When God brings our nature back to the first state of man by the resurrection, it would be pointless to mention such matters [i.e., all the contextual details that influence our behavior in this lifetime] and to suppose that the power of God is hindered from this goal by such obstructions. He has one goal: when the whole fullness of our nature has been perfected in each man, some straightway even in this life purified from evil, others healed hereafter through fire for the appropriate length of time, and others ignorant of the experience equally of good and of evil in the life here, God intends to set before everyone the participation of the good things in Him, which the Scripture says eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor thought attained. This is nothing else, according to my judgment, but to be in God Himself.
…When our nature will have its tabernacle pitched again by the resurrection, and all the corruption which has entered in connection with evil will be abolished from the things that are, then the festival around God will be inaugurated in common for those who are covered by the resurrection, so that one and the same joy will be set before all. No longer will rational beings be divided by different degrees of participation in equal good things. Those who are now outside because of evil will eventually come inside the sanctuary of divine blessedness. …The apostle says this more plainly, expounding the agreement of the universe in the good: ‘To Him every knee will bow’ of heavenly, earthly, and subterranean beings, and ‘every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.’ …He speaks of angelic and heavenly beings, and by the rest he signifies the creatures which are ranked next after them, namely us, for all of whom one harmonious festival will prevail.St Gregory of Nyssa, called “Father of Fathers” by the Seventh Ecumenical Council, in chapter 10 of On the Soul and the Resurrection.
For my own continued reflection (and further reading) and future reference, this is a partial transcription of Tony Golsby-Smith interviewing David Bentley Hart about On the Soul and the Resurrection by Gregory of Nyssa. It is the second of three planned conversations about Gregory (with a portion of the first transcribed here as well).
[Within On the Soul and the Resurrection, Gregory] lays out this vision of all of creation—not only fully subordinated to and reconciled to God—but one in which God himself becomes “all in all.” And it’s that “in all” that, to Gregory, is especially significant. It yields, in this treatise, this wonderful picture of the escatalogical reading, and I think the most coherent if you believe that—[with] all the texts of the New Testament—you should try to reconcile them with one another. I don’t necessarily believe that one must. I’m just saying that …if you are trying to do that, Gregory succeeds in doing it in a way that, say, Augustine didn’t. Augustin has to explain away hosts of verses whereas Gregory has to explain away nothing.
What emerges is a picture of two escatological horizons, one of which is the judgement on history. He sees this as being right there in the text. He is not imposing it on the text. Of course, then, history arrives at its consummation, and there is a real parting of the way of the righteous, the unrighteous, the somewhat righteous, the very righteous. Then the story is not over. He believes that, implicit in Paul and explicit in 1 Corinthians 15, is the vision of what the full consummation of reality is. It’s in verse 28. [NASB: “When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.”]
…[Gregory] symbolically describes [this escatological vision] in terms of the temple of Jerusalem, how at first there are different [areas]: those outside the temple, those who are in the forecourt, those within the temple walls, those who could go into the sanctuary, and even then there is the holy of holies. Now, in the age, through the grace of God, all ultimately are brought into union.
…It’s the “all in all” passage [1 Corinthians 15:28]. …That was the favorite verse of Origen, and Gregory (or Macrina at least but Gregory [too]) follows Origen in that. The whole of the treatise culminates in explaining what that vision means. What does it mean to say that God is not only over all and God is not only praised by all, but that God is himself the all that is in all things.
Tony: “In my beginning is my end.” [He quotes from the opening of Part II in “Four Quartets” by T. S. Eliot after reading a passage from David Bentley Hart and then references how Gregory sees the final flourishing within the seed and understands each from the other so that “one cannot pull them apart.”
David: Although, even then, that’s from the perspective of time: the seed of flourishing and it’s consummation. In a sense, from the perspective of eternity, the end comes first and the beginning comes last. That notion from our last conversation, that the true humanity in the divine image perfected in the divine likeness and union with God is the man of the first creation account (Genesis 1). This is all human beings, throughout all time, united in spiritual harmony in their rational nature with Christ as their head, deified in God—this is the true creation. Until that reality comes to pass, creation has not yet happened in a sense, and in God’s eternity that is the reality that God from everlasting has made to be. In time, it is the end of our temporal course. In eternity, it is the very foundation of our existence.
[Our finite relation to God’s infinitude] is one of the distinctive features of Gregory’s usage (which would be picked up again by Maximus the Confessor). It’s been mischaracterized at times by people who don’t pay attention to his language. …In Gregory, this becomes a much more fertile category. With [Ekkehard] Mühlenberg, being a Lutheran, he sort of leaves out the deification aspect of it. It becomes what you’d think would actually be a kind of eternal torment: this endless asymptotic approach to God as a discrete object that he’ll never reach. Part of this is that, in Greek, the preposition “eis” can mean “in” or “into” or “toward” at times. For Gregory it’s clear that this is a growth “into” God, and that’s why that image of the vessel that expands as it’s filled has to be taken very seriously. It is not that Gregory imagines the soul running after an object that it will never reach, and that, just by remaining steadfast in virtue, that’s the eternity that awaits in the moral relation to God. It is a direct transfiguring divinization which is infinite in scope, and since we’re finite and mutable creatures, you could describe this in terms of an everlasting epektasis or stretching out that, nonetheless, is not a lack. It’s not the experience of a lack. It’s not even burdened by memory. He says that it’s not driven by the past in the way an imperfect desire would be (which would be burdened by regrets or things unachieved). Rather, it’s like a pure state of futurity in which the past is always being assumed into a greater present which is itself an openness to an infinite future of greater fulfillment. It’s unimaginable, obviously, in human terms, but he’s quite clear in what he’s talking about that it’s not an infinite frustration. He’s talking about understanding how the life of a creature in direct union with the infinite God is not in fact frustrated by the transcendence of the divine or the infinite disproportion between the infinite and the finite, but in fact that very distinction, that very disproportion, becomes the terms of an evermore intimate union.
