We live in an age where we wish that all should be saved; universalism is “in the air,” and every recent treatment I am aware of Hell being treated by an Orthodox author today, the author does not deny the doctrine of Hell, but none the less wishes to do so. Universalism is “in the air” both inside and outside of Orthodoxy (I think it’s a likely import to Orthodoxy), and the telling of a title is telling: Han Urs von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope that All Men Be Saved? does not deny that people will go to Hell, but it wishes to do so. And on that topic I remember a homilectic comment I heard some twenty years back, about hoping that all would be saved: “Hope it all you want! But don’t preach it.”
I might briefly comment that one author in the Philokalia says that we owe more to Hell than Heaven, because more people have been saved through fear of Hell’s torments than through desire of Heaven’s bliss [even if the latter infinitely outclass the former]. I know I owe a lot to the fear of Hell and the desire for a better balance sheet come Judgment.
Doctrine of God
In the interests of doing more than just stitch together a couple of quotations from previous blog posts, I would like to comment on what in formal academic language is called “doctrine of God,” and studies one angle of the One God in a way that is a mutual counterbalance to studying the persons of the Trinity.
In what may be the most controversial argument in the history of philosophy, Anselm of Canterbury defines God to be that which is greater than anything else that can be thought [and is also greater than can be thought]. To exist in reality is greater than to exist only in thought, and so it would be a contradiction for the God who is greater than anything else that can be thought to only exist in people’s minds. (And if you’ve just come up with a counterargument to say that the same implies there must be an ultimate tropical island that rains Champagne and has filet mignon and lobster grow on trees, your objection and argument has been raised by one of Anselm’s contemporaries and refuted by Anselm.)
I personally do not accept this argument, although I am not interested in explaining why. What I am interested in is that Anselm is starting with the Christian God. Until you have seen why, it sounds odd that theologians deny that God is the largest element within a larger system, or that God is an instance of a class. It’s a bit slippery what is being asserted and/or denied, and even more slippery why. But there is a great deal to be said about doctrine of God, and I would dip into it with a joke.
There were four rabbis who were discussing Torah, and as was usual among them the three agreed on something and overruled the odd man out. They always said, “See? It’s three against one.”
One day the odd man out had enough, and he began to pray, “Show them that I am right,” and all of a sudden there was a soft rumble of thunder.
The odd rabbi out said, “So?”
The other three said, “That’s striking, but it doesn’t prove you’re right. It’s still three against one.”
The rabbi prayed, “G-d, I’ve given you so much and I’ve asked for so little. Please give them a sign that I’m right.”
When he finished praying, there was much louder thunder, and a small cloud appeared in the sky. He looked at the other rabbis, but they only said, “It’s still three against one.”
Then the lone rabbi knelt down, was able to pray just, “G-d, I—” when before his knee could even touch the ground, clouds suddenly filled the sky, a bolt of lightning struck a nearby tree, there was a thunderous earthquake, and a deep, booming voice thundered, “He’s right!”
The lone rabbi looked at the others and said, “Well? Are you still going to deny it?”
The others said, “So what? It’s still three against two.”
The point of this scandalous joke is not just that when God has spoken, a discussion is over. It is that the Oneness of God is not the same as creaturely oneness; it can’t be added like we count physical objects. Saying “It’s still three against two” is at its core strict idolatry, because asserting One God is fundamentally beyond asserting that there happens to be one book on a shelf. Doxology asserts a monotheism that is more thorough than Islam; a monotheism that is large enough to be threatened neither by the non-numerical three persons in the Trinity, nor by faithful being made divine.
Recognizing an exception as an exception
And on this point I would like to point to something exceptional as something exceptional in Orthodox classics. The Our Father is understood to be a particularly special, divine prayer, and it is included in the Divine Liturgy after the holy gifts have been consecrated and almost immediately before the Holy Mysteries are received. “Our Father” is understood as tied to theosis, a prayer that belongs only to those deified as sons of God. And regarding the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” St. Maximus Confessor says that we stand before God as moral exemplars to him, and urge him to imitate our own virtue.
This much is legitimate, but it is deliberately striking, and it completely loses its force if the idea of us showing God the nature of virtue is a commonplace cliché. The claim is intended to be shocking, because he assumes his readers know that we don’t know holiness better than God. In the day that he wrote, it was very striking for men to attempt to inform God about the nature of holiness and virtue. In our day, the project is quite common.
On that point, I would like to look at a maxim I propose, that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we live in a world governed by the best of all possible Gods and that makes all the difference.
God the Spiritual Father
In God the Spiritual Father, I wrote:
Let’s turn the clock back a bit, to 1755. There was a catastrophic earthquake in Lisbonne in Portugal, and its untold misery shook people’s faith in the goodness of the world we live in. In the questioning that came afterwards, Voltaire wrote Candide in which the rather ludicrous teacher Pangloss is always explaining that we live in “the best of all possible worlds:” no matter what misfortune or disaster befell them, the unshakable Pangloss would always find a way to explain that we still lived in the best of all possible worlds. And Voltaire’s point is to rip that preposterous idea apart, giving a dose of reality and showing what the misery in Lisbonne made painfully clear: we do not live in the best of all possible worlds. Far from it. But there is another shoe to drop.
