The Good That Lies Within

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.

Solzhenitsyn’s statement that “even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained,” is, I think, the single most hopeful statement regarding humanity that I have ever encountered. It is, first, an axiom of Orthodox Christian belief. A notion of total depravity, of human evil so thorough that nothing good remains, is alien to Orthodoxy. Whether it is Dostoevsky’s story of the old woman saved by a rotten onion (or “potentially saved” by that single miserable act of generosity), or the last-minute salvation of the thief on the Cross, the faith celebrates the extreme mercy found in such stories.

C.S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, offers an interesting take on the presence of this tiny bridgehead of goodness. People from what might become hell take a bus-ride to the edge of heaven, and may stay. It is an offer that reveals the innermost heart – the in’s and out’s of how someone might walk away from heaven itself. There is a woman in the story who seems to have nothing wrong with her other than the habit of grumbling about everything. Lewis wonders what is so wrong with her. He is told:

The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman—even the least trace of one—still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.’

‘But how can there be a grumble without a grumbler?’

‘The whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing.

I wrestle with questions of “anthropology” when I think of such matters. By that, I mean the question of exactly what it means to exist as a human being. I have written numerous times about the “ontological” versus a “juridical” approach in theology. We are not legal objects, nor is our relationship with God rightly to be understood in juridical terms. We are beings and what we have with God and from God must be understood in terms of being. Being alone is real. There are no other categories of real. If it doesn’t have being – it doesn’t exist. This is the ground on which all of the doctrines of the Church were founded. The language of the Trinity, of Christology, of sacrament and icon were (and are) propounded in terms of being.

If Solzhenitsyn is right, and, there remains, even in hearts overwhelmed by evil, a bridgehead of good, then there are realities that follow. I believe that Solzhenitsyn is correct. Accepting this means thinking carefully about what we mean when we say “good” and “evil” in the human context. The Fathers of the East generally conflated goodness, truth, and beauty as aspects of authentic and true being. Evil, on the other hand, is only ever a perversion of what is good, true and beautiful – it has no existence (being) in itself.

Lewis’ suggestion of Hell as being “so nearly Nothing” conforms to this understanding. However, when “non-being” is described  in the Fathers’ writings, it is always “relative” non-being, using the negative particle μή (me) rather than οὐ (ou). “Me” indicates a direction and movement rather than an accomplished fact. This same distinction, however, clearly leaves room (and tacitly acknowledges) the “bridgehead of good.” Nothing that we describe as evil is ever utterly and completely evil (as troubling as that thought might be). They exist. We cannot say, even of a demon, that there is nothing “good” that is present. As mysterious as it remains, they exist, because it is the gift of a good God, and their existence itself remains a good thing.

St. Paul uses the image of a race to describe the Christian life. It has much to recommend it, particularly because it describes something in motion. We are not a set of categories or static entities. We are alive and moving. Our proper direction is to move towards union with God. This is the very definition of “good.” To use the examples of the demons again, we can say that their “motion” is towards non-being, and is thus “evil.” Christ says that Satan is the “father of lies,” and a “murderer from the beginning,” both rooted in aspects of non-being (lies, murder).

So, when I consider that there is possibly some movement towards God (a bridgehead) in even the most “evil” of persons, then I maintain a hope for that small “coal” (to use Lewis’ image) to be fanned into a flame. I am very doubtful about many of the things predicated of the human will, primarily because it seems to be as much in motion as the cells in our bodies. Is the will to be measured at some moment – say, the last moment? Is it taken as an average of all moments? Or do we often die as a collection of conflicted moments, tossed about by everything around us?

The Russian theologian, Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, who was known for holding opinions that sometimes conflicted with the faith of the Church, had a very interesting take on the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. He treated those images as two things within each person rather than a distinction between different kinds of people. As such, the judgment described would be a winnowing and a purification, a saving of the Sheep, however feeble and muted its movement towards God.

That manner of reading the parable is not unlike many treatments of parables in the Fathers (internal and mystical rather than external and historical/moral). My “take-away” from these thoughts has to do with the nature of the struggle that surrounds us and is within us at all times. In the darkest of moments, even when our will is in its greatest rebellion, there remains a “bridgehead” to the good, some portion that represents a foundation for repentance. The “noise” of our sin is the fury of nothingness, raging against the reality that dwells at the bridgehead.

I’ve counseled with parents across the years who are baffled by the behavior of a teen or a young adult who is lost in the noise of sin. It is a common thing for them to speak about the essential goodness of their child and their own inability to understand what has happened. “Nothing” has no explanation. I’ve always heard in those thoughts an echo of the heart of the Father in the story of the Prodigal Son. He sees his son from far off, indicating that he had always been watching and waiting. His son returns “alive” and not “dead.” The “dead son” remained behind with the swine. “This my son was dead and now he is alive.”

The repentance of sins is never anything less than resurrection from the dead. There is not a “reform” of that which is dead. It is a “new creation” in the words of St. Paul. It is the brushing away of the ashes that are so nearly Nothing.

I have found these ideas helpful in dealing with other people (and myself). That bridgehead of goodness is often held captive, trapped in the web of near-nothingness that we call sin. When we pray for others, we pray for the truth of their being, and its triumph (in Christ) over all opposition. Most importantly, it is vital that we recognize, even in the darkest of souls, that something remains of the good. In the work of salvation, it is the discovery and nurture of that very thing that is essential. We must fan the coal and pray for the flame of God to consume us.



About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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110 responses to “The Good That Lies Within”

  1. Randall Herman Avatar
    Randall Herman

    Thanks, Father. This is one of the best things I’ve read in awhile. Just yesterday I was thinking about St. Paisios and that we are all both bee and fly. A need reminder of Simul iustus te peccator.

  2. Dean Avatar

    “When we pray for others, we pray for the truth of their being, and its triumph
    (in Christ) over all opposition.”
    I have seen police photos of young people in before and after shots, after having been on meth for a while. The difference is startling.
    In the former, we see what we would think of as a “normal” face. After the meth it is a face shrunken, haggard, a shell of what it was. I imagine that the soul has gone through a similar transformation through the ravages of ” the noise of sin.” Yet the truth of their being is still within. It is good to hear again that evil is a movement toward nothingness, that it has no ontological reality of its own, but that evil will finally be ( in the human heart and cosmically) vanquished in Christ.
    Thank you for this helpful/hopeful article.

  3. Byron Avatar

    The repentance of sins never anything less than resurrection from the dead. There is not a “reform” of that which is dead. It is a “new creation” in the words of St. Paul. It is the brushing away of the ashes that are so nearly Nothing.

    I like this illustration of repentance but I’m not sure what to make of it. I have some fear that the ashes will eventually be brushed away and nothing left. It is harder to see “one small bridgehead of good” in myself than it is in others. I think it is often harder to accept grace for oneself than for others (at least for me). God is good.

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think that the bridgehead of good is something that has to be shown to us by God Himself. Thus, it’s something to pray for. When it comes, it is a great gift, somewhat fleeting, in my experience, but always there.

  5. Greg Avatar

    I think that one thing Orthodoxy would benefit from is to wrestle more deeply with the notion that all intentionality is ultimately oriented toward the Good (or more broadly the Transcendentals). Once you grasp this fact, the notion and nature of the Good as a teleological end for every rational and fully informed choice gives a very different perspective on our condition as humans. There’s an interesting elaboration of this in several of David Bentley Hart’s books, esp. The Experience of God and That All Shall Be Saved, but I don’t see it discussed broadly.

    I believe Gregory of Nyssa also taught that sheeps and goats represent a division of the person, though I can’t recall in what work, so perhaps my memory is playing tricks on me.

  6. Scott Avatar

    My favorite passage amongst the stories about Fr. Arseny, a very saintly priest condemned to the 20th century Gulags, is the one where he was granted a vision of the light filled hearts of the hardened criminals with whom he was imprisoned. Despite being a priest and knowing that they weren’t in theory depraved he was astounded by this light and by how brightly it shone.

    Thank you Fr. Stephen for all your work.

  7. victoria Avatar

    dear Father Stephen

    my only comment is not so much about your post, but the featured image. today in the late morning, on the way to meet a dear friend for a cup of coffee, there was a car driving in front of me with a license plate that referenced Isaiah 6:6

    I always look up the verses of license plates that have a Scripture reference, and why I am sharing it is because of the image to this article – which the verse had etched in the front of my mind – and then I just read your article, and photo you chose – it made a profound impact.

    Here is the verse from Isaiah

    “Then one of the serapheim was sent to me, He had a live coal in his hand, which he took with tongs from the altar.”

