Hell, Justice and the Heart of Prayer – Thinking Like a Slave

In the third kneeling prayer of Pentecost, there is a boldness in which the Church pleads for the souls in Hell (Hades). It is a boldness that can stun the one who prays, easily wondering, “Are we allowed to ask for these things?” In general, all my life I have heard a rehearsal of the boundaries of hell. I have heard about who goes there, why they must stay there, why it is testimony to God’s justice that they be tormented there. The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man will be retold, with special care to note that “there is a gulf fixed between them and us, and they cannot come here and we cannot go there.” And then there are the kneeling prayers of Pentecost.

I am deeply aware that many minds are troubled by voices of universalism (I hear these things tossed about regularly). I am told that people are not taking sin seriously, or that they are ignoring the tradition, and many such things. I have no arguments in that debate and cannot stake out a position on something I do not know. However, I am troubled that a conversation that is very much worth having gets swept aside by the almost knee-jerk reaction to the topic (frankly, from almost every side). That conversation is an examination of our hearts in the light of hell. For what is tested there is not God’s justice, but our mercy.

In Genesis 18, we read the story of the Hospitality of Abraham. “Three angels” come to visit him as they make their way to Sodom and Gomorrah to make a personal inspection regarding the reported sins of those wicked cities. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is clearly on the agenda. That destruction (fire and brimstone) should be seen as an icon of the Judgment. What we see manifest in Abraham, however, is an argument with the justice of God. God proposes to destroy the cities, and Abraham questions Him. “Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?” he asks. And then begins the amazingly bold argument of Abraham, increasingly importuning God with his pleas for mercy.

As it is, Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed for the lack of six. God agreed to spare the city if but ten righteous could be found there. As it was, only Lot, his wife, and his two daughters escaped.

I will play the role of Abraham for a moment. What if, instead of Lot and his family, Christ Himself dwelt in Sodom and Gomorrah? Would the presence of that single example of righteousness cause the cities to be spared?

I believe that the role of Abraham is the only right role for a Christian believer. He is the example of a righteous heart in the matter of God’s judgment. There are many other roles that can be played. We can be (and often are) the Analysts of Judgment (arguing with Abraham that his suggestions bear too little merit and that the demands of justice outweigh them).

I can do nothing about the mechanics or metaphysics of hell (nor can anyone else). All that is variable within that reality is the heart. That said, if you are angry or in despair, or glibly satisfied with the whole thing, then you have likely lost your heart and become a victim of the fantasies that populate and haunt our minds.

Modern social theories have majored in grand explanations for human suffering. Economics, politics, war, historical movements and the like have all been tasked with the role of justifying “things as they are.” Those justifications are frequently used as the building blocks of various modern schemes to build a better world and eliminate the suffering. We have become somewhat numbed by such concepts. More numbing still, is the simple phenomenon of first-world life. Though suffering touches everyone, the mythology of first-world consciousness tends to view itself as somehow exempt, as the fixer rather than the victim. And so, we theorize rather than empathize.

We cannot imagine ourselves as slaves. But let’s try. We have all been taken captive or were born in captivity. We are abused, and, in turn, we abuse others (and ourselves). Some have chosen to work with their masters in a slave’s version of the Stockholm Syndrome. There are good slaves and bad slaves, kind slaves and cruel. But we are slaves. There is certainly free-will, and choices that are made day-by-day. But the general context of slavery is not a choice and no separate action of the will occurs outside the context of that slavery.

Whose fault is the slavery? And what possible use is an answer to that question? Sit and explain to the slave the meaning of his slavery and its causes and you still have a slave. Perhaps he can start a discussion group.

This is not a first-world scenario. However, it is profoundly the scenario of Scripture. The liberation of Israel from Egypt, the great primal story of Passover, is a slave narrative. This same point-of-view is the context of the New Testament as well. Christ came to “set at liberty those who are held captive,” and to “seek and save those who are lost.” St. Paul describes us specifically as “slaves to sin.” The patristic and liturgical treatment of Pascha is almost exclusively that of setting captives free.

Perhaps the greatest sea-change in the Christian mindset has been the shift from slave to management. The contemporary first-world views itself as management, despite the fact that it is as much slave as the world has ever been. It is possible to say that repentance begins by renouncing ourselves as managers and acknowledging ourselves as slaves. Only in that manner can Christ set us free. Managers, as such, cannot be saved.

And this brings us back to hell, justice and the heart of prayer. Only a slave knows how to pray for freedom. Only a slave can show mercy to fellow slaves, no matter how much they have come to resemble their oppressors. For our sake, Christ became a slave that He might free us all.

This is the heart of Abraham, who dared pray for the foolish and wicked slaves of Sodom and Gomorrah. We should enter that same heart whenever we pray. It is only the humble and contrite heart that moves the heart of God (or that moves with it). Think like a slave in order to think as free.


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.



, , , ,



209 responses to “Hell, Justice and the Heart of Prayer – Thinking Like a Slave”

  1. Leo Nugent Avatar
    Leo Nugent

    If only Abraham didn’t give up so soon. Couldn’t he have taken one more crack at it?

  2. Byron Avatar

    As it is, Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed for the lack of six.

    Could the number six be a reference to their lack of completeness (in some form; perhaps repentance)? The allegorical element(s) of the story are often difficult to understand (I have avoided trying to do so in any great detail as there are many other things to work on in my own life).

  3. John Pereira Avatar
    John Pereira

    Thank you for the enlightening articles Fr. Stephen.They are useful as ‘Course Correcters’ on our journey.Thank you Fr.

  4. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin

    The Christian impulse of mercy, compassion and forgiveness is deeply unjust.
    This injustice it seems to me is what makes Paschal triumph over death a reality.
    The difficulty is in measuring who is worthy of this injustice.

  5. Jane Szepesi Avatar
    Jane Szepesi

    Wow! Thank you!

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The meaning of the number is above my pay-grade.

  7. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you Fr Stephen,
    Indeed the antidote is to “think like a slave” in order to think as free. What you provide in these words has a lot of depth here in the spiritual endeavor of the heart and in the politics we encounter in the ‘first world’. Both (in the heart and in the political sphere ) are inseparable as you so eloquently illustrate in the story of Abraham.

    I’m grateful for these words and need to live in them, and I know that takes time, attention and prayer. These words and those you wrote in the previous post remind me of St Silouan’s revelation of God’s words to help him attain humbleness: “Keep thy mind in hell and despair not”.

  8. Vuk Uskoković Avatar
    Vuk Uskoković

    Dear Father Stephen,

    One wonders if perhaps this obstinacy against mercy had not been the reason for which the Lord prophesied that the pious cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum shall have it harder on Judgment Day than the impious Tyre and Sidon and Sodom. And in the paradox of the Judgment Day, indeed they had it harder: from their great piety God received but blows and spittle and nails, where the Woman of Many Sins had given him the caresses of her impious hands. The godly managed the ungodly to murder God.

    One can indeed have sinister motives (as I do) in making such comparisons, and one can judge these hardened of heart just as harshly as they judge the reprobates; but the mercy of that nameless whore, and the kindness of that nameless ruffian on the Cross, stand forever as the models of love that is independent of our fancies, psychological motivations, and emotional states, and we shall not perhaps have grasped it until on Judgment Day we see the wicked of Sodom interceding for us 🙂

    Father, thank you for all you’re doing.



  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “…we shall not perhaps have grasped it until on Judgment Day we see the wicked of Sodom interceding for us…” You stunned my heart! I am deeply grateful. Best image I’ve received in a while.

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ah, Father you make me look at the hardness of my own heart. How is one to recognize our essential slave existence when one’s heart seeks to determine the right and perfect way for others?

    I still think Shakespeare got it right in Portia’s plea to Shylock before the court of Venice. “…In the course of justice none of us shall see salvation..
    I beg you Jew, have mercy”. She makes the plea not just for her own love who is on trial, but for Shylock as well.

    Shylock chooses the justice of the law and ends up stripped of everything.

  11. Byron Avatar

    I’m grateful for these words and need to live in them, and I know that takes time, attention and prayer. These words and those you wrote in the previous post remind me of St Silouan’s revelation of God’s words to help him attain humbleness: “Keep thy mind in hell and despair not”.

    I’ve recently become aware that we have to learn humility. All my life I’ve thought of it as something we possess and can use as we will. However, I am more and more convinced that it is a learned trait, spiritually at least. It’s odd to think that a virtue so badly needed is, in a certain sense, “outside” of us and must be sought.

