Judgment with a Mixed Bag


If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

Solzhenitsyn puts his finger on the problem: the human heart is a “mixed bag.” This thought hovered in my mind this past Sunday, the Sunday of the Last Judgment, on the Orthodox pre-Lenten calendar. The gospel reading was the familiar passage in St. Matthew on the parable of the sheep and the goats. There everyone is judged according to what they did “to the least of these my brethren.” But the Solzhenitsyn-inspired thought asked, “But what about those who sometimes act like sheep and sometimes act like goats?”

Such an analysis is actually quite accurate. We are none of us always kind to the least of these our brethren, but neither do we always ignore them. So questions arise? Does the judgment involve adding them up and seeing which one holds the preponderance of our actions? In a novel I read back in the 80’s, a science fiction writer imagined a world in which those whose good and bad actions were too closely matched for an easy judgment were sent to a purgatory in which they had to do the calculations on their whole life, with forms that had been designed by the IRS. It sent shivers down my spine!

Of course, the very suggestion of the problem will immediately raise howls of protest from those who want to remind us that we are saved by grace and not by works. That facile distinction cannot obliterate the parable, however. For what seems to linger most about the parable is its conclusion: “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Mat 25:46) For, regardless of how you reckon that some get there, the parable suggests an eternal punishment. My question, regarding the mixed-bag of souls, is, doubtless impertinent. Anyone can rightly say that the judgments of God are inscrutable. But if they are so inscrutable that we cannot know anything about them, why the parable?

St. Gregory of Nyssa takes a noteworthy approach to this question.

Not in hatred or revenge for a wicked life, to my thinking, does God bring upon sinners those painful dispensations; He is only claiming and drawing to Himself whatever, to please Him, came into existence. But while He for a noble end is attracting the soul to Himself, the Fountain of all Blessedness, it is the occasion necessarily to the being so attracted of a state of torture. Just as those who refine gold from the dross which it contains not only get this base alloy to melt in the fire, but are obliged to melt the pure gold along with the alloy, and then while this last is being consumed the gold remains, so, while evil is being consumed in the purgatorial fire, the soul that is welded to this evil must inevitably be in the fire too, until the spurious material alloy is consumed and annihilated by this fire….

…In any and every case evil must be removed out of existence, so that, as we said above, the absolutely non-existent should cease to be at all. Since it is not in its nature that evil should exist outside the will, does it not follow that when it shall be that every will rests in God, evil will be reduced to complete annihilation, owing to no receptacle being left for it?

St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection

In this treatment, the saint (called the “Father of Fathers” by the Seventh Council) treats the import of the story of judgment as a story within each soul rather than a story of one soul versus another. The judgment, a separation, is a separation of the good and evil that resides in the heart of every human being. It is, in effect, God’s rescue of His enslaved creation.

I am not here arguing for or against the Father of Fathers. Rather, I am allowing him to help me think about the perplexing reality of sheep and goats. For in our experience, the sheep and goats seem to have interbred in such a manner than cannot be distinguished from the outside.

Perhaps it is truly that some are really goats at heart, while others are sheep. And that when they stand face-to-face before Christ, they will somehow reveal their true nature. But this contradicts St. Gregory’s point. We are, he notes, by nature desirous of God. The judgment, he says, is the destruction of that which is not truly our nature. We are freed to become what we truly are.

I am aware of the many arguments and objections this raises for many, and of its place within the Tradition. But I cite it here for a different use. For many can mount objections as to its final application, but cannot, I think, object to its use in the present moment. We are indeed a mixed bag, a confusion of good and evil. Indeed, we are not good one moment and evil the next. Rather, our good never seems to be entirely pure, lacking in mixed motives, and our evil never seems to be devoid of some good desire, regardless of how perverted and distorted that desire might be.

Judgment is a very messy business, something that must remain in the hands of a good God (and Him alone).

My experience of Christ on a daily basis is far more like that of St. Gregory’s image. Every moment of my life is for my salvation. Even the tragedies and disasters that befall me (including those of my own making) seem, in hindsight, to have been something that in the hand of God is doing me good. The fire is continually burning, devouring action and thought and purifying intention. Many times the fire is too bright and far too hot to think anything about it other than to flee and shield my self. But even the briefest encounter with those flames is not without benefit.

The final disposition of souls is in the hand of God. But so is the daily disposition of our lives. I know that when the roll is called for goats, I bleat in excited response, even while some muted sheepish sound murmurs in protest. For today, I know the roll call for goats is one calling us to a blessed slaughter that is nothing less than our day-to-day salvation.

O blessed, holy judgment and sweet flame!

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.



82 responses to “Judgment with a Mixed Bag”

  1. Susan Cushman Avatar

    I must admit that I have a difficult time embracing the “blessed slaughter” and the “sweet flame” as you call them here. Maybe I’m confused about how you are using those terms…. and the roll call for goats… in the day of final judgment or on a daily basis? Clarify, please? (I can be slow.)

  2. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The blessed slaughter and sweet flame on a daily basis – as God kills the goat in me in order to save the soul of this poor sheep.

  3. Octavian Gabor Avatar

    Father, this came so “on time” for me. 🙂 I’ve been thinking about judgment, and it makes so much sense as the cleansing of the “goat” it me. The way I was thinking about it is this (I am aware it may sound off at the face of it): I am hungry, and I do not give me food, for I do not nourish Christ in me. I am thirsty, and I do not give me water, for I do not give water to Christ in me. I am a stranger, and I do not take me in, for I do not bring in my house Christ who awaits at my door. I am naked, and I do not clothe me, for I allow Christ to be cold in me. I am sick, and I do not care for me, for I am too blind to “my needs” to be able to see the that Christ shouts His desire to live in me. I am in prison, and I do not visit me, for I am Christ very warden.

  4. Corey Avatar

    Fr. Freeman, have you read St. Gregory of Nyssa’s “On the Early Death of Infants”? The tensions you describe here are applied in a fascinating way in this piece. On the one hand, St. Gregory hardly wants to suggest that infants that perish should be subjected to perdition, and indeed he says that they enter into blessedness. On the other hand, however, he doesn’t want to suggest that dying in infancy is somehow a preferable option (guaranteed paradise with no possibility of perdition), so he has to say that the blessedness of the departed infants is less than that of an adult that willingly turns to God. The whole piece is kind of agonizing to read, as you can feel the stress St. Gregory is wrestling with every step of the way.

  5. Byron Avatar

    It is difficult for me to imagine my goatness (is that a word?) dying and me not dying with it. I think perhaps I lose sight of the image of God in [my] creation far too often and too easily. It is difficult to see oneself as “the worst of sinners” and still see God refining some good within me. How to improve the focus without being prideful? Grace, please.

  6. Christopher Avatar

    “…But this is, in fact, St. Gregory’s point. We are, he notes, by nature desirous of God. The judgment, he says, is the destruction of that which is not truly our nature. We are freed to become what we truly are….”

    Interesting: Evil is in the will, and “when it shall be that every will rests in God”, evil is destroyed because we no longer have a will as such, or perhaps our will is simply aligned/united to God’s Will. If this is the case, what is the point of the human will – why would God simply not naturally compel us without the troublesome human will in the first place. Or, if the point of the will is to ultimately align itself with God’s Will, how are we “freed to become what we truly are”, which is to say what does “freedom” have to do with it because it is really only a freedom to be aligned with God’s Will or not, and as we know it is “semantically empty” to to describe evil as freedom (and evil is the only other choice – and it is by nature “absolutely non-existent”!).

    What is the basis for the assertion that “when it shall be that every will rests in God”? Is this St. Gregory’s description of the human will in the Eschaton? If so, is not the very point of “the river running through it” that indeed, even in the very end, not every will “rests in God”,?

    It’s these sorts of questions that pulls me up short of applying St. Gregory “to the present moment” because I agree with him, the present moment has to in some Real sense (even, especially, “by nature”) connect with the Kingdom – which brings me back around to “what was the parable saying” again 😉

  7. Dino Avatar

    Fr. S. Bulgakov also makes some very pertinent points based on the truth described by the Great Gregory the Theologian (that there is ‘some goat’ to be burned away in all sheep and ‘some sheep’ to go into eternal life in all goats.
    It is almost impossible to argue against this exact point indeed (other perhaps than what is described in Revelation 22:11.)

  8. Fr. Mark Avatar

    Love the post, Father.
    As we Lutherans say, Simul justus et peccatur.

    What does being baptized with such water indicate? It indicates that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drown and die along with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God and righteousness and purity forever.
    The Small Catechism

    The blessed slaughter and sweet flame of a watery demise to evil; pigs drowned in the sea.

  9. ben marston Avatar
    ben marston

    Do we not experience that in the morning as as we are drawn into the Inner Stillness? As we are beckoned to be seated with Christ in the Stillness of the Father do we not go through the burning of all those trends in US , in our flesh, the haunt of every non-good thing- our idolatries of thought,activity, speculation,even our preferences for coffee over the presence of God? Is it not only as we allow the goat in US to be taken off, exit finished, that we do d our true nature, the sheep, in bliss and the contentment of the Divine Stillness?

  10. Paul Avatar

    What does it mean to have the goat slaughtered? For example, in the case of a sin that you tend to commit repeatedly. Can you expect to be healed of that sin or maybe just grow to hate the sin? It seems to me that sinners are just like the alcoholic who will always struggle with his addiction. The goat is always waiting to make a comeback.

  11. Karen Avatar

    Christopher, when you say, “what does ‘freedom’ have to do with it if it is only a freedom to be aligned with God’s Will, or not …?”, are you meaning to imply that the human will aligned with God’s does *not* equal human freedom? Can you help me understand you better here?

  12. Fr. Thomas Avatar
    Fr. Thomas

    “Judgment is messy business…”

    I hear you saying in other words, that my “purification is messy business” because that is what judgment is, the purification of my soul unto deification (eternal life).
    I seems to me that the placard at the end zone of football games should say “John 3.16-21” rather than just “John 3.16.” The passage about God’s love includes judgment…

    God seeks by judging me, “to love the hell out of me” not to condemn me. Will I co-operate?

    My part (my only part really?) is to co-operate in the purification – saying my “yes” to the judgment.

  13. Byron Avatar

    It seems to me that sinners are just like the alcoholic who will always struggle with his addiction.

    I get this as well, Paul. Yet, I also have the impression that if I just let it go, God will heal me. I don’t think it’s that we overcome but that we just stop struggling and let God heal us. How that happens strikes me as a mystery.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Think of the alcoholic who finally reaches recovery. Every stumble before that was also the road to recovery, however painful, however shameful.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have the same question. For one, is the human will independent of our nature? Our nature always desires God. Admittedly, the whole question of the will (natural, gnomic, etc.) is one of the most torturous points in Orthodox anthropology. But the typical modern notion of “free will” as independent of our nature is not the Orthodox faith.

    And the problem of the mixed bag remains. The will is not simple. It’s complex. It’s very complex and contradictory. As I said, even our decisions to do evil usually are distortions of an effort to seek good (such as pleasure or avoiding pain). It doesn’t make them good, but to simply say they are “evil” over-simplifies the complex reality of the human heart.