We do not live in the best of all possible worlds. Far from it. But we live under the care of the best of all possible Gods, and it is a more profound truth, a more vibrant truth, a truth that goes much deeper into the heart of root of all things to say that we may not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we live under the care of the best of all possible Gods.
Voltaire may be right when he explicitly explodes the claim that we live in the best of all possible worlds, but he is wrong when he implicitly fails to draw the readers to a more profound and important truth: we live in a world governed by the best of all possible Gods, and this best of all possible Gods cares for us in a way participated in by a spiritual father caring for a spiritual child.
I do not explore the afterlife in God the Spiritual Father, only the present life. However, what is asserted of the God who looks over our lives while we are living carries full force after our lives, too: the God who is the best of all possible Gods before our death remains the best of all possible Gods to us after our death.
One point when I was studying academic theology at Fordham there was a fashionable doctrine that was absolutely right. And that is that the freedom we have is not simply an identical and unchanging ability to make unrelated choices; one way to differ is to assert that by each choice we make we are making ourselves one notch more a creature of Heaven, or one notch more a creature of Hell. C.S. Lewis wrote that you can only get to Hell on your own steam, and said that in the end there are two classes of people: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.” Though God may send people to Hell, the image of God sending people to Hell might be counterbalanced by the deeper image of God offering each person, saved and unsaved alike, an eternal choice between Heaven and Hell.
When I wrote the seriously flawed The Way of the Way, years before joining the Orthodox Church, one thing I commented was that to those who hold on to sin, even Heaven would be Hell. I understand that Kalomiros’s The River of Fire has undergone serious critique, but it is right at least in this: if the damned were to enter Heaven, they would experience Heaven as Hell. In Kalomiros it is said that the fire of Hell is nothing other than the Light of Heaven as experienced through the rejection of the only terms it can be enjoyed.
In this world we have theodicy, difficulty understanding how an absolutely Good God could create a world with suffering. In looking at the next world, the same impulse holds; we want to be exemplars to God in virtue, but I assert that if we wish to change God’s mind, we wish incoherently on several levels.
Suffering for others
In another work I do not wish to name, I wrote,
What is necessary for people is the same in or outside of the monastery; it’s just that with all the modern inconveniences and interesting and entertaining work the near-identical needs are not met to the same degree. Monks say to each other, “Have a good struggle,” and struggle is expected and normal; people who approach monasteries to loaf around or have some romanticized image be their life may succeed, but not without considerable growth. And to the point of struggle, it is the norm and it is necessary for salvation in or out of Heaven. Those scientifically minded know that when physicists have examined how different the physical constants could and support life as we know it, the invariable conclusion is that life as we know it could not be possible unless the universe were tuned, not to put too fine a point on it, but with mind-boggling precision as if there were a God creating a universe universe that was incredibly fine-tuned, just to support life. And with a similar question among those who have any idea of the dimensions of the earth and the incomparable dimensions of the universe, “Why is the universe so vast, and the earth smaller than a grain of sand when held next to its grandeur? How much legroom does the human race need?” the answer is, “A universe’s worth: no less!” And if we ask, “How much legroom does the Church require for salvation, that the saved may have eternal joy and shine with the uncreated Light in Heaven?” the answer is to me my least favorite part of this book and one that brings me to tears. The answer is, “Hell,” or possibly more strongly and chillingly, “Every single soul from among the innumerable multitude of those who will be eternally damned to Hell!”
One pastor tried to say this without a laugh, and failed, that he was one place in the American South during a heat wave, and just before elevator doors closed, a jogger stepped in, sweating bullets, and said, “It’s hotter than Hell out there!” The pastor said, slowly, “No. It isn’t,” and creeped out everyone else in the elevator. But the damned exist, there is always at least possibility of salvation, God does ever better than they observe, and the damned do one thing that is essential. They provide other people with conflicts that can be part of a saving struggle. And when the Crack of Doom comes those who treat you abusively you will partly answer for your sins in your place. This is first a cause to feel relieved, then giddy, then at least for a moment when the full implications begin to unfold, pure terror. Christ died for your sins, and so did Judas, Arius, Marx, Jung, and Hitler.
I used to find the close of the Beatitudes sung during the Divine Liturgy hard to accept as real: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” I found it hard to rejoice at verbal abuse.
Now I find those words difficult in a different way: the Philokalia briefly, and in a single passage, states that if you mistreat others, you will answer for their sin. I no longer find it so difficult to be glad I have a reward in Heaven, but the hard part now is that recognizing that my own reward comes at a terrible price. However, I trust that in this I am not more loving than God, and how he arranges things is beautiful, and it all fits in God’s heart, whether or not it fits in my head.
And this, I think, is the one thing I have going for me compared to Christians who wish they are universalist. It is not whether we would wish the salvation of all; it is whether notions about God that fit in my head are normative for God to reform by. I do not claim a final word on whether all will be saved, but I do suggest a palliative at least that the God who makes the saved co-workers with God and co-heirs with Christ has imbued human nature with a genuine authority to choose between Heaven and Hell, and none arrive in Hell but those who choose it above Heaven.
An Orthodox clergyman said, in another context (namely what happens to us in our days on earth) that we should wish for whatever God has provided to happen, to be what happens. (In other words, wish for what exists, not what doesn’t exist.)
Perhaps this, together with an appreciation of Sovereignty and Mercy being in God one and the same thing, might help us to curb our wishes that God would comply with our universalism.