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Create in me a clean heart…” it’s a gift of grace

  13. Mark Pendleton Avatar
    Mark Pendleton

    So I cried out,
    adding my voice
    to those unseen
    who call for your condemnation.

    And what great offense was it
    that turned my eyes
    from my own mercy
    to find a living fault in you?

    I kept unforgiveness alive
    in a secret place,
    fed it with leaves
    though I knew it was
    a carnivore
    that, if freed
    would as easily
    have turned on me.

    Sparks I fanned
    that should have died
    now threaten fair fields
    because I thought
    I was more justified than you-
    all in the courtroom
    of my own pretenses.

  14. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Thank you again Father, for an excellent article that opens to us a little more to contemplate. I found your statement that Christianity has moved into management a very poignant and truthful statement. I do not know what the Lord will do with any individual in judgment. I am not on His advisory board or a member of the jury. I can ultimate confidence and trust in the simple idea that whatever He decides for me or anyone else, His decision will be perfect.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You can tell this place is run by managers. Only managers would pay a man less than a living wage, deny him healthcare, and then tell him he’s to blame. Children would never be so cruel.

  16. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    No truer words have ever been spoken

  17. Jill Mackavey Avatar
    Jill Mackavey

    I look forward to all of your articles and consistently find them very rich in spiritual food. I often repost them on my Facebook page and/or share them with specific individuals for whom I suspect the content will be meaningful . This is one is no exception as there is much upon which to consider and reflect. However, as a free-born, Caucasian, American citizen who has never been owned by another human being, I resist the metaphor of “slave-thinking.” While on one level the metaphor is effective in maximizing the extent to which we all need freedom, the freedom offered through Jesus Christ; on another level, however, it feels as if I am co-opting the experiences of those who have endured the degradation of physical and psychological, legal (and sometimes illegal) slavery. I feel arrogant attempting to claim this for myself. Most of us, perhaps all of us reading this article, have never experienced this. I have no doubt that I am ignorant to what slavery is like no matter how empathic I might be. I cannot know, and can only pray to listen carefully to the experiences of others how do know. I understand that the freedom of the “free” is an illusion, and the captivity of one who is merciful and who loves God intimately is but partial captivity. Nonetheless, I can’t help but think there might be a better way of expressing the heart of your article that honors this significant difference.
    Submitted with the utmost respect and appreciation for your work.

  18. Jill Mackavey Avatar
    Jill Mackavey

    PS: I just spotted two typos. Sorry!

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, it is a simple cost/benefit analysis don’t you know.

    Humanity and our labor have become so devalued that we have to enslave ourselves to debt to “get ahead” as well as to the correct ideas.

    So slavery is not as foreign you state. We are more enslaved than we have ever been in seeking to break the bonds of mercy, duty and selflessness.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I understand your sympathies. I think my ancestors would have refused to own slaves had they rightly understood that they themselves were slaves, per the Holy Scriptures. One of the great ironies, to my mind, is that White Christians enslaved people and gave them a Book to read that clearly taught that God favored slaves over masters.

    I stand by the language and the importance of renouncing our management mindset. Perhaps most especially with a heritage such as my own.

    In our present political climate (using post-modernist thought), being a “slave” means being entitled. That’s not a slave mentality, nor is it being espoused by people who have themselves personally experienced it in that historic sense. I am not in the least interested in ceding any ground to the nonsense of modernity. I speak as a Christian among Christians. If you don’t know you’re a slave, then you’ll have a hard time being saved.

  21. Greg Avatar

    Isn’t the prayer of Kneeling Vespers about the souls awaiting judgment in Hades rather than a prayer for those “in Hell”? I don’t have the Greek (or Slavonic) handy – but it seems to me at a glance that it is speaking in the normative terms of Church’s prayers for the reposed. I don’t mean to be argumentative with respect to the broader point – I am a Christian precisely because I cannot imagine how the Gospel could be anything other than a universal and unconditional redemption – just trying to understand the prayers themselves.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have heard that interpretation, but I do not see the distinction. I assume that we would think that there are some among those listed who are in danger of being condemned (and so we pray for them). The Hades/Hell distinction is, to some extent, problematic. Certainly the prayers and writings of many spiritual elders and saints, such as St. Silouan and the Elder Sophrony, seem to make no distinction. “Keep your mind in Hades and despair not,” would be pretty much nonsense if the distinction were important.

    These prayers do not set forth a convinced universalism. That is not how the Church speaks in this matter. But it does pray in a very universal manner and teaches us to do so. And that’s my point in the article. We should concern ourselves less with the mechanics and geography (much less the legal arrangements) and simply pray. It is prayer – especially the unbloody sacrifice and the giving of alms – that we should be taking into our hearts.

    I know that when I write on this topic I push towards what some take to be universalism – but they misunderstand me. I am writing about the heart and its state when it prays. Sodom and Gomorrah are going to be destroyed – but Abraham intercedes anyway.

    We would think differently about these things, I suggest, if we had the mind of a slave instead of the managers of the first world. I am certain that the heart of God is only interested in freeing us and healing us – He is not willing that any should perish. It does not mean that none will perish – but it is no use speaking of that. If it were of use speaking about it, then God wouldn’t be willing, He would give up. We should not be willing either, nor give up. I can be told no – but only if I ask.

  23. Brian Avatar

    Whenever the virtue of justice is raised, be it the justice of God or what it means for us to be just, I am reminded of Luke’s description of justice manifested in the heart of a righteous, anguished soul..

    “…and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”

  24. sbdn andrew Avatar
    sbdn andrew

    In Orthodox Prison Ministry there is a true story of an inmate confined to a life in solitary confinement who has given his life to Christ and continual prayer. He is an iconographer and uses his food to paint icons. A popular piece of his is of Christ “The All-Merciful Savior” with the saying, “So if the Son Makes you Free, you will be Free Indeed.”

  25. Bruce Avatar

    Father Bless!!! Powerful Post!!!

    ‘It is possible to say that repentance begins by renouncing ourselves as managers and acknowledging ourselves as slaves’
    1. We admitted we were powerless over xxx – that our lives had become unmanageable. …
    2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. …
    3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

  26. Bruce Avatar

    I thought today’s daily meditation from Henri Nouwen seems very useful to this discussion. Isn’t the Power of God revealed only through the Love of God which is dependent upon our freedom to reject it? God doesn’t manage He Loves. And isn’t it only in the poverty (and powerlessness of our spirit) that we encounter His and allow Him to lead us to where we cannot lead ourselves … the Kingdom of Heaven?
    DAILY MEDITATION – The Power of the Spirit- June 7
    In and through Jesus we come to know God as a powerless God, who becomes dependent on us. But it is precisely in this powerlessness that God’s power reveals itself. This is not the power that controls, dictates, and commands. It is the power that heals, reconciles, and unites. It is the power of the Spirit. When Jesus appeared people wanted to be close to him and touch him because “power came out of him” (Luke 6:19).

    It is this power of the divine Spirit that Jesus wants to give us. The Spirit indeed empowers us and allows us to be healing presences. When we are filled with that Spirit, we cannot be other than healers.
    Henri Nouwen
    For further reflection…

    “You show that you are a letter from Christ… written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts… for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” – 2 Corinthians 3: 3,6 (NIV)

  27. Margaret Avatar

    “I can do nothing about the mechanics or metaphysics of hell (nor can anyone else). All that is variable within that reality is the heart. That said, if you are angry or in despair, or glibly satisfied with the whole thing, then you have likely lost your heart and become a victim of the fantasies that populate and haunt our minds.”

    Having been raised protestant and then becoming Episcopal/Anglican before coming to Orthodox Christian worship, I am a former victim of this mindset, as I have been in despair and basically given up on any hope of salvation because I know where I belong after this life. I credit the prayers of the Pentecost vespers service, which I have known about since 2005, as helping me to give up this victim status.

    Thank you for posting this. I hope you will write more about this subject.

  28. tmatt Avatar

    Years ago, I had a chance to talk to Chuck Colson about his experiences in prison. He said he came away convinced of two truths that, for many, created a paradox (we might say a mystery).

    First, he was absolutely sure that many were in prison and stayed in prison — in large part — because of crimes that were clearly linked to the horrors of their upbringing and their surrounding culture.