  16. Fr. Thomas Avatar
    Fr. Thomas

    I have wondered about the “location of the will” for years as I have read Orthodox books. Do I have a separate will that beholds the true me and false me and chooses one over the other in a given situation?

    It is certainly complex and I am not about to be able to untangle that mystery.

    Perhaps it is not important for me to know. Maybe I just need to remember there is a choice to be made regardless of where the will is actually located.

  17. Agata Avatar

    This conversation reminds me of something I heard in a talk by our wonderful teacher from the Essex monastery (and to which Dino referred in his comment).

    He says that the times we live in are marked by an unprecedented “polarization” – the spirit of the world has become much stronger than the Spirit of God, much more than ever before. The love of this world and the love of God are not compatible. This is why we are so internally divided, as we actually want both…..

    But every time we choose God (to follow His commandments), we grow stronger in our heart to stand in the presence of Christ, and every time we choose the world, we get weaker… But that God has given us this Grace to see and choose. “Let him who sins, sin still more, and the one who is holy become more holy”…

    Goats or sheep, in the depths of our hearts each one of us know what is right and what is not, and yet sometimes we act as if that was debatable… As if at the Dread Judgment Seat of Christ there will be a way to “explain” ourselves… May God have mercy on us, now and then…

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Thomas,
    I believe that most discussions surrounding the will in Orthodox thought crash on the rocks. The discussions are too cerebral and poorly engaged with what actually happens inside of us. There are great complexities in the teaching of St. Maximus, the definitive word on the will. I am of the mind that it is very messy indeed, and not at all easily described. There is the natural will – which is the inherent direction that our nature always and infallibly desires. That will is directed towards the Good who is God.

    But our nature isn’t some sort of free-floating thing. A nature has to be instantiated by the Person (hypostasis). And so there is a way in which the will is hypostatically realized that creates all of the complications that we run into. And to make matters worse, according to the Elder Sophrony (whom I think to be precisely correct in this matter), we are not yet hypostatic beings, but only on the way towards a true hypostatic existence. God alone exists in a truly hypostatic manner – and we are moving towards that.

    What we are at the moment is usually described as “individuals.” Meaning, we are very broken/not yet properly constituted examples of something moving towards authentic existence. All this, I might add, is deeply relevant to questions of judgment/heaven/hell, etc. Therefore, I am often less than tolerant of easy answers in those matters.

    As a priest, I have dealt intimately with the problems of the salvation of the human soul for the past 36 years. There are very few easy answers. There are facile solutions.

    But we must, I think, always identify ourselves with the very least, the most evil and wretched of sinners and pray for their salvation in the mercy of God. This alone, I think, brings us to true salvation, or at least to the edge of its abyss.

  19. Christopher Avatar

    “are you meaning to imply that the human will aligned with God’s does *not* equal human freedom?”

    No, I do not mean to imply that. Indeed, I can not say that at all because that would be meaningless, it would be “semantically empty”. So on a dialectical level, on a philosophical level I have to agree with it because God is God, and anything opposing Him is nothing because how can nothing be something? Freedom (and everything else) is meaningless outside of God.

    Yet, here we are. Here we are in the world, a radically Personal creation that can not be reduced to “will” or “freedom” or anything else on the dialectical level (see St. Maximus and his resistance to the montheletes and their desire to make will = personal) . So spiritually there is another “level” as it were and for me this is obvious as it is the “space” we live and move right now and where evil “happens”.

    Does this mean that I am saying then that evil is Personal (i.e. has an existence beyond the will)? God forbid, because then evil does indeed have an “ontological” existence demiurge style. Do I then follow St. Gregory in summing the equation with a “does it not follow” – perhaps, but I would want to know more about “when it shall be that every will rests in God”. Is this pre (after death) or post Judgement? The sentence itself seems to be a judgement (containing it’s own inner logic) and I would like to know more about it and how it relates to the river of fire.

    It seems that everytime one of us (including St. Gregory) pushes the dialectic to a “conclusion” I hear this voice saying “but wait, there’s more to Heaven and earth than is dreamt in your philosophy” paraphrasing Hamlet. Here is a question, what spirit (Spirit or demonic) does this voice originate? Lord have mercy!

  20. Christopher Avatar

    “And to make matters worse, according to the Elder Sophrony (whom I think to be precisely correct in this matter), we are not yet hypostatic beings, but only on the way towards a true hypostatic existence. God alone exists in a truly hypostatic manner – and we are moving towards that.”

    This makes sense to – for did not Christ himself become incarnate (a full human being – including flesh, soul, “will”, “freedom”, everything) precisely to “save” us and are we not really human (and truly personal) only when He is our Head and we are part of His Body?

    Then the questions…Did God then create us “incompleate”, and is our “nature” then not in flux? If not, then it seems repentance is indeed a movement of the will in freedom – a real freedom that can not be naturally compelled…and we are then right back on the rocks.

    I still believe the unsatisfying “cerebral” element to all this has this Platonic cyclical/return structure to it that “crashes” on “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand”…

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Since we are not yet truly hypostatic, it would be hard to describe any of this as a return. “It does not appear what we shall be.” And, apart from Christ, has never appeared before. I’m puzzled. What do you do with St. Paul: “Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” (1Co 3:12-15)

    First, it is clear that he is speaking specifically about the Judgment, for he calls it “the Day.” And what fire is this that reveals on Judgment Day? Is it not the eternal fire? And, how is someone saved by fire? For clearly, some are. Who is not saved by fire?

    This verse should rightly puzzle us. Particularly that “but he himself will be saved…”

    Of course, there are many who will say, “He’s only writing here to Christians.” This fire that burns and saves – is it the same fire that the “wicked” enter? If it doesn’t save everyone it burns, why not?

    Just questions.

  22. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    Your example of alcoholism coincided with an observation I read, which I have pasted below, to wit:

    One cannot simply “will” themselves out of such things. Rev. Rutledge has written well of this:

    “I remember when Amy Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning after years of drug abuse. Someone said, “She made bad choices.” As if a person in the throes of addiction has a choice! This isn’t about choices or “free will.” This is about the bondage of the will by demonic powers.”

    I cut that from this:


    I can see how someone who suffers from such an addiction might rightly be able to say “The devil made me do it.” I’m not so sure that I, addicted to my sin(s) would be able to get away with it. I and the alcoholic are both in bondage but my instincts tell me that his is far more compelling than mine. Anyway, as the saying goes “One thief was saved so don’t despair. The other one wasn’t so don’t presume.”

  23. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    From the same web-page from which I cut for my response to Paul there was another observation which I would like to paste here and ask you if this is relevant to the discussion of “The Sins of a Nation”.

    “Rev. Rutledge goes on to quote Philip Ziegler as saying:

    To be lorded over by Sin is to have been engaged to be its representative, “member, part, and tool.” . . . In our very existence “we are exponents of a power which transforms the cosmos into chaos,” our lives actually “making a case” for the power that possesses us and in whose service we are enrolled. This is why Paul characterized the guilt of Sin not in terms of ignorance, but rather in terms of “revolt against the known Lord.”

    Thus the human condition is not only one of captivity, but also one of “active complicity.”

    From here: https://btwndevilandsea.wordpress.com/2016/03/06/two-thoughts/

  24. Hillary Avatar

    Are humans rescued from Hell after the last judgement? I’ve come to believe that Hell is absence from God, something earthly, when we choose the goat instead of the sheep in us so right now I’m thinking all humans will be saved in the end…though that doesn’t give much reason for free will…its nice to think that no one will suffer separation from God but I must be astray in my reasoning.

  25. Byron Avatar

    I’ve come to believe that Hell is absence from God, something earthly, when we choose the goat instead of the sheep in us so right now I’m thinking all humans will be saved in the end…though that doesn’t give much reason for free will…its nice to think that no one will suffer separation from God but I must be astray in my reasoning.

    Hillary, we cannot know if “all humans will be saved in the end”, although we pray that it may be so. If any one human is left in hell (however one thinks it will be), it will be me. However, God does not abandon His Creation. I forget which Saint said that “You may rest assured; should anyone be in Hell, Christ will be there with him.”

    But this came from Saint Isaac of Syria: “As for me I say that those who are tormented in hell are tormented by the invasion of love. What is there more bitter and violent than the pains of love? Those who feel they have sinned against love bear in themselves a damnation much heavier than the most dreaded punishments. The suffering with which sinning against love afflicts the heart is more keenly felt than any other torment. It is absurd to assume that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is offered impartially. But by its very power it acts in two ways. It torments sinners, as happens here on earth when we are tormented by the presence of a friend to whom we have been unfaithful. And it gives joy to those who have been faithful.”

  26. Karen Avatar

    Thanks, Christopher. I think I get what you are saying and, of course, struggle with the same antimonies in Scripture. I haven’t read St. Maximus and others directly as have you. Mostly, I have heard summations from their interpreters.

    I don’t know whether this will be helpful, but as a sort of thought experiment at present, I am treating these sorts of seemingly dualististic passages in Scripture not so much as intended to show us how God will dispose of different populations (the righteous and wicked) in the future (though, there may wind up being truth in that image as well), but rather of the Judgment that is everywhere breaking in wherever we encounter God. The Judgment is, as Fr. Stephen points out in this post, in actuality revealing how God will dispose of what is good and what is evil *within us*. The River of Fire that divides is telling us that evil and good in light of the Eternal, the Good, the Ultimate (that is, of Christ Himself), are fundamentally incompatible conditions, and one must ultimately give way to the other. It makes sense to me that evil (what is sick and distorted in our will) must eventually give way to God and to the good that He has created, albeit by a very painful purgative process (both in this life and the next for most of us if we are to believe the Fathers about the lack of completion of our sanctification this side of death even for most believers), but, of course, I understand we cannot presume here.

    I do believe taking these teachings as literal prophecies of future damnation for some people and salvation for others, rather than a picture of the *potential* experience for us of our own particular judgment in light of the good and evil currently at work in us, is a dangerous invitation to become presumptuous judges of ourselves and others in a way that invites only pride and delusion. In fact, I do recall reading–though unfortunately I don’t remember who said it (likely a contemporary Elder or Saint) that for the person experiencing it, the particular judgment and Final Judgment are the same thing! Sort of implied in the context, as I recall, was that a distinction between the particular judgment and Final Judgment only makes sense from the perspective of those of us still completing our earthly pilgrimage. I do believe what Father recommends–“keeping our mind in hell and despairing not,” not presuming either upon our own salvation nor upon the damnation of others–is the only safe path to theosis.

  27. Karen Avatar

    That should have read “antinomies”! 😛

  28. Robert Avatar


    I’m thinking all humans will be saved in the end…

    Your reasoning is not astray – it’s not nicety to think thus, it is Love.

    I agree with you, and don’t see it as contradictory to free will at all, as it is only in willing the Good (who is God) that we are truly free, and freely choose.

