anything and is under no compulsion. On the other hand, to allow for contradiction in God is to slip into absurdity. So it is that we can affirm that out of ontological necessity (not merely out of moral necessity or as an attribution of His character) God cannot contradict Himself.

    Alas! Words out of necessity constrain us.

  79. Christopher Avatar

    “On the other hand, to allow for contradiction in God is to slip into absurdity. So it is that we can affirm that out of ontological necessity (not merely out of moral necessity or as an attribution of His character)”

    Yet, God seems to do this very thing – he “creates” and in this creation are creatures who contradict the good God and create (do) evil. So, we turn from “absurdity” and protect God from His creation (which includes the Devil) by protecting His “goodness” through the logic of simplicity (for simple “Goodness” does not lead to a contradiction and thus an “absurdity”). Simplicity and logic have consequences, and lead us by necessity toward certain outcomes which result in the negation of evil. All very neoplatonic (a fall into chaos and multiplicity from rest and singularity) and seemingly congruent to the Christian story (for we look for a “new creation” and a “new earth”).

    This “onotological necessity” is still neoplatonism and God (the real God) transcends even this…such a Mystery! 😉

  80. Robert Avatar

    It appears your dislike of neo-Platonism leads you to affirm evil in God.

    I hope I’m misunderstanding you.

  81. Christopher Avatar

    No, but I don’t affirm God’s goodness with a philosophical necessity of any kind (unless in ignorance). The forensic necessities of Augustine or the “ontological” (though at this point I am not convinced it is truly ontological – it’s still a moral dialectic I think) necessities of an unchecked Origenism are two sides of the same coin. They both lead to a moral trap and they both end up restricting God with a philosophical attribute/principle and so they fall short. Otherwise, neo-platonism would be good enough and we can simply drop the Christian trappings altogether (which is exactly where this modern universalism can lead). God in his essence can not be contained or fathomed so He is the God above the god of “Goodness” to which everything “returns” by the fact that it had been created and is contingent on this very same “Goodness”…

  82. Robert Avatar

    Do you mean to say that because of the apophatic approach you therefore cannot affirm or deny that evil exists in the “God above the god of Goodness”?

    Surely I must be misunderstanding. This would otherwise be a fall into neo-platonic Gnostic apophatic theology, if ever I have seen one.

  83. Christopher Avatar

    I am afraid I am not following you now 🙂

    Yes, God transcends both good and evil essentially (otherwise “goodness” would be gods God). What is “neoplatonic” is an attempt to place the dialectic of good and evil into a context where God is compelled by the dialectic to “save” creation in a certain way (compelled by his “goodness” – in neoplatonism proper this is on a “metaphysical” level). At that point, something else has transcended God…

  84. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Robert and Christopher,
    We do not say that Christ is true. For, if that were so, then there would have to be some other measure by which we could judge Him (and then that measure would be the true God). But we say that Christ is the Truth, meaning He is God and other things are measured by Him.

    The same can be said of Goodness and Good. God is the Good (we cannot have any standard of “good” by which we can judge God). This, I think, accords with what Christopher is saying. God cannot be measured or judged. But we can say that God is the Good, or that Goodness is always relative to God, etc.

    The Christian revelation certainly holds that the God made known in Jesus Christ is the Good, the Father of Lights who is the source of every blessing.

    I see Christopher’s point about abstractly trying to get behind God. I do not, however, agree with his reasoning viz. the Apokatastasis. It is true, however, that there are wrong ways to reason about the Apokatastasis. Btw, there can be no debate about whether there will be an Apokatastasis – it’s referenced in Acts. The question would be “what does that mean?” And that, perhaps is the point of the conversation that interests me.

  85. Robert Avatar

    Father and Christopher,

    We agree on this, God is beyond good as far as we can describe it. I am a firm believer in the limits of the cataphatic.