    Second, he also saw that some of these prisoners chose to repent and be freed, while others did not. He was never able predict who would and who would not. Some of the “worst” criminals repented. Some of the “best” did not.

    But some did and some did not. There was no way to understand the spiritual mechanics of that. Facing the same, or very similar decisions, different prisoners made different choices.

    We do know that many who met our Lord face to face embraced Him. Many others did not. Why some and not others? We cannot know. But that is the truth. The rest is up to God.

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There is much that is a paradox. Today I had a brief exchange with a priest who was opining about the “wicked” – and why they will not be saved. I wondered to myself whether we feel superior to the wicked because we have “made a choice” or see ourselves as “cooperating” with God’s grace. And, if that is so, how can we declare ourselves to be the “chief of sinners”? In all of my years of ministry, I’ve met some characters. I have been far more concerned about the salvation of some within the Church than most outside the Church. But I have yet to meet someone who was truly “wicked.” I’m sure there must be some, but I haven’t met them. Again, those who are, by far, the most troubling, appear to have very little wrong with them outwardly. Almost all the warnings Christ offered were to the religious, strangely.

    The men in prison make an interesting slice of life. In far greater danger, I think, are those who have designed and tolerated the American judicial/prison system and still go to sleep at night. It grows worse by the day. I wonder how many prisoners simply identify God with those who have destroyed their lives and their hope.

    What I think is true is that we are largely blind to what constitutes embracing God face to face. Our salvation is hidden, only to be revealed at the End of all things.

  30. David A Foutch Avatar
    David A Foutch

    We see ourselves as cooperating…
    I think it’s interesting that Jesus compares the heart to soil. Some soil is very receptive, others not so much. The soil is receptive to the seed by degrees. Not to stretch the parable beyond its intent. But, soil doesn’t make a lot of choices. It doesn’t cultivate itself.

    I don’t think are as free as we might imagine.

  31. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Perhaps the “wicked” will be destroyed and perhaps not. The question is which one of us is qualified to name the wicked? Perhaps those that are busy condemning others are really trying to manage instead of submit. In my time in Pro Life I have met many who are so quick to condemn and to proclaim eternal damnation to others and yet cannot see that they are putting themselves in danger by setting themselves in a position of judgment.

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I really want to give up my management job! 🙂

  33. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    I hear that. Me too.

  34. tmatt Avatar

    But the essential point: Looking at the life and ministry of our Lord, you would agree that some embraced him and some did not? That in the end, some repent and some reject the love of God. But who is who is not for us to judge. We pray for all.

  35. Pete Avatar

    There is in Orthodoxy a topic that is rather popular, it is one of freedom. Are we a slave? A slave to sin is the given, being a slave to Christ is extraordinarily difficult. It is precisely this that we do not want. Due to this we do see it or we aren’t aware of it in the first place. We think we’re somehow OK already, by making a mere decision (after all, we’re in the Church); it’s this determinant that makes it so. But is the key determinant even that?
    Rather, that determinant is found in the profound polarity of seeing our reality, the abject slave to sin first. In St Mary Magdalene this extreme polarity is portrayed – and it is The Model of salvation. This should tell us something about the spiritual path; one that recognizes the need and that it is great. She loved because in spite of herself (and her sin) God loved her so (as with all). Simultaneously with this, what occurs is a deep solidarity wthl all sinners. If there is hope for me there is hope for all. The mind is off itself. There is gratitude and there is mercy. Freedom is found here. This is not flippant statement.
    I have been Orthodox going on a quarter century now, what I have learned is that I am a joke. I do not take myself seriously (that would fly in the face of reason – a joke to be taken seriously?) See yourself without any reputation. That would be an imitator of Christ. When I pray right before receiving communion I say those prayers in very hushed tones. The words are real and I do not yet know the final outcome. Let us pray for the entire world.
    Those that are ‘managing’ all of this may be assured of the outcome. Managing all of this exquisitely they are quite lovable indeed. There is a freedom. What that looks like in path and in truth is not at all what we are expecting.

  36. sbdn andrew Avatar
    sbdn andrew

    The polarity of intended consequences really becomes evident when you are opportuned to listen to the life stories of those who are or who have been incarcerated. Its as though they are in some way like the Canary in the mining shaft warning of the poison of our deepest secrets. I have heard many acknowledge that what landed them in prison is somehow far less depricating then being shamed for something they thought to have done right and this the reason, they believe in hindsight, for committing their crime(s) in the first place. They had been deeply shamed (punished) at some point for something they had intended to be good or right, and thus began their spiral into deeper narcisistic covers for which they expected “punishment.” This I think is an aspect of condemnation I have feared at least for myself in view of God’s judgement.

    I have wondered if my “staged events” of failure aren’t covers for the virtues I hide as being who I believe myself to be. In other words, I would rather be condemned for something I know to be wrong then for the things I thought to be right–from which I might delude myself to be the essence of who I am or hope to be. I suppose part of the deep despair is in how warped I can become in managing my own salvation–again out of fear of being shamed for the “good” in me. And none of us can honestly say that we don’t at least crawl along with even the smallest crumb we hold onto as right and correct–even the supposed “wicked” who might be more honest then the “chief sinner” in this respect.

  37. Ken Kannady Avatar
    Ken Kannady

    Kudos !

  38. Vuk Uskokovic Avatar
    Vuk Uskokovic

    Dear Father Stephen,

    I am happy to return for all the stunning of heart I have had on your blog 🙂

    God grant us frequently to have our hearts stunned, lest we think our righteousness or our wickedness forever greater than His mercy.

    Glory to God for the stunning of heart.



  39. Chris Avatar

    Hi All,
    I still wrestle with the Scriptures and how Abraham (and Moses) had to engage in what seemed like an argument with God over the salvation (in the earthly sense) of sinners. God obviously didn’t need Abraham to pardon the righteous and save them from peril. What’s difficult for me is that God invites us into His work of salvation, but we are often faithless and non-dependable. I suppose my conclusion is that our intercession is intended for our own salvation along with those for whom we pray… that we are being saved (identifying with the unrighteous) as we pray for salvation of all. Am I understanding this correctly?

  40. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dostoevsky relates a tale of an old woman that pertains to what you have asked:

    Once upon a time there was a woman, and she was wicked as wicked could be, and she died. And not one good deed was left behind her. The devils took her and threw her into the lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood thinking: what good deed of hers can I remember to tell God?

    Then he remembered and said to God, “Once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman.”

    And God answered, “Now take that same onion, hold it out to her in the lake, let her take hold of it, and pull, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can go to paradise, but if the onion breaks, she can stay where she is.”

    The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her, “Here, woman,” he said, “take hold of it and I’ll pull!”

    And he began pulling carefully , and had almost pulled her all the way out, when other sinners in the lake saw her being pulled out and all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was wicked as wicked could be, and she began to kick them with her feet: “It’s me who’s getting pulled out, not you; it’s my onion not yours!”

    No sooner did she say it than the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake and is burning there to this day. And the angel wept and went away.

  41. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Wow, I haven’t read Dostoevsky yet. Thank you for that poignant story! As Christ has said, pray for your enemies. And I might add with sincerity, as my own sins are not less than those of my enemies.

  42. Chris Avatar

    Ah, the old woman wanted to be saved alone. This is helpful, thanks Father.

  43. Karen Avatar


    Re: the “essential point” of your question, I have a few thoughts.

    It seems to me (based on looking at the place in my own heart from which I tend to ask such questions) needing a definitive distinction between the fate of the “righteous” vs. the “unrighteous” in terms of ultimacy and the afterlife (“in the end”), is based more on a desire for management than one for communion with God. (I don’t mean this is the conscious intent, but does seem to me to realistically reflect something less conscious and more hidden in me that ought perhaps to be exhumed and examined.) What I have noticed in myself is the desire for management (which I would suggest is ultimately the desire to manage God) vs. self abandonment to God (real faith) are mutually exclusive conditions. I have not found insisting on a definitive answer to this question to be effective at all in bringing me into communion with God, which is what I am seeking. Is not Communion with God in this life a Communion of co-suffering love and complete solidarity with “the least of these”? If God is not willing that any should perish, can we be less unwilling?