  29. Christopher Avatar


    Before answering your specific questions, I would take a step back and ask some larger questions about the context of this Pauline text within Scripture and the Church and it’s “mind” / Tradition as a whole (just as Fr. Lawrence Farley does in his podcast “Christian Universalism” here at Ancient Faith). I notice that 1 Cor 3:12-15 is among a cluster of texts cited by universalists (it is one of 7 texts cited by D.B. Hart at the beginning of his “God, Creation, and Evil” – all Pauline) that according to Metropolitan Kallistos (as quoted by Fr. Lawrence) we are to interpret the numerous other “hellfire texts” of Scripture in light of (such as our Lord’s own unambiguous words: “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” {Mat 25:46}). Why? Why would we not instead interpret these Pauline texts in light of the Gospel’s, St. John (the Apostle of Love) and even other Pauline texts? Clearly St. John Chrysostom (along with numerous others) in no way follows Metropolitan Kallistos’s hermeneutical advice here.

    Is the root of universalism a peculiarity, a “problem” of Pauline exegesis? If we privilege these particular texts and use them to create a hermenutic to filter all other Scripture through, what does that say about us? What does St. Paul know that St. John, St. Matthew, and St. Mark do not? This of course is before you even get to this particular text and what it says about the river of fire.

    I find your last question, “If it doesn’t save everyone it burns, why not?” most interesting, because that does indeed seem to be the answer – that not everyone enters into eternal “well being” (unless you are a “strong” universalist like Origen/Gregory(Nyssa – who is no doubt Origen’s greatest disciple)/Hart), Kallistos admits this (is he is he not a “weak” universalist?). Now we are back on the rocks of “will”, “freedom”, Christology and it’s meaning for anthropology, etc.

    I took the time to watch “The Unchanging Gospel in an Ever-Changing Culture” presentation at North Park University by Metropolitan Kallistos this past weekend (it is a video here on Ancient Faith). His Eminence was in his usual inspiring form. During the question and answer period, a women came up and asked directly about universalism, saying it “is a trend in her parish”. If you are a “strong” universalist, you would not have liked his Eminence’s answer at all, though he did end with his usual “hope” that “(eternal) hell is empty”. Perhaps this “trend” has broken out past a small group of intellectual blowhards who spend too much time in the blogosphere (I of course am firmly in that category) after all…

  30. Christopher Avatar


    I like the way you put the issue in your post. It is the collapse of these “antinomies” into an “answer” is where universalism errors in my opinion. Just for the record, I have read very little of St. Maximus directly (well, not even “directly” because I can not read Greek – only in translation), I rely on interpreters such as Sherwood, Farrell, and Lossky. I do believe he is a key figure for us with both the “anthropological” issues of our day and “apokatastasis” (which has a strong anthropological dimension obviously). God willing I will correct this situation some day and make a direct study of him.

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Actually, you avoided my questions by going into a larger argument – and arguing that other texts should be definitive and privileged. As for me, it’s simply a text that is deeply puzzling. What I wonder about is why you are not also puzzled. By the way the “unambiguous words” you cite are in a parable. Words in parables are always not just ambiguous but multivalent. But I’m not arguing for a universalist position here. I do think that the literalism associated with Matthew 25 is unwarranted, particularly when used to create a landscape of the afterlife. It’s the same with the Parable of Lazarus that the Protestants abuse and try to say that it is a literal description about the relationship of those in hell and those in Abraham’s bosom (speaking of non-literal images).

    I think there is a case to be made viz. hell and damnation. I do not think Fr. Lawrence did a good job of it. He moved the narrative of the gospel away from the centrality of Pascha and made this parable and a literal interpretation to be the center. That’s an awful lot of privileging for something that doesn’t even get a 1st class feast day.

    I have professed my agnosticism with regard to strong universalism. But having said that, I at least want to treat the Scriptures carefully and ask good questions. The questions I asked were very good, I think, and very worth pondering, for us all.

    But you seem not to want to ponder but to argue to a conclusion. What do you think St. Paul means here? Do you have any ideas? It’s a very peculiar passage in a vitally important and major letter of St. Paul. Who is saved by fire? What fire? And how? etc. What does it mean to be saved by fire? Where did St. Paul get this idea from? He didn’t just make this up. He knows something. What does he know? I believe that St. Paul is an absolutely reliable guide to the teaching of the faith. So these questions are important.

    Is it possible that St. Gregory is correct? Is it possible that St. Isaac of Syria is correct? Why not?

    Why are there a number of Pauline texts that speak of the reconciliation of all things? Including in this letter in chapter 15? Also Ephesians 1. Where is St. Paul getting this from?

    I’m not offering answers. I’m offering questions that seem worth entertaining. If I had the answers, I would write that article and maybe the book. But I have questions. Fr. Lawrence did not answer them for me.

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Christopher and Karen,
    I just finished reading a bunch of articles this afternoon on the gnomic will in St. Maximus. They were academic papers, and there were very problematic discussions all over the place. If the answer is there, you’ll have an amazing success if you find it.

  33. Matt Avatar

    And, how is someone saved by fire?

    As someone who grew up with the NIV “escaping through the flames” translation, I immediately became skeptical and had to go look up numerous translations before looking at the Greek (“dia pyros”), then started looking up ancient pagan “passing through fire” rituals and myths to see what Paul might have been intending some reference to for the presumably mixed crowd in Corinth.

    Looking up the possibilities was quite the eye opener. (Thetis/Achilles is just the most obvious!)

    Thank you for this!

  34. Karen Avatar

    God allowing, some day I also will have the opportunity to read more extensively in the Fathers themselves (though never likely in the Greek).

    It seems to me one of the areas of agreement between us and Fr. Stephen, Christopher, is that we see speculative argument about the ultimate disposition of souls based on these paradoxes to be a problem–missing the true purpose of these antinomies, which is that we might each concretely be enabled by their truth to embrace what are in this life the unavoidable tensions which drive the dynamic process of our own salvation. What Fr. Stephen and I might perhaps hope to add to your concern about collapse of antinomies into an “answer” is that the “answer” of a deterministic certainty of everlasting hell ought to be at least as troubling to those who embrace the fullness of Christ and His Pascha as one that leads to a deterministic conclusion of universal salvation. It only seems to me that the latter (viewing hell as purgative and only Christ’s victory over sin and death as eternal in the sense of neverending) much more naturally folds into the big picture story of the gospel as reflected in our Liturgy, which always reaches its culmination and conclusion, not in the account of Final Judgment, which is one of many essential stops along the way, but in Christ’s Pascha and eternal reign. To Fr. Stephen’s questions worth asking, I add one of my own: Since Scripture unequivocally asserts that ultimately in the end when Christ comes to reign in His Kingdom that even death itself shall die, how can this be said in a fully meaningful sense if the damned remain forever spiritually dead?

  35. Christopher Avatar


    Perhaps I did that (privileged other texts), but I hope that there is a “Traditional” answer – one that does not privilege anything but makes “whole” ( and Holy) the seeming (or real) contradictions.

    It is true, that I am not on board with your hermeneutic of Christ’s parables (what little I understand of your interpretive method – have you ever written directly on this?) Starting back at Mathew 24:45 there is a series of parables that all end with “gnashing of teeth” and “I (Christ) do not know you” and of course the start “eternal punishment/everlasting life”. I simply don’t see how or why Christ would as it were mutter under his breath “except, really, all will be saved”. Talk about squaring a circle. Is it “literalism” to say that these statements are not in fact irrelevant to an understanding of the Judgement? Is not “the great gulf” in the parable of Lazarus not itself indicative of a finality of a real sort, or is the Reality to which is being pointed to only “fixed” until it is not (perhaps even at the very same moment the parable is being uttered by the Lord)…or something. How does St. Gregory’s “when it shall be that every will rests in God” *fit* into what Christ is telling us here? I suspect that St. Gregory has other presuppositions in mind. In any case, perhaps you will say a bit more on how you think about these parables.

    As to what St. Paul is saying ‘in total’, I believe the answer is only known when as he says we see and know Him “face to face”. I suspect in this particular passage St. Paul’s meaning is found in the context, which is “the work” to which he refers, which is Paul’s ministry vis a vis “Apollos” and God and the larger context of Paul’s apostleship in relation to the other Apostles (for which Paul defends himself here and elsewhere and so it was obviously a question – one that he explicitly takes on repeatedly). Has Paul gone from this in the previous two sentences (in English obviously) and suddenly switched to the Eschaton “in general” and an assertion that ‘all will be saved’ (as through fire), or is it that in this passage a more narrow thing is being said and he is pulling an assumed (and unstated) Eschatological understanding that his particular readers (in Corinth) will understand and is applying it to the “ministry” question/context? My opinion it is the latter (or something like it), and thus some grand, generalized “strong” universalist eschatology is not warranted.

    In my current understanding, St. Gregory (Nyssa) and Origen are not correct when it comes to this subject. I have read snippets of St. Isaac that leads me to believe he is different (and at times being misinterpreted by the “strong” universalists), so I am agnostic when it comes to him. This is my opinion.

    As for “reconciliation of all things” I really don’t know except that St. Maximus appears to draw a distinction between an apokatastasis of nature and persons (it applies to the former in a categorical way, the latter can partake of it “in life” or “in fire”). Does it necessarily imply a “strong” universalism – I don’t think so. I hope someday to make an honest and detailed study of it, though this is not really possible without learning to read Greek and I am probably too old to do that.

    Is this (this is not an Orthodox statement or question) division, this disunity around the meaning of Judgement and the Eschaton a crack in the very heart of the Church? Certainly appears that way at times. Or is it instead a crack in our hearts? Or is it (and this is the truth) a crack in my heart and the Saints do not suffer from this? Since it is the latter, then the Spirit of Truth is just that (i.e. Truth) and I have a bit of faith, perhaps it will be enough.

  36. Mihai Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I favor the way of viewing the gnoming will as the natural will experienced through the broken glass of the ego aka the “thought of the body”.

    We always intuit the good in even the most gross and materialistic desire.
    Lust, as an example, is the intuition of the transcendent Beauty (which is ultimately non-other than God) but “blocked”, fragmented and confused on the bodily level.
    On this point I think the Fathers are in full agreement with Plato (see his Symposion, Phaedros etc).

    As for universal salvation: those who would deny us even the hope for it, I really wonder what would be the point for so many aspects of our Liturgical tradition- one example: the seven prayers on the Vespers after Pentecost?
    I do believe that there are many layers that need to be considered here, many hermeneutical points of view that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. One should also consider that such a teaching can in no way be made “mainstream” due to the vulgar understanding that would spring immediately “if everyone is saved, then it makes no difference how I live my life, salvation is “. I can see why any preacher would want to avoid that.

    But ultimately, I don’t think that we would ever resolve such a question by arguments and syllogism or by throwing this or that verse from Scripture. Maybe even God Himself desires that this question remain ambiguous for us until the End.

    Lent is approaching- so God help us all in the period to come. I’m sure that seven weeks from now each of us will see things more clearly.

  37. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The reading of St. Paul limiting him to just the matter at hand is, indeed, not inappropriate. I appreciate you mentioning it. I am of the opinion that strong universalism seems to provoke an equal and opposite reaction from some. I have ever only supported the “weak” notion (“hope”), because that seems present in the Tradition, despite the many dire warnings to the contrary.

    It is undoubtedly a matter of the heart that is revealed in these conversations.

    Like you, I agree that the “obvious” import of these parables is eternal damnation. However, the fact that some few among the Fathers (perhaps more than you would admit) seem to maintain either a weak or strong apokatastasis (I prefer that to universalism), despite the “obvious” has always struck me as deeply significant. None of them are the sort of men who ignore Scripture or pervert them. They are champions and giants of Orthodoxy. Thus, I have always concluded that there is room within the Tradition for a weak apokatastasis at the very least. That, is simply a matter of fact since it is obviously present within the Tradition.