This is a new thought. It really is. No one else before him in the philosophical or religious traditions—not even the most brilliant of Platonic philosophers—had really thought about this with quite the same originality. Plotinus anumbrates many of these things, but Gregory is the first to develop an actual metaphysics of the infinite and the finite in union.
One of the things you notice about Gregory is quite often you’re not sure where death is. Death doesn’t really interrupt anything. So quite often the spiritual life just keeps going. He’s talking the assent to God. It can start with Moses in this life standing steadfast in the good, not being moved either to one side or the other but only upward into God. And then, as the exposition proceeds, we can be talking about the soul in the kingdom of God. For him, it’s a continuum [as] we begin in this life.
He had a particular fondness for the image of the mirror, again drawn from Paul. Now we see as in a mirror dimly (or in an enigma). He takes that whole passage which also yields the image of epektasis—stretching out for that which yet lies ahead. He takes that image of the mirror as being an image of what we are as spirits. We see dimly because of the mirror of the soul which is the only place where God can be seen by finite eyes is in the soul as it’s progressively purified by the spirit so that the light of the Holy Spirit, so that the light of the human spirit is conducted into the height of mind by seeing the image of Christ ever more fully in the mirror of the soul. So we see God by seeing him mirrored in our own transformation into God. It’s exquisitely beautiful imagery in the way that he lays it out.
[Gregory] borrows the imagery from scripture in a creative way. He doesn’t assume that the metaphor ends with a simple parallelism. He takes that image of the mirror not simply as an image of obscurity but as a kind of clue to what it’s like to see God for a creature.
Tony: That image is the Feast of the Tabernacles as they move up into the temple, is the image you were referring to, that [Gregory] takes as the end of all things, when the elect, far from being chosen instead of everybody else are chosen before everybody else to invite all, as the language does here, to join in the festal procession.
David: There is evidence right there that Gregory is a better reader of Paul than Augustine is because, for all of his genius, Augustine, of course, makes the elect convertible with the number of the saved, but Paul clearly doesn’t. In Romans 11, it’s clear that the elect are those who have not stumbled, yet Paul goes on to say that those who have stumbled will not be allowed to fall. It’s clear the very notion of those who have been called in this world, for Paul, has nothing to do with the ultimate number of the redeemed. He is speaking of those who, for Paul at first, in the inexplicable way of God’s providence, even those Gentiles who by nature have no right to expect priority at all, have accepted Jesus and some Jews haven’t and how is this going to work out with God’s faithfulness to his people. Gregory never makes that mistake of confusing the number of the elect with the number of the saved because he clearly reads Paul better than Augustine does.
[Gregory] starts from the conviction that the only possible real existence of a fulfilled humanity is a full humanity created in the image and likeness of God in the totality of all human natures in union, and that this is a free act of accent to, of the creature to God, from the very first moment of its existence. From the beginning, creation is based on salvation. That is, if we weren’t always already—from the perspective of eternity—saved and united to God, creation couldn’t exist. If we had several hours, we could go into the logic of that, but I actually think it’s correct.
That means that, like Origen before him, he is taking 1 Corinthians 15 as a total picture of the gospel. Does it unite all the different witnesses of the New Testament or of Scripture in a way that is coherent and tends toward this final picture or at least is not repugnant to it? Again, Augustine failed. So much of Augustine is explaining away the explicit meaning of certain verses to make them conform to a much more parsimonious view of salvation, but Gregory doesn’t have to do that. Gregory has hell, like Origen there, and he sees in it this glorious process of purification which, unpleasant though it may be for some, ultimately is part of that same refining spiritual power of the Spirit which draws all things to God …until all together can approach the horns of the altar as one.
He says the great process of all spirits, of all noetic natures. He is quite clear, to a degree that even Origen wasn’t, that no one else was, that he means all fallen spirits (in the Oratio Catechetica). …For a father who is commemorated as a pillar of orthodoxy in later tradition, he is actually bolder than many figures who either were condemned or left out of the calendar of saints. He says in Oratio Catechetica that the devil may repine at having been fooled into inviting the conqueror into his kingdom. …Then he says that this too will redound to the benefit of the devil. This is a total universalism of the boldest sort. …Explicitly, systematically, relentlessly, he is the most unapologetic total universalist in Christian tradition. …I like to think of it as providence—that God has fixed in the calendar of the saints, a figure whose universalism couldn’t possibly be more systematic, more explicit and more biblically coherent.
[Gregory] is called the “Pillar of Orthodoxy,” but the conciliar title, now that I think about it, was actually “Father of Fathers.”
David: I kind of think of myself as a Falstaff in many ways.
Tony: I wasn’t going to mention it, David, but the thought did flit across my mind. Particularly Falstaff’s unparalleled ability for vituperative abuse of his opponents, I thought, surely, that dialectical tradition…
David: Thank you. That’s very flattering.
Tony: I thought you’d like it. [Laughing.] I was asked by [someone] yesterday when he interviewed me what I liked about you. I’m sorry to say, the first thing I said was, well, “David is funny.” I meant that Falstaffian irony that’s diverting.
David: As a matter of fact, I do take that as high praise. I find most theology incredibly boring.
Tony: Well, my comment was sincere.
My own partial transcription from portions of this excellent conversation between David Bentley and Tony Golsby-Smith about Gregory of Nyssa:
[Gregory of Nyssa] is arguably the first metaphysician who in any significant way explored the metaphysics of divine infinity. …Infinity was ascribed to God …very rarely in Platonic tradition. The invite was not taken to be a positive attribute for many schools of thought until fairly late in the development of Hellenistic philosophy. He had is own anthropology. He had is own approach to an understanding of the nature of the human being, the nature of creatures as thoroughly dynamic expressions of being in relation to a God who is infinite. I don’t think that anyone before Gregory was as successful as he at arguing that the very things that for a more standard metaphysics would be seen as separating humanity from the divine—that is the mutably, the changeableness of human nature—Gregory was able to treat as the very terms of union with God. That is he had a very specific theology of the way in which human beings are related to God in union with God that was his rather creative use of a verse from Paul [Ph. 3:13] of eternal dynamic ascent into the divine. That our union with God, our eternal union with God, would be one also of eternal novelty, of epectasis [ἐπεκτεινόμενος], of being stretched out into an ever greater embrace that, by virtue of the divine infinity, is inexhaustible and by virtue of the inexhaustibly changing nature of the creature is nonetheless something in which we can participate. …All of this, in its own way, is quite original.