    On the other hand, there is a real and true difference between good and evil. We call what is evil “good” and what is good “evil” to our own peril! I can affirm completely with the Tradition there is a true and real distinction with real consequences here and hereafter of both good and evil. Matthew 25 gives us a very clear picture of the basis on which all of us will be judged. It apparently doesn’t have much to do with what we believed in the sense of what we professed (even about the nature of the judgement in the afterlife), but rather how we treated “the least of these”, Christ’s brethren, during this life, and whether we cared for them or not–whether or not we recognized these were worthy of the same care we would have given to Christ Himself. What that means for life beyond the grave in any particular person, or class of persons, is not mine to judge. If I were to speculate based on my knowledge of myself, it becomes even more muddy (as to what might occur), because I have discovered as Solzhenitsyn did in the gulag, how true it is that the line between good and evil runs through the midst of every human heart (certainly my own)! By the same token, it is also much more clear what posture before God is appropriate for me here and now–all I may safely do is stand at the rear of the Temple beating my breast imploring the Lord to have mercy on this sinner! I have NO other hope or help than the mercy of God, and my plumbing the depths of that mercy is what gives me hope for even the greatest of sinners (that is me, in terms of what I can truly experientially know about anything of this, if I am praying the Communion prayers with integrity!). Indeed, the development of this conviction was one of the key aspects of the crisis that eventually brought me from Evangelicalism to Orthodoxy.

    Finally, I want to attempt a brief look at the kind of dualism implied in the biblical categories of “good/righteous” and “evil/wicked”. Before me, I am keeping in mind the symbol of Christian faith is not the black and white Taoist circle nor the Yin and Yang of Eastern philosophy–rather, it is the Cross. Can we say then what is denoted by the term “evil” in Christian terms must be equivalent in every way, including in the eternal consequences of our participation in it, to “good”, but merely its opposite? Those who want to answer yes to this question will point to various passages in the Fathers and in the Scriptures. Those who doubt there can be a yes (or a yes that does not require some scrupulous qualifications) will point to other passages in the Scriptures and Fathers. Certainly, both groups affirm the teaching of the Fathers that “evil” does not have the same kind of existence or inherent foundation in God’s own existence as does “good.” How deeply has each group penetrated into the implications of this last teaching for life after Final Judgment? Worth thinking about, perhaps, but I know I’m far from qualified to give an authoritative answer to that question.

    That’s more than enough food for thought for me. To go beyond this seems always to get us into trouble!

  44. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin

    Fr Stephen/All,

    ‘I am troubled that a conversation that is very much worth having gets swept aside by the almost knee-jerk reaction to the topic (frankly, from almost every side). That conversation is an examination of our hearts in the light of hell. For what is tested there is not God’s justice, but our mercy.’

    Agreed, lets have that conversation about these important issues touching on salvation and the nature of God.

    If our mercy is what is tested then it is precisely the notion of an unending hell which, knowing no mercy and stretched forth into infinity without end, is an ungodly concept contrary to God’s will.

    The big question lurking in the background seems to me is if anything can ultimately frustrate what God wills. This frustration of God’s will by evil is especially problematic. Can evil which, as Karen points out, has no existence of itself (no true being, substance) remain a permanent, infinite fixture of reality? Can we say that an infinitely enduring dualism of evil vs. Good is a scriptural view? St Gregory of Nyssa points out that ‘the only limit to God’s power is His will’. We also know that He wills that all will be saved. Why then should we presume that our evil frustrates, into infinity no less, the will of God? This appears to me to be a reprehensible and unGodly idea.

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mind you, I’m not in management. However, it is not evil that opposes God, for as you note, it has no existence. It is a free will that opposes Him. That free will is not an evil – but a free will. I cannot suggest that I know how the dance of eternity ends – but it is dance in which the good God who creates in love and wills us only good, in utter condescension engages our freedom (and the freedom of all) as though He were engaging an equal. I suppose I wouldn’t have done it that way. I do believe that He will never renounce the dance. I prefer Nyssa’s ending, or that of St. Isaac, but if they’ve seen an end that I haven’t seen then I can only wish that they’re correct. But I cannot simply push the argument to an end as if the dance were driven by the laws of argument.

    That is, I don’t know the end of it all. I know God and I trust Him with that.

  46. Dino Avatar

    I value these brilliantly succinct, and astute answers you give – thank you.

  47. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin

    Fr Stephen,

    I am not suggesting our creaturely will as evil in itself, but when our will is misused and set against God’s will, obstinately resisting the Good, then evil is the resulting consequence. What I am suggesting is that this evil perversion of will cannot endure into infinity; or if it does then we have an infinite dualism on our hands, a dualism which renders the love of Pascha unable to overcome the darkness of the world. This would mean then that our will to evil forever has the last say, forever frustrating the will of God. Would it not?

    Now, like you, I don’t claim to know how it all ends, but am thinking through revelation like every other bloke. Of course, when one’s opinion is deemed disagreeable, this can so easily be dismissed as ‘argumentation’ ‘philosophy’, or ‘hellenism’ and other such derogatory labels. This does not further conversation. I do understand of course that people have different opinions about this and come to vastly different conclusions. I offer up my thoughts as a way of conversation to break through the ‘knee jerk’ reactions as you put it. But a dualism with an infinitely persisting evil forever frustrating the will of God IMO doesn’t jive with scripture and everything else we Orthodox believe about the nature of God. What we can agree on is that God is merciful and that we need to be too.

  48. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    We agree on what we do not know. I dare say we agree on how we hope it ends. However, we cannot posit an “evil will.” It is a free will. I suppose that dance of freedom, will and will, could go on forever, though I’m not certain what that would mean. Pascha is victorious making it possible for will to confront will – without bondage, without interference, etc. But that is all I think we can say.

    For myself, I can hardly imagine an eternal opposition to the love of God. But I cannot fathom a less than free – freewill. I trust in God’s goodness.

    It is the reification of evil that you are suggesting that creates a dualism. Will on will is not a dualism – is what love looks like.

  49. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin

    ‘Will on will’ – I like that! In that sort of battle of the wills (a battle of love!), I do think we know who will be victorious in the end.

    So then the next question it would seem is about the nature of freedom, how do we define free will? Is freedom completely arbitrary, without any bearing, any end – shall we say that any choice is as good as any other?

  50. Margaret Avatar

    I will be forever grateful to God and to you, Fr. Stephen Freeman for your response above as copied and printed here (In fact, I am copying it and printing it): Robert,
    Mind you, I’m not in management. However, it is not evil that opposes God, for as you note, it has no existence. It is a free will that opposes Him. That free will is not an evil – but a free will. I cannot suggest that I know how the dance of eternity ends – but it is dance in which the good God who creates in love and wills us only good, in utter condescension engages our freedom (and the freedom of all) as though He were engaging an equal. I suppose I wouldn’t have done it that way. I do believe that He will never renounce the dance. I prefer Nyssa’s ending, or that of St. Isaac, but if they’ve seen an end that I haven’t seen then I can only wish that they’re correct. But I cannot simply push the argument to an end as if the dance were driven by the laws of argument.

    That is, I don’t know the end of it all. I know God and I trust Him with that.” — Fr. Stephen Freeman, here in these comments

  51. Dino Avatar

    This discussion has a type of stale-mate underpinning when we consider that, an indispensable condition of love’s “will” is that it has to simultaneously (1) ‘will’ the eventual salvation of all, as well as (at the very same time) (2) ‘willing’ that its beloved ones, eternally retain their ability to resist it in a continuing free self-determination towards it – even when God’s love becomes an irresistible grace. It’s not love without this condition.

  52. Karen Avatar

    Dino, yes, which is why it can become a distraction from communion with God to even try. I say “can become” because I have found for myself there was a point at which my salvation came to depend on my capacity to dare to wrestle with God over the question of the salvation of others (and implicitly also of my own divided self) just as Abraham did over the question of Lot in Sodom and Gomorrah. Like Abraham, I also found it a question imprudent and impious to keep pressing to its limits after a certain point that the direction of God’s will and the indication of the depth of His mercy became sufficiently evident to me by the answers I did receive.

  53. Dino Avatar

    indeed, you remind me that I have read how Christ has appeared before saints who wrestled with Him on the matter of the salvation of all – hung on His Cross and asking them, ‘who is crucified for them you are praying for?’

