The development of this project benefitted from this input by Al Kimel:
Jesse, as far as I know Ilaria is not working on any more books on universalism. She suffers from progressive scoliosis and immune deficiencies that compromise her physical strength and ability to stand, walk, even sit, or combat infection. …Ilaria’s scholarly work continues. I just saw that she has recently written an essay on the patristic sources of Eriugena’s protology and eschatology. I would love to obtain a copy of it.
This is a draft concept to share for feedback before implementation. Separately, I am seeking some partners in this endeavor to collect signatures of appreciation and encouragement leading up to a meaningful date. If you have feedback or ideas regarding this very rough draft of a letter and concept, please comment below. More to follow soon, I hope…
[Significant Date Here]
Dear Dr. Ilaria Ramelli,
We the undersigned have each been reached and blessed in a meaningful way by your scholarly labors. We have read your books, listened to some of your lectures online or read and benefited from the many who cite your work in their own labors.
Not all of us are necessarily Christians, but we all are blessed by your public offerings. Naturally, the majority of us will share your love for the traditions and teachers of the Christian church over the years of her history. What all of us clearly share, however, is a love and appreciation for your ongoing study, particularly how the doctrine of apokatastasis went from a central tenet in the gospel message to being condemned and largely ignored for millennia.
We write in the solidarity of thankfulness for your skilled and generous labors. Those of us who pray, join with you in this way as well. May God sustain you in your work to complete the projects that you have underway.
We appreciate you and all that you have done in service of the history of the Christian faith.
A total number here of all those who have signed this over the past … days…
Note this quote from her preface in A Larger Hope regarding her ongoing work:
It (the Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis) will be followed in due course, God willing, by two other scholarly monographs: one on non-Christian and pre-Christian philosophical concepts of apokatastasis, from ancient philosophy to late antique Platonism (Proclus, Damascius), and another on the political, theological, pastoral, ecclesiastical, social, historical, and even linguistic causes for the rejection of the doctrine of apokatastasis or universal restoration, in late antiquity, by the “Church of the Empire”—mainly under the influence of Justinian in the East and of Augustine in the West.
A Larger Hope?, Volume 1: Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich by Ilaria L. E. Ramelli
Those stats below are the visitors to this personal blog over the years. It’s only intent for a long while was as a kind of virtual common place book, but I’ve drifted in recent years into posting my own thoughts more often. This has been a delight and has encouraged me to write a few pieces for other online venues. One of the chief pleasures has been meeting others who read and write about similar topics. This pleasure of shared reflection has lead to a new blogging project at Jesus and the Ancient Paths.
I’m excited to blog alongside several others in the coming year and plan to move my own reflections there while continuing to use Copious Flowers for its original purpose of virtual common placing. I anticipate growing as a writer with more companionship, and I hope that our combined blogging might be more meaningful to a wider variety of people than any solo work would be.
We are just lovers making use of our private time, but we love to spread the love in any small way. As a reader or as an interested contributor, please take a look and consider following our writings here.
There is an old Slavic proverb that the only place you can go to on your own is to hell. Ancient people did not have a concept of the autonomous individual except as some kind of horrific disaster. To our ancestors, we are made up of our connections to others—formed by our place in the web or hierarchy of kinship and grounded in a shared transcendent source of life. To be separated from others was to be robbed of all potency and rendered entirely vulnerable to a multitude of outside forces—either accursed or claimed by the gods. Census taking was therefore considered a terribly dangerous activity because it identified or singled out each person.
Hebrew scholar and Old Testament translator Robert Alter explains:
It was a belief common to Israel and to the Mesopotamian cultures that it was dangerous for humans to be counted. Perhaps it was felt that assigning individuals in a mass an exact number set them up as vulnerable targets for malefic forces. The story of David’s ill fated census in 2 Samuel 24, which triggers a plague, turns on this belief. The danger of destruction inherent in census taking could be averted by the payment of a ‘ransom’ for each threatened life as a donation to the sanctuary. The supposed danger of the census thus becomes the rationale for the institution of a poll tax, which in turn will be an important source of revenue for the maintenance of the sanctuary and its officiants.
The oldest recorded censuses, however, are tools of civic authority (although civic and sacred authority were mixed and overlapping realms, of course). As Ireland’s Central Statistics Office (CSO) summarizes on their website:
The first known census undertaken nearly 6000 years ago by the Babylonians in 3800 BC. There are records to suggest that this census was undertaken every 6 or 7 years and counted the number of people and livestock, as well as quantities of butter, honey, milk, wool and vegetables.
The oldest existing census in the world comes from China during the Han Dynasty. This census was taken in the year 2 A.D. and is considered to be quite accurate. It recorded the population as 59.6 million, the world’s largest population.
This census in China would have taken place close to the same time as that famous account of “a decree that went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered” and how “this was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Although there is significant debate over the timing of this census in relation to Christ’s birth and Herod’s death, we know that the census was a key tool of Roman administration and that it was conducted every five years in a rotation across regions to maintain a register of citizens and their property. Our word census originates from the Latin word ‘censere’ which means ‘estimate’.
This connection of census taking with kingly power throughout the Old Testament and all of human history is a critical element in the story of Jesus Christ entering the world as a helpless baby who was destined to confront the power of Emperor Augustus and all earthly princes. Christ’s power, however, is never manifested as we would expect. There is no place for Christ in the inns or the royal palaces of this world. His power is manifested in human hearts—in the faithfulness of his virgin mother and of her wise and attentive husband who listens to the visiting angels in his sleep rather than to the threats and demands of this world.
When Jesus faced Roman power as a grown man, his focus was equally singular. Like his mother and his earthly father, Jesus was concerned only with the will of his Father in Heaven. Caesar’s heart no doubt matters to King Jesus (who was particularly demanding regarding human hearts), but Caesar’s will had no bearing on Christ’s own conduct: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
This entirely other-world locus of Christ’s reign, however, has shown up within our sad history as flickers of the beautiful light from around Christ’s heavenly throne. That baby who drew three kings to worship him by the light of a star has cast light into other kingdoms long after his ascension to the throne of God. After all, while the powers of state have not been entirely tamed and the secular nation state has arguably taken more human lives per capita than most previous (and supposedly less enlightened) forms of government (see the first two images here), we do see censuses being put to many good uses following the witness to the light that we have in the infant Christ’s escape from Herod and later confrontation as a man with the power of Rome.
I’ve obviously not done the rigorous historical research that would be required, but I strongly suspect that the evidence would bear this fact out over the course of human history. Census taking had many good and valuable uses before Jesus Christ, but the change in approach and purpose for census taking in the years following the spread of the Christian faith is notable and even beautiful despite it’s lack of consistency or perfection in goodness. I’ve posted on this blog once before regarding the most dramatic example of this reversal in the example of Saint (and Emperor) John III Doukas Vatatzes the Merciful. His remarkable example stands as a tribute to the power of baby Jesus: a Christian emperor who ordered a census for the express purpose of giving a piece of land to the 7000 poorest people in his empire. And this was no emotionally-driven whim. By all accounts, this was a sound plan with positive a economic outcome for the empire. Although I’ve not heard this story told or celebrated very widely, it is a powerful testimony to the influence of a helpless baby born centuries earlier in the midst of a mighty empire and its management of human populations.
Emperor John the Merciful, pray with us this nativity that Christ would reign in our hearts in all of our dealings with each other.
“On the whole, theological issues have little effect on the daily lives of the faithful. Theologians aren’t really nearly as important as they imagine themselves to be, and the church as a whole would probably be better off if they were all periodically exterminated.” This was a David Bentley Hart quip during a lecture at Fordham University in 2017. Hart is making the same point here that Georoge MacDonald makes in his Unspoken Sermon on “Justice” when he says: “Some of the best of men have indeed held these theories [of vicarious sacrifice], and of men who have held them I have loved and honoured some heartily and humbly—but because of what they were, not because of what they thought; and they were what they were in virtue of their obedient faith, not of their opinion.” My own demanding overindulgence with the initiation of theological readings and conversations among my family members this Thanksgiving brought to mind the comparison of these two passages.