  8. Sofia Avatar


    Please forgive my very “foolish” question. I’ve been in the church long years and still am not sure how does repentance looks like? Not sinning anymore? Or just becoming ever more aware of our own sinfulness? Is there any repentance in habitual sins? Can we say that we repent and than keep doing the same old things…….out of habit, weakness of will or just for the pleasure that is associated with it (i.e gluttony…..). I’ve always been confused, to say the least, reading the lives of the saints. It seems to me that for most of them there was a clear definitive moment of turning to God in repentance and than they just continued going “from one victory to the other”…….always struggling, being tempted, but apparently never sinning. Or at least nobody has ever recorded their failings……only the extraordinary ascetic feats – and he/she went on one month without eating at all…….and so on.

    Thank you and God bless your wonderful ministry!

  9. Sue Avatar

    Father, this is one of my very favorite things you’ve written.
    While I was scrubbing the bathroom today, I was thinking about viruses and how, by scientific definition, they are not living organisms. They are close to nothing, yet what they do exceptionally well is create chaos (illness) and reproduce.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ve been hearing confessions and paying attention to souls for about 40 years now. Repentance, for too many people, means trying not to do something. It can leave us very much on the surface, I think, living a frustrated life of attempting “moral” sinlessness. Repentance is, at its best, a matter of the deep heart, a turning towards God – paying attention to God – allowing ourselves to belong to Him. I think of my marriage. I certainly loved my wife when we married (43 years ago) – but not anything like how I love her now. I still mess up and disappoint her, forget things, etc. But that’s not at all the same thing as ignoring her, or turning my heart away from her and towards something (or God forbid, someone) else. Loving her makes working on the faults not a hard thing. But she’s not trying to measure my performance. The love is what matters.

    I think it is the same with God. The little things we do wrong might be signs of a cold heart – but – I think of confession again – it may just be signs of someone thinking about “should’s” and “oughts.” Sometimes when I’m hearing confession, I see someone walking towards me with tears running down their cheeks. I think to myself, it doesn’t matter what they have to confess, their heart has already made the confession and the forgiveness of God is running down their cheek. The Fathers say that tears are a “second baptism.”

    So, for you and I, how do we find that place in the soul where the tears come from and how do we bring that into the presence of God? That is where we will find the deepest repentance. For crusty old men like myself – that is a difficult thing indeed. May God make it easy for you!

  11. Xenia Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, Thank you for this article. I have always liked Bulgakov’s interpretation. I think we all have a bit of goatish behavior, attitudes, or thoughts in us. When I think about the goat, the main characteristic is stubbornness. Growing up in the deep South it was common to hear someone describe someone else (often a relative!), as “He is as stubborn as an old goat!” Indeed, that characteristic is one of the first to surface in a toddler. Trying to pull a goat in one direction is almost impossible. I have never met someone who is not stubborn on some issue. Maybe that is where I should begin with confession. I believe with all my heart that there is a bridgehead of goodness in each heart. Thank you!

  12. Sofia Avatar

    Thank You Father!

    Your response is comforting and challenging at the same time. It is so deeply rooted in me the moralistic view of repentance. Maybe I should start my repentance exactly at this issue……..:-))

    God bless!

  13. Dino Avatar

    I think that what repentance ‘looks like’, might potentially have two rather distinctive answers:
    One answer is the kind of momentary (yet life-changing rather than transitory), ‘wedding’ of God’s visitation to man’s voluntary God-wards turn.
    Understandably, one can rightfully argue that how this ultimately pans out over a long stretch of time (the stability of the ‘marriage’ resulting from this ‘wedding’) is what counts: otherwise we just have (as the song ‘Who wants to live forever’ goes), just the “thing that builds our dreams, yet slips away from us”… or even, “only one, sweet moment set aside for us”.
    The second answer, is that repentance is our internal re- orientation, expressed as our devotional stability, manifested through the language of ascesis (not for ourselves, but for God) over time.
    Verifications of genuine, humble repentance, practically more than one’s tears, are such things one’s distaste for the causes of the pleasures that once held complete sway over them; also such things as the instinctual disinclination to judge any sinner.

  14. Sunny Avatar

    Just discovered this beautiful album and this song reminded me SO much of this specific article. Theologically it doesn’t make sense unless you’re able to distinguish, like that inner reading of the sheep and goats parable, between what’s real inside you and what’s not. I love how this song unabashedly speaks right to that good inside.

    “Hey there beautiful one, you there shining with glory
    Would you let your heart hear, if I sang about you
    Did you know that every fairy tale you love
    They have borrowed your story
    Of a maiden so lovely, and a hero so true

    It’s just that this world is hollow
    And it wants to swallow
    Any memory of who you really are

    Always remember to never forget
    When you look in the mirror, the answer is yes
    Yes you are pure as gold, yes you are beautiful
    So always remember to never forget
    Always remember to never forget

    Like a treasure in the deep, your heart is a diamond
    And your hero will do what it takes to find it
    So he can hold it tenderly, and become your defender
    Even lay down his life, to make your heart heal…”

  15. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    “Sometimes when I’m hearing confession, I see someone walking towards me with tears running down their cheeks. I think to myself, it doesn’t matter what they have to confess, their heart has already made the confession and the forgiveness of God is running down their cheek.”

    What a beautiful image, Fr. Stephen. Thank you. Now I understand why so many of the great saints valued tears…

  16. Dennis Avatar

    Thanks for your discussion on the will of man. Lord knows have I so often felt shame because my will had a will of its own. I would look at others and marvel that they seemed to have an iron will. Lately my will fits the description you mentioned “even when our will in its greatest rebellion”. Following your idea that the will flits about like the cells in our body offers a view that because we have a will that ebbs and flows does not mean that we have lost communion with God. This past couple of weeks, I have felt so defeated, helpless because my will for some reason decided to fight with God again. Forgive me Lord.

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Our culture, for various reasons, teaches a very “libertarian” view of the will: we are individuals who choose. We think that our choices determine our lives, etc. It is an account that is used to undergird our culture of consumption. We imagine that we’ve been buying all this stuff because we “chose” it. But those who sell it know that it is not a matter of choice. They sell us stuff based on our passions – our distorted desires. They do not want us to actually choose – that might involve reason and thought. Reason and thought are the last thing those who market things to us want us to do. Reason and thought are unreliable. The passions are easily manipulated. Why are we so angry about politics? It’s because all of our political messaging is aimed to our passions – not reason.

    So – we are deeply disordered. Most people only experience the disordered passions, thinking it’s their will.

    Much more to say, but I’ve got to run.

  18. Dennis Avatar

    Look forward to feedback on reordering passion that is God’s will. Read somewhere (Barth?) that the old man -flesh- is hard to kill. Like misunderstanding will, it is easy to believe your thoughts are who you are.

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There’s a great deal that we mistake for ourselves that is nothing of the sort. I sometimes think of it in terms of personality versus personhood. Personality is often a collection of neuroses and the like – a sort of mask that hides what it is to be person. Orthodoxy teaches that personhood is something we are moving towards (perhaps even recovering). St. Paul says, “you are hid with Christ in God.” I think that many of the things (neuroses) that comprise the personality are, in fact, distortions of the real and true things that belong to the person.

    The “will” is actually something that is exceedingly foundational – something closer to “inclination” – it is the very desire of our nature. What we experience as “will” is described as the “gnomic” will (the “choosing will”) that is involved in ignorance, deliberation, etc. This, according to St. Maximus, is a result of the fall – not the cause of the fall. Regaining a kind of union of person, in which the natural will is the very heart of our life, would be something we call “theosis” (divinization). Rare indeed.

  20. Mihai Avatar


    Regarding the juridical vs ontological approach, I might suggest something.
    My problem with this is that precisely that you always put a “vs” between them. In my opinion, both can be clearly found in the Fathers- of the East as well as of the West. St Athanasius uses the juridical approach in On the Incarnation too.

    What we have, in my opinion, is always an image, an approximation of the real thing. There is a hierarchy of symbols and images and the ontological approach is clearly much nearer to the Original than the juridical is (this latter can be called quite “a further cry”). However, it is still part of the hierarchy and has a legitimate place in a our faith, although it shouldn’t become central, nor predominant, nor conflated with the Real. Yet, even in our daily struggle when all else fail and we are mired in passions, it is quite useful to be reminded that there is a God in Heaven who will bring punishment if we keep it going like this-as a sort of last resort at a wake-up call.

    What I’m trying to say is that we should keep a balance and not extirpate images in our tradition that do have a right to exist, even though at a lower level.

    As regarding the parables, I think all of them can be understood both inner and outer, microcosmically as well as macrocosmically.
    I’ve been thinking about the parable of the seeds lately and that the four types of soil spoken about in them are all present in all of us- 4 different disposition co-existing in us, some predominating at times over the others.

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I understand your point – and have thought a lot about it over the years. It’s certainly the case, for example, that the language of wrath and punishment are replete in the Scriptures and are not absent in the tradition. I’m less certain about the juridical, if I can expound on that.

    The juridical “view” is more than a metaphor or an image – it is used particularly to explain “what is actually going on.” It purports to be an explanation of reality. In settings such as the penal substitutionary atonement theory – it is even pressing its way into the very inner life of God.