  54. Karen Avatar

    Thanks, Dino! I can never hear enough of stories like that. 🙂

    This struggle over the question of those lost in hell has been going on for a very long time. I did not discover and read the pseudo epigraphical writing entitled 2 Esdras until well after I became Orthodox, and I was astounded at how it gave voice to the very struggle that led me into Orthodoxy. 2 Esdras (or in some places 3 Esdras or 4 Esdras) is attributed to Ezra the Priest in the OT and set in that period, but actually composed as a piece of Jewish apocalyptic literature, most scholars believe, shortly after the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in AD 70. It is included as part of the appendix in the Slavonic OT and in the Latin Vulgate and a few other places. A very similar text originating around the same time attributed to Baruch is included in the Syriac Orthodox Bible.

  55. Karen Avatar

    P.S. In writing my last post to Dino, I pulled my aunt’s Bible including an English translation of 2 Esdras off a bookshelf to consult for reference. In so doing, the books that were next to it on the shelf fell sideways and knocked one book lying on top of a horizontal stack in front of that space onto the floor in front of me. I just picked up that book and glanced at its title–it is Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s, Christ the Conqueror of Hell…. 🙂

  56. Fr Aidan Kimel Avatar

    “Will on will” — I’m not happy with this formulation, as it simply states the synergistic problem that makes it impossible to imagine apokatastasis. If it’s my will versus God’s will, and assuming that God graciously avoids all violence, manipulation, and coercion, then the possibility then the possibility that I might hold out forever against the divine will seems logical and necessary (and in my case, inevitable). As a result we often hear people giving half-hearted lip-service to the greater hope (“I suppose it’s possible that God might save all”) but they always conclude with that “but” that evacuates the hope of any real hope. Our logic pushes God to the metaphysical sideline.

    The problem is the way we imagine God as another standing alongside us, as someone and something external to us. But this is clearly wrong. It brings God into our creaturely existence as a being. In this picture divine agency necessarily competes with creaturely agency, and so we end up with everlasting Gehenna. But St Augustine opened up a different way for us to think about the relationship between God and creature: interior intimo meo et superior summo meo (“higher than my highest and more inward than my innermost self”). Suddenly the Creator/creature relationship becomes more mysterious than we had imagined, which means that we are freed from the logical deadlock. Instead of “will on will,” perhaps “will in will” (our will indwelling and grounded in God’s will) might be a better way to begin thinking about this. We may still not be able to imagine apokatastasis, but perhaps we can begin to entertain its genuine possibility.

  57. Christopher Avatar

    “We may still not be able to imagine apokatastasis, but perhaps we can begin to entertain its genuine possibility.”

    Just as a clock returns to noon this thread returns to the Platonic – the dialectical tension can not hold as the human mind and *heart* rejects the suspension of an unknowing. Thank you Fr. Aidan for the sum(mation). For me, I would take Fr. Stephen’s anti-metaphysics-of-the-heart over your suggestion (and dialectically inescapable) reduction of life, creation, and time and their meaning to a sum (i.e. apokatasasis) but that does not satisfy either because you and I both know that he does not escape metaphysics with his (anti)metaphysics 😉

    Since we have eaten of the apple, we are confined to what the apple knows – good and evil. Universalism/apokastasis is a dilemma, a dialectic, found within the apple (like a worm). The “answer” is not found on the level of the apple, and is indeed explicitly guarded against the encroachment of the worm (i.e. the fruit of the Tree of Life is separate). As such, the Church has rightly rejected Universalism/apokastasis even though some young clergy of our day preach it (to paraphrase St. Barsanuphius).

    The will, freedom (it’s outline and limitations), are here but terms in the dialectic of good and evil and as such are foot soldiers in this Manichaean war where quite naturally good “wins”, and everything bleeds into one in its “restoration”. Put this struggle aside! Lay down your arms as the Church recommends (with notable exceptions: Origen, Nyssa, possibly Isaac). Practice a bit of asceticism to learn to ignore this and every other “dialogue” our minds get wrapped up in. Nietzsche was right – life is found beyond good and evil and not in some kind of synthesis found within it (or in Fr. Stephen’s case, an anti-synthesis).

    Since I fit into the “religious mood” maintained around here like a square peg in a round hole, I will take my leave – just passing through… 😉

  58. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Aidan,
    I would perhaps suggest a borrowing from Florovsky. He wrote about the “asymmetry” of the incarnation – following the Cappadocians. Perhaps it would also be clarifying to note that in the “will-on-will” we are describing something that is truly asymmetrical. Augustine’s formulation is one way of expressing the same thing. I think that in the “dance” surely it is God who leads (to say the least). The Apokatastasis obviously (to me) is a genuine possibility. Were it not, there would be no need to suggest that there is a hope.

    But, just as our present salvation seems a mystery to me (we seem to have some sort of freedom regardless of how complex it is), so that same mystery remains, no matter. When I look within myself, sometimes I think that I have chosen God, but it seems far more obvious that He has chosen me – and – as often as not – seems to be dragging my sorry soul into His Kingdom. I see nothing salutary in myself that might have made this happen, or anything by which I should judge myself better than the worst. And yet I cannot say that I feel forced in any way. It’s clearly asymmetrical, though.

  59. Fr Aidan Kimel Avatar

    Yes, I agree, Fr Stephen. I would simply add that the freedom we experience for God is not and cannot be experienced as something forced upon us because God is not a being that exists alongside of us imposing his will upon us. We are made for God and live in God and are nothing but desire for God. Only our passions and disordered desires, which are not who we truly are, prevents us from grasping this fundamental truth of our existence. God is Other but not an other as we are other to each other. As long as we are thinking of our freedom in libertarian terms (a freedom to do otherwise), we really have not grasped the asymmetrical intimacy that makes possible the liberty the Spirit gives. This is the “metaphysical” truth that David B. Hart has helped me to see so clearly. IMHO. 🙂

  60. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Aidan,
    Just to do a little metaphysics…Hart’s suggestion (which is pretty much the same as Nyssa’ approach), seems to me to put nature over person. Our nature surely is “nothing but desire for God.” But there is this mysterious thing we call person – and there – there is a freedom such that the nature is uniquely expressed. It is in the mystery of person qua person that the problems lie. Or so it seems to me. I don’t like it. Maybe I’ve too much Zizioulas or Yannaras.

    But, back to my anti-metaphysics (didn’t know I had one) :), I think that for me the question lies in the heart – because it is there that I feel most estranged from God and everyone else and if there is to be a restoration of union for me, it will have to come there. So, I’m working on thinking like a slave.

    Your buddy, the Blog-slave.

  61. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Fr Stephen thank you for this elaboration about person and nature. I find it very helpful.

  62. David A Foutch Avatar
    David A Foutch

    If we aren’t to think about our freedom in libertarian terms then how are we to think about it?

  63. John H Avatar
    John H

    Dear Fathers Stephen and Aidan:

    I believe that each view expressed supra is both true and incomplete. Metaphysically speaking, the apokatastasis is inevitable because, to paraphrase Hart, To know the Good as such is to desire it absolutely and not to desire it is never to have known it, and therefore, not to be free to reject it. The voluntaristic libertarian notion of freedom is based upon a fundamental misconception that views true freedom as the mere ability to choose randomly and for any reason whatsoever. It is surely a notion that would have been alien to the Church Fathers. Since we agree that God wills the salvation of all and that He also has infinite patience, with time, remedial punishment and instruction, all souls will come to choose the Good which is God Himself.

    Yet, standing alongside this ancient metaphysical optimism, one also finds the deep spirituality of Mount Athos or the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, which meditates upon the reality of “eternal Hell”| and the universal fallen-ness of humanity. Yes, all shall be saved in the end except myself, the worst of all sinners. Keep your mind in Hell and despair not for Christ stands alongside you. Meditate constantly on the last things, especially Hell, for this will bring you to true repentance.

    Allow ne to suggest that both views are correct yet incomplete because this represents yet another paradox of Christian belief. God is both utterly transcendent(as ipsum esse subsistens) and immanent, as the ground of all being who constantly wills the creation of all things. He is both one and three. Jesus Christ is both God and Man. To this we should perhaps add that the apokatastasis is both inevitable, because we are all created in the imago Dei and impossible, because we are also created from nothing and are dust, muck and the greatest of all sinners.

  64. David A Foutch Avatar
    David A Foutch

    The idea of a choice-making person makes the issue complex. It seems like without the idea of freedom there can be no idea of person. Personhood maximumizes non-reduction. Any decrease in freedom entails a reduction in personhood. And an entirely reduced person is just a system of reflexive behaviors regardless of how complex they may appear.