    That there is disagreement simply points to the fact that the Church has never spoken in a definitive manner – unless you count Justinian’s letter which is problematic. I do not think that men such as Met. Kallistos, or saints such as Silouan and many others, are perverse in this matter. They are simply examples that there really is a proper presence within the Tradition of at least a weak apokatastasis.

    What I find problematic is the assertion to the contrary. It suggests that many whom I think of as giants among the Fathers and saints to be not just wrong, but wrong about something that apparently seems obvious to even recent converts.And, I am troubled by arguments that present a hermeneutic that looks pretty Protestant to me, with arguments that sound pretty Protestant to me. This is complicated even more when charges of liberalism and various perversities of intention are directed towards Fathers, saints, bishops and priests (I see these in various places).

    My assumption within the practice of Orthodoxy is that I am searching for the Pearl of Great Price, and that it is hidden beneath the surface of things and buried within the heart. Thus, I pay careful attention when something seems unusual and not obvious. It is an occasion to pause and wonder. That pause and wonder in this case clearly shows the presence within the Tradition of a “roominess” in this matter. Why, I wonder, is that disturbing to some? It is a matter of the heart.

  38. Mihai Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Re-reading your article I have problems with the following paragraph:

    “Perhaps it is truly that some are really goats at heart, while others are sheep. And that when they stand face-to-face before Christ, they will somehow reveal their true nature. But this is, in fact, St. Gregory’s point […] ”

    Now the first line of this, that some are this or that at heart seems to suggest the exact opposite of what you try to generally point out. It suggest that there might, bellow the changing waters of interbred sheep and goats a “stable ground” that ultimately reveals one to be either this or that.

    Can you please try to explain this line in light of the whole paragraph? Perhaps it is just a matter of misunderstanding of words from my part.

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Probably could have worded it better. My intention was to suggest that we are not, at heart, “really goats.” I believe, with the Church, that we are fundamentally good. We are sheep. (We have gone astray). I suppose I wrestle with the notion that some have somehow changed themselves from sheep into goats. It is rather – a mixed bag. And that is the problem with how we often think about judgment – either/or – when we are both/and. I’ll look at it and see if I can improve the language. Good question. Take another look – see if this fixes it.

  40. Justin Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    If there are any goats to be separated, then I am the only one.

  41. Christopher Avatar

    “One should also consider that such a teaching can in no way be made “mainstream” due to the vulgar understanding that would spring immediately “if everyone is saved, then it makes no difference how I live my life, salvation is “. I can see why any preacher would want to avoid that.”

    This is (probably) what Origen was addressing when he said that universalism should be kept a secret and only revealed to the “spiritually mature”. However, there is a much more profound reason why it is problematic. I will try to say why in my attempt to answer Fathers question:

    “Why, I wonder, is that disturbing to some?”

    Apokatastasis changes everything. That bears repeating, apokatastasis changes everything. Well, obviously you say because that is it’s meaning (“everything restorted”) but I mean this on the level of what the Christian story *means* personally for each and every one of us. I have been reluctant to say anything about this because part of me is sort of amazed it even needs to be said, and surely it is obvious and will be talked about by someone more capable?!?! Lumping “strong” and “weak” apokatastasis together, apokatastasis changes the very meaning of our life, struggles and sufferings, salvation – everything. It leads directly to an Ivan-esque questioning of God. IF everything in the end is “restored” by a kind of internal or external inevitability, then what was all this *time* with it’s attendant joy and suffering, good and evil, life and death *for* exactly??? apokatastasis relativises time to such a point that it is in the end meaningless, and it sucks our personhood into a kind of stunted “nature” (and here Hart and his followers are right to attack the Christian person as “libertarian”, because Persons simply do not fit into the schematic of strong universalism). Apokatastasis changes the very character of God, the very meaning of the Christian story, because it changes the ground underneath us and the sky over our heads. I would go so far as to say that apokatastasis turns this world into a kind of torture chamber, because really, what is God *waiting* for – let’s just get to the Glorious, ineffable and inevitable *end*. Matter of the heart without any doubt, but even beyond that a matter of God and His creation. By closing off, by determining the end (in a deterministic matter) you characterize everything in between. I am still amazed that folks seem to think this is a happy and good thing! Without a real freedom, a real possibility of failure, then we are not Persons at all (and never can be if we are still persons “in becoming”) and everything changes.

    People keep talking about “Love” and this subject, but I am perplexed about how facile the discussion around love can be. Seems like we would want to be very very careful how we define “Love” and God because it has nothing less than eternal significance. Apokatastasis is about the very character of Love.

    “Strong” apokatastasis is simply antithetical to the very core of Christianity and I don’t see how it can be considered at all. Indeed, I don’t see how anyone can not see the horns and forked tongue of the demon offering it to them and saying “really, take this cake – you can have it AND eat it too!!” What about “weak” apokatastasis? Does it escape the above problematic, and even if it does does it “fit” into the Christian story as a whole? Here I am trying to listen to what Silouan and others are trying to say but I think we delude ourselves if we don’t admit that they have some very large questions to answer.

    Mihai says ” Maybe even God Himself desires that this question remain ambiguous for us until the End.”. I don’t think there is any “Maybe” about it, because if apokatastasis is “true”, then it has to be “ambiguous” otherwise our very story collapses into a kind fixity, a “nature” and end that makes Christianity and every other fairy tale superfluous. But the very fact that I within such a story can see it’s limitations points to the fact that that there is a deep problematic with apokatastasis itself.

    I will be joining Mihai in his hope that at the end of this Holy and Great Fast, things will be “more clear”. I (that is my inner goat) for one am planning to fail miserably in keeping it! 🙂

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Very good. Now this is getting down to the real stuff in the conversation. This is a conversation worthy of Dostoevsky! And I welcome it. It takes us to the very bottom of the gospel – what is the Christian story. I think it’s what Hart is trying to do – in his own way. And this is a very important conversation for us all.

    Why do we live and suffer? Ivan K.’s question is very much to the point. How would you see the idea of an eternal hell and punishment, or the libertarian view – self-chosen hell – answering Ivan’s question? Not an argument…but the conversation. Suppose I am the unbeliever, like Ivan, who is asking that question: “Why would God bother to create us if some of us were going to get it wrong and suffer eternally in hell?” Of course Ivan’s question is even more poignant. “What’s the point to the suffering of any innocent? Why create when such suffering is possible?”

    If I were teaching a theology class in seminary (Orthodox). I would pull out several versions of this question and ask each student to write a paper in answer. And I would keep them writing it, over and over again until the answer became cogent and at least marginally acceptable. And every time I pushed back on their paper and made them write it again, I would make them better prepared for the priesthood. This is “where the rubber meets the road.”

  43. Mihai Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Yes now the meaning of the paragraph has become clear.


    Regarding your treatment of so-called “weak” apokatastasis see one of my questions above:

    “As for universal salvation: those who would deny us even the hope for it, I really wonder what would be the point for so many aspects of our Liturgical tradition- one example: the seven prayers on the Vespers after Pentecost?” .
    I can hint other places for meditation: the icon of Resurrection, St John’s Pascal homily, the “emptying of hell by Christ on Holy Saturday” (really, what does this last mean if there is not, at least, the HOPE for a universal salvation?). There are others, I’m sure.

    The greatest mistake we tend to make is treat this question (and here regardless of the side one wishes to take) within the conceptual framework of the fallen world. We must remember that the space-time we currently experience is not the space time as primordially created but a shadow/fallen “version” of it. With this in view, our current experience of time is indeed very relative.
    Hence we treat this great question with improper tools. In our current state we tend to judge everything through the filter of either/or; seldom through both/and.

    I am not trying to offer a solution, but, with Father, trying to move past simplistic answers.

    Ultimately, I maintain my initial stance, that these sort of questions are not meant to be resolved through debates and arguments. They should, instead, fuel the spiritual (not sentimental) life.

    From my part, I will stop my writing here. May God help us during the coming Lent!

  44. Dino Avatar

    My interpretation of the voyage of suffering, in light of a universal apokatastasis or not, would have to be that it is a maturation. The sufferings of those who desire to make themselves permanent abodes of Grace speak of such a necessity for a creature to ripen into the stature of Christ. The painful chisel of sufferings reveals the humble image of God in the formerly proud. St Isaac the Syrian claims that even Gehenna (in his strongest apokatastatic text) has nothing other that an ‘educational’ purpose, and we know from experience that there is no other way for a selfish creature to freely come to a kenotic love it initially despises, but through the humility brought about by great sufferings. Now whether these sufferings in the discerning hands of God will bring all creatures with a potentially self-determining capacity to repentance, or whether their self-determination will forever keep them impenetrably locked in self-centered despair is the real and currently unanswerable question at hand.

  45. Gene B Avatar
    Gene B

    Father, perhaps you can clarify something. to see whether I am on the right track here. I think people in general are afraid that their “falling short” would keep them out of the kingdom. People are worried that if they don’t have perfect faith God will not have mercy on them. For better or for worse, in my study of all sorts of conspiracy theories and occult groups, one confronts the real possibility that there are many people who have taken oaths to serve the other side in one way or another. We misread the threat of eternal file – which is really directed at the sworn enemies of Christ, of where there might be many – and we worry that this wrath is directed at us “standard” unworthy sinners who love God and pray, but simply fall short. I think this is because Christians no longer learn about these groups anymore – but they did in the past. They were openly discussed throughout history and now we are afraid. Many don’t even believe they exist, and exist “in high places”. We can’t be naive. We have enemies. I think we need to understand that God loves us and is behind us. We have to stop doubting. The prince of this world makes us doubt ourselves, and in doing so we doubt God. Am I on the right track here?

  46. Matt Avatar


    I think a few of us personally are friends with (or are friends of friends with) plenty of people who, if they haven’t made a formal oath professing themselves to be the enemies of the one they believe is worshipped as the Christian God, all their statements and actions have at least consistently confirmed such a committed belief in their position.

    They are mistaken – and perhaps not as much as some who profess to be worshippers of that God:

    By the same token, in God’s mercy, their very rejection of the false God that has been offered to them, is an act of grace, enabled by the true God. Such persons are far closer to the Kingdom of God than those who have inflicted their false religious views on them.

    But for that post, and Emeth’s story, I might not ever have converted.

    If there indeed are oaths out there, any given notarized affidavit may well be in Christ’s inbox filed under “handwriting to be torn asunder”. 🙂

  47. Brian Avatar

    “And I would keep them writing it, over and over again until the answer became cogent and at least marginally acceptable.”

    I wonder… can any of this be understood by mortal man other than the the kind of knowledge that comes of suffering itself (by participation in cross)? I think of God’s answer to Job and to all who struggled to understand the way of the Most High. No answer seems ever to be given that would be even remotely acceptable to one who does not believe.

    By what criteria would any seminarian’s answer be considered marginally acceptable?

  48. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You know it when you read it. And maybe none would ever be, but the process would have firmly planted a seed that should remain throughout their lives.