On Thanksgiving Day, several of my eight long-suffering siblings (with many more were I to count my siblings in-law) allowed me to read aloud from a favorite author. I started into Cheerful Words, a collection of passages from George MacDonald compiled in 1880, during his lifetime. All of us loved it, and I heartily recommend it. The day after Thanksgiving, I read “The Consuming Fire” from MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons out loud to a gathering in which my father joined several more of us siblings. Although its strong universalist language was theologically out of line with their own eschatology, my father and siblings clearly loved plenty about the sermon. One brother-in-law pointed out that perhaps the most striking passage to him was near the opening when MacDonald insists that any action that must be requested cannot be called a loving action. “Love which will yield to prayer is imperfect and poor. …It is not love that grants a boon unwillingly.” Reading this minor classic out loud with my extended family was moving, and I wept a little while sharing the passage about Moses not being prepared to see the face of God in Jesus Christ. (Reflecting on that passage in the couple of days since then, while I think more than ever that MacDonald is profoundly right, I also think that he should have attributed the poor spiritual condition of the Isrealites more to the abject bleakness of their pagan surroundings than to their centuries spent in slavery—which may have been as much a help in their salvation as a hinderence. However, that is another topic entirely from this present reflection.)
Two days after Thanksgiving, I asked the gathered family if they would enjoy another sermon by MacDonald. To my delight (and their credit), all of those present said yes, and I launched into a reading of “Justice” from MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons. This was a thoughtless and pushy choice on my part. I remembered it as yet another place where MacDonald speaks directly about his convictions regarding universal salvation. With the many other wonderful options that everyone would have enjoyed, this was a self-serving and combative selection. In my defense, I did not remember how doggedly MacDonald goes after the doctrine of propitiatory (or substitutionary) atonement. MacDonald utterly rejects the idea that God must punish sin in order to be a just God and that Jesus Christ died because God needed someone to punish instead of us sinners. Rather, MacDonald insists that God owes it to all of his creatures to destroy their sinfulness entirely by causing them to see it fully as sin and to learn to hate their sin and to love their Father:
God is not bound to punish sin; he is bound to destroy sin. …Punishment, I repeat, is not the thing required of God, but the absolute destruction of sin. What better is the world, what better is the sinner, what better is God, what better is the truth, that the sinner should suffer—continue suffering to all eternity? Would there be less sin in the universe? Would there be any making-up for sin? …Grant that the sinner has deserved to suffer, no amount of suffering is any atonement for his sin. To suffer to all eternity could not make up for one unjust word. …Sorrow and confession and self-abasing love will make up for the evil word; suffering will not. For evil in the abstract, nothing can be done. It is eternally evil. But I may be saved from it by learning to loathe it, to hate it, to shrink from it with an eternal avoidance. The only vengeance worth having on sin is to make the sinner himself its executioner. …Sin and suffering are not natural opposites; the opposite of evil is good, not suffering; the opposite of sin is not suffering, but righteousness.
…As the word was used by the best English writers at the time when the translation of the Bible was made—with all my heart, and soul, and strength, and mind, I believe in the atonement, call it the a-tone-ment, or the at-one-ment, as you please. I believe that Jesus Christ is our atonement; that through him we are reconciled to, made one with God. There is not one word in the New Testament about reconciling God to us; it is we that have to be reconciled to God.
MacDonald is categorical in his rejection of the standard Western Christian accounts of salvation. After describing “the teaching of the Roman Church” as resting upon a “morally and spiritually vulgar idea of justice and satisfaction held by pagan Rome,” MacDonald turns to the Reformation and says that “better the reformers had kept their belief in a purgatory, and parted with what is called vicarious sacrifice!” Such a defense of purgatory while rejecting God’s need to punish sin is guaranteed to offend everyone. Although MacDonald clearly maintains that he is at war with the deplorable ideas and not with the people who hold these ideas, the ideas are name, again and again, as despicable:
I desire to wake no dispute, will myself dispute with no man, but for the sake of those whom certain believers trouble, I have spoken my mind. I love the one God seen in the face of Jesus Christ. From all copies of Jonathan Edwards’s portrait of God, however faded by time, however softened by the use of less glaring pigments, I turn with loathing. Not such a God is he concerning whom was the message John heard from Jesus, that he is light, and in him is no darkness at all.
…If you say the best of men have held the opinions I stigmatize, I answer: …In virtue of knowing God by obeying his son, they rose above the theories they had never looked in the face, and so had never recognized as evil. …They are lies that, working under cover of the truth mingled with them, burrow as near the heart of the good man as they can go. Whoever, from whatever reason of blindness, may be the holder of a lie, the thing is a lie, and no falsehood must mingle with the justice we mete out to it. There is nothing for any lie but the pit of hell. Yet until the man sees the thing to be a lie, how shall he but hold it! Are there not mingled with it shadows of the best truth in the universe? So long as a man is able to love a lie, he is incapable of seeing it is a lie. He who is true, out and out, will know at once an untruth; and to that vision we must all come. I do not write for the sake of those who either make or heartily accept any lie. When they see the glory of God, they will see the eternal difference between the false and the true, and not till then. I write for those whom such teaching as theirs has folded in a cloud through which they cannot see the stars of heaven, so that some of them even doubt if there be any stars of heaven. …Every man who tries to obey the Master is my brother, whether he counts me such or not, and I revere him.
While still several paragraphs away from the conclusion of this essay, one of my sisters-in-law asked that we cease and desist. It was far more combative regarding soteriology than I had remembered, and I was glad enough to let it rest. (Although I will pause to note that one brother-in-law mentioned his appreciation for MacDonald’s reference to those who “even doubt if there be any stars of heaven.”) All-in-all, however, I was feeling more than a little selfish for having taken it up at all on this third day together with my family.
To understand the extent of my thoughtlessness, note that my devoted father is a Presbyterian minister. Two of my younger siblings have plans to leave this spring for long-term assignments in difficult missionary work overseas. One brother-in-law serves tirelessly and selflessly as a ruling elder at a Presbyterian church. Another brother (who also attends a Presbyterian church) had spent much of Thanksgiving Day at the bedside of a close friend and young father (like himself) who was not expected to live many more days and who took great comfort in my brother’s reading of Puritan spiritual classics to him. I could go on and on. Simply put, however, I was surrounded by a profoundly loving family that had suffered and sacrificed together in countless ways and that had shown endless kindness and patience to me. In this context, I had selected a devotional reflection that utterly rejected all that they held most sacred with regard to Christian teaching and to the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. As for me—when I left in a rush to make it to a prayer service at my home church—I did not even leave time to empty the trash basket in the bathroom attached to the bedroom that was given to me or strip the sheets from my bed and take them down to the laundry room.
My reflection here, nonetheless, is not just a confession of my selfishness. It’s also, to some degree, a clarification and a defense upon further reflection. First, there is a difference between soteriology and eschatology. Many would agree with MacDonald in rejecting the doctrine of vicarious sacrifice while not agreeing with his universalism. This is largely true of C. S. Lewis. The teachings in MacDonald’s “Justice” were echoed by C. S. Lewis when he insisted that the gates of hell are only locked from the inside (The Problem of Pain, 130). While speaking often of his reverence for MacDonald and making him his guide in heaven in The Great Divorce, Lewis clearly rejected MacDonald’s universalism. This is explicit at the end of The Great Divorce and in a 1959 letter to the Reverend Alan Fairhurst where Lewis wrote, “I parted company from MacDonald on that point because a higher authority — the Dominical utterances themselves — seemed to me irreconcilable with universalism.” (On these statements by our Lord, by the way, I highly recommend Kim Papaioannou’s book The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus: Gehena, Hades, the Abyss, the Outer Darkness Where There Is Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth which is solid scholarship and which does not come down on the side of universalism.)
Even in matters of soteriology, Lewis is far more subtle and inclusive of various doctrines than was MacDonald in his “Justice” sermon. Many have argued over the soteriology of Lewis at great length, but one simple example of his nuance comes from a very familiar source for most. Here is Aslan describing the deeper magic (in Chapter 15 of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe):
It means that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.