    However, and here is our potential for disagreement – having affirmed the apophatic nature of the goodness of God (or just God, for that matter) we are not given license to include contradiction – unless one of course “good” now can also denote “not good”. This would come down to equivocating of the worst kind – ascribing evil to God in our attempt to dislike philosophy. I for one will cataphatically deny evil in God.

    As to apokatastasis, that is exactly right. The question is not if there will be one, but the nature of such. And there have been different takes on this, and the Church in her wisdom hasn’t affirmed one or the other.

  86. Robert Avatar


    “The Christian revelation certainly holds that the God made known in Jesus Christ is the Good.”

    But what does that mean? Does “the Good” include also “the Not-Good”?

    Please explain so without “abstractly trying to get behind God” or without measuring or judging God.

  87. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Evil has no existence. There is no “not good.” Nothing is evil by nature. That is the Orthodox faith. It means that when we say “good” it is good in reference to God. When we say “God is good,” it is similar to saying, “God is love.”

    Good, Beauty, Truth, Being – all of these refer to God, not behind God. They find their meaning only in God.

  88. Christopher Avatar

    “Btw, there can be no debate about whether there will be an Apokatastasis – it’s referenced in Acts. The question would be “what does that mean?” ”

    I agree. Indeed, it appears it might have already happened for “the time has come, the Kingdom of God is at hand”.

    “I for one will cataphatically deny evil in God.”

    On a propositional (philosophical) level of course. As Hart rightly says, to say anything else is “semantically empty” (in the Christian context). What however, does it mean to attribute anything to God (who essentially {being essences of all essences} transcends all attributes)? What does it mean to say something, call it “Goodness”, is itself “in” God? God is “All in All” and “I am”, and so transcends attribution itself. The current thinking around Apokatastasis is utterly reliant on attribution (in this case “Goodness”) in it’s working out of the meaning of Apokatastasis – thus it’s dialectical formula. Hart realizes this (though some don’t seem to notice this) when he speaks of the “futility of subjecting God to a moral interrogation” so there is a way to read him as not suggesting a moral dialectic/necessity. However on balance I think he falls back into one however.

  89. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I find the philosophical arguments to be beside the point re the apokatastasis. I don’t think about it in the manner Hart does. The reference in Acts has traditionally been understood to refer to the End of all things. There are other verses, such as Ephesians 1:10 and 1 Corinthians 15:25-28. St. Gregory of Nyssa treats the “destruction of death” referenced in 1 Corinthians to mean a destruction of everything that does not belong to our nature (i.e. everything evil). Those verses are a very strong statement of apokatastasis. An everlasting hell seems a contradiction, or at least an asterisk to the meaning of these verses. It’s not philosophical necessity that creates hesitancy for me in saying that hell is everlasting. It’s such verses, and the occasional Patristic interpretation. I find it important to hold those Patristic treatments as possibly correct. Thus, I say, “We may hope.” I believe “hope” is proper for a good heart. On the other hand, I recognize the traditional treatment of everlasting hell, and therefore cannot say more than “we may hope.” And in that, I am in agreement with those Orthodox whom I hold in the highest regard. But, no Neo-Platonism. Just Scripture, the Fathers, the heart, and hope.

  90. Robert Avatar


    Forgive my bluntness, but I fail to see how one refrains from “measuring and judging God” by philosophizing about evil as privation, making positive statements about God’s being, meaning derives from God, etc. This appears to be a double standard to me. By affirming the non-existence of evil one has now participated in affirming necessity of the philosophical kind – and that of God, no less.

    I do not think that pitting theology against philosophy is in order, certainly not in light of the work and way of the Councils and the Fathers. It’s an untenable position, historically speaking, theologically speaking. This is of course not to say that all philosophy is compatible with Christian theology.

  91. Robert Avatar


    “The current thinking around Apokatastasis is utterly reliant on attribution (in this case “Goodness”)”.