  49. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There are probably conspiracies somewhere in the world. But none of the ones you read about on the internet are real. We already know that our warfare is “in the heavenly places, against spiritual wickedness.” So there is nothing new. And if some have been taken captive and seem to actively work for the other side, then they do not become demons themselves, but rather their chattel and it is for us to pray for and liberate them. It’s not for us to fear them. The greatest danger to Christians is within their own heart.

  50. Karen Avatar

    Re: conspiracies. Even the well-documented conspiracy stuff that is a part of modern western history (especially U.S. history), much of which was concealed and came to light only much later, reveals that those individuals involved were virtually all entrapped at early ages and/or had vulnerabilities from childhood that predisposed them to those who had become predators looking for power over others. Those who commit the most hideous crimes are often victims of powerful cult mind-control, and in no way can be seen to be making free and voluntary choices to do evil. Truly, our real enemies are the evil spirits who attempt to corrupt us all.

  51. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There are certain seeds which, in order to flower, must pass through the digestive track of an animal and be excreted as waste.

    Resurrection cannot occur if there is no death.

    As we must ask what is the nature of love, we must also ask, what is suffering?
    Also what/who is innocent in a fallen world “…I was conceived in sin…” ?

    In a pleasure/pain Epicurean dichotomy suffering is BAD even evil. That is a false understanding of the human condition no matter how prevalent it is and how intertwined it is with everything we think, do and say.

    I only know this: every actual encounter with Christ I have ever been blessed with has come out of pain and suffering and deep loss. As Dino said, it is such that allows for maturation, is it not?

    BOTH/AND is critical in embracing the Christian life which began, after all, with the great antinomy–fully God and fully man.

    If we do not have at least the hope that all will be saved on what basis do we hope for our own salvation?

    If we cannot at least hope for our own salvation, how can we have any hope at all?

    Is apocalyptic rhetoric to be taken literally even when it comes from the mouth of our Lord? If so how are we to balance the fact that He also says “Behold, I make all things new”? Both/and

    We are all drowning in a cesspool even those whom we think of as innocent. Are we going to hope others perish so that we can avoid drowning or worse, claw our way over them, pushing them deeper into the filth so that we can get air and light? Is it possible that none can be saved unless all are saved? Would not such damnation also, in a sense, include our Lord since He is fully human?

    It seems that can easily be taken from the verses in Matthew that whatever you do to the least of these you do to me. He bears all of our pain does He not?

    Or is such a hope merely a justification for our continued sin?

    At the very least we should never rejoice in the possibility of damnation or place anyone there but ourselves.

    To gladly proclaim not only the possibility of damnation but the certainty of damnation as many “Christians” do is a great perversion and has turned may aside from Christ Himself–at least on the surface. These folks know intuitively if that is God, I want no part of him.

    We are frequently reminded that God is the only lover of mankind and that He neither wills death nor damnation nor did he create evil. If evil has no ontological existence, it is even more ephemeral than even our own thoughts.

    I am a perverse and perverted man, an old goat most of the time, yet God forgives. That is a great mystery to be sure for it was on the Cross that He pronounced that forgiveness. Are we greater than our master?

    Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!

    Does not that prayer encapsulate all of our hope? What is it to us what Jesus has in mind for any of His other servants?

    Are we not to be thankful for any and all evidence of that mercy we are blessed to perceive?

  52. Christopher Avatar

    Ok, I will make an effort at an answer to:

    “Why would God bother to create us if some of us were going to get it wrong and suffer eternally in hell?” Of course Ivan’s question is even more poignant. “What’s the point to the suffering of any innocent? Why create when such suffering is possible?”

    To answer such questions Christianly and in the context of apokatastasis is really quite difficult, because like a juggler and his balls you have to be able to keep several ideas in the air at the same time, which are moving, and not moving randomly but in relation to each other, and you have your movement in relation to “the ideas” at the same time. To wit:

    At play here is evil, suffering-in-relation-to-evil, time, Persons, God, Love, nature or “end”, freedom-in-relation to “end”, and Eternal Hell. In other words you have the Christian Story.

    We have discussed before the “nature” of evil and the Orthodox answer that it does not and is rather a privation of the good. That however does not satisfy or really “answer” much because of all these other moving parts that clearly have a “relationship” to evil of some kind. Like gravity, evil still “moves” everything around it even if it is “nothing” or a negative. What is this “relationship”? I submit the answer is found in the whole, in the “the Christian story” itself. What does apokatastasis have to do with it? Apokatastasis changes the relationships of all these things in the air, because it changes the meaning of time. This has a knock-on effect of changing the meaning of everything else, and so you change the Story as a whole.

    Time only makes sense (in the context of a Loving God) if we have something to do – a movement to be made that depends on us in some crucial way (even if at the same time it depends on Grace). The Christian answer or meaning of time is encapsulated in one word, “repent”. Time is the “time of our repentance”. So, time like everything else has a Personal dimension and meaning, and “good and evil” only make sense in the larger context of the Story, of the Personal, and the Personal “in relation” to all the other moving parts of the Story.

    So the meaning of suffering is only found in a Story, by going *through* the fairy tale, through and with the movement of all the various parts “in the air”, by *living* the Story. Suffering can only be “answered” by the Truth. Truth, however is not a dialectical/philosophical propositional truth (that can only be a reflection of Truth), Truth is Personal, Truth is Spirit and Truth is Personal and we are Personal (this is God’s gift to us) and so the answer to suffering is a Story, not a dialectical proposition/conclusion. How does Dostoyevsky “answer” Ivan and his questions about innocent children who suffer indescribable evil? He has a person, who best reflects Person and Truth and the Spirit of Truth (i.e. a Saint) fall down before Ivan and beg for forgiveness. Strange, no answer as such given except a personal request for a movement, the movement of forgiveness which is a personal movement of Spirit and not in any way a dialectical conclusion or answer.

    Forgiveness. Forgiveness is the answer to evil and its attendant suffering, because forgiveness is the Personal movement and repentance in time that “destroys” evil, makes it into “nothing” and not “something”. As St. Gregory (Nyssa) says above, evil does not exist outside of Personal so IF Ivan forgives (repents) then all will be well. Children, dogs, and God forgives all so the children have already destroyed the evil in their story, so Hell and evil is for Ivan to forgive. However, Ivan is one of us so we must ask each and every Ivan (and this includes our own internal Ivan) for forgiveness for we are all one Body.

    Hell. Hell is a gift…or, rather Hell is a consequence of the Divine gift of Personhood and the opportunity to “be as God”. God’s are uncircumscribable, and with God’s “all things are possible”, and this includes good and evil, life and death, creation and destruction, time and the “fullness” of time, Heaven and Hell – everything. Hell (even Eternal Hell), as a possibility can not be negated, otherwise the Divine essence is circumscribable and all things are not possible and God is not God. Creation, is not creation and is not “good” without Hell because without Hell it is something else, something smaller, from a smaller god. “Why create when such suffering is possible?” can not be answered dialectically but only in the Story, where all things are possible and more than two (dialectical) things are in the air and moving in relation to each other all at the same time. In the Story Hell is overcome not by a negation or dialectical synthesis but Personally, with all forgiveness – Him entering the Story (which includes Hell) and entering Hell (through a Cross and all suffering) and coming out the otherside. We will do the same – IF we repent (which is why we are in the Story).

    Apokatastasis. Apokatastasis does not, can not change the Story. Apokatastasis can not negate Hell, or anything else otherwise the Story is not the Story and we can not be saved except (perhaps) by a completely different Story. Apokatastasis can not negate the meaning of time, otherwise we can not be saved, and indeed “we” are not Personal – not in the same way that the Story is informing us. Repentance is not the same, neither forgiveness nor God nor anything else. What does apokatastasis mean then, since it is scriptural? Well, if you expand the context just a wee bit:

    ” 19 Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, 20 and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before,[a] 21 whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began. 22″

    It all points to the Story: Repentance, sin, God “speaking” (the Spirit of Truth) in time. Is “restoration” a thing to be grabbed onto (like some do to the point of desperation, like it is the edge of the cliff off of which they are falling) and used to change, or even interpret the Story as a whole though? I don’t see it – scripture appears to be speaking of a transition point in the Story itself, the one we are all familiar with: Judgement. In fact, it does not seem to be the “the end” of Hell at all, rather it seems to be one word (it occurs only once in all of Scripture) being used to denote the Story (which includes Hell) itself. The Story, the WHOLE Story is the “key” to overcoming Hell, not one word used (well, one word which represents a philosophy) to filter the Story through and then be assured of the end of Hell. The key to Hell is Faith, repentance, forgiveness. If we are to distill the (Personal) overcoming of Hell down to a single word, let’s at least choose the right one: Forgiveness. “Apokatastasis” is not the right word.

    You know what scares me more than Hell? “Apokatastasis ” in both ancient and modern Christian thought. Hell has been overcome in and through the Story, as in a fairy tale. “Apokatastasis” is the providence of philosophers and the children of the law, and the law does not save (God does what “apokatastasis” can not do). Let us answer evil and Hell and Ivan with that which saves.

    p.s. St. Maximus. Father, it does not surprise me in the least that “academics” and all the philosophers over at Eclectic Orthodoxy get St. Maximus wrong. He is a Saint, and thus in some sense in the Spirit of Truth – and the Truth has all these balls in the air moving in relation all at the same time. Philosophers are dialecticians, and so have to pick two balls (at most) out of the air (stopping the motion) and examine them (out of time). The whole is what is important, not aspects isolated from the whole. I will try myself to remember this when I read St. Gregory of Nyssa 😉

  53. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “All the philosophers” is incorrect and meant to be pejorative. Frankly, some of those folks are among my best friends, and a few are better men than most – and even better theologians.

    But, that’s just an aside. A problem in your solution is that what it means to be personal is not defined, and I suspect not defined correctly. There is movement there as well – towards what it means to be personal (cf. the latest article). Your answered seem sort of convoluted and tortured, hard to follow. But, I do not think you can suggest that it was not a philosophical answer. Philosophy, in the fathers, is not a bad word.

  54. Christopher Avatar

    Yep, entirely too tortured – how does one indicate the complexity in an easier to follow way? Lots of editing might get me there.

    I am not following you to be honest why “a philosopher” and identifying one as such is a pejorative. Perhaps you have a better term. Socrates was a philosopher and a “good man”, better than most. How do you identify folks who take the Story and apply a method of thinking that reduces the Story to a philosophy? I tend to use terms as defined and not in their myriad “politically incorrect” connotations because I simply can not keep up. “Ignorant” is a term I am learning to not use however, even though I am ignorant about a great many things and so are you – but most folks have re-defined the term to mean a pejorative. Is being a “philosopher” a pejorative now?

    I am almost always a philosopher myself, as I am a dialectical thinker and not an “intutive thinker” etc. A person has to be better than average at dialectical thinking to even do academics and publish, so this strength is also the weakness and trap when trying to grasp the Christian Story (as Scripture explicitly indicates more than once, “humble fisherman” and all that).

    The Gospel is a “proclamation”, a Story, etc. It is not a Philosophy. Philosophy can be used in service of the Gospel, and clearly that is what the Fathers did – but I would not call them philosophers (even though a handful of them might be the greatest philosophers who ever lived) because they were something else much more important, Christians (and saints). Better to be a Christian, even a very poor one, than to be a great philosopher.