This passage does not confront the doctrine of vicarious sacrifice headon, but it makes clear that the logic of the witch was undone by a deeper logic. While the witch knew that a deep magic called for death as a just response to treachery, she did not realize that the death of an innocent person would undo that more feeble logic from within and cause death itself to have no lasting power. Edmond’s repentance and this deeper magic work together in Lewis to fulfill the crude logic of the law with a higher logic that, in some real sense, condemns and undoes the sacrifice of an innocent victim as unjust according to the truths recorded during “the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned.” While the Deep Magic comes from Aslan’s father the Emperor and while Aslan obeys it, Aslan and his father are aware that the deep magic only makes sense in the light of the deeper magic that condemns the death of an innocent victim. Lewis is far from joining MacDonald in an all out rejection of vicarious sacrifice. However, Lewis is placing vicarious sacrifice within a larger framework that rests upon a recognition of the injustice of vicarious sacrifice when taken alone. MacDonald cites the scripture saying that God does not actually desire sacrifice. Lewis agrees by making it clear that God’s desire is not for a victim (as was the desire of the witch), but that God desired to see the cracking of the sacrificial table and the reversal of death by divine life working from within.
Many books have been written on these topics of course, and many more will be. There are even those who maintain that penal substitutionary atonement is taught by the early church fathers (as with “Penal Substitution in the Early Church” published by Brian Arnold on April 13, 2021 at The Gospel Coalition or the book An Existential Soteriology: Penal Substitutionary Atonement in Light of the Mystical Theology of the Church Fathers by Orthodox priest Joshua Karl Schooping). While there is some sense in which God does desire sacrifice (despite his multiple protests to the contrary in places such as Psalm 51:16 and Hosea 6:6), we are, by far, best off considering this while participating in the Divine Liturgy where we the priest prays, “Again we offer unto You this rational and bloodless sacrifice.” Here the word “rational” is sometimes translated as “reasonable” (as in submitting to what is most reasonable, right and good). The term sacrifice is sometimes translated as “service” or “worship.” Critical here is the understanding of sacrifice in the Old Testament as rooted in the giving back of creation to God who gives all of it to us continually as the gift of life from God himself. Sacrifice, rightly understood, is most fundamentally about participation in the life of God through the continual receiving and offering back to God of all that we have in thanksgiving. This is why Christ’s sacrifice is called the Eucharist (rooted in the word “thanksgiving”).
We might also consider how John Scotus Eriugena uses Augustine wonderfully to correct Augustine. There is so much that is so profoundly good and insightful in Augustine, especially in his early work (when he was closest to Ambrose and unclouded by later polemics). However, despite all of his blessed insights, it is also obvious that Augustine’s basic inability to read the Greek of passages such as Romans 5:12 added profoundly to the later theological confusions of the church regarding the nature of sin and fall.
Augustine also clearly does not read Paul as well as the Cappadocian fathers regarding Paul’s concern with corporate rather than personal election (as we see clearly in Romans 9:6-7 where Paul says that “children of Abraham” does not equal “Jews” but Gentiles). Gregory of Nyssa explains Paul’s meaning most convincingly and fully by understanding Paul (across all of his letters) to be talking about the movement of all human history through the various courts of approach into the temple of God. Some are predestined to be called out from the world as a witness to God’s saving work beyond history while others remain for a time entirely within the darkness and destruction of this fallen world. In Christ, however, all will be ushered into the Holy of Holies where God will become “all in all.” In 1 Corinthians 15:28, “panta en pasin” does not simply mean “God in all” but exceeds even that meaning with God “as all in all” so that we have God fully present in each and every creature as well as in all creatures together.
We might also note that Augustine—and even more those who came after him—did not understand that by “works” for Paul refers to the Law of Moses and not to a general human effort to appease or please God. This brings us back to the question of true sacrifice and what is meant by this in the Old and New Testaments. However, all these points are distractions and drag us back into theology over and against the contemplation of Christ which I failed to do with my family this Thanksgiving. My brother was drawing a beautiful pencil image during this entire time of John reclining against Christ’s breast—the “one thing needful” as Christ told Martha (Luke 10:38-42). It is also a distraction from obedience to what Christ teaches as Christ makes extraordinarily clear to the woman who calls out not long after Martha that “blessed are the breasts at which you nursed” (Luke 11:27-28).
Still, while theories about God are of very little value (coming, at least, after listening, gazing and obeying), I’ll end by pointing to what theories I would most recommend on these topics if I could suggest just a few short books by one humble author. I would point you to Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hell, Hope, and the New Jerusalem by Bradley Jersak. He has two other related and wonderful books called A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel and A More Christlike Word: Reading Scripture the Emmaus Way. I also heartily recommend Cheerful Words (and all else) by George MacDonald.
There was once a Christian emperor who ordered a census so that he could give a piece of land to the 7000 poorest people in his empire. How have I not heard of Saint (and Emperor) John III Doukas Vatatzes the Merciful before? This news comes to me this year just at the start of the Christmas Fast (November 15 to December 24).
For Orthodox Christians, it’s the start of preparations for Christ’s Nativity. This fast begins after the Feast of the Apostle Philip and is sometimes called “Philip’s Fast” because Philip told Nathanael to “Come and see!” (John 1:43-46) just as we are called to prepare and join all those who come to witness the baby born of Mary.
A visiting priest for vespers yesterday, told stories afterward of Saint John the Merciful during an informal homily. He connected this life of extreme mercy to our calling as we prepare our hearts to receive the child Christ.
As often happens (because the calendar is so filled with wonderful saints), the priest conflated two different saints with the same names and with similar feast days. John III Doukas Vatatzes ruled as Emperor of Nicea from 1221 to 1254 and is feasted on November 4 while John the Patriarch of Alexandria ministered from 606 to 616 and is feasted on November 12 (both are beloved as “Saint John the Merciful” and both left many incredible stories for us).
The Emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes of Nicea had a reign like no other that I’ve heard of in history, and it should be celebrated as a high point in the human story. His policy of appointing people of non-aristocratic descent in administrative posts was ground-breaking, causing much resentment among members of the aristocracy (on whom he relied heavily for military support). He took extraordinary steps to improve the living standards of both rural and city people such as conducting a census and bestowing on each subject of the empire a plot of land. He also took firm measures against the exploitation of the poor. Towards the end of his administration, he even requisitioned movable and immovable property belonging to great land-owners and the nobility (causing their further disgruntlement).
He was admired by all, however, for constructing new roads and distributing taxes with great equity. According to all the sources, he led a very frugal life, and took additional measures to curtail excessive spending of private wealth.
These internal policies were not only bold but successful. He is noted for achieving economic self-sufficiency for his empire through the improvement of domestic production as well as diminishing the import of foreign products (especially western luxury goods). He also had great military success, expanding his rule and establishing peace in an empire surrounded by warring rivals.
John Vatatzes also saw after the Church. In 1228 he issued a decree in which he forbade the interference of political authorities into ecclesiastical inheritance. He also made generous donations to ecclesiastical institutions and saw to the rebuilding of the existing churches and monasteries as well as the construction of new ones.
In periods of peace, Vatatzes also promoted the happiness of his subjects by patronizing arts, sciences and education. He was deeply committed to the collection and copying of manuscripts. The scholar, writer and teacher Nikephoros Blemmydes (the foremost representative of the educational movement of the 13th century) lived during his reign. Among Blemmydes’ students were Vatatzes’ heir, the learned Theodore II Laskaris, as well as the historian and statesman George Akropolites. The sources abound with references to the emperor’s great concern for the development of his state’s intellectual life, and he promoted the creation of many centers of learning.
With rare unanimity, Byzantine historians all praised him along with his successor. Seven years after his death, when his grave was opened, a sweet fragrance permeated the surroundings, and it was fond that his body and clothing were incorrupt. Miracles began to be connected with his memory, and a half-century after his death, he was recognized as a saint and the construction of a church in his honor was undertaken.
