Dare we hope for the salvation of all?

As Christians we are here to affirm the supreme value in direct sharing, of immediate encounter — not machine to machine, but person to person, face to face. 

                    Bishop Kallistos Ware “The Mysery of the Human Person.”

 He is not the fearful Judge but he is Love and the very love which subjectively becomes suffering among the outcasts and joy among the blessed.  Sinners in hell are not deprived of divine love, but estrangement from the source, poverty and emptiness of heart, make them incapable of responding to the love of God, which in turn produces suffering; but this cannot continue, for after the Parousia-revelation of God, one cannot but love Christ.  How can this happen without suffering when the heart’s substance is impoverished to the point of making it mute? 

                                        Paul Evdokimov


Bishop Kallistos Ware, arguably the most important Orthodox scholar of this century has written an essay called, “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All”, in a collection called “The Inner Kingdom”, where he references George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis and other church fathers.  It is a great essay (that’s putting it mildly!) and the only one I have found so far which can clearly state the Orthodox position on this doctrine which everyone wonders about (if they say they don’t wonder about it then they are probably not telling the truth).  I first read it in a collection of his while visiting my favorite monastery, but have recently discovered the work is available online and want to encourage my friends to read it.  It can be assessed through google by typing in keywords such as The Inner Kingdom or Kallistos Ware George MacDonald.  It is too large to reprint here.

When I bring up this subject, many of my aquaintences say “Case closed”.  They are usually not very far away from bringing up Origin and the anathemas, or else I feel them just around the corner.  Often these people seem to be unconsiously operating under a protestant frame of reference (although they would vigorously deny this).  The tendency to apply to church fathers and church councels an authority which the bible had for them previously undercuts the sheer diveristy within church tradition, as solo-scripturaundercuts the diversity within scripture.  For my part, I have no problem seeing the whole tradition as inspired, even if everything can’t be made to line up point by point in agreement.  Even John Meyendorf, former dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, while agreeing with the doctrine of eternal punishment, admits that the case against Origin—as commonly applied—is not categorical in this respect.  He refers to the doctrine of the “second resurrection” (a long Greek word), commonly used as a synonym for Universal Salvation and explains that this is more close to reincarnation than Univesralism and while the anathama has authority, not everything Origin taught is thrown out.  Paul Evdokoma, likewise, an Orthodox luminary in the first half of the 20th century and pioneer in the ecumenical movement, goes even further.  He says that the counsel which condemned the “second resurrection” was hastily convened for political reasons and questions its authenticity.  To illustrate its political motivations, he stresses that it was very uncommon for church fathers to posthumously condemn well regarded fathers.  He says that the Emperor, for personal reasons, brought a list of doctrines he wanted the cancel to ratify, including which was the anathamas which were directed against Origin.  It is true that certain of Origins teachings were condemned.  There is no question about that.  But Origin taught many things that were not condemned and which are affirmed by the church.  To attribute Universal Salvation to the condemnations is absurd.   Paul Evdokimov repeats John Meyendorf’s belief that what was condemned at this counsel dealing with Origin was not what we think of today as Universal Salvation but something more esoteric, the pre-existence of the soul and the belief that in the resurrection everyone returns to his original place before the fall.  

The article “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All” by Kallistos Ware is useful for evaluating the constrasting strands in our tradition.  He ends his essay by a humorous story of a trip to Greece he took.  He had been waiting for some time alone with this Greek Bishop.  When it finally happened and they got into the car together, he popped the question which is the title of this essay: Dare we hope for the salvation of all?  He records the Bishop’s reply, which was a gruff “Mind your own business.” 

 This humility—characteristic of our tradition—is probably more important than the question itself.  Before I was Orthodox, I called myself “a universalist”.  Looking back, I can see that this was all I believed in.  I demanded grace of God.  Pope Benedict, in his book Introduction to Christianity, written before he was Pope, says that modern man thinks he deserves heaven and it is uphill work to try and convince him of his sinfulness.  The realiziation of the falsity of my Universalist position mostly dawned on me gradually.  Realizing that the concept of fire and brimstore, eternal torment is not part of the Eastern mindset was major.  Universalism seems to spring from cultures with a very deep strain of harsh theology as a reaction to this “penitential theology”.  Indeed, in traditional Christianity the fire of hell is a metaphor.  Everyone goes to be with God after they die, but to those who are unprepared they receive God’s love as something which burns.  Because there is no dualism in Orthodoxy, a separate realm for the devil and sinners (Dante’s vision), co-existing throughout time with heaven, is foreign.  Maybe that is why I’ve never heard of an Eastern Orthodox person unlearning his faith and arriving at a belief in Universalism.  But these realizations were gradual.  There were some moments, however, when giant steps were made.  One of those moments I would like to share. 

 I was taking a catechism class at a church in Milwuakie, OR.  It might have been after I was baptised or shortly before, I don’t remember.  (I miss those classes so much, but it is not practical for me to attend because I don’t have a car and there is a weather factor.)  One of the tricks I used to support my position was the burden of proof.  Assume hell (as popularly conceived) doesn’t exist and then if anyone brings it up argue that they are contradicting God’s love.  The priest mentioned eternal hell during the class and I raised my hand.  I said that what the priest was telling us was incredable because it made God into a monster and I couldn’t even begin to feel that hell existed. 

He said, “Okay,” and then proceeded to tell a story.  “During a sermon last year I asked ‘what is it about all these horror movies and monster movies that have just come out, and computer games depicting demons and witches and goules that attract so much of our youth?  And why aren’t Christians drawn to this sort of thing?’  Afterwards a man came up to me and said, ‘We don’t need all this because we know it is real.  We already have an idea of the reality of the demonic realm.’  In cultures where there isn’t an understanding of hell, the popular myths will create one.”  I was pretty much knocked on my feet.  It certainly wasn’t the answer I was expecting, but it floored me and I never saw things the same after that.  Looking back I can see that I was soft on sin, mostly my own.  We are the product of our ideas.  We live out—to a remarkable extent—the (often unconscious) philosophies and worldviews we choose to align ourselves with.  In my case, those philosophies made me soft on sin.  The title of Kallistos Ware’s essay is Dare We Hope For the Salvation of All.  The opperatonal word here is ‘hope’.  “Minding our own business” is just as central as speculating about where we go after we die.

Looking back, I can see that the process of unlearning my Universalism would have been more smooth, beneficial, and enjoyable, if I had have been allowed to do it myself, rather than having other converts tell me I was wrong and demand that I change my views.  As I found out later, through reading articles like the one’s Kallistos Ware and Paul Evdokimov, there is “elbow room” in our tradition for this.


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