    I note in your comment that you make a distinction between the juridical as a lesser, or more distant, image. I would agree. Indeed, I would suggest that it generally serves as a “moral” image – a sort of “whip” for the wayward – threatening, etc.

    As such, it has echoes of a time in which capital punishment and corporal discipline were common. Heck, St. Benedict called for beating monks as part of the work of their formation! The image (symbol) exists and has its place – though, in our time, it has taken on a reification for many that needs to be deconstructed and dismantled.

    No doubt, I come on a bit strong in my critique of the juridical. On the other hand, St. Paul came on a bit strong in his critique of circumcision and the works of the Law – though they had been instituted by God. I do not draw this parallel very strongly – on to say that there is a pedological reasoning in drawing the lines as strongly as I do.

    The ontological understanding is an attempt to speak of reality itself. It is the language of the Creed, of Christology, of all the doctrinal statements of the Great Councils. The juridical seems to have its place within the canons – though, even there, as in Canon 102 of the Quinisext Council says, all of these canons (in their juridical character) are to be understood and applied as medicine (which would be ontological).

    I would say that what I have tried to do is in line with that canon. Take the juridical language – but move past its crude imagery and push to what is underneath – for the sake of understanding what is real and true.

    And, of course, the other side of the issue is the great damage done to souls by the long abuse associated with the misuse of the juridical imagery when it has been used to bury and ignore the ontological tradition of the Church. If you are well-grounded in the ontological understanding, it’s possible to discuss the juridical images. If you’ve never even thought about the ontological understanding – it’s pretty much necessary to kill the juridical in order to get there. Once there, the conversation can begin.

  22. Salaam Yitbarek Avatar
    Salaam Yitbarek

    Scott, in Father Arseny (Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father) , there was just one person who would not repent – he confessed but would not repent. Father Arseny not only looked constantly for even a little glimmer of light, but also always thanked God for having granted him the chance to be imprisoned and to see the goodness in his fellow prisoners! Remarkable! Yet there was this one criminal – out of thousands. It’s a mystery.

  23. ScottTX Avatar

    I think the reason the juridical metaphor has to be subsumed under the medical metaphor is that the juridical by itself has no healthy limit.

    In the medical view, the patient is the end. God cuts the patient to save him.

    In the juridical view, abstract Justice is the end. If the offender’s complete destruction serves as a mere means to realize Justice, so be it.

  24. Matthew W. Avatar


    Thank-You so much for that very well encapsulated point. It really does get to the heart of the matter.

  25. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Sorry for the aside…joyful news this morning:
    🙂 🙂 🙂

  26. Janine Avatar

    Xenia, thanks for tying together stubborn and goat. Of course I’ve heard the expression a million times, but you gave me an image of being stuck, a refusal to go forward, to change. Perfect for the analogy of paralysis, being stuck, refusing movement, metanoia.

  27. Janine Avatar

    (And what do the sheep do? They follow the shepherd where they are led)

  28. juliania Avatar

    Thank you, Father Stephen – lovely!

  29. Panayiota Avatar

    The image of the Prodigal Son that you spoke of… ” the dead son being left behind with the swine” is an image I will hold on to. So many times we confess our sin, and never actually allow ourselves to be free of them. There is no movement towards real repentance this way. I think the web of sin just keeps weaving itself in a more complex, twisted way. Judgement, I think gets tangled in this. Dying to ourselves has much more meaning when I reflect on the Prodigal this way, as does Gods grace.

  30. Christopher Avatar

    ” Is the will to be measured at some moment – say, the last moment? Is it taken as an average of all moments? Or do we often die as a collection of conflicted moments, tossed about by everything around us?”

    This statement, Dino’s point about repentance and its character through time, as well as the rest of the discussion in the comments around the relationship of ontology and juridical has me thinking of J. P. Manoussakis’s work on Time and Personhood. Are you familiar with this work Fr. Stephen? I am just beginning to read through his recent work. I find his critique of the Orgenistic/Platonic leaning thinkers of today (e.g. Hart, Zizioulas, etc.) and yesterday (e.g. Nyssa) helpful.

    I lean (it’s an open question for me) towards disagreeing with Mihai because when I read St Athanasius “On the Incarnation” I don’t get any sense that his use of the juridical is “lesser” than the ontological, or even hierarchical. If anything, it fills in the gap of ontology (as it were) by giving us a picture of restoration, salvation, through *time*. In other words, it “explains” the relationship of movement *in time*, so that movement (to and away from sin, etc.) is contextualized.

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have not read Manoussakis.

  32. Michael Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen for these insights.

    I have been trying to understand ‘non-being’ in Orthodox teachings. I have not been fully engaged with Orthodoxy for very long, though I had read a few books and watched some videos prior to my conversion. I was a bit surprised to find this idea of ‘non-being’ so strongly present in Orthodox Christianity. For years I have associated the term with Eastern religions and occultism, which often present ‘non-being’ as desirable, so I know my understanding needs correction.

    To summarize my understanding, from your article and my personal reading, of ‘non-being’ in Orthodox Christianity what I am hearing is that it is the movement to enthrone the false-self as the center of creation. The false-self is always attempting to justify itself and can become quit demonic in its efforts of denying God (following all the passions in attempts at justification) and his creation. In this sense, the false self doesn’t have any ontological status of its own, which results in its own abyss of never being able to have enough of anything to justify its existence, because at its core it is still as nothing before the reality of God.

    If even demons have this bridgehead of goodness, this small core of the Good wrapped in the sin of ‘non-being’, is such a being so identified with its own ‘non-being’/false self that it refuses to ever acknowledge God as an ongoing movement away from God? Could even we humans find ourselves to such a place? It seems to be suggested that we can in the Gospels, such as the wheat and the tares or the already mentioned sheep and goats.

    I know no one has posted to this one in some time so maybe there will not be any responses. That’s ok, but I thought I might as well see.

  33. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A good place to start in thinking about non-being is to read St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. Is a very constant theme in the Father. Also, as to non-being, it’s always a movement “towards” non-being. There is no non-being – because it would not be.

  34. Michael Avatar

    Father Stephen, thank you for that simple clarification! ‘ non-being’, like attempting to escape the reality of God, but you never can because your being, no matter how clouded in sin(even a demon), still has its being from God. That is helpful.

    I was associating the ‘non-being’ with the idea of God creating ex-nihilo, out of nothing, which I took mistakenly to equal ‘non-being’. Thank you.

    I will read On the Incarnation. Thank you for the suggestion.

  35. Michael Avatar

    Sorry, I meant “toward’ Non-being!

  36. Dino Avatar

    The notion of sentient creatures freely becoming fixed in a certain trajectory: whether this is a movement towards “eternal well-being”, [“in God” -the Source of all being], or towards “non-being”, [away from Him], is often encountered in the patristic tradition – in various guises. We sometimes notice it being pretty explicit – some of Maximus’ writings and his modern analysts are an example here– or you might notice it as just a [strong] ‘undertone’ – as in many of the more ascetical or paraenetic sayings (including those of our contemporary saints). Once you’re ‘tuned in’, I think, it will start popping out at you more and more…
    Now, how, (or even ‘if’, for some) our short-term, mutable and fluctuating movement (whatever mix of ‘voluntary’ and ‘involuntary’ this may be), works to produce the long-term , more entrenched or established movement (whatever mix of voluntary or involuntary this may be), is an exceedingly complex topic of course.

  37. Dino Avatar

    On that ‘exceedingly complex topic’:
    I think that Maximus’ ‘safe-distance’ treatment of the contentious issue of universal salvation, with “honourable silence”, is suggestive of a respectful stance towards what remains a mystery for now. He is, of course, clear –as the Church is– that it would be a scandal if apokatastasis was approached as an Origenist ‘inevitability’.
    The exceedingly complex topic’ of what is voluntary or not, for Maximus, has a great deal to do with his clarifications on the will and the exercise of the will. His sophisticated interpretations always associate salvation and sin with the concept of the will. For the saint, neither salvation nor sin is determined by nature (so that a mechanistic characteristic of created nature would make salvation automatic). The unity or disunity between “gnomic” and natural will is the place where the spiritual struggle is fought and where the will is exercised. Our ascent is therefore not so much passively determined by nature, but by somewhat actively through our free-choice orientation (including all the manifold “micro-re-orientations”) of our will towards God and salvation. The establishment of this trajectory for ever is another issue:
    Here there’s the interesting issue that his mystagogical, intensely-personal style, often places the eschata, not at the end of linear time, or when the entire universe will become clear for all, but at the union of the soul with God which transcends all time, the experience of the ‘time of God’ which is outside of the “cosmic clock of creation”. He paradoxically and ingeniously pronounces this eventual union which can be foretasted even now, as the ‘ever-moving rest’ (“ἐπέκτασις” and “ἀεικίνητος στάσις”) [reminiscent of 2 Cor. 3: 18]. This transformation of our time-and-space-bound mutable condition, comes through our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But it is seen (paradoxically) as an unchangeable “moving-rest”.
    Difficult topics but these are some thoughts…

  38. Michael Avatar

    Thank you Dino. That actually is helpful. I have not read St. Maximus, as I was advised to established a good base understanding of Orthodox thought before doing so.