All sorts of things are called gods. Saints are called gods. John of Damascus and the other church fathers often speak of saints as gods because they don’t mean God in the sense of God most high. They just mean a divinized creature.
What does it mean to say [with the Nicene Creed established by Gregory and his fellow Cappadocians] that in Christ God has entered into immediate communion with humanity? What is humanity? How is it that God, by becoming one man, in another sense is present in all of humanity, pervades the entirety of human experience that is available to all of the spirit? This leads to Gregory of Nyssa coming up with all sorts of fascinating claims about what it is to be human, what it is to be truly human, how God created humanity form the vantage of eternity as apposed to the process of creation in time and how these two relate. Here he far surpassed his brother [Basil] and Gregory of Nazianzus in the range of speculative genius and also theological profundity. The picture of the human that emerges from it is one of a sort of radical coinherence, radical community, such that the human essence itself is one that is community before it is individuated in persons.
What he does with the Life of Moses is he turns this into a mystical treatise about he ascent of the soul into God’s infinity. And the other is his great commentary on the Song of Songs which …has all these odd premonitory hints of a kind of almost romantic vision of the soul as this infinite insatiable energy that is plunged by its error for the divine, striving—not tragically striving—but nonetheless moved by this insatiable hunger for the beauty of God into ever-deeper communion.
[Gregory of Nyssa] recognizes the animality, the physicality, the degree to which, especially for fallen humanity, [it is given] in preparation for the fall. He talks about preparing certain organs (among them, organs of procreation) to be appropriate to the life that we live in this mortal flesh now. …At the same time, he realizes that even in this condition—he’s always …recogniz[ing] this divine light, this divine music even in the human[‘s] most indigent and coarsely physical form.
In a sense, [Gregory of Nyssa] starts [the creation story] at the end. The creation of humanity starts—he does this wonderful thing where he takes the two different creation accounts, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and makes them, so to speak, two different creative horizons within God’s working—he beings with the human being as already glorified, already united to Christ, already in its totality, all human being together rejoicing in and divinized by the presence of God. From there—that’s the primordial creative act of God, the eternal already accomplished end—from there then unfolds, even from the conditions of sin, how does God create us in time—this being not just the end of the story, but its foundation, its beginning. Rather than starting from this sort of tragedy of a promising creature created in a limited landscape of possibilities, who makes a mess of things, condemns himself and his descendants, …that’s actually an interval in the story that is surpassed before the story even gets underway.
You are confronted first and foremost with this dizzying claim that humanity created after the image fo God in the beginning was nothing less than the totality of all human beings throughout time united in a single body divinized, joined to Christ and thoroughly plunged into the life of God. That’s where the story begins.
I’m a great champion of the romantic movement—especially the English romantic—the great rebellion against the mechanization, and I have no problem with a full robust, red blooded, seemingly panentheistic [vision]. I think that this is another reason to read Gregory On the Making of Humanity and Basil in the Hexameron. …Now, there is a certain degree of the Platonic melancholy there, a certain distrust of matter. You just can’t get away from that in the fourth century, especially in a fallen world. …But they are not talking about a world in which dead matter is the fictile clay by which God creates a working order of mechanisms related to him only in terms of his power. It really is for [them] a vision of created as pervaded by the Spirit of God. It really is the πνεῦμα, the breath of God really does permeate, fill and enliven all things. Life is literally at once the eternal spirit of God but actually the breath of God in all things. It is perfectly healthy to see the romantic rebellion [as being] against the mechanized picture—either the dualistic or the materialist version—this picture of creation as nothing but a collection of organic machines and matter as something inherently dead which is brought to life simply as a mater of functional arrangement but that in itself [is dead]. For Gregory, everything is just the mirror of the divine nature. …In both Basil and Gregory, they both deny that there is even, in any meaningful, sense a material substrate. Their understanding of matter—I don’t know if you’d say that it’s Berkeleian, that’s a bit of an anachronism—but their understanding of matter or the material creation is that it exists as a coalescence of radiant forms [Greek phrase given here, 41:53], of pure spiritual forms. They don’t believe that there is any sort of inanimate, non-divine, non-illuminated, purely passive level of material existence. And this is something that [Gregory] shared with Basil.
The portion in this conversation above about the two nested horizons of God’s creative work provides some helpful language regarding the nature of the cosmos that we inhabit now (see three previous posts here, here and here for just a few other examples of material in my blog related to this). Gregory considers there to be a foundational work of creation outside of time (both the beginning and the end of this current world) in which there is a “humanity created after the image fo God in the beginning [that] was nothing less than the totality of all human beings throughout time united in a single body divinized, joined to Christ and thoroughly plunged into the life of God.” This fullness of humanity is Adam made in the perfect image of God’s eternal son. This undifferentiated humanity falls at the moment of its creation (as Maximus the confessor puts it in three places) and Jesus Christ is therefore the “Lamb slain from the foundations of the cosmos” (Revelation 13:8) and the second Adam to whom all of humanity must remain united in order for the image of God to be preserved. Within fallen time, this image of God is now being differentiated as a kind of secondary work of creation—God’s joining with us in sin and death to nonetheless participate fully with even the life of fallen creation and to accomplish the end of God’s primary creative work. Later in the conversation, David summarizes Gregory as saying that, from our current perspective, creation has not yet taken place. From God’s eternal perspective, it can be clearly inferred as well, it has already taken place.