  65. David A Foutch Avatar
    David A Foutch

    Perhaps it is impossible because of who we are, but inevitable because of who God is.

  66. Fr Aidan Kimel Avatar

    David: “If we aren’t to think about our freedom in libertarian terms then how are we to think about it?”

    Are the redeemed in heaven unfree because they are not capable of rejecting God? Or perhaps are they more free, truly free, because they are fully “enslaved” to the God “whose service is perfect freedom”?

  67. Fr Aidan Kimel Avatar

    Fr Stephen: “Maybe I’ve too much Zizioulas or Yannaras.”

    Exactly what I was thinking. 🙂

  68. David A Foutch Avatar
    David A Foutch

    Fr. Aidan,

    The scriptures do talk about exchanging slavery to sin for slavery to God. Fine. I can makes sense of that. But, if we have no choice, no freedom of will, then that reduces to Calvinism and it challenges what we mean by person, agency, and culpability.

  69. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    David,Fr Alvin,
    I do think that this is where Ziz. and Yannaras are helpful. Our nature is like a given – an unchanging direction and longing for God, always willing (the natural will) its proper end. The “gnomic will” as described in St. Maximus, is that broken or fragmented thing we experience as “choice.” I can understand that what we describe as “freedom” – the libertarian sense of doing anything I want – isn’t really doing “anything I want” because the subject of the “wanting” is so much “me” as this fragmented thing called the “gnomic will.” Indeed, within the Fathers of the councils in which St. Maximus’ theology is supreme, it is said that “there is no gnomic will” in Christ. That makes sense because the gnomic will is solely a product of the fall, not a product of who we are or what we are (person and nature).

    The asceticism of the Church is, to a degree, directed towards the healing of this fundamental fragmentation (the gnomic will vs the natural will) and is thus a return to a fundamental integrity.

    Nyssa (who is writing before Maximus) posits that death in some manner ends the tyranny of the fall over our nature. A sort of death to the “sin that is in me” (as St. Paul says, “It is no longer, I, but the sin that dwells in me”).

    It could also be said that arriving at true personhood, is arriving at the true self, rather than dwelling in the ego of the false self, the pseudo-life created by the delusions of the gnomic will, etc.

    My thoughts in this, in terms of “knowing,” stop at the grave, because I can’t see that far. So that I cannot say what shall be – but I can see what “needs” to be to some extent.

    I know that there is no justice that needs to be satisfied, no “requirement” of an eternal punishment – certainly not within God. The only question is whether and to what extent all of this happens after the grave. I have hope, because God is good. Gnome would seem to stop at the grave, or, in paradise, since if we still had gnome, we would be capable of losing paradise yet again. How that applies to all, is not clear to me. Only hope.

    I hear and understand those who guard the notion of eternal hell, based on a reading of Scripture and other traditional sources. We should all be equally careful to guard the faith from the false God of the Calvinists and their lot (or at least the mean ones), whose infernal reach would seem to pierce into the Godhead itself.

    To Fr. Aidan especially, I would that Yannaras and Ziz. would bother to engage Maximos as well as they’ve engaged modern existentialism. Their account of personhood seems to like precisely that element. We should stand by them, banging a cowbell and chanting, “More Maximus!”

  70. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin

    Fr Stephen: ‘I suppose that dance of freedom, will and will, could go on forever, though I’m not certain what that would mean. Pascha is victorious making it possible for will to confront will – without bondage, without interference, etc. But that is all I think we can say. For myself, I can hardly imagine an eternal opposition to the love of God. But I cannot fathom a less than free – freewill.’

    David: ‘But, if we have no choice, no freedom of will, then that reduces to Calvinism and it challenges what we mean by person, agency, and culpability.’

    Fr Stephen: ’Nyssa’s approach… seems to me to put nature over person.’

    I don’t think this can be accounted for as a question of nature vs. person; at the final analysis the subject of discussion is the agency of human persons willing, desiring, choosing, acting. It holds not up to scrutiny to suggest that St Gregory emphasizes the abstract, and discounts the concrete (i.e. human nature in isolation from actual persons) whereas those in disagreement reference concrete persons with a lessened appeal to their human nature. The key difference is rather as to the understanding of the nature of freedom – what do we suppose constitutes freedom to the human, personal agent? If we are to suppose, as do those disagreeing with Gregory, that human intent and desire is purely spontaneous, without rationale and purpose, then indeed any choice is as good as another. For then we cannot speak of the human person as having a prior and God-given orientation towards the Good, or as desire of the human person as inherently purposive and teleological. Freedom on this account is purely whatever is willed, arbitrarily without reference. This fits well with modern notions of freedom, as it is supposed that it doesn’t matter what is desired or chosen, as long as a choice is made – any choice. Freedom, they say, is freedom to do otherwise. On this account how is freedom distinguished from brute impulse, or pure chance, as appeal to transcendental teleology is not in the cards? But this is to conflate the gnomic will with the natural will. The strength of Gregory’s account is his reference to the biblical understanding of humans as personal agents whose freedom is constituted in their desire towards God, precisely on account of being God’s creature. No choice is made and no action is taken without desire of some good, even if evil is mistaken for the good. To will the evil as evil is not to be free but to be enslaved, beholden to the impulse of darkness. The relevance of the Nyssen’s theology of freedom to scope of salvation is that the gnomic ‘freedom to do otherwise,’ the ‘freedom to resist,’ which is supposed to be the ‘dance of freedom’ will come to an end, exposed for the dance with nothingness that it is for God will be all in all.

  71. Dino Avatar

    The perpetual issue of the abuse of freedom and the birth of evil is perhaps best understood by the example of the first fallen Archangel.
    What Lucifer’s ‘person’ [and even his perverted ‘nature’ eventually (since we could say: initially, person and nature are in clear disunion during the “fall”, but finally they acquire a perverse ‘unison’ –as nature has some capacity to be obligatorily led by its personal manifestation, {the person} either “according to its self {nature}”, or “against it”, {its own self})] says to God is simple:
    “I want to be orientated towards you, it’s my nature and my being, but I also want to not be orientated towards you but towards this being of mine and to continue eternally this trajectory towards non-being”.
    Of course human freedom is more complex than angelic, and more externally influenced, but this basis remains.

  72. David Foutch Avatar
    David Foutch

    Just a few thoughts:

    Our identity is “revealed” by God’s call to his creation, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that our identity takes shape over time as our creaturliness encounters God. For example, God says “Abraham!” and Abraham says “Here I am!” There’s a self-awareness and a self-understanding that is implied by Abraham’s response to God. Jacob wrestles with the angel and in the end Jacob becomes Israel. Personhood is strongly linked with the idea of personal identity. Persons are keenly interested in their sense of self, who they are. We are not as free as we think. We are much more easily conditioned and controlled than we want to believe. The freedom to choose either Snickers or Milky Way, Coke or Pepsi, McDonald’s or Burger King, Walmart or Target is not freedom. In our core, what we desire most is the freedom to BE. Miguel De Unamuno discusses what he calls the “furious hunger of being” and he describes it this way: “The universal suffering is the anguish of all in seeking to be all else but without the power to achieve it, the anguish of each in being he that he is, being at the same time all that he is not, and being so forever…It seeks the maximum of individuality also of personality; it aspires to the identification of the universe with itself; it aspires to God.”

    We are a nothing desperately seeking to become a something and someone.

    Philosophically, scientifically and mathematically we can distinguish chaos from a stochastic process. And we can further distinguish between these two and freedom? How is freedom different from chaos or from stochasticity? Fortuin hints at these differences in his comments above. The only reason we consider the freedom to do otherwise–I think–as so important is that we need that to ground our sense of blame. And it makes so much sense to the Western frame of mind that it is hard to shake. The Scriptures, however, suggest that “God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.” In this sense, we are always defined by what we are subject to: Slaves of this or slaves of that. But, rather than think of this dichotomy as a choice in the kind of servitude we prefer. I think that there is an ontological dimension. A bird is free to be a bird and to do bird things. A dog is free to be a dog and to do dog things. I am not free to be either a bird nor a dog. The attempt would be nothing more than imitation. To experience either the freedom of a dog or a bird you must be either a dog or a bird. We are only free to be Sons of God when we are truly Sons of God via the new birth—Then we are free to be Sons of God.