Not long after, his incorrupt relics were transferred to Constantinople right after it had been liberated from the Franks. With the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, his relics were hidden in a catacomb. Many legends have proliferated since that time telling how the saintly emperor is awaiting the liberation of Constantinople. Some of these stories state that John has his sword with him in its sheath, and that each year the blade of the sword emerges a few millimeters, until the time comes when the entire sword will emerge to signify the time for the liberation of the city.
However colorful the mythologies, Saint (and Emperor) John III Doukas Vatatzes the Merciful remains most astounding to me for the matter-of-fact details from his own remarkable life. It’s a wonderful and merry way indeed to start this Christmas fast.
Yes, I love to talk about topics—like fairies and an atemporal fall—that don’t fit into most modern categories. Nonetheless, I’m truly on board with the modern scientific method and grateful for the many blessings of contemporary life. As a history major in college and graduate school, I’ve long loved to think about the question of progress in human history. Owen Barfield thought C.S. Lewis was a little backward for thinking that human history showed no signs of overall progress. My favorite thinkers, however, have always been the ones who agree with C.S. Lewis in this rather unpopular conclusion. David Bentley Hart, for example, writes in his most recent subscription newsletter essay “Time, Technology, and History: Disjointed Reflections on the Rise of Homo Interreticulatus” that “there is no such thing as a science of history, in the sense of some theory or experimental regimen that could reduce the flow of human events to a set of invariable laws—economic, social, political, anthropological, or whatever—or produce reliable models for predicting what comes next.” After rejecting even the grand systems of Hegel and Heidegger while pressing this point as far as he can, Hart maintains that:
Historical eventuality is a vast, tumultuous, uncharted river carrying all our fragile vessels along—hazardous, scarcely navigable, and with unanticipated bends always just ahead. All we can really be certain of is that there will be moments of acute crisis when all the river’s currents will be forced together in a particularly turbulent confluence or precipitated down a particularly steep chute, and survival will depend on whose hands hold the tiller.
Coming down from the heights of these sweeping philosophical claims, I also love to think about the more mundane causes of modernity and tallying up what we have lost. Skipping over the delightful considerations of how our modern secular world came to be (which I will likely continue to blog about for years to come as I’m endlessly fascinated with the rise of many wildly irrational modern ideas such as secularity, the autonomous individual, the sovereign nation state, and a libertarian concept of freedom), this blog post will just focus on tallying up of what we have lost. Of course, what has disappeared in the face of modernity is generally much less visible to us than the many celebrated benefits.
While we generally think of modern life as far more secure and non-violent than premodern life, the total number of human deaths by conflict have climbed astronomically since the rise of the secular nation state and its totalizing ideologies (generally connected to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648). Take a look at the death tolls from the many devastating (and often ideological) conflicts of modern nations compared to those of premodern nations:
Charts like that one above are ideally read with some understanding of the ways in which Marxism, fascism and capitalism are all expressions of the totalizing ideologies that serve the power of secular nation states. However, such considerations take us off tract.
Getting back to the numbers, of course, the massively escalating total numbers of human deaths by conflict within the chart above are in some large part the result of rapid growth in the worldwide human population (due substantially to the positive benefits of modern medicine and agriculture). However, even when the growing human population is factored in, per capita death rates due to human conflicts have still been measurably higher overall since the Enlightenment (not discounting the great blessing of well over a decade of historically low rates of human conflicts globally):
(As an aside, before moving to the next types of data, it is worth noting that any consideration of human death rates across time should include the increased rates of induced abortions to some extent. Obviously, this is an extremely politicized topic that creates distractions and understandable concerns from multiple directions. However, I’ll simply point out here that there were an average of 56 million induced abortions each year from 2010 to 2014 according to the World Health Organization. Any serious consideration of human death rates across all of human history would need to take these substantial numbers into account to some degree.)
Moving past global human death rates, however, the real genius of the secular myth of progress is that the devastation of modernity is hidden underneath piles of improvements—the majority of which are truly very good (certainly, we should all celebrate and continue to advocate for medical progress and progress in the legal protections provided to the most vulnerable). However, we should also track the losses. These make up a massive but hidden list such as environmental devastation, losses in human attention and consciousness (difficult to define and measure of course) as well as vast extinctions in local culture, craft and lore of place. Especially these last factors (of human attention and consciousness along with local culture, craft and lore of place) all correlate profoundly with the real empowerment and happiness of people. My strong suspicion is that humans in the modern world are substantially less happy, perceptive and capable on average than humans in the premodern world. If we could measure the presence of mental health needs, depression and addictions in the premodern world globally, I suspect that our modern world would not compare as favorably as many today might imagine.
However, this kind of data is not easy to find and perhaps not even possible to extrapolate in any form. Instead, I will do what I can here to sketch a picture with the various pieces of disjointed data that I have been able to find.
Insects are a good place to start. As a boy (in 6th grade), I got to know a couple of PhD students in entomology from Cornel University. They gave me a tour of the facilities there which were some of the best in the world. As friends of our family, they spent time looking over my own collections as an amateur naturalist of various insects, skulls, birds eggs and many other small items arranged with care on the shelves in my bedroom that I called my museum. Because my father was a PhD student (in literature) at SUNY Binghamton, I was able to check out books from the library at Cornel University. By the end of 8th grade, I had checked out well over a hundred books on insects from one of the best entomology libraries in the world. In addition to raising all kinds of bugs to feed to my many snakes, lizards and other pets, I also did a lot of things that many other children did. I collected milkweed leaves and raised monarch butterflies. I spent hours looking through the inches of bugs that piled up under streetlights at night. One time I found a beautiful female specimen of a giant water bug close to four inches long. I had read about these in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard where she recounts her astonishment at watching a frog, who she thought was beautiful and filled with life, collapse suddenly in on itself before its empty skin floated ghostlike to the bottom of the shallow water where it had been sitting at the surface in the sunlight. Dillard spent some time reading to find what could have caused this incredible vision, and concluded that it must have been a giant water bug. I named mine Cleopatra, and I watched her feed happily on several frogs before I released her.
With my own children, I’ve tracked down the nuptial flights of queen ants on warm days after light rains. We’ve collected these native queens and raised them carefully until they lay eggs and the eggs hatch so that the queen is attended by the nanitics as she begins to build her colony. (Nanitics are the very first generation of workers who are smaller and hatched without the benefit of other workers to care for them as eggs.) Despite growing up for 14 out of the first 18 years of my life in Taiwan, I began to suspect while raising my own children that insect populations in America were not what they used to be when I was a child. As I looked into it, there have, in fact, been massive world-wide drops in insect biomass globally since I was a child. This study shows a global 45% decline of invertebrates over the past 40 years (Dirzo Science, 2014):
Another study shows a 75% loss of insect life from 63 locations in Germany identified as low-altitude nature protection areas surrounded by human populations and measured between 1989 and 2016 (Hallmann in PLoS ONE, 2017):
While I don’t find that most people know about the global loss of insect biomass, there have been some reports on the struggles of honeybees and monarch butterflies. Just to look at the data on monarchs is truly saddening. When eastern and western monarch populations are taken together, we have seen an overall 75% decline from 1975 to 2019:
Just focusing on the western monarch, we see that while the number of overwintering sites monitored by concerned people has climbed dramatically, the total number of monarchs reported has dropped to virtually zero in 2020:
While we don’t know much about why insect populations are declining, one candidate is pollution levels that are not connected to local areas but are instead widespread in global ocean and ground water sources. Prominent among these kinds of pollutants are micro-plastics. I do not know much about the definitions of what constitutes micro-plastic pollution or about its possible harm to living things or ecosystems. At any rate, micro-plastic are just one example out of many kinds of pollutants that we could look at. They are an area of growing study, and the initial data on the prevalence of micro-plastic pollution is sobering:
Turning to a human health indicator that gets limited new coverage (and where micro-plastic pollution is also one suspect), there are several studies of male sperm counts dropping substantially in recent decades worldwide. This most well-publicized study was from France:
With far more complicating factors involved but nonetheless worth considering when evaluating longterm changes in human culture, it is also worth looking at overall fertility rates for humans in various parts of the world:
Now we come to one of the most important indicators of human cultural health: the prevalence of local artisan guilds and handcraft traditions. These are numbers that are not easy to find, but there is not doubt that these numbers are in dramatic decline worldwide as a result of globalized industrialization. Both human languages and human handcraft traditions are disappearing completely on a yearly basis. This first study shows the decline in Japan and then in a specific city in Japan (revered for its many handcraft traditions):
Finally, one more local study in the loss of handcrafts, this one from Pakistan:
Of course, handcrafts indicate the life of towns and cities. Human cultures also involve food production and agricultural life. On this topic, Wendell Berry is, of course, a leading contemporary thinker. (However, his basic concepts of human scale and collectively learning how to care for your particular place are equally applicable to cities, towns and farmland.) Without getting into the theories, here are some simple examples of numbers regarding the relative size and number of agricultural land holdings over time (generally showing the replacement of the family farm with corporate agriculture:
This next chart shows data that I’ve found almost no examples of (with this one being a low-budget study). However, one key indicator of human cultural health is our relationship to work versus sacred time, and this indicates what we would expect in the modern world:
While wealth distribution, of course, involves a very complex set of factors, there is a case to be made that our long-term trends in this regard from premodern to modern times have not been healthy. This is related, as well, to the factors above involving our relationship to local places and to work versus sacred time.