    You bring up something I read recently in regards to Origen and apokatastasis. I understand that Origen was declared anathema, but a mention of this idea comes up in The Roots of Christian Mysticism by Olivier Clement. I have heard echos of this kind of thing in eastern thought and it seems to boil down to God is All and therefore eventually All will be saved so the next logical step it to ‘do what you want’. I had a older friend some time ago who had converted to Sikhism who believed a variation of this idea. He had also participated in the 60’s cultural revolution and conversed with Timothy Leary so I suppose this is no surprise. I bought into the remnant of this social movement for a long time in my youth myself so I understand how appealing the ‘freedom” offered by these ideas are.

    However once you accept that human beings have something we commonly call ‘free will’ then this idea of apokatastasis does indeed seem to do violence to the very concept of that free will. If eventually everyone will be saved, then is there really any ‘free will’? Why not just indulge in every passion to there fullest like some of the Gnostic sects believed? In any case I find that I can’t justify the two positions as both true from my limited perspective. If being ‘human’ is to also have free will, it seems God would refrain from interfering with that ‘free will’. And so those who choose by their exercise of free will to orient their movement away from God would also be successful in their desires. They will by choice become more tare than wheat, more goat than sheep.

    For me, attempting to clarify ‘free will’ is something that has begun to help me make sense of our fallen state. Once I began to free myself of the secular idea that the world is just ‘natural’ and ‘nominal’ with no inherent meaning of its own, then the fallen state became more apparent. This perception is even something I have known since I was a child, this sense that something about the world is ‘not right’, but I have tried to ignore and cover that intuition up most of my life. Incidentally, trying to gain a more clear understanding of free will has given me the beginnings of a way to understand martyrdom versus fighting back against those who would visit evil on you. I had always just assumed it would be right to harm those who are trying to harm you. I have been re-thinking this lately and feel like I have a better base of understanding for non-violence than I have had in the past.

    Thanks for your comments. Hopefully I have not misunderstood anything too badly. If so I open to correction. If you have any suggestions on where to start with Maximus let me know.

  39. ScottTX Avatar

    “Also, as to non-being, it’s always a movement ‘towards’ non-being. There is no non-being – because it would not be.”

    “And so those who choose by their exercise of free will to orient their movement away from God would also be successful in their desires.”

    This is a diabolical combination. If a creature’s on an asymptotic path towards non-being, why not be merciful and grant them a reprieve from being? Being’s not all it’s cracked up to be. There’s simplicity and safety in non-being. It’s a safe harbor, a bird in the hand.

  40. Dino Avatar

    I am sorry to say that, that, sounds like a “having your cake and eating it demand” on the philosophical plane.
    A foundational setting to understand this is the parable of the Prodigal Son. From the outset it reveals to us one of the most generous sacrificial acts of the Gospel: the Father’s response to the son’s demands is an act perhaps only comparable to the Crucifixion…

    What I am trying to parallel here is that the ‘Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8)’ is the One who dared to create creatures bestowing them with such eternal self-determination like His own…
    Furthermore, the self-effacing character of such sacrificial action includes the inconceivable magnanimousness that it allows the receivers of this love, the freedom to still blame their dishonourable response (to their honourable calling) on the One Who loves them and bestowed them with such irrevocable god-likeness.
    Back to the parabl: the Father accepts to be dealt with (by His children) as if He is already dead. On the part of the son, the Father’s death can be brought about right now: He can already be inherited and forgotten. This means for the son that he has been granted a perfect and absolute freedom of self-determination towards his Father: freedom to act as if there were no longer a Father for him; freedom to behave towards the One Who begot him as if He is nothing.
    Man can kill his God, even if this means that Man manages to make his ‘paradise’ into his very own hell. God made children that will eventually self-determine towards Him like gods.
    In this respect the creation of man contains within it the Cross from the start. The creation of man by God, as an act of emptying and self-offering, includes the death of God on the Cross. God created entities whose salvation can eternally be both affirmed or denied by themselves alone. In that particular capacity we are “gods”.
    Now if we blame our creator for God’s gifts, blaming His calling of being of such an order, of it being irrevocable (Romans 11:29) etc… It sounds like we want to cash in our chips and keep playing poker.

  41. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ever since Adam uttered those infamous words, “this woman you have me…” We have tried to blame our state on God, especially we men. In the process we generally assume many things to our detriment and complicate the process of salvation and forget the key act that is required: repentance.

    Then there is the approach my God loving wife takes since she was five: Yay God!

    Existential angst is both necessary and inevitable but we do not have to stay there because that is damnation. I see in myself every day the willingness to accept the angst as my life rather than to seek surcease of sorrow in communion with God.

    Is not preferring sorrow and condemnation to joy what damnation is? Yet Christ is right there by my side, indeed sealed within me. All I have to do is die: to my will, my angst and my rebellion just a little bit and a great well of joy gushes up.

    More people will be in the Kingdom than any of us thinks but both the universalist and the Calvinist suffer from the same problem: assuming they know who those folks are.

  42. ScottTX Avatar

    “What I am trying to parallel here is that the ‘Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8)’ is the One who dared to create creatures bestowing them with such eternal self-determination like His own…
    Furthermore, the self-effacing character of such sacrificial action includes the inconceivable magnanimousness that it allows the receivers of this love, the freedom to still blame their dishonourable response (to their honourable calling) on the One Who loves them and bestowed them with such irrevocable god-likeness.”

    So, God makes you, lets you fail forever, and if you fail it’s your own fault, and if you object to this arrangement you’re dishonorable. Even if the steps can be justified with the philosophical abstraction of “free will”, the first one can’t. I did not consent to be and expose myself to these risks. Better to be a slave in God’s house and get released from Being in a jubilee than be forever damned as a failed son.

  43. ScottTX Avatar

    “Existential angst is both necessary and inevitable but we do not have to stay there because that is damnation.”

    How can you blame someone for performance anxiety when the stakes are so high? At least when Calvin’s god damns you it’s not your fault.

  44. Dino Avatar

    It may sound rational, but it is ultimately a deceptive and ‘selfist’ philosophical path of ‘inevitability’ enforced from Man on God… We ought not go there…
    CS Lewis somewhat addresses this in his ‘the Great Divorce’.
    He also discerningly decodes many a universalist’s argument for what might be lurking underneath.
    For example he notes that those who “choose misery try to hold joy up to ransom”, (by pity).  Instead of “saying they were sorry”, they “sulked in the attic”: They “use pity to blackmail the saved ones.”
    This is the key argument he chiefly addresses – he describes it as:

    “The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.”

    However, he also touches upon the other argument of “universalism-or-God-is-the-author-of-evil-for-allowing-freedom”. This argument is reminiscent of theodicy.
    CS Lewis in chapter 13 seems to be allowing a certain universalist ‘hope’, but without lapsing to any philosophical inevitabilities [as, forgive me but, it seems to me your annihilationism is trying to do Scott]). Here’s the closing dialogue:

     “Then no one can ever reach them?”

    “Only the Greatest of all can make Himself small enough to enter Hell. For the higher a thing is, the lower it can descend-a man can sympathise with a horse but a horse cannot sympathise with a rat. Only One has descended into Hell.”

    “And will He ever do so again?”

    “It was not once long ago that He did it. Time does not work that way when once ye have left the Earth. All moments that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending. There is no spirit in prison to Whom He did not preach.”

    “And some hear him?”


    “In your own books, Sir,” said I, “you were a Universalist . You talked as if all men would be saved. And St. Paul too.”

    “Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it’s ill talking of such questions.”

    “Because they are too terrible, Sir?”

    “No. Because all answers deceive. If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But if ye are trying to leap on into eternity, if ye are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal ears. Time is the very lens through which ye see-small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope-something that would otherwise be too big for ye to see at all. That thing is Freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality. But ye can see it only through the lens of Time, in a little clear picture, through the inverted telescope. It is a picture of moments following one another and yourself in each moment making some choice that might have been otherwise. Neither the temporal succession nor the phantom of what ye might have chosen and didn’t is itself Freedom. They are a lens. The picture is a symbol: but it’s truer than any philosophical theorem (or, perhaps, than any mystic’s vision) that claims to go behind it. For every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of Time destroys your knowledge of Freedom. Witness the doctrine of Predestination which shows (truly enough) that eternal reality is not waiting for a future in which to be real; but at the price of removing Freedom which is the deeper truth of the two. And wouldn’t Universalism do the same? Ye cannot know eternal reality by a definition. Time itself, and all acts and events that fill Time, are the definition, and it must be lived. The Lord said we were gods. How long could ye bear to look (without Time’s lens) on the greatness of your own soul and the eternal reality of her choice?” .