This entire interview is well worth listening to, and I hope the entire thing is transcribed. Two more are planned focussing on other writings of Gregory. This first interview touches on many other topics such as: Who were all of the Cappadocian saints and what is the nature of the Christian orthodoxy that they were critical in helping to establish? Why did Gregory advocate for the release of all slaves when no other Christian thinker (or likely any human thinker ever) had done so before in this way? Was Gregory a widower and what did Gregory say about marriage and monastic life? How does Gregory compare to Coleridge?
“Auntie Miriam, will you hold my hand?”
Hearing his quiet question, she took his small hand, squeezing gently in response to the pressure of his fingers against hers. Glancing down at him, she saw the pain that she knew so well tightening the dark skin on his face. He remained attentive, however, to the movements of the censor and the robes in the half light before them. Their priest made his circuit around the interior of the stone church, casting the golden incense bowl toward them as he passed, jouncing the bells on its chains with a lively cadence amid the slow voices of the others chanting prayers around them.
After the vespers service, Miriam walked with her husband, her nephew and her own children back to their home. A breeze stirred the fronds in the date palms that lined the path, filling the evening with a deep rasping sound that lay loudly over the softer rustle of the rice in the fields on either side of the road. She could smell the incense from the church in the hair of the child who she carried.
Her nephew Isaac spoke again. “Can I see my father tonight?”
“No. It is too late. You must get dinner and get to bed. You can see him in the morning. Sarah can walk with you. You know how she loves the river trail. She will be glad to go with you.”
“Do you think father will be alive when we wake up?”
“Yes, Isaac, he ate the rice and quinoa with relish that we brought to him today. He was strong. I’m sure that he will be glad to see you in the morning.”
They covered the short way that remained with no more conversation. As Isaac and the other children eat their noodles and peanut sauce with roasted cauliflower, Isaac asked, “Did you know that when you held my hand in church, my mother stood behind us and held both our hands?”
“No, Isaac, I did not see or feel her, but thank you for telling me. She is with me often when I am working in the garden. We loved to work together there as children.”
“Can we pray to my mother again before I go to bed?”
“Yes, of course. It was kind of Sarah to write that icon of your mother last week. We live in such a blessed time to have all of those who die recognized so quickly as saints. You know, children, that for the thousands of years of human history before us, only a very few who we lost were recognized as saints.”
“Yes,” Sarah replied. “I cannot think how difficult it would have been to live in a world where almost no one knew of God’s love and care.”
As the children finished their meals and washed their utensils, Miriam took each aside to dispense their evening medications, log their temperatures and take their last blood samples for the day. She loaded the samples for the automated analysis and recorded all of her activity on a screen so that the doctor could pull this data and confirm the next day’s dosages for each child. Every human life in their community was carefully monitored and preserved amid the onslaught of physiological and genetic damage that had long ago left most of the earth barren. Their community was the last of several that had held out for many centuries in carefully constructed and maintained biospheres within the most protected and favorable locations on the planet. These final human communities had enjoyed digital communications with each other from their physically isolated locations where they had each supported the final colonies of any biological life upon their devastated planet. Everything outside of these last pockets of plant and animal life was a wasteland of toxic oceans and stormswept deserts, and now their biosphere was the last one with any humans still left alive.
“Saint Esther, mother, pray to God for us. Be with father tonight and keep him with me until the morning. I ask that I might see him again tomorrow before he goes to be with you.” Isaac, four years old, stood praying aloud with Miriam and his cousins before the corner where a host of handmade icons, the faces of saints new and old, were arranged with care in rolling ranks over two small tables and up over the surface of both walls. Each halo flickered in the light of the candle as the wooden surfaces—of so many sizes and shapes—held the quiet presences before the family at the close of this day.
Sarah awoke before her cousin and spoke to him quietly. “Wake up, Isaac. The sun is up, and we should be getting ready for our walk to see your father.”
It was a privilege to spend time walking and caring for Isaac instead of her regular studies and chores, and Sarah was clearly excited and glad to be helping. She gently hurried Isaac as he washed and dressed. Then she got the boy fed and helped with his medicines. Isaac’s father, Ishmael, was close to death, which came to everyone now not long after the age of thirty. His wife, Esther, had died two years earlier, only a couple years after the birth of their one child, Isaac.
Sarah walked just behind Isaac on the trail following their great river. It was beautifully fashioned along the old bed of the Blue Nile (T’ik’uri Ābayi in Amharic) although a little smaller than the natural original. Upstream of their biosphere, there was a massive purification plant that handled the incoming water and a great drainage system that diverted the remainder of the polluted waters around them. The coursing water that they walked beside now was the last clean stretch of river on the planet. Sarah knew that its life-filled waters came at great cost and that they only flowed like this for the short stretch of its journey through the biosphere that preserved them. Sarah loved this river. She was named for Amma Sarah who had lived long ago beside the Nile River. Sarah knew that, during many decades spent in prayer and in teaching the great men who came to learn from her, Amma Sarah never once allowed herself to look over the river’s shimmering surface. She kept this discipline out of love for the river so that the river could become a help to strengthen her focus on its own beautiful Maker. As Miriam stood by the Nile telling this story to Sarah when she was small, Miriam had added that Amma Sarah’s abstinence made even more sense in the light of her young daughter’s wonder at the story.
“Isaac, have you heard how the Nile River far below us used to flood with seasonal rains and how the river up above us flows through many treacherous gorges, some more than 5000 feet deep?”
“Yes, Sarah. I have looked at the pictures of the beautiful fields that it once watered far below us and also of the fearsome gorges through which it rushes high above us. It is incredible to have this gentle river here with us now.”