Finally, here is some data that has gotten a great deal of attention (and of which much more could be found). Our collective consumption of mass media and entertainment has escalated dramatically by every measure. Much of this, of course, is saturated by increasingly sophisticated efforts to keep our attention and to shape our appetites. One of many books on the topic that I recommend is Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy by James Williams. Here are some basic charts regarding out consumption of entertainment, specifically:
Most of the charts above are easily found online by searching key terms on the charts themselves. I’m glad to answer questions about sources in comments here as well. This is, obviously, not a formal study of any kind, but just a tour of categories where I have found numbers that felt relevant to me in consider what we may have lost as people with the rise of the modern Enlightenment in Europe and the secular nation state (which has been exported as a concept to the entire globe).
One of the more challenging topics I’ve read, written, and talked about in the past few years is the atemporal fall. I get more and more questions about it, so I’m collecting a reading list here that I can build out over time and share easily in response to questions. This concept of an atemporal fall was widespread in the Hellenistic Jewish and early Christian context (the entire background of Jesus and Paul) but has not been prominent within the Latin tradition of theology for a long time. As the piece linked below by Alexander V. Khramov demonstrates, this is largely because Augustine moved over the course of his own lifetime away from the idea of an atemporal fall that he had first learned as a new Christian—rejecting what had been the standard idea in the Greek speaking theological world. Augustine did this for what were apparently theologically-motivated reasons related to his own unique readings of Paul on topics such as original sin (another way in which Augustine shaped theology in the West for long after his lifetime).
Put simply, the atemporal fall is the idea that humanity was created in a heavenly realm of time and space and that the human fall literally caused a reduced form of time and space to come into being. Humanity then also showed up within this fallen world but in a new and reduced form of themselves. Many early church fathers (including Augustine at least for the first part of his career) considered Genesis 1 to be about the eternal creation of God while Genesis 2 moved our cosmic story across the line into the fallen world that we now inhabit. This means that the fall of humanity took place outside of time as we now experience it—therefore “atemporal.”
Calling this concept the “atemporal fall” privileges the relationship of the fall to our present world in terms of time and does this at the expense of space. However, our current world is related to the world from which we fell in terms of both time and space. In fact, a Christian understanding of an atemporal fall must maintain both a spatial and a temporal participation between the fallen world and the eternal creation of God. Without this participation, the idea of an atemporal fall reduces easily to a full dualism or heterodox gnosticism rather than remaining simply a contingent dualism (with actual participation in the life of God throughout all of reality) as we see in the New Testament and the church fathers.
One other reason that it so difficult to speak now of an atemporal fall is that it is entirely incompatible with a physicalist or mechanistic metaphysics (which is really just the blindness or prejudice of refusing to have any metaphysics at all). Our modern secular world of inert material resources that exist only to be manipulated for the sake of progress or commodification (creating more stuff to awaken new consumer desires) cannot be understood as a reality that is ultimately dependent upon a more permanent, substantial and living world. Although modern humans still have an atrophied nous (“the single eye of the heart” that Jesus teaches about or the “intuitive mind” of the Greek philosophers) that can perceive the most substantial, free and alive realities, we only give any attention or respect to what we can see with our frail fleshly eyes and control with muscle or money. For all of these reasons, you are unlikely to hear much about the atemporal fall in our world today.
While on the topic of imponderables, any consideration of an atemporal fall must also posit some version of a corporate and heavenly Adam as well as Jesus Christ. As we read in Paul, Jesus is the second Adam and also the first human to be fully created (or to have displayed the fullness of the divine image for which purpose humans were created). Jesus is also called the head of the entire body of his people. Likewise, Adam is, of course, the source or head of the entire human race. Both figures relate to human history and to all other human persons, to some significant extent, from outside of history. There is much more to consider on these points, but it is beyond the scope of these notes.
Where I first heard of this concept was in fairytales or mythologies. We see this atemporal fall suggested in the bending of our world into its current reduced shape as this took place in Tolkien’s stories with the downfall of Númenor. It shows up in the myths of Atlantis and of the Temple-Garden of Eden sinking into the earth with the great flood. I’ve written about this in several places such as these:
Few authors write about the idea of an atemporal fall outside of fiction and story. The first place that I saw any reference to it in a contemporary nonfiction source was in The Doors of the Sea by David Bentley Hart where he speaks explicitly of time as we know it now being “fallen” and reduced in its form. Even in this book, however, the concept is not developed but simply eluded to. Most other places where I have found this idea talked about are just recordings of conversations between authors and scholars as well as a few articles and blog posts. I’m hopeful that some books coming out in future years will give this more formal attention. If anyone reading these notes and this list has additional resources, please let me know.
The Doors of the Sea by David Bentley Hart (2005).
“The Devil’s March: Creatio ex nihilo, the Problem of Evil, and a Few Dostoyevskian Meditations” by David Bentley Hart. Published in Creation “ex nihilo”: Origins, Development, Contemporary Challenges (2017) and Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest (2020).
Torstein Theodor Tollefsen in his chapter “Saint Maximus the Confessor on Creation and Incarnation” from the book Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology edited by Niels Henrik Gregersen.
I am excited about a forthcoming book by Jordan Wood called The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus the Confessor (from the University of Notre Dame Press, publication date not yet finalized but within a year). It promises insight on many topics and possibly this one as well.
The Fall and Hypertime by Hud Hudson (2014). [Recommended by Stephen R. L. Clark (as something he wants to read related to this).]
Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures by Paul J. Griffiths (2014). [Recommended and not yet read by me.]
The Symbolism of Evil by Paul Ricoeur. [Recommended and not yet read by me.]
One final note regarding provenance with this topic:
This claim is properly within the truth domaines of theology, anthropology, metaphysics, myth and poetry.
As for the physical sciences: they do not conflict at all with the concept of an atemporal fall. At the same time, science cannot give us any evidence of it on its own terms.
As for exegesis of scripture: it takes an atemporal fall for granted on every page. It, however, is not something we tend to see as modern readers. One example is Romans 8:19-23. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
P.S. A few of my family members occasionally read and interact with my theological postings on my blog. Shortly after I posted the material above, one of my amazing sisters commented to me elsewhere about the atemporal fall being rather incomprehensible, so I gave this summary a shot:
Dear sister, a distinguished and much-loved Orthodox theologian of the last generation, Olivier Clément, wrote a book called Transfiguring Time: Understanding Time in the Light of the Orthodox Tradition that is probably the best start I could think of for talking about an atemporal fall.