  73. Karen Avatar

    Dino, this may go without saying, but my comments about Orthodox exceptions to your general statistical observations about the Orthodox village experience particularly only pertains to my own experience, which is limited to that of Orthodox in this country, who along with their families are subjected to many of the same influences of modernity as the rest of us. I always appreciate your observations and those of other Orthodox from culturally Orthodox parts of the world. Did I understand correctly that you now reside in England, and if so, how many years have you been an ex patriot citizen?

  74. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    As I work on learning and understanding your words, Fr’s, I think I might need more (Maximus) cowbell.

    Fr Stephen, are you saying the Ziz *lacks* the Maximus cowbell? I think that was your meaning. I’m in the process of reading Ziz but haven’t read Maximus. Would you recommend going into Maximus first in the reading order?

  75. Karen Avatar

    DBH’s discussion of the eschatological implications for our salvation of the gnomic vs. natural will and the intrinsic nature of God’s will to created will intrigues me and at the same time just makes my brain hurt! I’m ready to go grab one of my husband’s handkerchiefs, tie a knot in each corner to make a Gumby hat (Monty Python style), and pop that on my head and start repeating, “My brain hurts!”

    Still, I’m very grateful for his work because along with the prayers of the Saints, this is what has enabled me to pray with real faith in integrity for the salvation of all (shackled as I have been by the logic of modern rationalism). And I have found it impossible to be saved myself apart from this kind of faith, hope and prayer.

  76. Dino Avatar

    I think it’s worth remembering that God only creates good, yet the creation of a [good] hypostasis, is the creation of a freely affirmable as well as deniable good, and it means that angels and humans retain their self-determination towards their Creator and His will.
    The standard teaching of the Church is that just as the angles yearned for their stabilisation in good – and this was granted them after the Ascension – so did the fallen angels desire their reverse stabilisation in the denial of their hypostasis, a stabilisation in the movement towards non-being. So when the Church speaks of (in its majority) the eternal and irreversible damnation it understands this as a granting of a crazy desire for the damned. A desire that -at least for the spiritual beings of the angelic order- although crazy, contains full awareness – so one cannot say that a Father would never grant their child such a wish no matter how much they want it….


    yes, a Greek whose life’s in England for decades- not much into disclosing details I am afraid though! But it’s time in Athos that qualitatively affects more than the quantitatively longer time anywhere else…

  77. Karen Avatar

    Dino, yes, I understand. The way I think of this is that “salvation” that does not involve the voluntary yielding of the human (or angelic) will to God is a contradiction in terms.

    Not into disclosing details, hmmm . . . I never would have taken you for someone who wanted to be mysterious about his age, Dino! 😉 . . . On the serious side, though, it seems Mt. Athos is transformative for many as a result of a single or only a few visits there. I can well imagine the impact having a saintly spiritual father (or two) there during some of the most formative years of one’s life could have. I can’t imagine coming away from even one encounter with one of the Holy Elders the same person. Reading the lives and words of the contemporary Holy Elders is what has most stunned me with the present living Reality of Jesus Christ in His Church.

  78. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    By the grace of God, I am making a pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain in late September, early October this year. The two monasteries that I am certain is on our itinerary are Simonapetra and Panteleimon.

  79. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    …but if God, the Holy Trinity, and His grace are every present filling all things and He is drawing all men to Him how is that not irresistible ultimately?

    Our freedom lies in how and when we respond does it not?

    BTW, libertarians theme song is Red Solo Cup.

  80. Karen Avatar

    God speed your way, Father. What a blessing!

  81. tmatt Avatar

    I have heard some apologists — including my own spiritual father, the late Father Gordon Walker — and, well, Billy Graham make this observation: Eternity in the bright, all-seeing light of a loving God may not be eternity for someone who rejects that love and refuses to turn from cherished sin.

    From one of my On Religion columns, two decades ago: http://www.tmatt.net/columns/1996/01/hell-and-the-church-of-england

    Asked why he rarely preaches about a fiery hell, anymore, the Rev. Billy Graham once told me that he believes the best image for damnation is that of a soul dwelling in “outer darkness,” far from God’s eternal light. Or perhaps, the evangelist said, hell is like the old joke about a man who going on a boat cruise, complete with wine, women and song. Somehow, he got on the wrong boat.

    “The other boat was for a Sunday school picnic from a Baptist church,” said Graham. Before long, the man was sick of it. “He said, `Man, this is HELL to be in with this crowd. They don’t smoke, they don’t drink, they don’t tell dirty stories. … But the Baptists were having a wonderful time. It was like heaven to them.”

  82. Dino Avatar

    I don’t think bringing the issue of time is something we humans can properly comprehend in our current state, especially regarding the (fallen) angelic beings. I have also often heard that both the Angels and the demons have been granted permanent immovability/security in their respective affirmation/good and denial/evil according to their fully-(eternally if you like)-aware-will.
    (Obviously St Isaac and Nyssa come back to the time-based argument and they argue that God has mercifully gone back on what He had disclosed to the saints as an incontestable permanency before )

  83. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin


    Such accounts are helpful (as is the account of hell in the ‘River of Fire’ by Kalimiros) in explaining the phenomenology of hell, but does nothing to account for supposing that it would last into infinity: the absurdly unbiblical ‘good vs evil’ dualism this implies; the monstrous disproportion of temporal offense vs unending punishment, and what this would entail for the moral character of God; the limits of God’s power and presence by the necessity of persisting evil which reveals God’s will is apparently that evil will endure endlessly; infinite damnation is the price paid by some unfortunately souls for God’s self-revelation; and so forth.

    Darkness writ into infinity is all around bad news: we are stuck with a parochial Pascha (hardly a triumph), or else we have to rethink God’s nature and attributes. I am not sure this “God” is worthy of worship.

  84. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    My comfort in thinking about any of this (within the context of Orthodoxy) is simply to look at Christ Himself. I look steadfastly at His Pascha and trust that all will be well, even if I cannot speak the manner of that reality (the manner is Christ Himself, I suppose).

  85. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin


    St Gregory’s argument (and likely St Isaac as well, but I am less familiar with his writings) is quite opposite to that of an appeal to time or of ‘going back on’ or rescinding something previously disclosed. The appeal is to pre-eternal divine intentions – God’s purposes before creation and the existence of time – which on Gregory’s account will ultimately become realized despite our creaturely gnomic detour in time.

  86. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin

    Yes, Fr Stephen, me too, this is indeed is a great comfort, a great hope.

    I find that certain accounts of God (and heaven and hell) are more or less in accord with this great hope.

  87. tmatt Avatar

    Essentially, I hear you saying — that is, of course, if I am smart enough to understand your language — that when our Lord walked this earth, human beings were free to reject him. However, in eternity the illusion of that freedom will be erased and that the actions and decisions taken in our lives will be revealed as illusions. How one balances this with abortion, nuclear weapons, child abuse, slavery and, of course, the powerful sin of pride really doesn’t matter.

    I am sure that I am simply not smart enough to understand. All I hear is the precise arguments I heard from the left in, oh, the Episcopal Church. But, like I said, I am sure that I am missing the point.

  88. tmatt Avatar

    I will try one more time, using imagery from my spiritual father.

    In the story of the Prodigal Son, how long would the Father have grieved, and remained watching that road to the far land, if his son had not come to his senses and returned home with words of repentance on his lips?

    Father Gordon simply said: Eternity.

    Then again, that presumes some degree of human choice and freedom.

  89. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    tmatt, and that is the real danger of speculation . We cannot even trust an apophatic approach on this matter because even that is dependent on the creaturely suppositions of judgement.

    There will be a judgement, it will be righteous because it is done in the context of God’s kenotic love.

    If we go by Matthew, theology will have nothing to do with it, but the way in which we treat our fellow human beings but even that is a stretch–too many creaturely assumptions built in.

    What guidelines are in the Scripture seem to be heavy burdens for my poor, hard heart: give everything without asking for anything; pray for your enemies even as they are killing you; do it all with joy and thanksgiving to/for God.

    Deeply insane unless Jesus really is the Incarnate God, creator of all, then it simply isn’t enough, is it?

  90. tmatt Avatar

    We pray for all to repent, including ourselves. We pray for those in hell, hoping that they accept the mercy of God and repent — especially of the sins we are too blind to see. We pray that the only lock on the door to hell is on the inside.

    Then again, I am sure that I am caught up in that whole absurd good vs. evil thing again.

    My question again, from my spiritual father: How long would the Heavenly Father have grieved if his son had not freely come home?