“I sometimes imagine what it would have been like to feel real rain and to see a river rolling over its banks, carrying away trees, great rocks and even homes in its terrible current. She was a mighty goddess or god—giving and taking lives. Here we have just a beautiful portion of one glistening arm. Even in death, it is still lovely and still gives life to a thousand fishes, frogs, dragonflies and other dancing creatures. Our river is attended even now by her most devoted Naiads and other nymphs who play within and beside her laughing current. What will this deity be like, Isaac, one day, in full life again?”
“I don’t understand everything you say,” Isaac answered. “But she is beautiful. Maybe I will ask my father today about the life of rivers.”
“On my eighth name day, Uncle Ishmael gave me a copy of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, and he read his favorite passages aloud to me in that next year. It is from American, from a great river near the fifth-to-last biosphere. Your father reads so well.”
The children paused here at the same time, both knowing that a tree with massive roots grew out over a bend in the river bank. This made a wonderful place to sit, watching the sun and shade play on the riverbed below the little fishes. Taking off their sandals, they let their feet into the water, making new shadows on the sand and pebbles and bringing the little fish to nibble at their toes. Even a freshwater crab slipped out from under a stone to see what the fish had found. In only a few moments, however, Sarah pulled an extra napkin out from their lunch satchel to dry their feet and finish their journey.
Isaac’s father was asleep when they arrived, but the nurse said that he had eaten a little breakfast. Almost as soon as they sat down to wait, the nurse came to say that Ishmael had awoken and was glad to hear of his visitors.
As Isaac climbed onto the bed beside him, Ishmael asked if his son wanted a story. Sarah held the book, and Ishmael turned the pages while he read. It was a story of Saint Krestos Samra, a princess who became a nun from the people who had lived in this land long ago. This picture book was about the time when Krestos Samra saw Christ and immediately begged him to pardon everyone who had ever lived:
“If your crucifixion happened for their sake, pardon all those who have died, from Abel up to now and in eternity, O Lord! Truly, you are merciful, slow to be angered, given to compassion, and righteous. There is no other God than you, you are all-powerful, and nothing is impossible for you; the entire earth does not even fill your hands.”
Hearing this bold request, Christ had summoned the Archangel Michael to guide Krestos Samra into Sheol so that she might preach there herself. Michael’s power in the brilliant pictures was like fire leaping off of each page. Isaac pointed to a great wing stretched over the top of two pages with many-colored feathers above a coffee-dark and potent arm. Ishmael smiled at his son’s delight.
“Do you like those powerful colors?”
“This is a book I drew for you last month when I first learned that the doctor would have me keep to my bed.”
Returning to the story, he read: “The number of souls who escaped on the wings of Saint Michael and on my own wings was over one hundred thousand. I was delighted when I saw how happy those souls were. I frolicked among them just like a young calf; I was like a horse that races in the king’s presence.”
Isaac laughed at the beautiful words and drawings in his father’s book and at his father’s strong, joyful voice as he read. It was a story that Isaac and Sarah had heard before, but Ishmael’s book brought them into the story again, like it was their first time.
As he finished reading, Ishmael pushed other books aside so that Sarah could place Isaac’s book on a table near the bed.
“Father, will others come also to carry all of the souls out of Sheol on their mighty wings?”
“That is what we pray, Isaac. And that is the will of Christ in his death, giving himself for the life of the world, to feed and sustain us in this place of death. That is why we pray for each person who has died before us, asking God to have mercy on us all. The world has seen so much death, Isaac. Do you know how many have lived before us now—before all of us now living here in our little scattering of villages under this last biosphere beside our beautiful Nile?”
“No, father. How many?”
“Probably over two hundred billion, Isaac. Do you know how many more that is than the one hundred thousand that Krestos Samra and Michael carried out on their mighty wings?”
“Is it twenty thousand times more, father?”
“Yes! Are you only four years old? That is excellent arithmetic, Isaac! So, yes, if there are twenty thousand like Krestos Samra, then her wish will be fulfilled.”
“What is that book on your table, father, with a dog on the cover?”
Sarah picked it up, smiling at the dog as she opened the book.
“That is the work of a great American sage from just before the first great burning of fossil fuels. It is a series of visions in which the sage dialogues with his dog, Roland.”
Sarah asked, “Can I look at it, Uncle Ishmael?”
“Yes, of course. It is a beautiful book. I’ve finished it recently. You may take it home with you.”
“Thank you, Uncle. I will start it and see if I want to bring it home with me now. I know that books and paper are as precious as wood. Is it true that the gold and gems on the Gospel Book used to be more precious than the paper and wood of its pages and cover?”
“Yes, we were able to keep a great store house of gold, precious metal and other stones, far more than we need. But plant products such as wood and paper have been very precious for many centuries. For most of human history, however, trees and plants were plentiful while precious metals and stones were rare because they were difficult to mine from deep in the earth and to refine with hot furnaces.”
Sarah moved to a couch near the bed where she read as Isaac continued talking with his father.
“Are you in pain, today, Father?”
“Yes, Isaac. It is hard most days now. How is your pain?”
They remained together quietly for a time, rubbing each other’s backs to ease the pain that was a part of every day for all of those now living.
“Will I see you tomorrow, father? Auntie Miriam has told me that the doctor thinks you cannot live for much longer.”
“You have grown old and wise, already, Isaac, and you are right. I don’t know how much longer we can be together. I heard from your aunt that you recently went to stand with those who pray beside the great glass windows, looking out over the vast poisoned desert of our home, to pray with them for our lost planet, for all its dead and even for the devils wandering witless through its trackless wastes. That is brave of you, Isaac. I never stood with them until much older. You, however, may need to be very brave, my child, as you grow to be a man. You know that I will always hold you in prayer before God’s throne even when you have had to kiss me one last time and lay my body in the ground. And you know that our pain and our fear is the pain and fear of all those who came before us, stored up and held now by us. Like Christ, we carry the sins of the whole world. We know something of what our loving Lord knew upon the cross. We must forgive them and know that—even alone and abandoned—we dwell in the love of Christ, our Creator and our brother who has entered into abandonment and death to be with us, and even there, at the end, we find the life of God.”