    Really, how so? The argument is that to grant infinite duration to evil is to give infinite permanent existence to that which has no existence, and no nature. It sets up an absurd infinite dualism. Infinite Existence vs infinite non-existence. Infinite Nature vs infinite non-nature. Infinite Life vs infinite death. Infinite Good vs infinite evil. Infinite Hope vs infinite despair. Infinite Felicity vs infinite sorrow. Ad infinitum.

    This has very little to do with “attributes” – this is about an ontology of God, an ontology of creation, and an ontology evil.

  92. Robert Avatar


    “I am afraid I am not following you now”

    Let me explain. To use apophatic theology to affirm a contradiction is to equivocate, and is to slip into absurdity:

    “The golden thread of analogy can stretch across as vast an apophatic abyss as the modal disjunction between infinite and finite or the ontological disproportion between absolute and contingent can open before us; but it cannot span a total antithesis. When we use words like “good,” “just,” “love” to name God, not as if they are mysteriously greater in meaning than when predicated of creatures, but instead as if they bear transparently opposite meanings, then we are saying nothing.” – DBH

    “To say that God’s goodness may be different in kind from man’s goodness, what is it but saying, with a slight change of phraseology, that God may possibly not be good?” – John Stuart Mill

    When you assert that “God transcends both good and evil essentially” this amounts equivocating – its a misuse of apophatic theology, and a very serious one at that – if by this you mean to change the meaning of good and evil, essentially. The irony is that your motivation appears to be to avoid a dialectic of good and evil, but in actuality you have erected the ultimate. Or so it seems to me, but I may just misunderstand you.

  93. Misha Pennington Avatar
    Misha Pennington

    Well done, Fr. Stephen! We met several years ago at a function of St. Athanasius in Nicholasville.


  94. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The example I gave viz. Christ is the Truth, rather than merely true because you cannot measure Him by something else, is actually taken from a lecture by Fr. John Behr. It’s simply part of the inherent problem in speaking about God. I think that it is necessary for us to speak, and that speech will quickly fall into the same patterns we use when we speak about human beings and the world (philosophy). But often we’ll have to check ourselves, issue a caveat or two and refine or retract. It can become problematic to build a dogmatic case solely in that manner. Note I said, problematic, not impossible.

    “God is the meaning of good.” But that doesn’t know that we do not know the meaning of good. Indeed, we do know the meaning of good. And even before we knew God, when we had some intuition of the good, it was not a perfect revelation, but clearly is a divine gift that leads us towards the true good that is God Himself. The Fathers would never have dismissed philosophy, except when it was wrong. They were (many of them) trained in it. St. Augustine’s errors, for example, were not because he was misled by philosophy, but because he didn’t know enough, particularly in the manner of the Cappadocians.

    The case cited by DBH of affirming the notion of infinite non-existence, etc., is a legitimate problem and question for those who refuse to grant the possibility of a universal apokatastasis. The most likely response would be to say that it is a reflection of His infinite love and the gift of infinite freedom.

    I do not find that to be truly satisfying. The end of the matter, I think, comes down to knowing the good God. It is, ultimately, a matter of revelation. It also seems a matter that has not been clearly disclosed – hence the debate. I stand by the good God who has taught me that love “hopes all things.” To renounce all hope, would seem to break something within the depths of my heart. There is, for me, an inability to comprehend the heart that refuses and denounces that hope.

  95. Christopher Avatar


    I agree, that by affirming evil to “not exist” that you have in fact not escaped defining it essentially (in this case by not granting it a “nature”). This is one of the reasons why I am not in the DBH camp because I have had a problem with this sort of understanding of evil for years (one he articulates very well in his “Doors of the Sea”). Now, the retort is usually “well, then you must grant it existence demiurge style and thus YOU are the neoplatonist!”. And I agree, this is the other side of this particular dialectic. That is the trap of dialectics in general and so we must look for “the transcendent third option”. That option (for me) is a theology that begins with the Persons (of the Holy Trinity) and not somewhere else (such as the dialectic of good and evil). In Genesis, we ate and now “know” of good and evil and so we transcend it essentially because the thing that grasps “knowledge” is an essence that is hierarchically above and beyond the thing grasped. An essence “does” the dialectic – a dialectic does not “do” an essence. This reframes good and evil Sub specie aeternitatis (a Personal one) and thus escapes the dialectical traps that beginning as Hart does with “Goodness” as such and I believe (though I don’t have it in me right now to work out an argument) would answer the “problem” of Father’s concerning “infinite non-existence” and apokatastasis, just as Personhood subsumes and “solves” all the “does it or does it not exist” problems of Christology (e.g. does or does not a human soul exist in Christ, does or does not a divine will exist in Christ, etc. etc.).

    So, in a way I get to have my cake and eat it too! I can grant the quote of DBH (the point about analogy/semantics) and still say as the man in the commercial “but wait, there’s more”. I take all this from my understanding of St. Gregory Palamas though I admit I am going from memory as I have not made a study of it in years. A quick Google search led me to wikipedia and this quote:

    St John Damascene states, “all that we say positively of God manifests not his nature but the things about his nature.”

    Now, there is a way to read Hart (and he explicitly underscores his own dilemma when he talks about the “futility” of subjecting God to a “moral interrogation”) to say that he is indeed not arguing “essentially” from “Goodness as such” but IMO he (and modern Orthodox universalsim) does not in the end rise above a dialectic that privileges “Goodness” above Personhood.

    You will ask “ok, what’s your solution” to good and evil, His Mercy and Apokostasis and Eternal Hell, etc. I will say that since we “know” Gods energies and not His essence, we “know” good and evil and NOT “Goodness” as such and so the Eschaton (Apakostatis and Eternal Hell) are in a mystery and thus only known “through a glass darkly” and are thus “trapped” in Revelation and not subject to a “working out” into either a universalism-by-necessity or an Augustinian elect vs damned (which as Hart rightly points out is almost a metaphysic). So I end up where Father Stephen ends up.

  96. Robert Avatar

    Agree with you wholeheartedly Father, about philosophy, nature of our hope, ontology of truth (Fr Behr’s Christ is the Truth), the role of revelation.

    It is interesting Father that you note “the gift of infinite freedom” – it is the universal restoration argument which pivots around this very understanding of God’s absolute freedom (want of necessity in God). To wit that because God is infinitely, absolutely free and under no need, want or compulsion whatsoever (contra the dialectic of Hegel) when He created the world – and created out of nothing – He is ultimate fully responsible and takes full responsibility to mend every wrong, heal every wound, to be the all in all, to end evil and suffering forever.

  97. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The understanding that nothing is evil by nature and that evil has no true existence is the faith. It’s not philosophy. God is not the author of evil. All that He created, He declared to be “very good.” Considering evil as having a true existence is simply beyond the pale. I do not think it is Palamite, either.

  98. Robert Avatar

    A thought about hope, and faith.

    For the Gospel to remain the Gospel we are compelled to hope in the universal restoration of all. To do otherwise, to renounce all hope is “to break something within the depths of my heart” as Father put it. Indeed. To do otherwise is to disbelieve the Good News, it is to reject Love, it is to imprison Freedom, to tarnish Beauty. It is, in short, a myopia of the worse kind.

    May God help us.

  99. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ll leave the word “compulsion” out. We are free. Just let it stand there.

  100. Karen Avatar

    “To renounce all hope, would seem to break something within the depths of my heart. There is, for me, an inability to comprehend the heart that refuses and denounces that hope.”

    Yes, me too! Thank you for so eloquently putting this into words here and throughout this thread, Father.

    Thank you also Christopher and Robert especially for hanging in there with your questions and responses, your decency, civility and candor, without all of which this conversation wouldn’t be possible.

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