  45. ScottTX Avatar

    Dino, you have argued for eternal damnation by quoting a fictional book whose author put false words into a character’s mouth, a character based on a real person who would have condemned those very words.

    I’ve come out of Calvinism, but to me Orthodoxy is even more scary. Your Dad throws you into the deep end, tells you to sink or swim, then when you’re going under and reach for a hand, he just says, “Sorry, free will”.

    If salvation is reducible to individual free will, Jesus died for nothing.

  46. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I would agree, that if salvation is reducible to individual free will, Jesus died for nothing. I think voluntaristis accounts of salvation are reductionist. I have written consistently that the will is not what we imagine to be – certainly not the absolute center of things.

    I am in the middle of a conference and have not been able to really engage in this conversation. But, there are certainly questions that are appropriate and remain unanswered. We are not abandoned to our “will.” And I’ll leave it there. Gotta go.

  47. Dino Avatar

    I just answered someone asking me about D.B.Hart’s universalism and I’ll repeat the same point I am trying to make here to you: “I would simply be less indubitable in my proclamations on such matters- it is more humble…
    There are revelations supporting both sides of the argument of course, in the sayings of various saints, however, I find there are far more divine revelations guarding against an assured universalism, and less guaranteeing it.
    Isaac the Syrian and Nyssa for example have similarly philosophically reasoned arguments for their universalism. (Not quite a direct revelation.) {Besides, Isaac’s’ is a universalism that includes a very real hell (that purifies), no less scary than the eternal one.}
    I quoted CSLewis because I think he is very carefully balanced in how he “treads upon these eggshells”.
    The issue of Time, and our delving into trying to understand what is not given us (time-bound-creatures) to understand, is, I think, the main thing that leads to philosophical speculation, that cannot possibly be assured of its freedom-from-delusion…
    Remember that to demand is egotistical, to hope is Christ-like.. On this unknowable matter this is certainly even more vital!

  48. Dino Avatar

    Also, “your Dad”, certainly does not throw you in the deep (to use your above example) to swim, and then withholds his hand because of free will. Quite the contrary: he does the swimming for you, the arm-bands, the flippers and when you hit Him, He just becomes more subtle in His support of you… This never ever stops.
    I think the true experience of a hell that is forever-resistant-to-heaven, is that, although the luciferian damned might want to prove that this forever-respectfully-helpful Dad, somehow, is the only one to blame for their indignation, He accepts this unwarranted blame and in doing so they become even more indignant against His kindness. He can’t win. This is also of course my speculation.

  49. ScottTX Avatar

    “Remember that to demand is egotistical, to hope is Christ-like.. “

    And to hope for non-being in the face of damnation?

    Remember when Job praised the grave in chapter 3? For others, the whirlwind is silent, and his praise stands. A coyote isn’t egotistical when it chews its leg off to escape a trap.

  50. Dino Avatar

    That makes little sense from an Orthodox perspective I think Scott. To ‘hope for non-being in the face of damnation’ is a v. strange saying, because ‘to hope’, means you can be saved, you hope “outside of” yourself, and this would be granted instantly to one who hopes… Damnation -as an eternal state- is akin to utter hopelessness from utterly everything (including self-anihilation). It is also the self-proclamation of God-ness against God in utter self-absorption.
    Maybe I should clarify that a taste of hell that, though equally unbearable, is temporary (ultimately producing deep humility), is a wholly different thing. The speculation is on eternal damnation – but things like this we cannot talk of with any certainty…

  51. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Scott, what the Orthodox Church teaches is the opposite of what you say. Peter came willing to Christ on the water( an expression of his will in love). However, on the way there, Peter lost focus and began to sink (his will falling due to fear). Jesus did not let Perter sink. Instead He reached out and saved Peter while simultaneously admonishing him.

    The freedom in the Orthodox Church is scary especially if one is coming out of Calvinism. Remember though it is not a freedom of the will which is a small thing, but a freedom to struggle and fail and call out to Jesus constantly, Lord save me. It is the freedom of love knowing Christ is always there. Indeed, when someone is received into the Church, we are sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit so He is closer than hands and feet and comforts us and saves us every time we cry out and even when we do not.

    He never forgets me. He is always there tapping on my shoulder to remind me He is there. Long before I was Orthodox, I cried out to Him in need because I felt I was sinking. I did not know He would come but He came anyway.. My whole life changed but it still took me 20 years before I entered an Orthodox Church after spending 40 years in the desert (there was one about 20 minutes away) I know, in retrospect, that He was with me always. Indeed He formed me in my mother’s womb. I did not will that.

    It is sometimes said the hell is being in the presence of Christ and refusing to accept His love of who we are. His love becomes a fire. That is not a matter of will but of the heart. It is ultimately denying who I am as a human being made in His image. Will has nothing to do with it.

  52. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Hi ScottTX, I’m so glad to see this conversation on this post. I had been thinking of one of Father Stephen’s quotes, but couldn’t fully remember it. It was on this page and I found it again just now after reading today’s comments

    It is from Oct 18, 2019 7:44 above

    “Repentance is, at its best, a matter of the deep heart, a turning towards God – paying attention to God – allowing ourselves to belong to Him.”

    I get your comments from today. I have some gentle thoughts. My day included one moment that you described.

    I think the goal of the enemy is to crush thanksgiving in the hearts of men. An efficient way to do this is to encourage us to think we must earn our way into heaven.

    It is a paradigm shift potentially: do good to earn heaven or, because God has given Himself to us and somehow made heaven here at hand and in our hearts, ‘fully present but not fully revealed’, to share that overflowing goodness as we can. (Quote from Met Tikhon or Archbishop Nathaniel)

    Sometime I have to trust that it is a gift, life, even though I didn’t ask for it. Then I can gather my courage to venture a thank you. I have to accept that I don’t have all the information.

    I look forward to hopefully receiving a new name in Heaven. I look forward to hearing that name spoken and getting to see Jesus. But I have had to remind myself ‘to live is Christ’ and He gives us that, we don’t have to earn it.

    If we can remeber the enemy’s goal of crushing thanksgiving then those daunting moments when we feel like we’ve been tossed into an ocean to see if we swim can become reminders to just say ‘Lord have mercy on me, a sinner’ and remember how how Christ accepts those humble prayers.

  53. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    I second Michael and Nicole’s encouragement, Scott.

    I came from a church heavy into Calvinism. Actually it was your typical all-American non-denom Evangelical mix…some Baptist, some Pentecostal, some Nazarene. But undeniably “once saved always saved”. Repentance, turning to God, meant making a statement of faith in Christ. There was no need for “works”, because you were saved. And you just knew those who were not. They were the ones who didn’t make that declaration.
    So what then, with sin, when repentance was in essence a legal form of agreement, when confession was a private affair between you and Jesus, when the only two sacraments acknowledged, Baptism and Communion, were mere symbolic acts?
    In Orthodoxy sin is dealt with, Scott. Every day you live the Orthodox life. You do work out your salvation. You know you have within you the Spirit of God as Helper, as Comforter. That, my friend, is Big! Can’t get any bigger. It is not only ‘you and Jesus’, but you and the entire Church…those with us now, who have a lot of mileage and are a great means of guidance and support, along with those who have passed…and the Saints, and your patron saint, and your guardian angel, and….you acquire much hope. Much, when you begin to learn more and more about, well, the meaning of Life…the meaning of it all…that it is all about Christ. It’s impossible to articulate all that He does/has done that we may be saved. Nonetheless to have a firm grasp of the Mysteries.
    Beyond that, our existence/being is not, nor ever will be static, nor can it be obliterated. But, as described by some as a continual moving toward or away from fullness of being (whatever that really means, I think it is much like Nicole’s quote of Father’s, “…allowing ourselves to belong to Him”) in God’s presence, now, and until the ages of ages. Those are the two alternatives, as I understand it. There’s nowhere where the Presence is not, since He is Eternal, ever existent, Life. Thus, annihilation is simply impossible.
    Scott, your questions/statements are not unfounded, nor do I see them as a reflection of self-absorption. Coming from Calvinism where it is taught that God arbitrarily chooses damnation to those He hates and salvation to those He loves, although it boggles my mind that I once believed those things, it is because of that, that I can understand your comment on damnation and your hope for annihilation. I only hope you wrestle with it further. There are sound and truthful responses to your concerns. There is most definitely forgiveness and great mercy in Christ.
    I encourage you to stay, if you would, and consider…I mean really consider, what Father is teaching. He often poses good questions for us, rearranging those questions we ask amiss.
    Thankfully, you’ve been here at the blog for a while. I do believe there is a good reason for that….

  54. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I never cease to marvel at the fact that there are people in my parish who can trace their family’s history of being Christian back to the time of the Apostles. When the Evangelist Philip went out from Jerusalem into what is now the Diocese of Homs in southern Syria their multi great grandparents hear the word and repented and we’re Baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and annoited and sealed in the Holy Spirit. Now some 2000 years later, their ancestors are here in Wichita, Ks to welcome a mongrel late in the day worker like me into their family. They were Christian long before Calvin and personal “will” had nothing to do with it.

    Over the centuries their ancestors faced famine, invasion, persecution and death yet remained in the faith. The founders of the Holy Temple in which I worship were driven from their ancestral lands by the Islamic pogroms of the late 19th century. Unfortunately the diocese of Homs which birthed us now lies in waste because of (warning a real political statement) in part the foreign policy of this country.

    Jesus told us the world would hate us. His method of addressing that hatred is “love your enemies, bless those that curse you”. Further He said, “Fear not for I am with you…”

    Obedience, the hallmark virtue of the Christian faith, is simply about love. The one time in my life I was fully obedient, my mind and will and choice was in revolt against what my Bishop told me I must do. When I submitted to what he told me, my heart opened and was warmed by an inner flow of joy or actually the other way around: my heart broke and the joy poured forth and I said yes. My will, some 11 years later is still in revolt as I am a stubborn man. But, thankfully God’s mercy prevails as does His joy.

    Joy is always a gift of God from Jesus through the Holy Spirit. The Orthodox life is a sacramental life of Providence and thanksgiving. Thus the name of this blog.

  55. Dino Avatar

    What I am trying to communicate regarding universal apokatastasis is, I think, not that dissimilar in spirit to what Father Stephen has said in the past: we can only hope. Humble hope is Christ-like, demanding inevitability is quite the opposite.
    Also, since, as Orthodox we are fundamentally internal ‘hesychasts’ rather than external ‘activists’, we can only ‘invite cosmic salvation in’ to the degree that we entreat the salvation of all within our heart of hearts, rather than departing that inner abode to go broadcasting universalism’s inevitability to all others.

  56. ScottTX Avatar

    I thought the humble idea was “Universalism for everyone but me”.

    The Atonement may be sufficient for God to forgive me, but not for me to forgive myself. I’m afraid to burn, but if nothing else, it would allow me to look at my scars and stumps and know that I PAID, and my inner judge would be satisfied.

    Or, God could erase the dilemma by letting me pass out of the world.

  57. Dino Avatar

    That is spot on! The humble idea is “Universalism for everyone but me”. (a saint’s “me” is the opposite to egoism).
    In the full knowledge of the oneness of all Adam, the saint’s “have mercy on me” while praying for himself, knows no distinction between the world and self, it is a cosmic intercession that never stops entreating (due to any universalist assurance) for the whole world’s salvation, neither stops hoping.

  58. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Nothingness is the repository of the passions uncut by Grace and mercy. Nothingness can only be conceived because of the I AM, but it ceased to be possible when God called all into being and substance.

  59. Dino Avatar

    “Universalism for everyone but me” is spot on Scott… However, while praying for himself, the saint knows no distinction between the world and the self, so he intercedes for all while getting to know the weakness of all (as a “Cosmic Adam”) through his own self. He entreats on the one hand without any cessation (brought through any universalist assurance), and on the other without loss of hope (in the faith of God’s ability to save all).

  60. Dino Avatar

    I agree that annihilationism makes no sense, as you state it. We cannot “pass out of the world” at any time.
    God’s ‘time-less’ calling-into-being is just that: outside of Time.
    Its outside-of-Time-irrevocability is impossible to conceive from within time.

  61. Dino Avatar

    One additional thought on all this is that we ought to -like the saints- walk the tight-rope of oscillation between repentant fear and grateful hope (one eye on our sinfulness and the other on the eternal mercy of God). The so called ‘narrow path’ is this balancing act. This paradox is also St. Silouan’s path with one’s mind in hell, yet without falling into despair.

  62. Connie Avatar

    Dino, as someone who knows the feeling of that tight-rope walk intimately, I want to add another little detail to that “balancing act.” If the abyss below does not have a safety net the resulting fear could be too incapacitating to any normal Christian walk. There has to be some kind of assurance that no matter what, God will not let anyone go, no matter how frail the will. My guess is that this very assurance is the only reason St. Silouan could “despair not.” “Underneath are the everlasting arms.”

  63. Dino Avatar

    Connie, that’s a good point, I sometimes suspect that the internal, subconscious assurance of those “everlasting arms of God” (or one’s doubt of them) has a lot to do with a person’s upbringing (including their immediate family as well as their more extended cultural influences). This is clearly a thing acquired over some time.
    At the same time, St Siloun claimed that, in the face of the inconceivable demonic despair he faced later on in his life, what “kept him”, was his earlier experience of Christ’s love when He had appeared to him as a young novice (a singular experience). Of course, if you read St Silouan you realize he had the former as well as the latter underpinnings ‘keeping him’…

  64. Connie Avatar

    It is sobering to know that we really do need darkness in order to see the light. Fortunately we also know that in the end we will say that the struggle was all worth it.

  65. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The flaw here, I think, is it is really easy to see creation and salvation in ways that are excessively linear even pointalist. That is a mistake. I struggled for many years with a mild form of annihilationism and the temptation to kill myself. There was this voice in my head that kept telling me I and everybody else would be better off if I were dead. It sounded quite a bit like my own internal voice and was persuasive to a point. However something made me not completely trust it. Just a bit too logical to be of true. Thank God. It is a lie from hell–thats how I know hell exists. The voice went away on the day I was Chrismated.
    My late wife fell prey to her version of that voice but the evil one did not prevail as my priest, a chanter and several fellow parishinors sang prayers together as she lay dying. Just as she passed, my son and I saw her guardian angel come for her.
    We, as a community, repented on her behalf, but the repentance is required.

    Living a life of praise and Thanksgiving is the antidote, the firm bridge and the energy in His Arms. Joy banishes all night. Fear included.

  66. Dino Avatar

    You rightfully bring awareness of the potential, unseen demonic element in many a philosophical path, even when it seems to be ‘good-seeking’.
    The topic of annihilationism (as a form of universalism) would be (since God is outside of time) as if God had made some ‘mistakes’ in His creation of all the freely-self-determining beings. This does not stand to reason. For God, there is only an eternal now.
    The philosophical-slanted rationalisations on apokatastasis (as an inevitability) also cannot fail to resemble the doctrine of Predestination in this light –an ‘eternal reality that (as CS Lewis puts it) “is not waiting for a future in which to be real, and its price is removing Freedom”. Universalism as a philosophy (rather than a hope) does exactly the same.
    On the other hand, St Isaac the Syrian, uses the element of time-in-hell to explain an (eventually) freely salvific use of Gehenna (by God) for the salvation, even of Lucifer. However, (although I am no philosopher) it does actually seem to start ‘playing’ with freedom a bit.
    Then again, God has certainly used that pedagogical tough love kind of ‘guidance’ (over time) to us hardened sinners, here on earth, and we can only thank Him for it!
    This all shows a certain futility in the philosophical approach –the ‘thought-out life’– as well as the wisdom of the ‘lived-out hope’,:a burning inner intimacy to God alone, rather than a distancing from Him in our own thought’s labyrinths and rabbit-holes.

  67. Dino Avatar

    This all shows there’s futility in the philosophical approach –the ‘thought-out life’.
    There’s also wisdom in the ‘lived-out hope/life’:
    this second kind of ‘life’ brings a burning inner intimacy to God alone.
    The first brings a distancing from Him due to our own thought’s labyrinths and rabbit-holes.

  68. Byron Avatar

    It is sobering to know that we really do need darkness in order to see the light.

    I think God (the Light) defines Himself; darkness is not needed to see Him. Musing on this, I expect the fullness of the presence of God will, in that time and place where we see him fully, be revealed with no darkness at all. The presence of God is often experienced by the Saints (at least in their writings) as a light that shines from everywhere, with no darkness. Yet it is unmistakably His presence and does no harm to those experiencing it.

  69. Connie Avatar

    You might be right, Byron. Perhaps I was just talking from my own experience. One of the verses I had in mind was Rom 11:32 where St Paul says, “God has consigned all to disobedience so that He might have mercy on all.” I was thinking that somehow we need to experience that ignorance of / distance from/ disobedience toward? God (I don’t know what to call it!) if for no other reason than to see our need for Him. Of course I also don’t really know what is meant here by the word “consigned.” As for the experience of the saints, I know nothing! But I do believe as you do that ultimately for even us common folk there will be no darkness at all.

  70. Peter Avatar


    Sorry, I am trying to reach out to you regarding a quote by St. Paisios you translated in Eclectic Orthodoxy and could not find any other way of reaching you than this blog post. The quote is this one, do you have a source please?

    “Look my child , just like those who are out at night in the dark see who is inside a lit room, so those who will be in Hell will see those who will be in Paradise. And this will make it worse for them. And just as those who are in the lit room at night do not see what is out in the dark, so those who will be in Paradise will not see those who will be in hell. Because if they saw the damned, they would ache, they would grieve on their behalf, and would certainly not “enjoy” Paradise. But in Paradise, as we sing: “pain is no more … “. And not only will they not see the damned, but neither will they remember if they had a brother or father or mother, if these are ‘missing’ from Paradise!. “in that very day his thoughts perish.” says the Psalmist… Because if they remember them, how would Paradise be Paradise? In fact all who will be in Paradise, will think there are no other people, nor will they remember their sins! Because if they remember the sins they had once done, they would not bear the thought that they had grieved God.

    The amount again of each one’s joy in Paradise will be different(….) But everyone will feel full and no one will know the size of joy, of gladness, of another. Our Good God has arranged it thus(…)The “visibility” of God will not be prescribed by God, but it will depend on each one’s own purity.

  71. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ve been bopping around airports all day, unable to respond to comments, sorry.

    But, I think there is a great futility in the discussion of judgment/salvation/heaven/hell. Frequently, we are grasping at straws (and some straws seem better than others). But it’s still flimsy stuff.

    What I prefer to do is direct my attention to the love of God – it is revealed without contradiction on the Cross of Christ. He is a good God and loves mankind and reveals the fullness of God in His death and resurrection.

    I look to that and tell my heart to be at rest. There is so much that I do not know. The thief on the Cross simply said, “Remember me in your kingdom.” He didn’t ask about how the mechanics of everything worked, or whether that was the right way to ask the question.

    This, I think, is what the Church teaches: pray. Remember me in Your Kingdom.

    That’s what has been bouncing around in my head today as I’ve glanced as this conversation from time to time.

  72. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thanks, Father.

  73. Dean Avatar

    Thank you Father for this reminder. Children are much closer to God than most of us. They can love and trust with absolutely no duplicity. The theologian Karl Barth, toward the end of his life, was asked to summarize all of his great erudition and learning. He responded, “Jesus loves me this I know….”

  74. Dino Avatar

    I’m sorry but that’s lost in a vast mass of readings for atm.
    Its probably in one of the four five books that were published of his writings long ago.
    However, I totally agree with Father that these discussions are futile.
    I also do not put the same trust in a saints words when the ‘iron is cooled down’ and he is also talking from his own mind, (as that quote) as I do when the iron is become fire (and is speaking in Spirit.
    This often involves their words on extremes: reprimands for them praying for salvation of the devil? The issue of Time? The vision of apokatastasis itself….
    We will not solve this here…!

  75. Dino Avatar

    Perhaps I would additionally clarify that, quotes such as these, coming from a fundamentally discerning, first-hand encounterer of Christ, though still lacking guarantee of freedom-from-human-error, have their worth.
    It is a difficult art to be able to keep one’s internal, Godwards focus, from being distracted from where it ought to be, when dealing with such currently unanswerable, yet poignant for most, issues.
    At the time it was spoken, I think St Paisios the Athonite was replying (quite differently) to the same query as CS Lewis [quoted earlier] was: whether the choice of misery some might “timelessly attach to” could hold joy up to ransom.
    God knows, God loves and God accomplishes better than we could ever even conceive.

  76. Dino Avatar

    I found it online in Greek and it’s from the Fourth book on Family life “Λόγοι Δ’ Οικογενειακή ζωή”.
    Haven’t found the page reference yet.

  77. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Dean…re: Barth. That about sums it up! Amazing how ‘little worded’ one becomes they are near death. Not much that used to matter matters. It becomes Christ, plus nothing….

  78. ScottTX Avatar

    That quote from St Paisios is what happens when a consistent theology is more important than people. Sometimes your unmarried uncle says something off-kilter and you have to let it pass.

  79. Dino Avatar

    A preferred image of ‘consistency’ in the afterlife (that I came across in another Father) is that of the differences in a theatrical play:
    It was described as an ancient theatre, like Epidaurus, where everyone supposedly would have the same sound and view due to the theatre’s ingenious design.
    In the dark, nobody knows what the others experience. You only have your own and what you deduce from your own regarding the others. However, the experience of the theatrical play [of God’s love in this metaphor], will vary hugely, dependant on a person’s disposition. Some would be bored, others fascinated, some would have a PhD on that exact “play” [could be a metaphor for St Paul 🙂 ], and others might desire nothing more than to escape [Could be a metaphor for Lucifer]. The revelation of Truth-eternal however, has always been inescapable – but now, for both the lie-lover and the truth-lover, we can either philosophically assume a changeability (purgatorial for the first), or a ‘time-is-no-more’ solidity. These are all things we cannot proclaim with the certainty some would like to. I am quite fond of this particular image however and its ability to accommodate and integrate so much into it…

  80. Dino Avatar

    Some more thoughts ScottTX
    I think that the key elements on universalist conversations that often escape the Western approach, only start to acquire their full magnitude when considering the most extreme cases. (Such as Lucifer’s) Saints who prayed for all often had corrections on this exact matter which sheds light to this conversation.
    What I have gleened and pieced together from those saints whose dogmatic authority I have deep trust in, such as Elder Aimilianos and Saint Porphyrios, goes something like this:
    The most God-like trait bestowed on His sentient creatures by their creator is that of freedom – as awesome, eternalutterly self-determining orientation towards Him. Lucifer’s sinful perversion of this trait is ‘outside of time’ and without external influence (unlike humans). This seems to be the defining difficulty in the misgivings regarding his conversion, a difficulty that intensely time-bound creatures like us struggle to conceive. Simultaneously, humans have a far greater difficulty to forever shape their being in this aforementioned way, that – like their adversary – they would eternally rather have hell than the (greater “hell”) of worshipping the true God instead of their self-god.

  81. Michael Avatar

    I have not read Solzhenitsyn’s book, but Lord willing hope to get to it in the near future. For those who have read it, this quote:

    “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.”

    It sounds a little dualistic, or at least it seems it could be interpreted that way if that was all you read. He is describing the obscuration of the heart by sin correct? That ‘line’ that runs through the human heart is really kind of fuzzy and messy and hard to see, but it never fully destroys the essential Goodness of Being, though with your gift of ‘free will’ you can obscure it until you have trouble recognizing it or even believing it is there. This choice is our everyday struggle of choosing between ‘self’ worship, through indulging the passions, and worship of God, through ascesis, which accumulates over time.

    Is that a correct way to interpret that? That goodness of being that is always there is Jesus Christ himself, per one of the Psalms (can’t recall the number), ‘even if I were to descend into hell you would be there’. Your choices could take you to very dark places but Christ is always waiting for you, even in hell, for you to turn back to him. Every human being while we live, can, by our choice, repent and Jesus will extend his hand to us, like Peter sinking in the waves. But we have to ask for his help, which is an act of our free will.

    Forgive if this is obvious. I am trying to get a better understand of Orthodox Christian anthropology. I am fairly new to Orthodoxy.

  82. ScottTX Avatar

    “Saints who prayed for all often had corrections on this exact matter which sheds light to this conversation.
    What I have gleaned and pieced together from those saints whose dogmatic authority I have deep trust in…”

    Saints who get divine dispatches telling them to stop praying should probably keep it to themselves. Their dogmatic aura peters out the further they get from showing a concrete example of how to live. Take for example the quote from St Paisios you translated:

    “neither will they remember if they had a brother or father or mother, if these are ‘missing’ from Paradise!”

    I guess all those fatherless tenants of Paradise will figure they were virgin-born like their savior.

    “Show, don’t tell” is great advice for both writers and saints.

  83. Dino Avatar

    It does indeed sound very ‘off kilter’ as you say when written down.
    Of course a Saint who struggled massively with the renunciation of particular, natural, familial attachment (he became a monk), but was eventually granted the much larger, cosmic-dimension-family, in the image of Christ on the Cross, had done a lot more ‘showing than telling’… we just haven’t seen it first hand. So what we encounter, from our distance, seems as just mere writings. There’s often unimaginably more than we suppose behind some of these writings.

  84. Dino Avatar

    It is easy for me, being human, to find fault in others, even in God. It’s what we all do ever since the serpant taught us in the garden. In other words, it is far easier than we suppose, to think we are more loving and more merciful (in our universalism) than saints that would truly, and often did so in actual fact, be tortured themselves rather than see anyone damned. It has been quite common for us humans to delude ourselves in thinking it (without realising it) : “I am more merciful than God’s greatest cosufferers… or even Him”. It cannot be of course. We ought to look elsewhere for the fault.

  85. Connie Avatar

    Dino, Dino, Dino! You suggest that universalists think they are more merciful than God, but universalists can easily turn your statement around and say, “Of course we are not more merciful than God. That is why we are universalists!” What you have done is “beg the question” (in the classical meaning of that phrase).

    I don’t see how the fact that someone has been martyred is a reason to take everything they say as Gospel truth. Martyrdom goes across the board. Goodness, even marriage is martyrdom. Also, you have no idea what kind of angst, self-torture, psychic trials some people have to go through on this very issue. I’m sure suffering has perfected a lot more than just the saints that we hear about. And universalists are at least as likely to devote their lives for others, for the very reason that God has indelibly entwined them with all human beings (whom He loved into existence). It is their universalism that enables them to identify, even as Christ does, with those in prison, still enslaved to sin. They, perhaps even more than some of the recognized saints, can identify with that one last lost sheep!