Ishmael paused to look at Isaac, to caress his hands and to kiss his forehead.
“You know, Isaac, that it is growing more and more difficult for us to reach adulthood and for children to be born. Our doctors expect that we are close to the last generation of children and that some of our children now may be among the last humans to live and to pray upon this earth. I have been so blessed to have you, as my son and to have your mother, Esther, as my wife. I pray now for those who come after me, for you and your companions who may face the very end together. Remember me in your prayers, and remember whoever remains of those who have not yet been taken up from out of Sheol by the power of Christ and the loving prayers of his saints. I will hold you and all those with you in my prayers before God as you labor to maintain this biosphere in the last years of life upon this beautiful but wasted home.”
Ishmael grew quiet again, his fingers softly massaging the hair on Isaac’s head.
“Father, may I ask the nurse here and Auntie Miriam if I may stay here at the hospital with you?”
“Yes, son, I think you are old enough to walk the path yourself to complete your lessons during the day at the school and to return here at night to be with me. You know that I cannot let you miss your lessons and your chores too often, but I will speak to your aunt and the nurse here about you spending the nights here with me.”
Father and son did not speak again until Sarah said that it was time to go. She had decided to take her uncle up on his offer to lend her the book Roland in Moonlight. Together, she and Isaac kissed Ismael goodbye and made their way back down the river path, toward home and school, in time for their afternoon lessons.
God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and God created man, in the image of God created He him.” Accordingly, the Image of God, which we behold in universal humanity, had its consummation then.On the Making of Man by Saint Gregory of Nyssa
…[God] saw, “Who knows all things” even “before they be,” comprehending them in His knowledge, how great in number humanity will be in the sum of its individuals.
…[When] the full complement of human nature has reached the limit of the pre-determined measure, because there is no longer anything to be made up in the way of increase to the number of souls, [Paul] teaches us that the change in existing things will take place in an instant of time.
Notes with some related reading:
Saint Gregory of Nyssa (feasted today, January 10) says that the image of God is only seen when every human person is included both at the outset of creation and at the end of time. Here Gregory describes how God’s image applies to the entire human race gathered from across all of fallen history:
In the Divine foreknowledge and power all humanity is included in the first creation; for it is fitting for God not to regard any of the things made by Him as indeterminate. …The entire plenitude of humanity was included by the God of all, by His power of foreknowledge, as it were in one body, and …this is what the text teaches us which says, God created man, in the image of God created He him. For the image is not in part of our nature, nor is the grace in any one of the things found in that nature, but this power extends equally to all the race. …The Image of God, which we behold in universal humanity, had its consummation then. …He saw, Who knows all things even before they be, comprehending them in His knowledge, how great in number humanity will be in the sum of its individuals. …For when …the full complement of human nature has reached the limit of the pre-determined measure, because there is no longer anything to be made up in the way of increase to the number of souls, [Paul] teaches us that the change in existing things will take place in an instant of time. [And Paul gives to] that limit of time which has no parts or extension the names of a moment and the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).
These excerpts from Gregory’s On the Making of Man (intended to supplement and complete the Hexaëmeron of his older brother Saint Basil) illustrates Gregory’s idea that God created all of humanity at once in the beginning, but that this universal humanity is revealed within fallen time as a multitude of individuals all contributing to the image of God but not manifesting the fullness of that image without each other. Gregory sees all of human history, as we experience it now, to be a result of the human fall which took place with the first creation of all humanity before any individual humans existed. All of humanity is therefore currently participating in both our fall and our creation (both of which were initiated before time itself). Once each person arrives within this fallen history, humanity then be restored to our union with each other and to God, allowing us to once again display the fullness of God’s image as intended from the start (in the first creation, before our fall).
Gregory even says that this movement from the first creation of humanity as a collective whole into a “plenitude” of particular humans could have happened without a fall, in which case we would have become a multitude in whatever way the angels themselves became a great multitude (which process Gregory says is inconceivable to us in our current condition). Once the full number of humans ordained by God has been born within fallen history, the final manifestation of all humanity, transformed with bodies of incorruptibility and united to Jesus Christ as the first fruits of this resurrection life, will mark the fullness and end of history and of time itself as humanity is once again a complete whole as it was initially revealed in the first creation. This way of thinking is far from intuitive for modern people. Here is a more complete sample of the passages expanding these ideas from Gregory (in a slightly convoluted older translation):
In saying that God created man the text indicates, by the indefinite character of the term, all mankind; for was not Adam here named together with the creation, as the history tells us in what follows? Yet the name given to the man created is not the particular, but the general name: thus we are led by the employment of the general name of our nature to some such view as this—that in the Divine foreknowledge and power all humanity is included in the first creation; for it is fitting for God not to regard any of the things made by Him as indeterminate, but that each existing thing should have some limit and measure prescribed by the wisdom of its Maker. [XVI.16]
Now just as any particular man is limited by his bodily dimensions, and the peculiar size which is conjoined with the superficies of his body is the measure of his separate existence, so I think that the entire plenitude of humanity was included by the God of all, by His power of foreknowledge, as it were in one body, and that this is what the text teaches us which says, God created man, in the image of God created He him. For the image is not in part of our nature, nor is the grace in any one of the things found in that nature, but this power extends equally to all the race: and a sign of this is that mind is implanted alike in all: for all have the power of understanding and deliberating, and of all else whereby the Divine nature finds its image in that which was made according to it: the man that was manifested at the first creation of the world, and he that shall be after the consummation of all, are alike: they equally bear in themselves the Divine image. [XVI.17]
…Yet while, as has been said, there is no marriage among them, the armies of the angels are in countless myriads; for so Daniel declared in his visions: so, in the same way, if there had not come upon us as the result of sin a change for the worse, and removal from equality with the angels, neither should we have needed marriage that we might multiply; but whatever the mode of increase in the angelic nature is (unspeakable and inconceivable by human conjectures, except that it assuredly exists), it would have operated also in the case of men, who were “made a little lower than the angels,” to increase mankind to the measure determined by its Maker. [XVII.2]On the Making of Man by Saint Gregory of Nyssa (translated by H.A. Wilson)
…God says, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and God created man, in the image of God created He him (Genesis 1:26-27). Accordingly, the Image of God, which we behold in universal humanity, had its consummation then. [XXII.3]
…Man, then, was made in the image of God; that is, the universal nature, the thing like God; not part of the whole, but all the fullness of the nature together was so made by omnipotent wisdom. …He saw, Who knows all things even before they be, comprehending them in His knowledge, how great in number humanity will be in the sum of its individuals. [XXII.4]
…For when, as I suppose, the full complement of human nature has reached the limit of the pre-determined measure, because there is no longer anything to be made up in the way of increase to the number of souls, [Paul] teaches us that the change in existing things will take place in an instant of time, giving to that limit of time which has no parts or extension the names of a moment and the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). …So that it will no more be possible for one who reaches the verge of time (which is the last and extreme point, from the fact that nothing is lacking to the attainment of its extremity) to obtain by death this change which takes place at a fixed period, but only when the trumpet of the resurrection sounds, which awakens the dead, and transforms those who are left in life, after the likeness of those who have undergone the resurrection change, at once to incorruptibility (1 Thessalonians 4:17). [XXII.6]
Note: see also this extended passage from David Bentley Hart reflecting on this material from Gregory of Nyssa.