    Perhaps your point is that it’s a “mixed bag”, we are philosophers and Christians (goats and sheep) at the same time…

  55. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I was simply reacting to your gratuitous swipe at Eclectic Orthodoxy. It was utterly beside the point.

    Editing would help – but I still think you’re working hard to make something so and not actually thinking things through.

  56. Christopher Avatar

    This is yet more evidence that I don’t have a pastoral bone in my body. What you call a “gratuitous swipe” I see as so self evident I don’t know how anyone can question it and I don’t see the reason for hiding it. This is a game in which I don’t know the rules, and one I don’t see the need for even playing, yet most everyone says is THE game in the Church. I am certain it will be burned away in Hell…

  57. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You can play the game some places, but not here. I do not allow speaking badly of priests of the Church. Disagree, yes. But if you want to disagree with that blog, do it there. This is not a forum for that purpose.

    Frankly, I’m not really interested in debating the point (universalism). I’ve made it clear what my own thoughts are and why and I can answer and deal with that. What I have articulated I believe to be the Tradition of the Church (that is, that there is obviously room within the Patristic interpretation and teaching). If you don’t like it, then argue with the Fathers. I haven’t made anything up.

  58. Karen Avatar

    Christopher, your assessment of the nature of the discussions at Eclectic Orthodoxy (as a “game”) and dismissal of the universal hope (even as Fr. Stephen has articulated it) as the fruit of mere human “philosophy” and inherently incompatible with the Tradition (how I interpret your certainty “that it will burn away in Hell”) strikes me as no small irony in that this assessment seems to be itself rooted in your dialectic approach to assimilating and applying “truth” (as the data of Scripture and Tradition), and not in the Tradition itself (as personal encounter with Christ through the Holy Spirit). I don’t know if this impression I have from your comments is a fair representation of what you are doing.

    Your admission of not having “a pastoral bone in your body” strikes me as a tacit admission that whatever is driving your approach and reactions to the discussion of the relative merits or basis of this hope in the Tradition, it must not be the kenotic love of Christ or a loving concern for the salvation of others. (I speculate perhaps it is instead a reaction to the spiritual aridity and sterility of the Unitarian Universalist presumption in which you grew up–and, if so, that is quite understandable.) Yet, as I consider the Tradition, this kenotic love, this humility, strikes me as the only reliable way to properly discern spiritual reality. Such love, you will likely agree, is acquired not by dialectic reasoning about the Tradition, but by God’s grace working through our sustained and concerted effort to obey all the commandments of Christ (summarized in that to love our neighbor, who may even be our enemy, as ourself). A quote I read recently from St. Porphyrios of Athens, himself one of the greatest clairvoyant Saints of our contemporary period, summarizes this understanding:

    “Obedience leads to humility, humility to discernment, discernment to vision, vision to clairvoyance.”

    Admittedly, striving for this kind of spiritual movement and goal is a tall order for all of us. We may count ourselves extremely blessed if we merely arrive at some few glimmers of genuine discernment, never mind vision or clairvoyance, which are beyond reach for most of us in this life. But, perhaps we can trust the words of those few who have so arrived.

    St. Porphyrios has also made what sounds to me like a very confident and unequivocal statement, “You are unable to be saved alone, if all others are not also saved. It is a mistake for one to pray only for oneself, for one’s own salvation. We must pray for the entire world, so that not one is lost.” He does not state that we should pray for the entire world, so that we remain humble or so that we who pray might at least eventually thereby be saved, but in order that “not one is lost.” What seems obvious is that he believes such prayer must be able to accomplish this universal salvation, or he wouldn’t urge it on his disciples.

    If your assessment is that this instruction of St. Porphyrios’ is one of his “mistakes” like that of the Father of Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa’s universalism, bear in mind what St. Paisios, his contemporary (and by all accounts himself one of the greatest and most spiritually gifted of the contemporary Elders), said of St. Porphyrios when asked by a monk to give his opinion about a matter the monk had previously discussed with Elder Porphyrios,

    “If you already discussed it with Elder Porphyrios, then you don’t need to discuss it with me because he bears the gift of having a color television, while mine is black and white.” (Obviously, he is not talking about electronics here, but relative clairvoyant capacity!)

    Far be it from me to argue with the likes of these Saints! 🙂

  59. Greg Avatar

    I am intrigued that Karamazov has been invoked as an argument against apokatastasis, if only because Dostoevsky himself almost certainly believed in some form of universalism. His argument against the notion “all is permitted” was rooted in his belief in eternal life, not avoidance of eternal hell (on this I especially recommend the Frank biography). I rather think had he tried to weave an apologia for damnation into his response to Ivan the book would have failed mightily. Instead he counters with a person: (first) Zosima, who, as it happens, renounces Hell. If the Gospel is taken to be the declaration of God’s victory over his enemies (foremost death and sin), in and through His Son, anything short of apokatastasis seems a bit pyrrhic, especially in the light of Ivan Karamazov.

  60. Octavian Avatar

    Just a word to say that I fully agree with Greg: in Brothers Karamazov, the answer to “the problem of evil” is a person’s life, Zosima. I actually think it is not by chance that the Book 6, I believe (I don’t have the volume on me, so I can’t check), the book on Zosima’s life, comes after the discussions between Alyosha and Ivan. This is part of what makes the book so great! 🙂

  61. Fr John Wehling Avatar
    Fr John Wehling

    One of the common themes in the fathers, found in such diverse examples as St Gregory of Nyssa and St John Chrysostom, is the belief that the “many mansions” of John 14, as well as St Paul’s discussion of different types of resurrection bodies in 1 Corinthians, refer to different conditions/places/states of the righteous in the resurrection. We hear this in the above-mentioned quote from St Gregory of Nyssa (quoted in the comments) about infants who die not having the same reward or place in the resurrection as those who have struggled to acquire virtue. And Chrysostom and other fathers state explicitly that there will be degrees of reward in the Kingdom.

    I highlight this to say that if all evil is purged from the will, as St Gregory says as it is quoted in the post, this does not imply that everyone will have the same capacity for the good, i.e. a sort of you egalitarian universalism. We sing of the Mother of God that she is “more honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim.” Likewise, in the resurrection, there will be degrees of glory and honor among all the righteous. This glory and honor correspond to their capacity for God which we often simply term the virtues. If we think of the virtues less as accomplishments and more as capacities this makes more sense. St Nikolai Velimirovich compares the spiritual life to making a lake: you dig a hole and wait for the rain. The bigger the hole the bigger the lake. We are, in effect, in the spiritual life digging a hole, that is, developing within ourselves a capacity to be the dwelling place of God. In the resurrection, when evil is purged from the will, as St Gregory says, some will be able to hold more of God than others. The reason that we describe the Mother of God as having a womb “more spacious than the heavens” is precisely because her capacity for God is greater than anyone else’s.

  62. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. John,
    Thank you. This is now in my ponderings list!

  63. Christopher Avatar


    As a mitigating factor to my otherwise normal hardheartedness I finally came down hard yesterday with the virus my daughter has had this week so I was (and still am) just a bit out of balance, which I expressed in all its ingloriousness yesterday. Forgive me.


    I know I have not said it that well, but the dialectic (reasoning) can is a tool that can be turned on anything, and can be used for good or bad. Some of the best philosophy has been done by Saints, and some of the best philosophy has been done by mad men in the asylums. The dialectic can and will be used for or against anything and everything. Our task, as you say in a slightly different way is to see it in it’s proper place in our attempt at “living” the Tradition. Living is of course something far more substantial than “thinking”.

    I appreciate a word you used in connection to my UU upbringing, “sterility”. Strangely (or not so strange if you consider the Grace of God) the truth is “yes and no” to that description – but I hear you on the yes part. The truth is that the form and place of universalism within modern UUism does not really correlate at all with apokatastasis, and so my disagreement with it has little to do with any deep conflict (shame is the right word) that lingers in my soul in reference to my past. Is the previous sentence delusional? Perhaps, but I don’t think so – I would like to think someone can disabuse me of this if I am delusional however.

    I still contend that this question is actually complex, and that most thought around it is linear, dialectic, and moral. It reduces love to morality. Your objection is really “as a person trying to live the Tradition and follow God don’t you love your neighbor – don’t you pray for the salvation of your neighbor as the Saints, each and every one, and lex orandi, lex credendi therefore apokatastasis is “true””. As usual, I say “but wait there’s more”. This past Tuesday the reading was from Jude 1:

    “…But I want to remind you, though you once knew this, that the Lord, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe…”

    So, do we oppose St. Jude and St. Porphyrios? Do we stake out “theological positions” and duel it out dialectically? In a sense that is what I and everyone else has done, and I don’t know quite how to escape this. Perhaps a synthesis will work: a person Judged into Eternal Hell is not “lost”, so St. Jude describes the cake and St. Porphyrios get’s to eat it. This is really my (dialectical) answer (that God’s Love is far deeper than our sentimental tinged reflection of it), for without the Judgement then this hell (eph 5:16) is eternal (an eternal becoming) and *everyone* is condemned to hell for all eternity because Pascha recedes into infinity, ever waiting on everyone to choose it. Apokatastasis changes everything. It destroys our chance for repentance by saying everyone will “naturally” repent (a determination “chosen” in freedom that strangely too few seem to admit is still a mere determination, a trick of the dialectic that says you have escaped it when you are in fact firmly grounded in it – Hart is the only person I have read that understands this as this is a central point of his “God, Creation, and Evil”, he just thinks it is a good thing). An Eternal Hell worse than being condemned to the river of fire would be a creation that is not Judged. Apokatastasis is the judgement that the Judgement does not happen.

    Or is it? Scripturally it is something, just not what some of us have made it out to be. If in our efforts to escape a “forensic” Christianity (i.e. a heart trapped in legalistic judgement, a heart that reduces Christianity to a “religion”) we simply negate the Story with a moral flip flop, one that is just a forgetting of something we once knew as St. Jude says. This mystery, this thing “we once knew” is dialectically incomprehensible. Hart rightly rejects certain dialectical attempts (Calvin, etc.) to grasp it when he speaks of them in terms of “an incoherence deeply fixed at the heart of almost all Christian traditions”, too bad his is in the end the other side of the same coin.

    By the way, both St. Porphyrios and St. Paisios look out at me from our Iconostasis, so I will pray for their guidance!


    Not sure what you mean by “avoidance” (of eternal hell). I don’t know what “eternal life” means except it something only experienced by going through repentance and Judgement first. Take away Judgement and its attendant possibility for damnation and you are left with…what, exactly? As I say above apokatastasis (as commonly interpreted) destroys the Judgement, and thus can lead to no victory at all, pyrrhic or otherwise – there is no victory (or defeat) until the Judgement, because it is the end of the battle. It’s been a while since I read the book, where does Zosima “renounce Hell” in terms of apokatastasis?

  64. Greg Avatar

    Judgement and the image of suffering are certainly present in St Gregory and St Isaac – I am not actually sure why you feel that suffering must be endless. It doesn’t flow from anything you have said.

    “They talk of hell fire in the material sense. I don’t go into that mystery and I shun it. But I think if there were fire in material sense, they would be glad of it, for I imagine that in material agony, their still greater spiritual agony would be forgotten for a moment. Moreover, that spiritual agony cannot be taken from them, for that suffering is not external but within them. And if it could be taken from them, I think it would be bitterer still for the unhappy creatures. For even if the righteous in Paradise forgave them, beholding their torments, and called them up to heaven in their infinite love, they would only multiply their torments, for they would arouse in them still more keenly a flaming thirst for responsive, active and grateful love which is now impossible. In the timidity of my heart I imagine, however, that the very recognition of this impossibility would serve at last to console them. For accepting the love of the righteous together with the impossibility of repaying it, by this submissiveness and the effect of this humility, they will attain at last, as it were, to a certain semblance of that active love which they scorned in life, to something like its outward expression… I am sorry, friends and brothers, that I cannot express this clearly.”

  65. Brian Avatar

    I, for one, wish this contention were laid to rest and left in the hands of God.

    All Orthodox Christians can agree that God loves everyone, even the very worst of sinners (else I have no hope). I think we can also agree that He desires the salvation of all. How, exactly, His desire manifests itself in the end is a matter that has not been clearly revealed. It is perhaps left intentionally vague – and if so, it is probably safe to assume that our good God leaves it vague out of His love for us.

    I do not know whether 2nd Ezra (or in some traditions 3rd Ezra) is considered Scripture in the canonical sense. Nor do I know whether it is a ‘true story’ or a work of spiritual literature. But the council offered to Ezra as he questions God and seeks to comprehend these mysteries is, I think, appropriate regardless.

    “Thy heart hath gone too far in this world, and thinkest thou to comprehend the way of the most High?

    “’I am sent to show thee three ways, and to set forth three similitudes before thee whereof if thou canst declare me one, I will show thee also the way that thou desirest to see…If I should ask thee how great the dwellings are in the midst of the sea, or how many springs are in the beginning of the deep, or how many springs are above the firmament, or which are the outgoings of paradise, peradventure thou wouldest say unto me, ‘I never went down into the deep, nor as yet into hell, neither did I ever climb up into heaven.’ Nevertheless now have I asked thee but only of the fire and wind, and of the day wherethrough thou hast passed, and of things from which thou canst not be separated, and yet canst thou give me no answer of them.’ He said moreover unto me, ‘Thine own things, and such as are grown up with thee, canst thou not know; how should thy vessel then be able to comprehend the way of the Highest…’

    “And therefore be thou not curious how the ungodly shall be punished, and when: but enquire how the righteous shall be saved, whose the world is, and for whom the world is created.

    “For thou comest far short that thou shouldest be able to love my creature more than I…

    “… thou hast humbled thyself, as it becometh thee, and hast not judged thyself worthy to be much glorified among the righteous.

  66. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sweet passage. And Amen.

  67. Chris Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, what is the relationship between shame and the “sweet flame” (i.e. judgement). Can the two be conceived as one and the same?

  68. Karen Avatar

    Christopher, I would like to stress that the hope and prayerful labor for the salvation of all with which I identify also knows nothing of salvation for any of us apart from judgment and condemnation/destruction of our sin, our repentance and forgiveness. That a judgment that ends up in a purgative rather than a permanent hell somehow nullifies the final judgment and condemnation of sin doesn’t compute in my logical calculus, though. I’m with Greg on that in his last comment.

  69. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. But only if embraced voluntarily.

  70. Karen Avatar

    Christopher, I would like to stress that the hope and prayerful labor for the salvation of all with which I identify also knows nothing of salvation for any of us apart from judgment and condemnation/destruction of our sin, our repentance and forgiveness (1 Corinthians 11:31-32, Hebrews 12:6.) That a judgment that may end in a purgative rather than a permanent hell somehow nullifies the final judgment and condemnation of sin doesn’t compute in my logical calculus. I’m with Greg on that in his last comment.

  71. Christopher Avatar

    “That a judgment that ends up in a purgative rather than a permanent hell”

    That is more of the same, more “becoming” – an endless becoming, or if you like an endless (unto the ages of ages) purgatory. Judgement, for it to mean anything at all, has to have the fundamental character of finality – a hard (Divinely hard) line in the sand at which point God says “no more – this is it, you have been given your last and final chance and from now on we live forever and ever with the consequences”. If Divine Love does not have this character (and His Judgement is done within His Love) then it is what I have stated, and takes on this cyclical/return character (which I and others believe is a core feature of Origenism), an endless “progress” to a point that ever retreats into the future or age after age (and the ages are never consummated), a transformation and Pascha that never comes and you have changed Christianity into something that frankly the neo-platonists do better – I have read that the Eastern/Asian religious mind also does this sort of thing very well though I have little experience with it.

    Interestingly to me, is that I read Scripture I see this eveywhere – this character of Judgement being a pivot, a gate through which you can not go back around walk through again and thus being truly transformative in a Christian sense. The trick for apokatastasis (if it is to mean anything) is to not reduce or change other essential aspects of Christianity (i.e. the Story) so that the Story becomes something it is not and this includes the Judgement.

    I stand by my assertion that by pushing the “purgative” idea too far (that the Judgement {being only purgatorial process}, is ontologically before the Eschaton and thus is part of our present becoming) is a mistake because it is the Judgement that is itself the dividing line between “becoming” and “eternal well being”. There are consequences to “internalizing” the Judgement into our present ontology/spiritual state (which is to say, reduce it to a mere purgatorial process and progress). The opposite happens I believe Christianity to be saying – the Eternal “breaks into” (becomes incarnate) into us and an “new creation” is the result, and based on a personal *spiritual* movement (and not a dialectal or “natural” one) we are taken up into the transformation, unworthy as we are (for the purgatorial process can never be enough for we are nothing ontologically and thus all cleansing will lead to nothing).

    Perhaps my real beef with apokatastasis is this: we don’t need fixing, we need salvation.

    In any case, thank you Karen, Greg, Father, and everyone else for being the wall in which I bang my head on! 🙂

  72. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You’re making up rules that make no sense.

    Judgement, for it to mean anything at all, has to have the fundamental character of finality – a hard (Divinely hard) line in the sand at which point God says “no more – this is it, you have been given your last and final chance and from now on we live forever and ever with the consequences”.

    First, you assume judgment here in a very forensic sense. Why? I would certainly agree that judgment is “krisis” a definitive and decisive action (not pronouncement or sentence). That definitive action could indeed be purgative (and even painful though successful). I’m not arguing that, only suggesting it. But these rules you’re inventing are pulled out of thin air, or something very close to it. You keep trying to force what you imagine yourself to be arguing against into a mold to which it does not necessarily belong in order for you to make your case. You’re not listening or thinking. Just reacting and arguing.

    And indeed, the judgment does indeed initiate and bring us into the eschaton. That’s the general pattern. I think you’re making problems where none need exist, or insisting on problems that are not there.

  73. Christopher Avatar


    I would say (as I believe I have before) that I am less willing than you to empty Christianity of all “forensic” content. While I hear you on it’s *relative* place and particularly on it’s use and abuse in certain past and current sects and theologies, I think the Judgement in particular has this aspect to it and their is no way of getting around it. As you say, it is “definitive” and “decisive” action, it is “this” and not “that” or a “that was, now this” – it is a “separation” as Christ says in those parables. Here, forensics-as-theology does not “explain” Christianity or the Judgement, but it has a certain character in this instance (not overall) that can be described as “forensic” I suppose. If something is “decisive”, then you can not go back through it (or it was not decisive in the first place) and I can see how this can be described as “forensic”. Does that exhaust it’s meaning? no.

    I could go on, but we do not appear to be getting down to certain assumptions and thus are clinging to different things. I do not believe I am making mine up either, or not thinking about them. No offense intended! I will say no more.

  74. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I do not believe there is any forensic content in the Christian faith because the assumptions required are simply not true and make very little sense of life, much less of God. And that is a well-considered thought from a lot of years of theology and reflection. I don’t mean to pontificate on the topic. But it is where I stand and will continue to stand for reasons stated many times in the near 10 years of the blog.

  75. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Among other things the forensic model quickly becomes a denial of the Incarnation and a corruption of the Old Testament that refuses to see that it reveals Christ and is all about Him.

    The Law ruled before God became fully human. By that great act of condescension, the Law was fulfilled because He to whom the Law pointed was made flesh. Mercy became supreme and the judgment somehow resides in that mercy. Both/and.

    I know not how but it is the only thing that is consistent with the Incarnation.

    Please forgive me, a sinner.

  76. Karen Avatar

    Christopher, I appreciate the gracious spirit in which you hang in there with us despite perhaps not being able to see what we do. Reading back through the thread, I see a few statements you make in different places that are problematic to me from the perspective of what I understand the Scriptures and the Tradition to be teaching. You seem to me to be a bit confused about a few things, but I’ll just pick up on your most recent one (which perhaps is connected to some of the others): that is, the question of “forensic content” in the gospel.

    I took a look again at some things the New Testament says about the purpose and nature of the Law of God expressed in the Mosaic Code. In many instances, what may be said about the Mosaic Law in the NT may be equally said about God’s judgment–both aid in discernment of right and wrong and bring condemnation of sin, and neither can reverse or overcome the death and corruption that have overtaken sinful humanity (i.e., neither in and of itself can save). Some key passages pertaining to God’s Law are Romans 3 (where I would highlight vss. 19-20), Romans 8 (highlighting vss. 2-4), 2 Corinthians 3 (highlighting vs. 6), and Galatians 3 (highlighting vss. 21-25). (Isn’t having the Bible online great? Makes us all look like Bible scholars. Ha!) Perhaps there are others that come to mind for you.

    Here are a few key truths I take away from those passages:

    1. The purpose of the Mosaic Law is to aid in discernment of right and wrong.

    2. The letter of the Mosaic Law and God’s judgment can only kill and condemn because “all have sinned.” It is given in this life to reveal our need of Christ and point us to Him.

    3. The “Law” of God (i.e., “of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus”) in its essence is not reducible to a static legal code (the Mosaic Law) though it is given limited expression there, but rather it is the spiritual dynamic corresponding to God’s way of being and how this is reflected in the created order in which He has expressed Himself (Romans 8:2). This spiritual dynamic (the “Law of the Spirit”) is God in His energies—in His personal kenotic Self-giving love. Thus in Romans 13:10 St. Paul teaches “Love . . . is the fulfillment of the Law.” The Mosaic Law is a limited description and designation of this living spiritual dynamic in a particular concrete human context. The Law of Moses cannot fully comprehend or circumscribe God Himself. God is the Author of the Mosaic Law, but God Himself is not fully comprehended by that Code nor subject to it in its limitations. Christ both fulfills the Mosaic Code (because He is the full embodiment of the living dynamic of which it is a limited expression–Man in perfect communion with himself and God) and supersedes it (because His work on our behalf in His Incarnation, Death and Resurrection transcends what the Code can do for us–that is, He fully reveals God to us, defeats our death, resurrects our human nature, and empowers faithful humanity’s fulfillment of the Spirit of the Law, which, as we see in the Parable of the Good Samaritan and many other places in Christ’s teaching, may well override the letter of the Mosaic Law).

    4. It is the Spirit alone who gives life through Christ resulting in our salvation that enables us to fulfill the Law of the Spirit by actively trusting Christ, obeying His commands from the heart.

    “. . . the (Mosaic) Law was our tutor to lead us to Christ, . . .”

    Considering the above, in what sense can our faith (as our salvation in Christ) be said to *be* forensic?

    Would it be more faithful to the gospel to say our salvation *is* (or is in part) forensic (or “has forensic content”)? Or, would we rather say aspects of the story of our salvation in Christ (salvation in its essence being the transformation of our way of being “from death to life, from earth to heaven” in the words of the Paschal Canon—an ontological change) have been expressed in Scripture in forensic terms (specifically related to contrasting the terms of entering into the Old vs. the New Covenants)? It seems to me the latter is the case and that this is something quite different than the first.

  77. Christopher Avatar

    “Would it be more faithful to the gospel to say our salvation *is* (or is in part) forensic (or “has forensic content”)? Or, would we rather say aspects of the story of our salvation in Christ (salvation in its essence being the transformation of our way of being “from death to life, from earth to heaven” in the words of the Paschal Canon—an ontological change) have been expressed in Scripture in forensic terms (specifically related to contrasting the terms of entering into the Old vs. the New Covenants)? It seems to me the latter is the case and that this is something quite different than the first.”

    Well, I will say a bit more to reply to your thoughtful post Karen:

    I would say it is terminology, and agree with Father Stephen, yourself and the Tradition as I understand it that it has very limited forensic content…right up to the point where “ontology” is used to negate the Judgement (the “problematic” as I have described it but which I have also argued is really the result of a particular way of doing “ontology” – Origen, Hart and all that). At that point, we hit a crises of terminology and theology, and to rescue the possibility of our salvation (from either a Judgementless neo-platonic emanation/return dressed up in Christian language OR an eternal Christian “becoming” where Pascha never arrives – 2 versions of apokatastasis that I am seeing) I will then reply to someone whose method appears to negate the Judgement by claiming it to be “forensic”: “well, ok, then call it ‘forensic’ and I will own the term”. Notice I am not arguing for some grand recovery of the Mosaic Law or even being precise {for this is not really what Fr. Stephen was even saying} – I am sort of just rolling with a punch, little else.

    I think what we have discovered here (well, what I have discovered) in this conversation is at the center is a critical “imprecision”, based on a lack of agreement of terms on the one hand and our subject matter on the other, which is obscured in Scripture because of what Scripture is (i.e. Scripture is not a philosophical or theological treatise) and is hidden because of our current spiritual state (perhaps I should speak for myself – it is hidden to me). Not that I am retreating from my central point which is that you have to be very very careful how you theologize around the Judgement because changing that changes Christianity – I have some theology that leads to this “change” recently and I am quite certain it is dead wrong.

    I found this by St. Maximus helpful (translated by Fr. Maximos Constas):

    I ask you not to take what I say as a definitive spiritual interpretation of the passages in question, for I am very far from the mind and meaning of the divine words, with respect to which I need to be taught by others. If it should happen that you—on your own or with others—are able to provide a better interpretation or perchance to learn something from what I have written, this is for you to determine, and produce a more elevated and true understanding, the fruit of which is the heart’s fulfillment for those who long for spiritual insight into the things that puzzle and perplex them. This is because the divine word is like water, for just as water operates in different species of plants and vegetation and in different kinds of living things—by which I mean in human beings who drink the Word Himself—the Word is manifested in them through the virtues, in proportion to their level of knowledge and ascetic practice, like burgeoning fruit produced according to the quality of virtue and knowledge in each, so that He becomes known to others through other qualities and characteristics. For the divine word could never be circumscribed by a single individual interpretation, nor does it suffer confinement in a single meaning, on account of its natural infinity.

  78. Karen Avatar

    Thanks, Christopher. Great quote from St. Maximus! Similarly, I offer my thoughts *for what they’re worth.* 😉 Chaff, grain and all that!

    When I read your posts, I can’t help but think to myself, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means!” (echoes of “Princess Bride” here!). Specifically, your references to “ontology” and “judgement” in the abstract and the (to me, vague) content with which you seem to be filling these. I can’t tell really whether we are talking about the same things. I also don’t buy that St. Isaac’s or St. Gregory’s versions of belief in the eventual salvation of all allows Origenism’s endless cycling of souls from salvation to fall and back again ad infinitum. What I understand to be posited by Hart and others is final judgment, final destruction of sin, and eventual (or potential) permanent freeing of all sinners from their attachment to sin. This, once accomplished in the Eschaton, is irreversible, in that it results in the human hypostatic will made completely whole and at rest in proper alignment with its own nature). At that point, Christ is “all in all”, death will have died, and all of Creation will have reached its Telos, which is a never-ending becoming in a single direction because God is infinite, and, by Orthodox definition, salvation of what is by nature created is an infinite movement for each soul into God, according to St. Gregory of Nyssa (this being an aspect of his understanding of the Telos of the saved the Church has actually affirmed as far as I know). Fr. John Whelan’s insights about the relative capacity of saved souls for God also seems relevant here to the rather dynamic understanding of the Orthodox meaning of salvation in its consummation presented here.

  79. Christopher Avatar


    Amen to the insight of Inigo, it without any doubt apply’s to this whole discussion. While I will not disagree with the compact “summation” of the discussion in the central part of your post in a particular way, it is the “key” that this song is being sung in that is wrong I believe. It occurred to me yesterday, that what is being done by Origen, Nyssa, and Hart is not ontology in an Orthodox key, but *metaphysics* in a (largely) Platonic key with a strong Christian choir singing in the background. Philosophy is hard, particularly metaphysics. Can it be used to save *some*? Of course, and so I will say no more…stating NOW….ok ok, starting NOW….. 😉

  80. jacksson Avatar

    While reading about sheep and goats, this article came to mind.
    Two good stories- (and both true)

    Many Years ago, Al Capone virtually owned Chicago. Capone wasn’t famous for anything heroic. He was notorious for enmeshing the windy city in everything from bootlegged booze and prostitution to murder.

    Capone had a lawyer nicknamed “Easy Eddie.” He was Capone’s lawyer for a good reason. Eddie was very good! In fact, Eddie’s skill at legal maneuvering kept Big Al out of jail for a long time.

    To show his appreciation, Capone paid him very well.. Not only was the money big, but Eddie got special dividends, as well. For instance, he and his family occupied a fenced-in mansion with live-in help and all of the conveniences of the day. The estate was so large that it filled an entire Chicago City block.

    Eddie lived the high life of the Chicago mob and gave little consideration to the atrocity that went on around him.

    Eddie did have one soft spot, however. He had a son that he loved dearly. Eddie saw to it that his young son had clothes, cars, and a good education. Nothing was withheld. Price was no object.

    And, despite his involvement with organized crime, Eddie even tried to teach him right from wrong. Eddie wanted his son to be a better man than he was.

    Yet, with all his wealth and influence, there were two things he couldn’t give his son; he couldn’t pass on a good name or a good example.

    One day, Easy Eddie reached a difficult decision. Easy Eddie wanted to rectify wrongs he had done.

    He decided he would go to the authorities and tell the truth about Al”Scarface” Capone, clean up his tarnished name, and offer his son some resemblance of integrity. To do this, he would have to testify against The Mob, and he knew that the cost would be great. So, he testified.

    Within the year, Easy Eddie’s life ended in a blaze of gunfire on a lonely Chicago Street. But in his eyes, he had given his son the greatest gift he had to offer, at the greatest price he could ever pay.. Police removed from his pockets a rosary, a crucifix, a religious medallion, and a poem clipped from a magazine.

    The poem read:

    “The clock of life is wound but once, and no man has the power to tell just when the hands will stop, at late or early hour. Now is the only time you own. Live, love, toil with a will. Place no faith in time. For the clock may soon be still.”


    World War II produced many heroes. One such man was Lieutenant Commander Butch O’Hare.

    He was a fighter pilot assigned to the aircraft carrier Lexington in the South Pacific.

    One day his entire squadron was sent on a mission. After he was airborne, he looked at his fuel gauge and realized that someone had forgotten to top off his fuel tank.

    He would not have enough fuel to complete his mission and get back to his ship.

    His flight leader told him to return to the carrier. Reluctantly, he dropped out of formation and headed back to the fleet.

    As he was returning to the mother ship, he saw something that turned his blood cold; a squadron of Japanese aircraft was speeding its way toward the American-fleet.

    The American fighters were gone on a sortie, and the fleet was all but defenseless. He couldn’t reach his squadron and bring them back in time to save the fleet. Nor could he warn the fleet of the approaching danger. There was only one thing to do. He must somehow divert them from the fleet.

    Laying aside all thoughts of personal safety, he dove into the formation of Japanese planes. Wing-mounted 50 caliber’s blazed as he charged in, attacking one surprised enemy plane and then another. Butch wove in and out of the now broken formation and fired at as many planes as possible until all his ammunition was finally spent.

    Undaunted, he continued the assault. He dove at the planes, trying to clip a wing or tail in hopes of damaging as many enemy planes as possible, rendering them unfit to fly.

    Finally, the exasperated Japanese squadron took off in another direction.

    Deeply relieved, Butch O’Hare and his tattered fighter limped back to the carrier.

    Upon arrival, he reported in and related the event surrounding his return.. The film from the gun-camera mounted on his plane told the tale. It showed the extent of Butch’s daring attempt to protect his fleet. He had, in fact, destroyed five enemy aircraft. This took place on February 20, 1942, and for that action Butch became the Navy’s first Ace of W.W.II, and the first Naval Aviator to win the Medal of Honor.

    A Year later Butch was killed in aerial combat at the age of 29. His hometown would not allow the memory of this WW II hero to fade, and today, O’Hare airport in Chicago is named in tribute to the courage of this great man.

    So, the next time you find yourself at O’Hare International, give some thought to visiting Butch’s memoria l displaying his statue and his Medal of Honor. It’s located between Terminals 1 and 2.


    Butch O’Hare was “Easy Eddie’s” son.

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

    jacksson, thank you for sharing this.
    Our lives are deeply intertwined. And these stories demonstrate this.

  82. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin

    St Gregory of Nyssa’s universalism is based on 4 premises:
    – God is infinite goodness and love
    – The only form of loving punishment is of a restorative type (seeking the salvation of all, not their damnation). God loves what He created and seeks their good.
    – God is omnipotent, therefore His restorative punishment will not be frustrated
    – Evil is without hypostatic subsistence, it is finite and will be annihilated. Evil (and hell, and pain and suffering) does not exist into infinity.

    This can be dismissed as academic or philosophical (Platonic, Origenism, etc), or even as unbiblical. However St Gregory stands not only on the oft referred to verses in I Corinthians 15, Ephesians 3, and Philippians 2, but also on the general thrust of the Gospel accounts – that in Christ God seeks the salvation of all, that Christ died for all, for ‘God so loved the world.’

    St Gregory universalism addresses the thorny problematic of an incoherent dualism central to alternative eschatological construals in which creaturely free-will frustrates (into infinity no less) God as “all in all”; which necessitates the absurdity of an existence (also into infinity) of punitive hell of suffering and separation; and which thus empties what is signified when we call God ‘good’ and ‘omnipotent’ of all meaning and value as we know it.

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