One way to describe the atemporal fall is to say that all of cosmic history in this current fallen world of ours is the result of only one moment or event within the heavenly or eternal time of God’s kingdom life. When the heavenly Adam fell (who was created for the purpose of filling an un-fallen cosmos with life in God’s image and so that the incarnation might take place even without a fall) all of fallen human history unrolled instantly—from the Big Bang until the last moment of biological life anywhere in our cosmos. This means that every part of this contingent story that we are in right now is only incompletely in contact with the true history of humanity’s un-fallen relationship to God. Our fallen history did not destroy us and our world, because, at the instant of our fall, the eternal Son and Word of God joined himself to us even to the point of death. This incarnation shows up in the middle of our fallen time when Mary says yes to God—undoing the human fall in cooperation with God. However, this incarnation and death and resurrection of God are also the “lamb slain from the foundation of the cosmos” (as John says in his Apocalypse). Every moment of cosmic history is therefore the immediate result of two things: 1) Adam’s resistance to life with God and 2) Christ’s commitment to incarnation in the flesh even though humanity resisted life with God and brought death to themselves and their entire world.
Coming at the atemporal fall from another direction, my second best approach would be through the work of a living and also much-loved Orthodox theologian John Behr with a book called John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (now in a 2nd ed.). In this book, John Behr explains how all of the early church fathers understood John the Theologian to be teaching in his gospel that the work of creation by God was only accomplished upon the cross by Jesus Christ from the very foundation or middle of our contingent and fallen time.
Adam—hearing God’s call to divine fellowship—dreamed of green and flowering cities, tempting even angels with the visions. They, leaning in, enticed Adam, in turn, to dream more and more lavishly. Before his eyes had fluttered open, his visions had long outstripped his childish wisdom and grown lost in fantasies of life apart from God. Only partially awake, Adam’s world first stirred in pain. It grew in twilight amid broken brotherhoods, crushed by death and darkness.
Early along this thorny road to God, first Adam beheld Eve and rejoiced that they would not be alone, though, he spurned her soon as a temptress, and went to dwell with Lilith. When Lilith left Adam to wield fierce powers as Queen of Death, Adam return to Eve and her children brought them promises of life. But bitter labor and broken fellowships soon took Adam back beneath the earth to dream fitfully again.
Watching his tortured dreams from the sweet-scented Cave of Machpelah, Adam first saw Mary. Gazing as she spun her yarn for the temple veil, Adam thought vividly of what it would be to wake fully and behold himself saying yes to God. He felt again God’s hands giving form to clay—his own soul shaped again with the knitting of the child that Mary carried.
God visited this night of Adam’s world as Jesus Christ and walked the dusty roads with Adam’s sons and daughters. Remembering lost evenings of quiet fellowship in a first fruited garden—a place governed by lights and filled with the voice of God—almost, Adam came forth from his cave to stand with God again.
Yes, watching Mary follow her son through death within his bitter dreams, Adam’s ears and eyes longed to fully wake and walk with God himself. Then a bold cry thundered up from the depths of the earth, filling buried Eden and echoing through the cave of the patriarchs. John, called out to the dead and sleeping, “Behold, the new Joshua and the son of David, putting death to flight. He approaches. Stir yourselves and behold.”
I dream now with Mr. Raven—George MacDonald’s Adam librarian—gathering little worms across the grassy fields of paradise where a thousand, thousand sleeping souls surround us, buried but ready to learn of light and air, to hear the echoes of Mary’s yes to God, the yes that even Adam and Lilith, finally, would imitate.
Christians feast Saint Dionysius the Areopagite today. He was appointed by the Apostle Paul as the first bishop of Athens after he became a Christian while hearing Paul teach on the Areopagus (Acts 17). Among other places, Dionysius is always depicted in the icon of the Dormition with the other bishops who were there: James, the brother of the Lord, Timothy and Heirotheus. Stories about Dionysius pour forth across time like exotic treasures from a viking trove. For example, while living in Alexandria, Egypt years before his conversion, he noticed the sky darkening one day and remarked at the time that either the creator of the world must be suffering or the world must be ending (later learning that this was the day of Christ’s crucifixion). After becoming a Christian, Dionysius traveled to see Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ and to hear from her directly about her son who had died, returned from the grave and ascended into heaven. Dionysius reports that if he had not known anything about Mary, he would have immediately recognized her as a remarkable and holy woman because she radiated a divine light. For most of Christian history, Dionysius was also thought to have traveled to Paris in Gaul where he died a martyr. However, most historians of hagiography now consider Saint Dionysius (or Denis) of Paris to have been another saint with the same name. Either way, Saint Dionysius of Paris is the most famous cephalophore of the many who appear in Western Christianity, and most images of this saint show him carrying his own head (with the halo sometimes with the head and sometimes where the head should be and sometimes partially in both places). The account was much loved of Dionysius the Areopagite picking up his own head after his decapitation and carrying it to the church to deliver a powerful sermon on the beauties of repentance before he finally laid himself down to rest.
Among the many potent and beautiful materials connected to Dionysius the Areopagite, are a set of astounding writings that patristic scholars continue to marvel over. Most scholars today would say that these writings are by a later person working within his school of teaching:
Despite having a reputation for extraordinary (almost alienating) profundity and depth, these writings are loved by the whole church and considered well within the framework of all that was shared by the mothers and fathers of the church within its earliest years.
Not knowing Greek and being one who loves to find excellent shortcuts in my learning, I recently read a summary of all that Dionysius taught by a leading contemporary American scholar (professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University). I highly recommend Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric David Perl. While focusing on the core metaphysical system that is astoundingly consistent and rigorous throughout the works of Dionysius, Perl (a devout Christian himself) does cover angelology and the nature of sin along with the incarnation. In fact, Perl’s book concludes: “Dionysius’ discussions of the incarnation suggest that the whole of being, as theophany, is to be understood in incarnational terms, and that God incarnate, as the ‘principle and perfection of all hierarchies’ is the fullness of reality itself. Being as symbol, as theophany, and hence as being, is perfectly realized in Christ, in God incarnate, the finite being which is God-made-manifest.”
So what is taught by this school of Saint Dionysius? Everything around us each moment that we see, feel, smell, hear and touch is a manifestation of God—a theophany. Everything that exists does so only because it is intelligible by our nous (the mind’s eye or the mind of the heart). We cannot ultimately distinguish between intelligibility and existence. All intelligibility is also a simultaneous revelation of God and a hiding of God in one and the same event. God is not one of all the things that exist but is instead the source of all that is revealed or made intelligible. This means that God does not exist but makes all existence possible, that God is no thing but is revealed by all things. This relationship between God and creation defies explanation under the categories of either monism or dualism and is sometimes called non-dualism. All of creation is simply the manifestation of God while also the veil that keeps God eternally hidden.
Sensations (our five physical senses) inform our nous (mind’s eye or inner perception) but are not needed in order for our mind to see things. We can perceive the life of angels, for example, without the need of our physical senses. However, despite expounding an understanding of the world that makes spiritual bodies more substantial than material bodies, Dionysius does not in any way disparage or undermine material things. He writes explicitly that Plotinus was wrong about matter being evil and develops a line of thought from Proclus to argue that matter is a direct gift of God and a revelation of God’s own love, life and goodness. Dionysius repeatedly clarifies that there is no lack of divine goodness or power within any of the furthest reaches of the hierarchies or emanations that connect together the world revealed to us by God. It is not that spirit is closer to God and matter is further from God. Both come directly from God, but matter depends up on spirit and mind for its existence in a hierarchy of being that continually holds everything together. “The entire hierarchy of reality, therefore, from the highest seraph to the least speck of dust, is the immediate presence and manifestation of God.”
There would be pages to write here in summarizing the wonderful and life-giving teachings that we receive in such clear terms from the school of Dionysius. He clearly identifies sin, evil and suffering and states the case most boldly and unequivocally that these have not final place in the life of God into which we are invited and which is restored for us in incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Dionysius goes so far as to say that any attempt to give a reason or a purpose to evil (any kind of theodicy) is itself the greatest of evils. Evil is a contingent, purposeless and irrational lack being or intelligibility that ultimately can only be made full and good.
When we see and feel the sensible world around us, we gather all of these sensations up into a wholeness of perception until we see all of these sensations united together with the higher forms that hold them together. In this form of seeing with our mind, there is no leaving of any physical sensations behind but a weaving together of them all so that we can perceive them as a unified whole within the life of God who is both fully revealed by this wholeness of vision (the immanent and immediate source of all that is) and entirely hidden (transcendently apart from every thing as the one and constant source of each thing’s existence). God is, as Augustine says—at one and the same time—higher than my utmost and more inward than my innermost. God’s transcendence is the result of his profound immanence.