God has one goal: when the whole fullness of our nature has been perfected in each man, some straightway even in this life purified from evil, others healed hereafter through fire for the appropriate length of time, and others ignorant of the experience equally of good and of evil in the life here, God intends to set before everyone the participation of the good things in Him, which the Scripture says eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor thought attained. …The difference between a life of virtue and a life of wickedness will appear hereafter chiefly in allowing us to participate earlier or later in the blessedness which we hope for. The duration of the healing process will undoubtedly be in proportion to the measure of evil which has entered each person.St. Macrina the Younger quoted by her brother St. Gregory Nyssa from On the Soul and the Resurrection.
From That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation by David Bentley Hart:
In his great treatise On the Making of Humanity, Gregory reads Genesis 1:26–7—the first account of the creation of the race, where humanity is described as being made “in God’s image”—as referring not to the making of Adam as such, but to the conception within the eternal divine counsels of this full community of all of humanity: the whole of the race, comprehended by God’s “foresight” as “in a single body,” which only in its totality truly reflects the divine likeness and the divine beauty. As for the two individuals Adam and Eve, whose making is described in the second creation narrative, they may have been superlatively endowed with the gifts of grace at their origin, but they were themselves still merely the first members of that concrete community that only as a whole can truly reflect the glory of its creator. For now, it is only in the purity of the divine wisdom that this human totality subsists “altogether” (ἀθρόως, athroōs) in its own fullness. It will emerge into historical actuality, in the concrete fullness of its beauty, only at the end of a long temporal “unfolding” or “succession” (ἀκολουθία, akolouthia). Only then, when time and times are done, will a truly redeemed humanity, one that has passed beyond all ages, be recapitulated in Christ. Only then also, in the ultimate solidarity of all humankind, will a being made in the image and likeness of God have truly been created: “Thus ‘Humanity according to the image’ came into being,” writes Gregory, “the entire nature [or race], the Godlike thing. And what thus came into being was, through omnipotent wisdom, not part of the whole, but the entire plenitude of the nature altogether.” It is precisely and solely this full community of persons throughout time that God has elected as his image, truth, glory, and delight. And God will bring this good creation he desires to pass in spite of sin, both within human history and yet over against it.
…For Gregory, moreover, this human totality belongs to Christ from eternity, and can never be alienated from him. According to On the Making of Humanity, that eternal Human Being who lives in God’s counsels was from the first fashioned after the beauty of the Father’s eternal Logos, the eternal Son, and was made for no other end than to become the living body of Christ, who is its only head. It is thus very much the case that, for Gregory, the whole drama of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection was undertaken so that the eternal Son might reclaim those who are his own—which is to say, everyone. By himself entering into the plenitude of humanity as a single man among other men and women, and in thereby assuming humanity’s creaturely finitude and history as his own, Christ reoriented humanity again toward its true end; and, because the human totality is a living unity, the incarnation of the Logos is of effect for the whole. In a short commentary on the language of the eschatological “subordination” of the Son to the Father in the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, Gregory even speaks of Christ as having assumed not just human nature in the abstract, but the whole plērōma, which means that his glory has entered into all that is human. Nor could it be otherwise. Such is the indivisible solidarity of humanity, he argues, that the entire body must ultimately be in unity with its head, whether that be the first or the last Adam. Hence Christ’s obedience to the Father even unto death will be made complete only eschatologically, when the whole race, gathered together in him, will be yielded up as one body to the Father, in the Son’s gift of subjection, and God will be all in all. At Easter, Christ’s resurrection inaugurated an akolouthia of resurrection, so to speak, in the one body of the race, an unfolding that cannot now cease (given the unity of human nature) until the last residue of sin—the last shadow of death—has vanished. Gregory finds this confirmed also, according to one of his early treatises (a “Refutation” of the teachings of the theologian Eunomius), in John 20:17: When Christ, says Gregory, goes to his God and Father, to the God and Father of his disciples, he presents all of humanity to God in himself. In his On the Soul and Resurrection, moreover, Gregory reports the teaching of his sister Makrina that, when this is accomplished, all divisions will at last fall away, and there will no longer be any separation between those who dwell within the Temple precincts and those who have been kept outside, for every barrier of sin separating human beings from the mysteries within the veil of the sanctuary will have been torn down; and then there will be a universal feast around God in which no rational creature will be deprived of full participation, and all those who were once excluded on account of sin will enter into the company of the blessed. We see here the exquisite symmetry in Gregory’s reading of scripture’s narrative of creation and redemption, and in his understanding of eternity’s perfect embrace of history: just as the true first creation of humanity (Genesis 1:26–27) was the eternal conception in the divine counsels of the whole race united to him while the second (Genesis 2:7) was the inauguration of a history wholly dependent upon that eternal decree, so the culmination of history (1 Corinthians 15:23) will at the last be, as it were, succeeded by and taken up into this original eternity in its eschatological realization (1 Corinthians 15:24), and the will of God will be perfectly accomplished in the everlasting body of Christ.