    This is a wonderful community and the last thing I want to do is be divisive. But Dino, I have heard that line “We are not more merciful than God” just one too many times.

    Fr Stephen, I am obviously passionate about this topic and may have overstepped my bounds. I would not be offended if you deleted my comment. In fact I’d be happy to see the whole discussion re: St. Paisios deleted!

  86. Dino Avatar

    what you say makes total sense to me, you certainly haven’t overstepped any bounds!

  87. Dino Avatar

    what you say makes total sense to me, you certainly haven’t overstepped any bounds!
    My caveat has to do with the dangers of walking that tight rope between, “arguing” with God for the salvation of anyone who tastes of hell, (moved by His own Spirit towards this), and becoming our adversary’s spokesmen (in our arguing) without realising whence our protest can quickly flip round and start taking its impulse from… These things can become extremely subtle in the course of our spiritual struggles.
    I would hazard there’s a good likeness that I have a most poignant idea of what kind of “angst, self-torture, psychic trials some people have to go through” on this very issue but would not want to go into any of my personal confessions of course.

  88. Dino Avatar

    In fact it’s probably the far more common reason (Father could certainly shed some light as a confessor on this intriguing statistic) for us believers that our lives were once turned around not because of tasting of the indescribable sweetness of the chalice of heaven, but because of tasting of the unbearable eternal desperation of the chalice of hell.

  89. Connie Avatar

    I could agree with this last statement if you would just take that word “eternal” out of there. 🙂 We all experience isolation and the absence of God, but there are many that say threatening with eternal hell does more damage than it does good. I’m sure an argument could be made both ways, but I doubt any further discussion would be profitable.

  90. Dino Avatar

    In this last statement I was referring to eternal not as in the actual eternal (or noneternal) one. I was referring to the experience of hellish desperation here on earth. Those who have truly drunk of that bitter chalice know that even 1 minute ‘feels’ eternal. It wouldn’t be true desperation otherwise.

  91. Connie Avatar

    Thank you for clarifying that, Dino. I understand. “It wouldn’t be true desperation otherwise.” So true!

  92. William Avatar

    Forgive me, but I must agree with those saying that the Saint Paisios quote is unhelpful.

    It gives me the image of a God who is not much more than a vending machine: “put in this amount of purity and in return you get to see this portion of God. But don’t worry about the weeping and gnashing of teeth coming from outside the lighted room (and also don’t think about the fact that heaven is merely a lighted room or that it is surrounded on all sides by hell). In fact, because you reached the requisite level of purity, that compassionate part of you will be removed–that part which longs to love the suffering. And because you inserted this much suffering into the vending machine, you receive in return a blessed lobotomy so that you no longer have to (or get to) remember the people without the required amount of purity bux to make it into the small lighted room in the midst of the vast hellish darkness, where they, while tormented, will watch you have fun forever and ever.”

    Not much room for gift as far as I can see. And how is it “good news” that you get precisely what you’ve earned?

  93. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I generally find the discussion of hell to be unproductive and a distraction from the gospel. I have not, over the years, had many who came to the faith on account of a fear of hell. It has always been more complicated than that. As the note from William demonstrates, illustrations and examples easily become caricatures.

    The various discussions regarding apokatastasis (that all are saved) that are taking place here and there are, I think, indicative of something within the collective mind of our culture(s). It is nowhere near as simple as people merely wanting an easy way to get around accountability. The deep violence of humanity and its futility have, as often as not, been justified by various retributive schemes, often erected on nothing more than a flimsy web of lies.

    Western civilization is tired. We have exhausted ourselves in a variety of ways – such that our own annihilation (collective and personal) seems attractive to more than a few. In the midst of such exhaustion, hell and its accompanying conversations are just more tiresome baggage.

    For myself (and my ministry across the years), I have found it best to place such questions (eternal hell) in their own set of parentheses. The imagery is more suggestive in describing the sufferings of the present – which is the only time in which we ever live.

    I admit that the question of eternal hell (and its conversation) is valid – but I think that whatever mystery surrounds it is largely lost on us at present. In the last analysis, the question of apokatastasis is really about God Himself. To a lesser degree, it is about the nature of human beings. On the one hand, there is unfathomable love beyond all speech – on the other is a wounded creature whose perversities seem to frequently work against its own self-interests.

    For myself, everything begins and ends in Pascha. Pascha is God’s final word on all things. The daily struggle is to stand in the midst of Christ’s holy Pascha and ask my questions there.

  94. Chris S Avatar


    1 Timothy 2:3,4
    For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

    Ezekiel 33:11
    Say to them: ‘As surely as I live, declares the Lord GOD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked should turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?’

    He is always there working, waiting, watching for us to turn to Him and live.

    There is a story of a saint who was despairing over the salvation of man. After many nights and many tears God sent an angel to him who showed him an endless room filled with a vast array of ladders ascending to heaven. Each ladder uniquely fashioned, one for every soul.

    Turn to Him and live.

  95. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Oh! What a breath of fresh air!
    Thank you, again, Father Stephen. Indeed, some heard you the first time….

  96. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I was observing to my wife that it is remarkable how fragile we are. We damage quite easily it seems: left to a lifetime of struggle because of something someone else did or did not do. Part of that I am sure results from the fact that we are not autonomous beings and we are created to bare one another’s burdens. But in an exhausted civilization such as ours each straw seems capable of breaking my back some days. Not in a good way.

    Why is it so much easier to be cruel than to love and be kind?

  97. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Chris, sure but neither of those verses in the context of the Holy Scriptures is proof that everyone will be saved and not take up residence in the pit prepared for Satan and his minions where the worm never turns and the fire is not quenched.

    I know a man who is a friend of demons while maintaining a facade of piety. He has done great harm to many people. He even used the RC confessional as a weapon.

    If he does not repent what then?

    There will be many people in the Kingdom that none expect but not all I think.

  98. Dino Avatar

    I remind you that I never, myself, brought that easily-misunderstood quote of St Paisios to this conversation; precisely because it can be seen as “blessed lobotomy” as you said.
    However, I think we are speaking from radically different foundational backgrounds:
    You seem to think that there’s a ‘punishment’ that I do not… It would not be Orthodox.
    My monopolizing of the conversation regarding ‘freedom’ and how some (Lucifer) might use it, does not seem to get through (!), hence, I have to ask forgiveness for even more repetition…
    I never spoke of a Heaven or a Hell that one would not desire, if someone remains there, (which is why it’s easier to use the example of lucifer)it is because he, somehow, actually wants it the most!
    I keep repeating that, but it is of course easy to hear something else.

  99. William Avatar


    Fair enough. I associate the St. Paisios quote with you only because, try as I might to find another source, your translation (on various websites) is the only one I can find. Needless to say, I’ll need more to convince me that it’s an authentic saying of the elder. (Not to say anything negative about you personally; I just don’t as a rule trust internet commenters for accurate information).

    I would agree that we seem to come from radically different starting points (but I would disagree it is for the reasons you give). I believe the grace of the Gospel to be true gift, unearned in any way. Based on what I gather from your comments throughout this blog, you seem to believe that this grace is somehow given or withheld on the basis of some vague accounting of a person’s total orientation toward or away from God. That, in my estimation, is finally to take God’s grace out of the realm of “gift” and place it decidedly in the realm of “economy”–wages paid for work done. Forgive me if this is a misrepresentation of your ideas.

    When I mentioned what I perceive to be your monopolization of this blog’s comments, I didn’t have your discussion of freedom in mind–only my general perception as I regularly read through this blog’s comments. I find your comments to be sometimes very helpful. Other times, not so much. Most often, overwhelming. I hope I’m not offending you by saying this.

  100. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar


    We are on the border here of what is acceptable. The comments are finally, always my own responsibility as moderator. Dino is a good and trustworthy man, a native Greek with a rich experience and knowledge of the faith in that setting. I value his thoughts and input – even if I would say something in a different way from time to time.

    Orthodoxy, in its true, international character, forces us to encounter a much wider range of sensibilities. Some days, I find that to be a real strain. Other days, it is the fresh air of salvation itself. I would that all of my readers and commenters would treasure the true diversity (an actual use of the word that matters!) of the Orthodox faith.

    I have said in a few places that I probably would not be Orthodox had I not encountered it primarily through a Russian lens. It has been like meat and potatoes for my Anglo-palate. However, I have slowly acquired the ability to appreciate the tangy zest and occasionally astringent flavor of the sauces and spices of the Mediterranean and Middle-East.

    Living in East Tennessee, all religion tends to have a bit of a Flannery O’Connor flavor.

    That said, I do not hear in Dino “wages paid for work done,” though I can see where someone might. Our American-Protestantized ears a highly sensitive to such suggestions – where the Greeks are rather immune.


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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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