Yesterday, an online friend of mine (Aaron Beethoven) shared a passage in English that was purported to be translated from a French catechism published for use by the Orthodox church in 1979. This passage seemed to be saying that the doctrine of eternal torment in hell was a monsterous abuse that Orthodox Christians must reject:
Let us state outright: the idea of eternal hades and eternal torments for some, and eternal blessedness, indifferent to suffering, for others, can no longer remain in a living and renewed Christian consciousness the way it was once depicted in our catechisms and our official theological textbooks. …It is high time to put an end to all these monstrous assertions of past centuries, which make of our God that which He is not: an ‘external’ God, Who is merely an allegory of earthly kings and nothing more. Pedagogical intimidation and terror is no longer effective. On the contrary, it bars entry to the Church for many of those who are seeking the God of love.
I could not find this English translation in many places online, and none of them provided much information. Therefore, I asked around for more information, and this is what I have learned.
Catéchisme pour les familles: Dieu est Vivant (my own translation of the title being Catechism for families: God is Alive) was published in 1979 (with another French edition printed in 1987). It was a work for church use by French catechists, theologians and priests from Russian, Greek and French backgrounds. Olivier Clement was the editor and a contributor alongside Fr. Cyrille Argenti and Fr. Alexandre Turincev. The book received the blessings of Metropolitan Meletios (Greek) and Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Surozh.
It was published in English as The Living God: a Catechism (2 volumes, translated by Olga Dunlop) by SVS Press (where it is noted that it was originally written in French as a “catechism for the family” but with little other information given online about the source book). Mysteriously, a chapter of the original text was left out of this English edition. I have not yet read this SVS Press edition, so I do not know if this missing chapter is noted or explained in their book in any way. This chapter was titled “L’ESCHATOLOGIE ORTHODOXE” (“Orthodox Eschatology”) and was written by Father Alexandre Turincev who had initially published it in the Orthodox journal Contact (no. 54) in 1966.
An English translation of this missing chapter was published in the Greek Orthodox Theological Review (58:1-4) in 2013 as “An Approach to Orthodox Eschatology.” This was translated by Brad Jersak (with the Monks at Holy Transfiguration Hermitage, British Columbia) and Michael Gillis. You can find a full PDF of it here.
As I inquired about this, a few who could read French and had the text in French suggested that the translation I found online was not strong and that the brief passage was taken out of context. I’ve now been able to read the entire chapter in the English translation by Brad Jersak and Michael Gillis (published in the Greek Orthodox Theological Review). This entire chapter is beautiful and profound with a clear depth of understanding regarding patristic Christianity as well as a strong sense of just how terribly our understandings of Christian eschatology have gone astray over the course of Christian history in various damaging ways. It seems clear to me that the controversial passage in question entirely fits the full context of the chapter. I could give many other examples from elsewhere in the chapter, but consider this one:
We have arrived at the crucial point: Gehenna, hell, damnation, eternal suffering. …First, one remark: the notion of “eternal” (Greek: aionios) does not belong to the category of obvious and clear concepts. In the vulgar sense of the term, eternity is understood as a measure of time, or rather as a lack of measurement, as an essentially flawed infinity—an absence of end. But in the Bible, “eternal” is synonymous with God or divine life. For this reason, eternity is not commensurate with time. …Eternity is a life of another “nature,” another quality. Eternity is the fullness of divine life. And hell? Does it exist or not? St. Thérèse of Lisieux has written somewhere, “I believe that hell exists, but I do not think anyone is there.” It is easy to understand her. The pure and angelic Thérèse seeks to defend the infinite love of her God against the dogmas of the implacable guardians of the faith …But she, along with them, is mistaken if she thinks hell exists as an objective place, designed or created by the Creator and predestined for the damned.
While this passage illustrates that the wider context of the whole article agrees with the shorter passage circulating online, Fr. Alexandre Turincev does go on to talk about what hell is. He even describes hell as eternal in this passage (as translated by a native French reader who has maintained online that Fr. Alexandre Turincev does not support universalism): “The fact that we will be judged at the Last Judgement by the Love and the Truth of God certainly does not diminishes our responsibility for our life and does not take away anything to the tragic nature of our situation. …Only man, by freely refusing it, or revolting against it, can oppose this (God’s) compassion and ever remain in the suffering of his refusal (of it).” With more context and in the translation by Brad Jersak and Michael Gillis, this reads:
The mercy of God is limitless. Before it, the ‘sin of all flesh,’ says St. Isaac the Syrian—all the sin of the world—is ‘but a handful of sand thrown into the Immense Sea.’ Only man, by a free refusal or rebellion, may oppose this mercy and remain always the suffering of his refusal. The Eastern Fathers love to repeat this saying: ‘God created us without us, but he cannot save us without us.’ St. Isaac the Syrian, in his Homily 19, says the following, characteristic of the Orthodox view of ‘the last things’: ‘Let the sacrilegious thought that God ceases to love the sinner never enter the mind of man. But love acts in a double way: it torments sinners and becomes a source of joy to those who have performed their duty.’ ‘In my opinion,’ adds this Father, ‘the torment of Gehenna is repentance.’
Returning to the original passage that I found circulating online, I also closely compared the English translation of it circulating online from an unknown translator with the translation published by Brad Jersak and Michael Gillis. Both English translations looked consistent and faithful to each other in their meanings (despite being varied in their word choice and syntax). Finally, I took the French text and ran it through Google translate to get a third English version which did not indicate any issues in the two human translations.
This missing chapter is bold and beautiful. It seems clear that Fr. Alexandre Turincev was a patristic universalist (sometimes also called purgatorial universalism or ἀποκατάστασις). His chapter frequently quotes one of the most outspoken voices on this topic from the ancient church, Saint Isaac the Syrian. It also seems clear that Fr. Alexandre Turincev found most of the more familiar Christian teachings on eternal torment to be monstrously repugnant and damaging to the church. Finally, the entirety of these clear teachings from Fr. Alexandre Turincev were fully approved for use in the training of all those new to the faith by the distinguished and responsible figures of Olivier Clement, Metropolitan Meletios (Greek) and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.
Why this chapter went missing in our only English edition of this book seems likely to me to be a sad story. Evidently, our Orthodox faith in America is not as deeply informed by this aspect of our Christian tradition from its earliest years. I would be grateful to learn more about this missing chapter and its author. I would also be grateful to hear of any reasons for why this chapter was left out of our English printing of this resource.
In addition, here is the other English translation of a brief passage from this missing chapter that has circulated a online in a few places (translator unknown):
Let us state outright: the idea of eternal hades and eternal torments for some, and eternal blessedness, indifferent to suffering, for others, can no longer remain in a living and renewed Christian consciousness the way it was once depicted in our catechisms and our official theological textbooks. This outdated understanding, which attempts to rely upon Gospel texts, renders them literally, roughly, and materially, without penetrating into their spiritual meaning, which is concealed in figures and symbols. This understanding is becoming a more and more intolerant violation of the conscience, thought, and faith of the Christian. We cannot tolerate that the sacrifice on Golgotha turned out to be powerless to redeem the world and conquer hades. Otherwise, it would be necessary to say that all of Creation was a failure, and Christ’s feat was also a failure. It is high time for all Christians to jointly witness to and disclose their intimate mystical experience in this realm, and in the same way their mystical hope and, perhaps, their indignation and horror regarding the materialistic representations of hades and the dread Judgment set forth in human images. It is high time to put an end to all these monstrous assertions of past centuries, which make of our God that which He is not: an ‘external’ God, Who is merely an allegory of earthly kings and nothing more. Pedagogical intimidation and terror is no longer effective. On the contrary, it bars entry to the Church for many of those who are seeking the God of love.
To compare to the text above, here is the English translation of this same passage as translated and published by Brad Jersak and Michael Gillis:
Let us state frankly: the idea of eternal hell and eternal suffering for some and eternal bliss (indifferent to suffering) for others can no longer remain in the living and renewed Christian conscience as it was formerly presented in our catechisms and our official theology courses. This archaic conception, which claims to be based on the Gospel texts, misunderstands them in a literal, coarse, and material sense, without penetrating the hidden spiritual meaning of the images and symbols. This conception is increasingly showing itself to be an intolerable violation of Christian conscience, thought, and faith. We cannot accept that the sacrifice of Golgotha has revealed itself to be powerless to redeem the world and conquer hell. Otherwise we should say: creation is a failure, and redemption is also a failure. It is high time for all Ghristians to witness in common and reveal their mystical experience—intimate in this area—as well as their spiritual expectations, and perhaps also their revulsion and horror before materialistic, anthropomorphic representations of hell and the last judgment, and of the heavenly Jerusalem. It is high time to be done with all these monstrosities—doctrinal or not—which are often blasphemous, from ages past, which make of our God of love that which he is not: an “external” God who is merely an “allegory of earthly kings and nothing else.” The pedagogy of intimidation and terror is no longer effective. On the contrary, it blocks entry into the Church to many who are seeking a God of love “who loves mankind” (the “Philanthropos” of the Orthodox Liturgy).
If you read French (which I sadly do not), here is this same brief passage in the original language:
Disons franchement : l’idée de l’enfer éternel et de souffrances éternelles pour les uns, de béatitude éternelle (indifferente à la souffrance…) pour les autres, ne peut plus, dans la conscience chrétienne vivante, rénovée, rester telle que la présentaient autrefois nos catéchismes et nos cours officiels de théologie. Cette conception archaïque, qui veut s’appuyer sur les textes évangéliques, les comprend d’une manière littérale, grossière, matérielle, sans pénétrer dans le sens spirituel caché des images et des symboles. Cette conception se présente de plus en plus comme une violation intolérable de la conscience, de la pensée et de la foi du chrétien. On ne peut admettre que le sacrifice du Golgotha se soit révélé impuissant à racheter le monde et à vaincre l’enfer. Sinon il faudrait dire : la Création est un échec, la Rédemption aussi est un échec. Il est grand temps pour tous les chrétiens de témoigner en commun et de révéler leur expérience mystique, intime dans ce domaine, ainsi que leurs espérances spirituelles, et peut-être aussi leur révolte et leur épouvante devant les représentations anthropomorphes matérialistes de l’enfer et du Jugement dernier, comme de la Jérusalem céleste. Il est grand temps d’en finir avec toutes ces monstruosités, doctrinales ou non, souvent blasphématoires, des siècles passés, qui font de notre Dieu-Amour ce qu’il n’est pas : un Dieu “externe” qui n’est qu’une “allégorie des rois terrestres et rien d’autre”. La pédagogie d’intimidation et de terreur n’est plus efficace, au contraire, elle barre l’entrée dans l’Église à beaucoup de ceux qui cherchent un Dieu d’amour et “qui aime l’homme” (le “Philanthrope” de la liturgie orthodoxe).
Finally, for a little more context from the original French text as printed in Catéchisme pour les familles: Dieu est Vivant, this text below comes from from the three images above (shared with me and some others online):
CHAPITRE IX Une approche de l’eschatologie orthodoxe par le P. Alexandre Turincev
Arrivant presque au terme de cette Septième Partie sur le deuxième Avènement du Seigneur, au cours de laquelle nous avons parlé, en particulier, des signes précurseurs de ce deuxième Avènement, de la fin du monde et du Jugement, il nous paraît utile de donner quelques extraits d’un article du P. Alexandre Turincev, paru dans la revue Contacts (nº 54, deuxième trimestre 1966).
Cet article est intitulé : « Une approche de l’eschatologie orthodoxe ». (Eschatologie veut dire ce qui concerne les fins dernières, le sort de l’homme après la mort.)
Le P. Alexandre, qui a une longue et profonde expérience des âmes et de la vie chrétienne, témoigne ici avec chaleur de sa foi et de son espérance devant « l’énigme du monde et de l’homme, celle de la fin dernière de l’évolution cosmique, du sens de l’histoire humaine, du destin de chacun de nous… » Il est convaincu que « le monde ne peut pas être expliqué à partir de lui-même » et que « son sens et son but suprêmes sont cachés dans l’histoire de l’homme et non pas dans l’évolution du cosmos. » Il affirme que «c’est en vain que l’homme cherche, en dehors du Christ, l’explication de ces énigmes».
«L’avènement de la vie du siècle à venir suppose la fin de celui dans lequel nous vivons, “la fin du monde”. Mais…
«(…) Saint Jean Chrysostome, dont le sermon inspire conclut, dans la liturgie orthodoxe, les matines de Pâques, clame : “L’enfer a été frappé de mort lorsqu’il rencontra le Christ”, et il ajoute : “Il a été frappé de mort, parce que tu l’as anéanti, frappé de mort, parce que tu l’as humilie: frappé de mort, parce que tu l’as enchaîné: frappé de mort, parce que tu l’as tué.”
«Dans le contexte eschatologique général, comment faut-il considérer ces affirmations follement catégoriques de saint Jean Chrysostome concernant l’enchaînement, l’humiliation, la mort de l’enfer, son anéantissement? Disons franchement : l’idée de l’enfer éternel et de souffrances éternelles pour les uns, de béatitude éternelle (indifferente à la souffrance…) pour les autres, ne peut plus, dans la conscience chrétienne vivante, rénovée, rester telle que la présentaient autrefois nos catéchismes et nos cours officiels de théologie. Cette conception archaïque, qui veut s’appuyer sur les textes évangéliques, les comprend d’une manière littérale, grossière, matérielle, sans pénétrer dans le sens spirituel caché des images et des symboles. Cette conception se présente de plus en plus comme une violation intolérable de la conscience, de la pensée et de la foi du chrétien. On ne peut admettre que le sacrifice du Golgotha se soit révélé impuissant à racheter le monde et à vaincre l’enfer. Sinon il faudrait dire : la Création est un échec, la Rédemption aussi est un échec. Il est grand temps pour tous les chrétiens de témoigner en commun et de révéler leur expérience mystique, intime dans ce domaine, ainsi que leurs espérances spirituelles, et peut-être aussi leur révolte et leur épouvante devant les représentations anthropomorphes matérialistes de l’enfer et du Jugement dernier, comme de la Jérusalem céleste. Il est grand temps d’en finir avec toutes ces monstruosités, doctrinales ou non, souvent blasphématoires, des siècles passés, qui font de notre Dieu-Amour ce qu’il n’est pas : un Dieu “externe” qui n’est qu’une “allégorie des rois terrestres et rien d’autre”. La pédagogie d’intimidation et de terreur n’est plus efficace, au contraire, elle barre l’entrée dans l’Église à beaucoup de ceux qui cherchent un Dieu d’amour et “qui aime l’homme” (le “Philanthrope” de la liturgie orthodoxe).
«Un saint moine du Mont Athos, un staretz qui fut presque notre contemporain, écrit ce qui suit, en s’adresavec toute la multitude de tes freres, et quand il ne resterant qu’un seul des ennemis du Christ et de l’Eglise dans les ténèbres extérieures, ne te mettras-tu pas avec tous les autres à implorer le Seigneur afin que soit sauvé cet unique frère non repenti? Si tu ne le supplies pas jour et nuit, alors ton cæur est de fer – mais on n’a pas besoin de fer au paradis.”
«Et saint Paul, qui était si véritablement uni au Christ qu’il a pu affirmer : “Ce n’est plus moi qui vis, mais c’est le Christ qui vit en moi”, n’a-t-il pas dit qu’il était pret a être “séparé du Christ pour ses frères”?
«Chacun de nous ne doit-il pas de même supplier le Seigneur : Que tous mes frères soient sauvés avec moi? Ou alors que je sois, moi aussi damné avec eux! Notre Seigneur n’attend-il pas de nous une telle priere? Et cette prière ne sera-t-elle pas la solution du probleme de l’enfer et de la damnation ?»