For Gregory, then, there can be no true human unity, nor even any perfect unity between God and humanity, except in terms of the concrete solidarity of all persons in that complete community that is, alone, the true image of God. God shall be all in all, argues Gregory in a treatise on infants who die prematurely, not simply by comprising humanity in himself in the abstract, as the universal ideal that he redeems in a few select souls, but by joining each particular person, each unique inflection of the plērōma’s beauty, to himself. Even so, Christ’s assumption and final recapitulation of the human cannot simply be imposed upon the race as a whole, but must effect the conversion of each soul within itself, so that room is truly made for God “in all”; salvation by union with Christ must unfold within human freedom, and so within our capacity to venture away. For Gregory, of course, good classical Christian metaphysician that he was, evil and sin are always accidental conditions of human nature, never intrinsic qualities; all evil is a privation of an original goodness, and so the sinfulness that separates rational creatures from God is only a disease corrupting and disabling the will, robbing it of its true rational freedom, and thus is a disorder that must ultimately be purged from human nature in its entirety, even if needs be by hell. As Gregory argues in On the Making of Humanity, evil is inherently finite—in fact, in a sense, is pure finitude, pure limit—and so builds only toward an ending; evil is a tale that can have only an immanent conclusion; and, in the light of God’s infinity, its proper end will be shown to be nothing but its own disappearance. Once it has been exhausted, when every shadow of wickedness—all chaos, duplicity, and violence—has been outstripped by the infinity of God’s splendor, beauty, radiance, and delight, God’s glory will shine in each creature like the sun in an immaculate mirror, and each soul—born into the freedom of God’s image—will turn of its own nature toward divine love. There is no other place, no other liberty; at the last, to the inevitable God humanity is bound by its freedom. And each person, as God elects him or her from before the ages, is indispensable, for the humanity God eternally wills could never come to fruition in the absence of any member of that body, any facet of that beauty. Apart from the one who is lost, humanity as God wills it could never be complete, nor even exist as the creature fashioned after the divine image; the loss of even one would leave the body of the Logos incomplete, and God’s purpose in creation unaccomplished.
Really, we should probably already know all of this—not for theological reasons, but simply from a sober consideration of any truly coherent account of what it means to be a person. After all, it would be possible for us to be saved as individuals only if it were possible for us to be persons as individuals; and we know we cannot be. And this, in itself, creates any number of problems for the majority view of heaven and hell. I am not even sure that it is really possible to distinguish a single soul in isolation as either saint or sinner in any absolute sense, inasmuch as we are all bound in disobedience (as the Apostle says) precisely by being bound to one another in the sheer contingency of our shared brokenness, and the brokenness of our world, and our responsibility one for another. Consequently, I cannot even say where—at what extremity of pious despair—I could possibly draw a line of demarcation between tolerable and intolerable tales of eternal damnation. Some stories, of course, are obviously too depraved to be credited and may be rejected out of hand: A child who, for instance, is born one day in poverty, close to the sun in lonely lands, suffers from some horrible and quite incurable congenital disease, dies in agony, unbaptized, and then—on some accounts, consecrated by theological tradition—descends to perpetual torment as the just penalty for a guilt inherited from a distant ancestor, or as an epitome of divine sovereignty in election and dereliction, or whatever. Now most of us will recognize this to be a degenerate parody of the gospel, so repugnant to both reason and conscience that—even were it per impossibile true—it would be morally indefensible to believe it. But, then, under what conditions precisely, and at what juncture, does the language of eternal damnation really cease to be scandalous? For me, it never does, and for very simple reasons. Let us presume that that child who dies before reaching the font does not in fact descend into hell, and is not even conveniently wafted away on pearl-pale clouds of divine tenderness into the perfumed limbo of unbaptized babes, but instead (as Gregory of Nyssa believed such a child would do) ascends to eternal bliss, there to grow forever into a deeper communion with God. This is a much cheerier picture of things, I think we can all agree. But let us not stop there. Let us go on to imagine also another child born on the same day, this one in perfect health, who grows into a man of monstrous temperament, cruel, selfish, even murderous, and who eventually dies unrepentant and thereupon descends to an endless hell. Well, no doubt this brute chose to become what he became, to the extent that he was able to do so, conscious of the choices he was making; so maybe he has received no more than he deserves. And yet, even then, I cannot quite forget, or consider it utterly irrelevant, that he was born into a world so thoroughly ruined that a child can be born one day in poverty, suffer from some horrible and incurable congenital disease, die in agony … What precisely did that wicked man, then, ever really know of the Good? And how clearly, and with what rational power over his own will? Certainly he did not know everything, at least not with perfect clarity, nor did he enjoy complete rational discretion or power over his own deeds and desires. Not even a god would be capable of that. This thought alone is enough to convince me of the sheer moral squalor of the traditional doctrine.
Yet this still is not my principal point. I want to say something far more radical, something that I touched upon lightly in my First Meditation above. I want to say that there is no way in which persons can be saved as persons except in and with all other persons. This may seem an exorbitant claim, but I regard it as no more than an acknowledgment of certain obvious truths about the fragility, dependency, and exigency of all that makes us who and what we are.Note: see this post for a selection of passages from Gregory of Nyssa from which Hart draws these points.