  91. Byron Avatar

    My question again, from my spiritual father: How long would the Heavenly Father have grieved if his son had not freely come home?

    The question strikes me as a matter of the heart, not of time. God “grieves” for His creation because He loves it. God loves us, regardless of whether we “freely come home” or not.

  92. tmatt Avatar

    Yes, he loves us no matter what. You missed or evaded the point of my spiritual father’s image.

    The issue is whether God created humanity with the ability to love him back, freely, or is that all an illusion. I was under the impression that this choice was ultimately real.

  93. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin

    Hi Terry,

    I am not suggesting that freedom is an illusion, nor that choices don’t have consequences. On the contrary, the choices we make are very real and important. They do really matter. To speak crudely, there is hell to pay for the things we do and omit to do. There will be gnashing of teeth. I suppose this to be painful and a great loss (1 Cor. 3:15 ‘If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as through fire’). To suggest this to be without end, and punishment to be punitive, God’s intentions powerless, His glory limited – this is the issue.

  94. Fr Aidan Kimel Avatar

    The following citation from Olivier Clement may be relevant to this discussion:

    “The hell of the fallen condition is abolished in Christ. Everything now depends not on merits, but faith and love, on the relationship of each individual with Christ and with his neighbour. The early Church with its gaze fixed wholly on the Parousia had no conception either of the present existence of souls definitely damned, nor of an already consummated beatitude for the saints (or even for Christ, according to Origen), nor again of a ‘purgatory’ in the strictest sense of the word, meaning penal ‘satisfaction’ of a juridical nature, such as developed in the medieval West. What we find in the Fathers is the idea of a progressive purification and healing. After death the soul crosses either a ‘sea of fire’ or spiritual ‘frontier’, where the powers of evil wrest from it what belongs to them and leave it stripped, ready to embark on a life of peace and silence (the ‘abodes, one above another, of which St Ambrose speaks here suggest a progressive perfecting). Thus the ‘sleep’ of death appears as a contemplative state. Death, undoing the tangles of idolatry and sin, offers the soul that peace, quiet, hesychia, which spiritual persons know already here below, a blissful visitation of Christ who is always present in hell. For since Holy Saturday and the Ascension he is the fulfillment of all things. The Church does not forget that for the dead, fixed on their ignorance or greed or pride, there are states in which the peace, the silence, the light, and the glimpse of the Physician’s presence are experienced as torments. But the Church with all her love and all her power of intercession—that intercession for the damned to which Péguy’s Joan of Arc summoned the saints—prays for all the dead, including those who are in transitory ‘hells’. That is so especially during the ‘prayers of genuflexion’ at the Vespers of Pentecost. The love of God, multiplied by the prayers of the faithful, works from within upon the individual in order that, since no one is alone, each may, with a personal effort, become opened up to the ontological unity of the Body of Christ.”

    This text is included in my just-published article on aerial toll houses: http://wp.me/pZJmO-7F7.

  95. Byron Avatar

    To suggest this to be without end, and punishment to be punitive, God’s intentions powerless, His glory limited – this is the issue.

    My apologies for misunderstanding your inquiry. The issue of universal salvation and/or a limitation of God’s intentions has been discussed here many times. I will let others reply in detail if they so wish but I believe Father’s general counsel is that it is proper for us to hope for such a salvation but God has not revealed to us the knowledge of whether or how it may come to pass.

  96. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino in my excursions into history I found that time is a deep mystery everything interpenetrating everything else. It is not linear. So I am not sure what you mean. I was not even considering time in my comment, other than its fullness, the fact of the Incarnation and the Scripture: “Behold I make all things new.”

    Time as we tend to think of it is a measure of decay. I was thinking the opposite. Humans have no way to measure or codify transformation and becoming new.

  97. Dino Avatar

    Robert Fortuin ,

    What I meant is that their argumentation against the majority standard position of an eternal damnation (which is something fairly clearly previously disclosed in Scripture) – although understandably grounded on pre-eternal divine intentions (more so than Scripture), was justified [as it clearly needs this justification against many Scriptural passages to the contrary] through the use of the argument that God has previously rescinded of something He has previously disclosed to us…
    St Isaac is the most eloquent on this:

    Just as [God] decreed death, under the appearance of a sentence, for Adam because of sin, and just as he showed by means of the punishment that the sin existed—even so this punishment was not his real aim. He showed it as something Adam would receive as a repayment for his wrong, but he hid its true mystery, and under the guise of something to be feared he concealed his eternal intention concerning death and what his wisdom was aiming at. Even though this matter might be grievous, ignominious, and hard at first, nevertheless in truth it would be the means of transporting us to that wonderful and glorious world. Without it, there would be no way of crossing over from this world and being there.. . . The Creator did not say: ‘This will turn out to be the cause of good things to come for you and a life more glorious than this’. Instead, he showed it as something which would bring about our misfortune and dissolution. Again, when he expelled Adam and Eve from paradise, he expelled them under the outward aspect of anger … as though dwelling in paradise had been taken away from them because they were unworthy. But within all this rested the divine plan, fulfilling and guiding everything towards what had been the Creator’s original intention from the beginning. It was not disobedience which introduced death to the house of Adam, nor did transgression remove them from paradise, for it is clear that God did not create Adam and Eve to be in Paradise, just a small portion of the earth; rather, they were going to subjugate the entire earth. For this reason we do not even say that he removed them because of the commandment which had been transgressed; for it is not the case that, had they not transgressed the commandment, they would have been left in paradise for ever.

  98. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Michael, to further amplify what you said, time is not constant, but variable, it is a function of absolute speed. At the speed of light, time stops completely versus time being very speed up at a motion of zero. This is from Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity and has been proved by experiment to vary in-accordance with his formula. Obviously, we cannot measure the extremes of speed but we did sample data points far enough apart and the observed values were as the formula predicts.
    Time is also a created thing and the fourth dimension of the Universe. Eternity with the Lord is timeless because He and the spiritual realm are not part of the physical universe. I haven’t the foggiest how one thinks when there is no chronological stream to work in, but then, His thoughts are higher than our thoughts.

  99. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Nicholas, I like what you’ve written.

    I don’t think there is a theory with time as a dimension outside our current theories about the physical universe (i.e. whatever might be previous to the ‘Big Bang ‘) but I might be out of touch as I haven’t read that sort of literature in a while.

    When I speak of the ‘material’ world, I cannot avoid thinking of it as infused with ‘spirit’. Sometimes I am not able to separate what might be considered a hangover from Seminole spirituality from that which we mean when we speak of the “one story universe’. I know that Gods grace is in the world and that “The Spirit of Truth who is in all places and fills all things…”. However there is a way of thinking in the spiritual way of the Seminole to ‘speak’ to animals, plants, and inanimate things. My recollections are likely dim with the years, since I last heard such speech. The Seminoles have had Christianity for sometime and there has been some integration of both traditions. But I don’t think it would be considered the same as what is described as ‘new age’ thinking. Although ‘new age’ thought has attempted to incorporate Native people’s experience and spiritual thought.

    I’m an infant in the faith, and so I’m just stumbling along grateful for the insights of my spiritual elders.

  100. Karen Avatar

    What comes to your mind when a Priest or pastor insists it is essential to “preach the bad news first” in order to effectively present the gospel and that this is the Scriptural pattern? It tends to evoke shades of Jonathan Edwards “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” for me, but I’m not sure that’s fair. It seems to me the insistence we need to think like slaves is another way of getting at the same truth. I have no difficulty understanding repentance from sin and reception of the gospel are two sides of the same coin and perhaps actually describe the exact same movement of the heart.

    There does seem to me to be a paradox, however, that the “bad news first” mentality sometimes seems to overlook–and that is that it is impossible to truly see our own poverty, slavery, and corruption except in the full light and revelation of God’s kenotic love.

    Jesus didn’t have to tell the Righteous Thief being crucified next to Him he was a sinner in need of repentance. All the thief had to do was look at Jesus, and he knew what to do.

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

  1. I have often found people who take a fancy or stringent approach to the Scriptures, the Divine Liturgy and a…

  2. Carlos wrote: I was going through my prayers last night, and one that usually troubles me appeared completely different. It…

  3. I want to thank all those who have prayed on my behalf concerning these matters. I was going through my…

  4. Janine, You write: “How do you know God is not looking at you the same way you see your son?”…

  5. Amen! Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for these encouraging words.

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast