This is an article that I’ve been meaning to write for some time now, and the reason I’m choosing to do it now is really this: I think most defenses of “anti-universalism” coming out of Orthodox circles are incredibly weak and also uncharitable to our brothers and sisters who do support belief in universalism. This post is not so much an attempt to “prove” myself correct in this dispute, though I certainly do hope to do that, but rather my main intention here is to articulate why I personally am no longer a universalist (having been one for quite some time), why I cannot in good conscience be one, and why I don’t think it’s possible for any Orthodox Christian, who takes the Church’s guidance by the Holy Spirit seriously, to be one either. This post is not in any way intended to be mean-spirited or polemical, in fact this is an issue I wouldn’t mind being wrong about, but I still feel it necessary to write and apologize in advance if anyone feels insulted by this article, know that it is not my intent.
The first place I’d like to begin with why I’m not a universalist is the Holy Scriptures, because there is nothing in the Orthodox Church that we believe that is not contained herein. And before one can begin talking about eternal damnation in the Bible, one has to understand how the Scriptures speak of temporal damnation, i.e. bodily death.
When we commonly think of death, we often equate it to bodily death, which is the separation of the soul from the body, however death appears in many forms throughout Scripture, and can generally be thought of as simply separation. One of the first times this happens is right at the beginning of Genesis:
So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his sides and closed up its place with flesh; and the side which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Genesis 2:21-23)
What we see here is that Adam was put into a “deep sleep,” after which he was divided in two. This is, quite literally, a form of death: Adam was asleep, and divided. However this death was a non-violent one, and it ended not with permanent separation, but rather reunification and glorification. The side of Adam was used to form the woman, whom Adam instantly takes as his wife, joining them together as “one flesh” in the covenant of marriage.
The next time we see the imagery of someone falling into a “deep sleep” (which is a very unusual word, and only appears twice in the whole Torah) is just a few chapters later:
And he said unto him, Take me an heifer of three years old, and a she goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon. And he took unto him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each piece one against another: but the birds divided he not. And when the fowls came down upon the carcases, Abram drove them away. And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him. And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces. In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates… (Genesis 15:9-12, 17-18)
“A deep sleep” comes upon Abram right after he is done “dividing” his animal sacrifices to God on an altar. Then, after it’s dark, God sends fire to pass through the divided pieces of the animals, burning them up in order that they may ascend as a unified sacrifice unto God; and it is in this context that God establishes a covenant with Abram. This clearly parallels the story of Adam and Eve, because we have a man who falls into a deep sleep, divided flesh that becomes reunified and glorified as a whole, and then the establishment of a covenant. This is how death was supposed to work in God’s good and sinless creation: non-violent separation, that ends with reunification and glorification. However, since sin did in fact enter God’s creation after the fall, so too did violent death, and with death came animal sacrifice (Genesis 3:21).
Notice the strange section in the passage above that states “And when the fowls came down upon the carcases, Abram drove them away,” what does this have to do with the theme of death we’ve been discussing? In order to understand this, we have to understand the curse that God put on the Serpent:
And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life. (Genesis 3:14)
The Serpent is cursed to “eat dust all the days of his life.” As I’ve pointed out before, in context, this dust can only mean one thing: dead humans. Adam and Eve are said to be made “from dust,” and it is back “to dust” that they will return upon their deaths, and so the ultimate curse of death is for the Serpent (who is the devil and Satan) to consume you. It is for this reason that Abram “drove away” the unclean birds who were coming to eat his sacrifice, because, throughout the Bible, unclean birds are references to fallen angels or demons (Revelation 18 cf. Isaiah 34), and ultimate death is when they come to eat you. This is why God condemns Gog in the following manner:
And I will smite thy bow out of thy left hand, and will cause thine arrows to fall out of thy right hand. Thou shalt fall upon the mountains of Israel, thou, and all thy bands, and the people that is with thee: I will give thee unto the ravenous birds of every sort, and to the beasts of the field to be devoured. (Ezekiel 39:3-4)
Notice that God’s curse of Gog is for him to be given over to the “ravenous birds” and “beasts of the field.” As mentioned before, ravenous birds are analogous to demons, however the mention of “beasts of the field” is a direct reference to Satan, because the beasts of the field that were created in Genesis 1 are what we now consider dinosaurs, and Satan himself is described as one of these beasts in Job 41. And so Gog is condemned to ultimate death, precisely because his battle with Magog is an image of the Final Judgement, as we shall see soon (also see here for more). This is why the Book of Revelation uses very similar imagery when describing the fall of Babylon the Great:
And after these things I saw another angel come down from heaven, having great power; and the earth was lightened with his glory. And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird. (Revelation 18:1-2)
All of this imagery is used precisely because of the above mentioned link between ultimate death and being consumed by the devil and his angels. And so when we consider why it is that Abram had to ward off unclean birds from tainting his sacrifice, it becomes clear that this was because sacrifices to God must be free of the ultimate death that was introduced through sin (i.e. they cannot be consumed by demons), and instead must be done after the manner of death-resurrection-glorification that God established in Genesis 2. In this manner, the entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament was designed to bring the concept of death back to its original intent, and this dichotomy is most perfectly displayed on the Day of Atonement:
And there shall be no man in the tabernacle of the congregation when he goeth in to make an atonement in the holy place, until he come out, and have made an atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the congregation of Israel. And he shall go out unto the altar that is before the Lord, and make an atonement for it; and shall take of the blood of the bullock, and of the blood of the goat, and put it upon the horns of the altar round about. And he shall sprinkle of the blood upon it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it, and hallow it from the uncleanness of the children of Israel. And when he hath made an end of reconciling the holy place, and the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat: And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:17-22)
If you’ve ever wondered where our Lord got the “separation of the goats from the sheep” idea, look no further! What we see here is that the priest makes a double ascent to the altar: once to make atonement for himself and his household, and once for the whole congregation of Israel. After this, there are two goats brought to the High Priest, and one he designates for the Lord, and the other he designates for destruction. The first goat has his blood sprinkled on the altar “seven times” and is thus cleansing Israel from her sin. This is an image of the righteous in Christ (among other things), who are sealed with the name of God on their foreheads in Revelation 7:3. This name of God sealed on the forehead is a call back to Zechariah 14 where the High Priest has “seven eyes” put on his forehead, which is the inscription “Holy to the Lord,” and this is obviously connected to the seal of Revelation, because “the seal of God” is always linked to the Holy Spirit, who, in Revelation, is referred to as “the seven-eyed Spirit” (Revelation 5:6). We also we see that, just as the blood of the first goat is sprinkled seven times on God’s altar, so also the blood of the saints is sprinkled upon the world in the form of “seven bowls” in Revelation 16, thereby solidifying the connection between the first goat, and the saints of God.
The second goat, who is marked for destruction, instead of having seven sprinklings of his blood used to cleanse sin, rather has “all the transgressions [of Israel’s] sins put upon his head.” In other words, rather than being associated with the forgiveness of sins, this goat is associated with the retainment of sin, and for this reason, the second goat is sent into the wilderness. Why is this the case? Well, it’s because, throughout Scripture, the wilderness is the dwelling place of Satan, which is why our Lord decided to meet him there during His Temptation in Matthew 4: it was in order to beat the devil on his own turf. The wilderness is where unclean birds and beasts of the field live, which, as we have established above, are symbols of the devil and his angels. And so we see that, rather than being offered to God for the forgiveness of sins as the first goat was, the second goat is “offered” to Satan because the sins he bears are not forgiven, and for this reason are consumed by the enemy. This is, as we have shown above, an image of the Adamic covenant’s curse: to be consumed by the Serpent.
And so the overall take away from this is that the goat marked for the Lord is slain according to the mode of death proper to God: he is divided on the altar, carried up with incense to the Most Holy, where his blood is sprinkled for the redemption of Israel. The goat marked for destruction, on the other hand, is slain according to the mode of death proper to sin: he is banished to the wilderness where he will be consumed by unclean animals as an image of ultimate death.
Why am I bringing all of this up? Well it’s because this exact same imagery is used to described the Last Judgement in the New Testament. Recall that on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest has a double ascension to the altar, “once for himself and his household” and “once for the congregation of Israel.” This is extremely important because when we come to the New Testament, Jesus is the High Priest (Hebrews 5:10), and this is because throughout the Old Testament, the Messiah is always referred to in High Priestly terms. Indeed Daniel 7, a profound messianic text, is describing the work of the Messiah in the same terms as the Day of Atonement: the son of man ascends to the Lord’s altar on “the clouds of heaven,” just as the High Priest ascends to the altar on the clouds of incense. In Revelation, we are given a heavens-eye perspective of Christ’s first ascension as High Priest:
Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (Revelation 8:3-5)
Recall that in the Gospels, Christ tells His disciples that “Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you… because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer.” (John 16:7, 10). It was necessary for the Son to ascend so that the Spirit might descend, and this is exactly what we see playing out in the above cited passage from Revelation: Christ has ascended to the Father’s altar in a cloud of incense (which is the prayers of the people), from which He receives the Holy Spirit and casts it upon the earth, thereby fulfilling His promise to “cast fire on the earth” (Luke 12:49).
From earth’s perspective, this plays out as the Day of Pentecost at which the Holy Spirit descended as “tongues of fire” (Acts 2). Importantly, Pentecost was the reversal of the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11. We know this because not only were diverse languages no longer confused at Pentecost (they were not eradicated, but rather glorified for the worship of God, more on this another time), but what were the wicked men at Babel trying to do? They were trying to “make a name” for themselves by building a Tower “that reaches to heaven.” In other words, these men were trying to build a false ladder to heaven in order to exalt themselves to the Heavenly Court, in their own name. This is especially seen given the constant usage of the phrase “let us” throughout the story, which is a call back to the “let us” of God’s Court in Genesis 1, and indeed the Court destroys Babel by the Lord saying “let us go down.” And so if the men of Babel were building a false ladder to exalt themselves to the Heavenly Court in a name of their own, how does Christ reverse this on the day of Pentecost? He does this by building the true ladder down from heaven to the earth in His own name. We know this because, later on in Revelation, we see that the fire of the Spirit that was sent down at Pentecost has been mingled with “the sea of glass” (Revelation 15:2), which as I’ve described before, is the firmament of the heavens which in past ages cut men off from the throne room of God.
It is at this point that Christ has ascended “for himself and his household” (this is actually why we believe Mary was taken into heaven, because She is the only human who is biologically part of the Lord’s household) thereby being enthroned in heaven, as St. Paul describes: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11). And so now that Christ’s name is above every name, and the Spirit has been mingled with this firmament of the heavens, the saints of God who “call on the name of the Lord” are allowed to pass through it, into God’s Heavenly Court and be enthroned with Him, thereby righteously accomplishing what the wicked men of Babel thought they could do by themselves. And this is exactly what we see play out towards the end of Revelation:
I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years. When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—and to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore. They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:4-15)
There’s a lot going on here, so let’s break it down. First of all, just as the previously discussed sections of Revelation corresponded to the first ascension of the High Priest to God’s altar, so does this passage correspond to the second ascension. This is because the first was the ascension of Christ, which was necessary in order to make a pathway for men to become enthroned on the Heavenly Court, and the second ascension is the ascension “for the congregation of the people,” who are the saints that come as a Cloud of Witnesses surrounding the High Priest (Hebrews 12:1). We see that the saints who “share in the first resurrection” are exalted to God’s Court to “reign with Christ a thousand years.” This is a reference to the Church Age (the age in which we currently are) during which the saints rule over creation with Christ and judge the world from their thrones with Him (“a thousand years” is not literal, but rather symbolic, per the ruling of the Council of Nicaea that Christ’s Kingdom “shall have no end”). This is pertinent to the question of eternal damnation, because we see that it is only the saints who share in the first resurrection, everyone else “does not come to life until the thousand years were ended,” thereby implying that these people are sharers in “the first death.” And what happens once these people do come to life after the thousand years? We see that they are thrown into the eternal lake of fire with the devil and his angels, and become partakers of “the second death,” which is the eternal realization of the curse that God put on the Serpent and all of those who join themselves to him (consider the reference to “Gog and Magog” that was discussed above).
As was shown above, this is indeed the Final Judgement at which Christ the High Priest “separates the sheep from the goats,” sending those marked for the Lord into the New Jerusalem which is described in the remaining chapters of Revelation, and sending those marked for destruction into the eternal fires of Gehenna, just as He promised:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46)
We see here that everything will play out exactly as I have been describing: just as in Leviticus, a goat that was marked for the Lord entered His presence, so also the righteous men who devote themselves to the Lord will enter eternal life in His presence; and, unfortately, just as the goat who was marked for destruction was sent off to the land of the Serpents and Beasts to be consumed by them, so also the wicked men who devote themselves to the Serpent and Beast shall be consumed by them forever.
The truth of the matter is that there is no possible interpretation of this passage that allows for universalism. Any attempts must try to maintain the position of Sergius Bulgakov that “The parable of the sheep and goats is addressed antinomically to every human being. Each person will discover that he is simultaneously sheep and goat,” but sadly such a reading is not at all warranted from the text. There is a reason why eternal life is contrasted with eternal death, and why the righteous are contrasted with the wicked: because these refer to real fates, for real people, and there is no getting around that. This is why, following the Holy Scriptures, I cannot be a universalist.
Now I know there will be some (perhaps many) who are unconvinced by my argumentation here, but to those who wish to remain universalists, I ask them to ponder this question: if what has been discussed above is not enough to show that the Scriptures teach eternal damnation, what would be? In other words, is there anything the Scriptures could have possibly said, that they do not already say, that would without question be a condemnation of universalism? If so, what could they have said differently? If not, maybe start to think critically about the way you’re approaching Scripture.
It often seems to me that universalists will spend so much time trying to prove that the Greek word translated as “eternal” doesn’t have to mean forever, that they forget that this debate isn’t contingent upon the translation of one or two words, but rather the whole counsel of God, from Genesis to Revelation. Oftentimes I fear that universalists have a deep desire to add an extra chapter to the Book of Revelation in which those suffering from the fires of Gehenna are purified and permitted to enter the New Jerusalem, but alas no such chapter exists. Instead the Book ends with a warning for such people:
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll. He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen. (Revelation 22:18-21)
In conformity with St. Vincent of Lerins’ Commonitorium, after the Holy Scriptures, the next place we turn to when discerning a doctrine is the concilliar tradition of the Church. This is because the concilliar tradition is an extremely important reality. We believe with firm conviction that it is through the Councils of the Church that the Holy Spirit most perfectly fulfills His ministry of “guiding the Church into all truth.” This is because the Church’s universal Synods are images of the immaculate Body of Christ, as Seraphim Hamilton explains:
The Dicache records the prayer of the bishop that the bread which had been scattered across the world might be gathered into one Eucharist, signifying the gathering-into-one of the Church. The gathering together of all nations into one family is described in Isaiah 2 and Isaiah 24-25, at Zion, through the Messianic Supper of the Lamb in God’s presence. The Ecumenical Council is an instance where all the churches of Christ visibly gather into a single place through the bishops who sum up and are interior to their local Churches, per the maxim of St. Cyprian: “The Church is in the Bishop and the Bishop is in the Church.” The Ecumenical Synod therefore is a special instance of the Spirit’s charismatic authority focused on the Liturgy being made present visibly. (What is an Ecumenical Council?)
And thus, because of the importance of Synodality in the life and theology of the Church, the witness of Ecumenical or Pan-Orthodox Synods is vital to understanding what exactly it is the Church believes about any given topic. As we shall see, every time a Synodal authority has addressed the issue of the wicked’s eternal fate, they have spoken as with one voice: the wicked will be damned forever.
Fifth Ecumenical Council:
If anyone does not anathematize Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Apollinaris, Nestorius, Eutyches and Origen, as well as their impious writings, as also all other heretics already condemned and anathematized by the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and by the aforesaid four Holy Synods and [if anyone does not equally anathematize] all those who have held and hold or who in their impiety persist in holding to the end the same opinion as those heretics just mentioned: let him be anathema. (Second Council of Constantinople, Capitula XII)
IX. If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary, and will one day have an end, and that a restoration (apokatastasis ) will take place of demons and of impious men, let him be anathema. (Second Council of Constantinople, The Anathemas of the Emperor Justinian Against Origen)
Origen of Alexandria was an early heretic of the Church who taught, among other things, that, at the end of time, there would be a “universal restoration of all things,” which includes the universal salvation of the human family (and the devil). Initially the Church did not respond to these heresies, but as they gained popularity, she rose with a loud voice to condemn the obvious platonizing of Christian doctrine that was going on here. As is clear, the teachings of Origen are called “impious,” and the anathema of Emperor St. Justinian clearly condemns the idea that “the punishment of impious men is only temporary.” Now, there has been some scholarly dispute as to whether or not these anathemas were actually “part of the original council.” Personally, I find these claims historically dubious (see here for more on that), but even more than that I find these claims entirely pointless. The reason being that the supremely authoritative interpreter of the Councils of the Church, is the Church herself and, as we shall see, she has clearly affirmed these anathemas as legitimate both concilliarly and liturgically.
Seventh Ecumenical Council:
With whom we also anathematise the fables of Origen, Evagrius, and Didymus in accordance with the fifth General Council assembled at Constantinople…
After which followed the Fifth Ecumenical Council of one hundred and sixty Fathers which was assembled in the Royal City and guided by the Holy Spirit confirmed the four Councils which preceded it and in pursuance of their orthodox decisions anathematised Nestorius, Eutyches, and Theodore of Mopsuestia with his blasphemies and moreover it anathematised Origen, Evagrius, and Didymus and their fabulous and heathen mystifications, together with the epistle said to be sent from Ibas to Maris of Persia and the writings of Theodoret against the twelve orthodox chapters of St Cyril (The Second Council of Nicaea, The Decree).
As we can see above, the official decree of the Seventh Ecumenical Council lists Origen as a heretic whose “fables” are anathematized. What’s more is that the Council clearly affirms that Origen and his teaching’s condemnation was accepted by the above mentioned Fifth Ecumenical Council, and so regardless of what “modern scholars” say about the actual date of those anathemas being written, for faithful Orthodox Christians this matter is non-negotiable. And what exactly are these fables of Origen that the Council is anathematizing? Well luckily, the Council gives an answer:
Definition 18 [of Hieria]: If any one confess not the resurrection of the dead, the judgment to come, the retribution of each one according to his merits, in the righteous balance of the Lord that neither will there be any end of punishment nor indeed of the kingdom of heaven, that is the full enjoyment of God, for the kingdom of heaven is not meat and drink but righteousness joy and peace in the Holy Ghost, as the divine Apostle teaches, let him be anathema.
Epiphanius [in giving the definitive reply of Nicea II to Hiera] reads: This is the confession of the patrons of our true faith the holy Apostles, the divinely inspired Fathers–this is the confession of the Catholic Church and not of heretics. That which follows, however, their own full of ignorance and absurdity for thus they bluster… (The Seventh General Council, p. 423, 438).
As we can see here, in responding to the Iconoclast Council of Hieria, the Fathers of II Nicaea clearly state that they agree with that Council’s proclamation that “there will never be any end of punishment” for the wicked after the Final Judgement. Indeed, the Council Fathers call this “the confession of the holy Apostles and divinely inspired Fathers,” and they state that only heretics oppose this teaching.
1642 Moldovan Synod:
What is original sin? …This hereditary sin cannot be rooted out or abolished by any repentance whatever, but only by the grace of God, the work of redemption, wrought by our Lord Jesus Christ…whoever is not a partaker thereof [of baptism], such an one remain unabsolved of this sin and continueth in his guilt and is liable to eternal punishment and divine wrath […] The bodies of the wicked, also, shall receive eternal punishment. (Saint Peter Mogila’s Confession and the 1642 Synod)
As I’ve discussed before, the Seven Ecumenical Councils are not the only source of dogma in the Orthodox Church, but indeed the witness of Pan-Orthodox Synods is just as important for discerning the true faith. As we can see here, one of the first Pan-Orthodox Synods of the Middle Ages explicitly affirms that “the bodies of the wicked” will be punished forever. This definitively settles the fact that the Final Judgement is not Bulgakov’s silly speculation about sin being separated out of everyone, but rather is the Lord’s declaration that the righteous will be blessed for all eternity, and the wicked will be damned for all eternity.
1672 Synod of Jerusalem:
But those who will not obey, and co-operate with grace; and, therefore, will not observe those things that God would have us perform, and that abuse in the service of Satan the free-will, which they have received of God to perform voluntarily what is good, are consigned to eternal condemnation. (Decree III)
And those that are not regenerated, since they have not received the remission of hereditary sin, are, of necessity, subject to eternal punishment, and consequently cannot without Baptism be saved. (Decree XVI)
Further, that the all-pure Body Itself, and Blood of the Lord is imparted, and enters into the mouths and stomachs of the communicants, whether pious or impious. Nevertheless, they convey to the pious and worthy remission of sins and life eternal; but to the impious and unworthy involve condemnation and eternal punishment. (Decree XVII)
(The Confession of Dositheus, Eastern Orthodox, 1672)
Once again we can see that at the second Pan-Orthodox Synod held in the Middle Ages, Holy Mother Church once again upheld the plain reading of Scripture, that the wicked shall suffer eternal damnation if they do not repent.
Recall above how Seraphim Hamilton noted that the Spirit’s charismatic authority in the Church is “focused on the liturgy.” This is because the liturgical tradition of the Church is divinely inspired and is indeed the primary means through which tradition is transmitted (see here for more on that). Thus, to suppose that the liturgy of the Church could become corrupted to the point of proclaiming error for millennia is, in my opinion, a blasphemy. And, as will be shown, everywhere that we liturgically speak about the eternal fate of the wicked, we affirm their eternal damnation. Thus, to deny this dogma is to fall into blasphemy.
The Synodikon of Orthodoxy:
“To them who accept and transmit the vain Greek teachings that there is a pre-existence of souls and teach that all things were not produced and did not come into existence out of non-being, that there is an end to the torment or a restoration again of creation and of human affairs, meaning by such teachings that the Kingdom of Heaven is entirely perishable and fleeting, whereas the Kingdom of Heaven is eternal and indissoluble as Christ our God Himself taught and delivered to us, and as we have ascertained from the entire Old and New Testaments, that the torment is unending and the Kingdom everlasting, to them who by such teachings both destroy themselves and become agents of eternal condemnation to others, Anathema! Anathema! Anathema!” (The Synodikon)
This Synodikon of Orthodoxy is something that the Church has been proclaiming every year since around the 9th century. Notice how it says that “we have ascertained from the entire Old and New Testaments that the torment [of the wicked] is unending,” thus showing that this liturgical anathema is not just a condemnation of the Origenist pre-existence of souls, but it is also a condemnation of universal salvation as such. Arguing that “we have a different version of universalism that’s isn’t condemned by this anathema” really is no different from arguing that certain groups of Protestants have different versions of Arianism, Nestorianism, etc. and thus don’t fall under the anathemas of the Ecumenical Councils. It’s just unfaithful to the witness of Holy Mother Church.
Moreover, we have even more liturgical texts that address the topic of eternal damnation. The following texts are taken from Fr. Andrew Damick’s excellent article “The Rejection of Universalism in the Triodion.”
From the ever-burning fire, from the darkness without light, from the gnashing of teeth and the worm that torments without ceasing, from every punishment deliver, O our Saviour, all who have died in faith. (Ode 5 of the Matins Canon)
It would be a little strange to pray for deliverance from something that we are assured will never be our fate. I know that universalists can try to force their views on words like this, but all of their attempts are just that, forced.
Sunday of the Last Judgment:
The books will be opened and the acts of men will be revealed before the unbearable judgment-seat; and the whole vale of sorrow shall echo with the fearful sound of lamentation, as all the sinners, weeping in vain, are sent by Thy just judgment to everlasting torment. Therefore we beseech Thee, O compassionate and loving Lord: spare us who sing Thy praise, for Thou alone art rich in mercy. (Vespers Sticheron on “Lord, I have cried”, Tone 6)
I lament and weep when I think of the eternal fire, the outer darkness and the nether world, the dread worm and the gnashing of teeth and the unceasing anguish that shall befall those who have sinned without measure, by their wickedness arousing Thee to anger, O Supreme in love. Among them in my misery I am first: but, O Judge compassionate, in Thy mercy save me. (Vespers Sticheron on “Lord, I have cried”, Tone 6)
Think, my soul, of the fearful examination before the Judge; in trembling prepare thy defence, lest thou be condemned to the eternal bonds. (Ode 6 of the Matins Canon)
Deliver me, O Lord, from the gates of hell, from chaos and darkness without light, from the lowest depths of the earth and the unquenchable fire, and from all the other everlasting punishments. (Ode 6 of the Matins Canon)
When Thou, O God, shalt judge all things, who among us earthborn men shall dare to stand before Thee, for we are all beset by the passions? Then the unquenchable fire and the destroying worm shall seize the condemned and hold them fast for ever. (Ode 7 of the Matins Canon)
Compare what Holy Mother Church says about the Final Judgement, to what universalists like Bulgakov have said. The Church seems to take the Lord’s words at face value, not trying to force some foreign reading onto the text, but just humbly accepting what the text says: after the Final Judgement, the wicked will be tormented forever.
Wednesday of the First Week:
Elijah, glorified by fasting, rode in the divine chariot of the virtues and was carried up to the height of heaven. Eagerly follow his example, O my humble soul, and fast from every evil, from envy, strife and passing pleasure. So shalt thou escape the harsh and everlasting agony of Gehenna, crying out to Christ: Glory be to Thee, O Lord. (Vespers Sticheron on “Lord, I have cried”, Tone 2)
Fifth Sunday in Lent:
‘During thy life,’ said Abraham to the rich man, ‘thou hast lived in wealth and luxury; so now thou art tormented in the fire eternally, while Lazarus the poor man rejoices in unending gladness.’ (Ode 5 of the Matins Canon)
Notice here how when discussing the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Church makes no mention of the supposedly “necessary” belief that the Rich Man will eventually be saved, but rather holds him up as a warning for others, less they attain the same fate.
Behold, the Bridegroom cometh at midnight, and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching: and again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, lest thou be given up to death and lest thou be shut out of the Kingdom. But rouse thyself crying: Holy, holy, holy, art Thou, O our God. Through the Theotokos, have mercy on us. (Apolytikion of the Bridegroom, Tone 8)
O wretched soul, think of thy last hours. Be dismayed at the rebuking of the fig tree. Act, and double the talent given to thee with a fatigue-loving purpose. Awake, watching and crying out, lest we remain outside the chamber of Christ. (Kontakion of Holy Tuesday)
When thou didst help the Disciples at the Supper and knewest the intend of Judas to betray, thou didst reproach him for it, knowing all the while that he was beyond redemption; but preferring to make known to all that thou wast betrayed of thine own will, so that thou might snatch the world from the stranger. Wherefore, O long-suffering one, glory to thee. (Kathisma from the Twelve Passion Gospels Matins, Tone 7)
Ancient Holy Fathers
The next place we go to when discerning the Orthodox faith is the witness of the Holy Fathers. That the ancient Holy Fathers were overwhelmingly “infernalists” is without question, and this is important because if there is an overwhelming consensus of the Fathers on a particular theological matter, then we can consider it dogmatic (even if there are few dissenting voices).
St. Ignatius of Antioch:
“Corrupters of families will not inherit the kingdom of God. And if they who do these things according to the flesh suffer death, how much more if a man corrupt by evil teaching the faith of God for the sake of which Jesus Christ was crucified? A man become so foul will depart into unquenchable fire: and so will anyone who listens to him” (Letter to the Ephesians 16:1–2)
Here once again we see our Holy Father St. Ignatius simply takes the words of the Lord about the Final Judgement at face-value, just as the Concilliar and Liturgical traditions do.
St. Clement of Rome:
“If we do the will of Christ, we shall obtain rest; but if not, if we neglect his commandments, nothing will rescue us from eternal punishment […] But when they see how those who have sinned and who have denied Jesus by their words or by their deeds are punished with terrible torture in unquenchable fire, the righteous, who have done good, and who have endured tortures and have hated the luxuries of life, will give glory to their God saying, ‘There shall be hope for him that has served God with all his heart!’ (Second Clement 5:5, 17:7)
St. Clement here affirms that there is nothing that can save the damned from the eternal fire that will consume them after the Final Judgement, there is simply no other way to read our Holy Father’s words here.
St. Justin Martyr:
“No more is it possible for the evildoer, the avaricious, and the treacherous to hide from God than it is for the virtuous. Every man will receive the eternal punishment or reward which his actions deserve. Indeed, if all men recognized this, no one would choose evil even for a short time, knowing that he would incur the eternal sentence of fire […] We have been taught that only they may aim at immortality who have lived a holy and virtuous life near to God. We believe that they who live wickedly and do not repent will be punished in everlasting fire […] [Jesus] shall come from the heavens in glory with his angelic host, when he shall raise the bodies of all the men who ever lived. Then he will clothe the worthy in immortality; but the wicked, clothed in eternal sensibility, he will commit to the eternal fire, along with the evil demons” (First Apology 12, 21, 52)
If you’re starting to notice a trend, that’s because it’s there, and we’re still in the first century! St. Justin clearly upholds the apostolic teaching that the Final Judgement will be an eternal condemnation for the wicked, no where does he indicate that this eternal fire will ever come to an end. If universalism is true, it sure is strange that the Apostles were so bad at transmitting the faith.
St. Athenagoras of Athens:
“[W]e [Christians] are persuaded that when we are removed from this present life we shall live another life, better than the present one… Then we shall abide near God and with God, changeless and free from suffering in the soul… or if we fall with the rest [of mankind], a worse one and in fire; for God has not made us as sheep or beasts of burden, a mere incidental work, that we should perish and be annihilated” (Plea for the Christians 31)
St. Theophilus of Antioch:
“[God] will examine everything and will judge justly, granting recompense to each according to merit. To those who seek immortality by the patient exercise of good works, he will give everlasting life, joy, peace, rest, and all good things… For the unbelievers and for the contemptuous, and for those who do not submit to the truth but assent to iniquity, when they have been involved in adulteries, and fornications, and homosexualities, and avarice, and in lawless idolatries, there will be wrath and indignation, tribulation and anguish; and in the end, such men as these will be detained in everlasting fire” (To Autolycus 1:14)
Notice here that St. Theophilus affirms that “everlasting fire” is the fate of the wicked “in the end,” thereby demonstrating that this is their final destiny, with no hope of salvation after that point.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons:
“The penalty increases for those who do not believe the Word of God and despise his coming… [I]t is not merely temporal, but eternal. To whomsoever the Lord shall say, ‘Depart from me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire,’ they will be damned forever” (Against Heresies 4:28:2)
Here we have St. Irenaeus, who was the disciple of St. Polycarp who was a disciple of the Apostles themselves, explicitly stats that the Final Judgement’s damnation “is not merely temporal, but eternal.” And so we can know with 100% certainty that when he says that the wicked “will be damned forever,” he means it.
St. Cyprian of Carthage:
“An ever-burning Gehenna and the punishment of being devoured by living flames will consume the condemned; nor will there be any way in which the tormented can ever have respite or be at an end. Souls along with their bodies will be preserved for suffering in unlimited agonies… The grief at punishment will then be without the fruit of repentance; weeping will be useless, and prayer ineffectual. Too late will they believe in eternal punishment, who would not believe in eternal life.” (To Demetrian 24)
There is no possible universalist reading of St. Cyprian, as he affirms that there is no way “in which the tormented can ever have respite or be at an end,” in uniformity with the previous patristic tradition.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem:
“We shall be raised therefore, all with our bodies eternal, but not all with bodies alike: for if a man is righteous, he will receive a heavenly body, that he may be able worthily to hold converse with angels; but if a man is a sinner, he shall receive an eternal body, fitted to endure the penalties of sins, that he may burn eternally in fire, nor ever be consumed. And righteously will God assign this portion to either company; for we do nothing without the body. We blaspheme with the mouth, and with the mouth we pray. With the body we commit fornication, and with the body we keep chastity. With the hand we rob, and by the hand we bestow alms; and the rest in like manner. Since then the body has been our minister in all things, it shall also share with us in the future the fruits of the past” (Catechetical Lectures 18:19)
Here we see that St. Cyril explicitly affirms that the eternal torments of the wicked will be experienced in their bodies, and these bodies will never be consumed but persist in torment forever.
St. Maximus the Confessor:
As, then, voluntary activity makes use of the potentiality of nature, either in accord with nature or against nature it reaches nature’s limit of well-being or ill-being; this is ever-being, in which the souls have their Sabbath, receiving rest from all motion. The eighth and first, or better the one and endless day is the unadulterated, wholly radiant presence of God, which comes after things in motion have come to rest. It abides totally, in the appropriate way, for the total being of those who have freely used the structure of their being in accord with nature, and bestows on them ever-well-being, by giving a share in itself, because it alone, properly speaking, is and is forever and is good; but for those who freely have used the structure of their being contrary to nature, it properly bestows not well-being but ever-ill-being, since well-being is no longer accessible to them who have taken up an opposing stand to it, who have no power at all to move after the revelation of what has been sought – the revelation to seekers of the goal of their seeking. (The Responses to Thalassios, C9-D13C9-D13)
God is the sun of justice, as it is written, who shines rays of goodness on simply everyone. The soul develops according to its free will into either wax because of its love for God or into mud because of its love of matter. Thus just as by nature the mud is dried out by the sun and the wax is automatically softened, so also every soul which loves matter and the world and has fixed its mind far from God is hardened as mud according to its free will and by itself advances to its perdition, as did Pharaoh. However, every soul which loves God is softened as wax, and receiving divine impressions and characters it becomes “the dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” (Chapters on Knowledge, 12)
There have been some who claim that St. Maximus was a universalist, but here we see an explicit rejection of this idea. According to Maximus, as the soul progresses through life, its will becomes more and more fixed towards either good or evil, and so after death, the will of the soul will be forever fixed towards whatever it is it chose, thus securing either everlasting life, or everlasting death.
St. John of Damascus:
“…after death, there is no means for repentance, not because God does not accept repentance – He cannot deny Himself nor lose His compassion – but the soul does not change anymore… people after death are unchangeable, so that on the one hand the righteous desire God and always have Him to rejoice in, while sinners desire sin though they do not have the material means to sin… they are punished without any consolation. For what is hell but the deprivation of that which is exceedingly desired by someone? Therefore, according to the analogy of desire, whoever desires God rejoices and whoever desires sin is punished.” (Against the Manicheans, p. 94)
St. John of Damascus, who is seen as the spiritual successor to St. Maximus, makes what I described above explicit by affirming that “people after death are unchangeable,” thereby confirming that the torments these people receive in hell can never come to an end.
St. Gregory Palamas:
What sort of fire is that, which burns bodies, and rational beings with bodies, and spirits without bodies , tormenting them while detaining them for ever alive? It will melt even the fiery element in us, for the Scripture says “the elements shall melt with fervent heat” (2 Pet . 3: 10, 12). How greatly is suffering increased when there is no hope of redemption. And that fire is unquenchable. Again, what gives it its violent impetus? They say a river draws that fire along, apparently bearing it ever further away from God. So He did not say “You have departed”, but “Depart from me, ye cursed”. “You have long been cursed by the poor, and as they suffered so much you deserve cursing. ‘Depart’, He tells them, ‘into everlasting fire, prepared’, not for you, ‘but for the devil and his angels’. For this was not originally My will. I did not create you for this, nor did I prepare the fire for you. The unquenchable fire was lit for the demons who are irreversibly in the grip of evil. You joined them because your unrepentant minds were like theirs, and you share the dwelling of the evil angels by your own choice.” (The Parables of Jesus)
This tradition of Sts. Maximus and John Damascene is carried on by our Holy Father St. Gregory Palamas, who affirms that the eternal fate of the unrepentant is secured by their own choice, and that “there is no hope of redemption” for those who have made this choice.
St. Theophylact of Ochrid
A conclusion to be drawn against the Origenists who say that there will be a time when there is an end to hell, that the sinners will be united with the righteous and with God, and thus God will be all in all. Let us hear what Abraham says, that they who would pass from hence to you, or from thence to us, cannot. Therefore, it is impossible for anyone to go from the place apportioned to the righteous to the place of sinners, and likewise, Abraham teaches us, it is impossible to go from the place of punishment to the place of the righteous. And Abraham, I presume, is more trustworthy than Origen. (Explanation of the Gospel According to St. Luke, Chap. 16)
St. Theophylact here explicitly associates the concept of universalism with Origenism, and he affirms the condemnation of this idea by stating that it is impossible for anyone in the eternal fire of Gehenna to pass over into the eternal bliss of the New Jerusalem, as “Abraham is more trustworthy than Origen.”
St. Mark of Ephesus:
And so, as may be seen, this division and separation of that fire will be when absolutely everyone will pass through it: the bright an shining works will be manifest as yet brighter, and those who bring them will become inheritors of the light and will receive the eternal reward; while those who bring bad works suitable for burning, being punished by the loss of them, will eternally remain in fire and will inherit a salvation which is worse than perdition, for this is what, strictly speaking the word “saved” means — that he destroying power of fire will not be applied to them and they themselves be utterly destroyed. Following these Fathers, many other of our Teachers also have understood this passage in the same sense. And if anyone has interpreted it differently and understood “salvation” as “deliverance from punishment,” and “going through fire” as “purgatory” — such a one, if we may so express ourselves, understands this passage in an entirely wrong way. And this is not surprising, for he is a man, and many even among the Teachers may be seen to interpret passages of Scripture in various ways, and not all of them have attained in an equal degree the precise meaning. It is not possible that one and the same text, being handed down in various interpretations, should correspond in an equal degree to all the interpretations, should correspond in an equal degree to all the interpretations of it; but we, selecting the most important of them and those that best correspond to church dogmas, should place the other interpretations in second place. Therefore, we shall not deviate from the above-cited interpretation of the Apostle’s words, even if Augustine or Gregory the Dialogist or another of of your Teachers should give such an interpretation; for such an interpretation answers less to the ideas of a temporary purgatorial fire than to the teaching of Origen which, speaking of a final restoration of souls through that fire and a deliverance from torment, was forbidden and given over to anathema by the Fifth Ecumenical Council, and was definitively overthrown as a common impiety for the Church. (On Prayer for the Dead and Against the Roman Catholic Purgatory)
What’s so significant about this quote from our Holy Father St. Mark of Ephesus is that he affirms that even if there are some fathers who disagree with a consensus on some theological issue, this is not enough to overturn the Church’s faith. And later on, St. Mark explicitly cites the example of St. Gregory of Nyssa being in error about the topic Gehenna, thereby affirming that the Orthodox Church stands firm in her belief that the fires of hell will burn forever.
Recent Holy Fathers
One thing that we have to remember is that, in Orthodoxy, we don’t believe that the “age of the fathers” ever came to an end. Rather, the prophetic ministry of the Spirit that was present in the early Fathers of the Church is also present among our saints and elders of recent times, and thus their witness is important when establishing the consensus patram. And when we turn to these holy Fathers of the past few centuries, we see that all of them who spoke on the issue of hell were firm believers in its eternity.
St. Paisios of Mt. Athos:
God gave nous to man to think over how great his sin is, to repent and ask for forgiveness. An unrepentant person became callous and silly, because he doesn’t want to repent and set himself free from that small hell torture, which he lives in and which leads him to worse one – an eternal torture. (St Paisios: The Power of Repentance)
And if you think that St. Paisios here intended “eternal torture” to actually not mean eternal torture, but rather just a long period of time, consider what he says about the righteous who have damned friends and family:
Just as those who are in a lit room at night can’t see those who are out in the dark, so will those who are in Paradise not see those in Hell. For if the saved were to see those who are condemned in Hell, they would be pained and grieved over their suffering, and would not enjoy Paradise, where “there is no pain…” And not only will they not see them, but they won’t even remember if they had a brother or a father or a mother, if they, too are not in Paradise. The Psalmist says, “On that very day his thoughts perish” (Psalm 146:4). For if they are to be remembered, how can it be Paradise? (St. Paisios the Athonite on Death, Prayer for the Departed and the Last Judgment)
Quite striking! St. Paisios believes that the damned will be eternally forgotten by the righteous after their deaths, I really don’t think one can fit universalism into that picture. Now obviously I’m not saying you have to agree with St. Paisios’ speculation here about whether or not the damned will be remembered, the only point here is to emphasize that St. Paisios clearly did not believe in universal salvation.
St. John Maximovitch:
Then, having successfully passed through the toll-houses and bowed down before God, the soul for the course of 37 more days visits the heavenly habitations and the abysses of hell, not knowing yet where it will remain, and only on the fortieth day is its place appointed until the resurrection of the dead. Some souls find themselves (after the forty days) in a condition of foretasting eternal joy and blessedness, and others in fear of the eternal torments which will come in full after the Last Judgment. Until then changes are possible in the condition of souls, especially through offering for them the Bloodless Sacrifice (commemoration at the Liturgy), and likewise by other prayers. (Life After Death)
In this quote, St. John is clear that the eternal torments of hell will take place after the Last Judgement, after which point it will be impossible for the “condition of souls” to be changed. This is why he writes that, until then, we should pray for everyone who has died, because our prayers can, at the moment (i.e. before the Final Judgement), help those who are suffering in hell. This is a clear and undeniable belief in the eternity of hell’s torments.
St. Ignaty Brianchaninov:
Frequently enumerate the eternal woes that await sinners. By frequently docketing these miseries make them stand vividly before your eyes. Acquire a foretaste of the torments of hell so that at the graphic remembrance of them your soul may shudder, may tear itself away from sin, and may have recourse to God with humble prayer for mercy, putting all your hope in His infinite goodness and despairing of yourself. Recall and represent to yourself the terrible measureless subterranean gulf and prison which constitute hell. The gulf or pit is called bottomless. Precisely! That is just what it is in relation to men. The vast prison of hell has many sections and many different kinds of torment and torture by which every man is repaid according to the deeds he has done in the course of his earthly life. In all sections imprisonment is eternal, the torments eternal. There insufferable, impenetrable darkness reigns, and at the same time the unquenchable fire burns there, with an ever equal strength. There is no day there. There it is always eternal night. The stench there is insupportable, and it cannot be compared with the foulest earthly fetor. The terrible worm of hell never slumbers or sleeps. It gnaws and gnaws, and devours the prisoners of hell without impairing their wholeness or destroying their existence, and without ever being glutted itself. Such is the nature of all the torments of hell; they are worse than any death, but they do not produce death. Death is desired in hell much as life is desired on earth. Death would be a comfort all the prisoners of hell. It is not for them. Their fate is unending life for unending suffering. Lost souls in hell are tormented by the insufferable executions with which the eternal on of those rejected by God abounds; they are tormented by the unendurable grief; they are tormented there by most ghastly disease of the soul: despair. (On the Remembrance of Death)
I’m sure any universalist who reads this passage would probably shudder and have a very low opinion of St. Ignaty for writing such things, and yet this is the message that the Spirit has been speaking through our Holy Fathers. You can claim that St. Ignaty here is being very hyperbolic given the circumstances under which he was writing, which is most likely true, however you cannot say that he in any way supports universalism.
St. Nektarios of Aegina:
After the end of the General (Final) Judgment, the Righteous Judge (God) will declare the decision both to the righteous and to the sinners. To the righteous He will say: “Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” while to the sinners He will says: “Depart from Me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” And these will go away to eternal Hades, while the righteous will go to eternal life. The retribution after the General Judgment will be complete, final, and definitive. It will be complete, because it is not the soul alone, as the Partial Judgment of man after death, but the soul and the body that will receive what is deserved. It will be final because it will be enduring and not temporary like that at Partial Judgment. And it will be definitive, because both for the righteous and the sinners it will be unalterable and eternal. (The Holy Writings of Saint Nektarios of Aegina)
This quote largely speaks for itself. St. Nektarios explicitly rejects any possible universalist reading of our Lord’s statements about the Final Judgement by writing that, after the Judgement, the states of both the righteous and the wicked will be eternally fixed, and unchangeable.
St. Theophan the Recluse:
The righteous will go into eternal life, but the satanized sinners into eternal torments, in communion with the demons. Will these torments end? If Satanism and becoming like Satan should end, then the torments also can end. But is there an end to Satanism and becoming like Satan? We will behold this and see this then. But until then we shall believe that just as eternal life will have no end, so also eternal torment that threatens sinners will have no end. No conjectures can show the possibility of the end of Satanism. What did Satan not see after his fall! How much the powers of God were revealed! How he himself was struck by the power of the Lord’s Cross! How up to now all his cunningness and malice are defeated by this power! But still he is incorrigible, he constantly opposes; and the farther he goes, the more stubborn he becomes. No, there is no hope at all for him to be corrected! And if there is no hope for him, then there is no hope either for men who become satanized by his influence. This means that there must be hell with eternal torments. (St. Theophan on Universalism)
Now it is true that St. Theophan admits the possibility that everyone might be saved, however he says for the time being we must believe that hell is eternal, and he himself obviously believes this based off of the argumentation he provides at the end of this passage.
St. Barsanuphius of Optina:
At present, not only among the laity, but also among the young clergy, the following belief is beginning to spread: that eternal sufferings are incompatible with the infinite mercy of God; therefore, the sufferings are not eternal. Such a misconception stems from a misunderstanding of things. Eternal sufferings and eternal blessedness are not just something that come from without, but are, first of all, inside of a person. The kingdom of God is within you (Lk. 17:21). Whatever feelings a man instills in himself during his life, with those will he depart into eternal life. A sick body is tormented on earth, and the stronger the disease, the stronger the suffering. So the soul, when infected with various diseases, begins to suffer strongly during its transition to eternal life. An incurable bodily disease ends with ones death, but how can a spiritual disease end when there is no such thing as death for the soul? Malice, anger, irritability, fornication and other spiritual illnesses are like snakes which crawl after a person into eternal life. Hence, our goal in life is to crush these snakes here, on earth, in order to fully cleanse our soul and before death say together with our Savior: the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me (Jn. 14:30). A sinful soul, not cleansed by repentance, cannot abide together with the saints; and even if it were taken into Heaven, it would be unbearable for it to stay there, and it would strive to leave. (On the Sufferings in Hell and the Kingdom of God)
Notice here that St. Barsanuphius explicitly calls believing that “the sufferings are not eternal” a misconception, stemming from a misunderstanding of the faith. He then goes on to affirm that a soul that is not cleansed by repentance in this life can by no means dwell together with the saints, because he wouldn’t be able to stand being with them.
St. Filaret of Moscow:
383. But what will be the lot of unbelievers and transgressors?
They will be given over to everlasting death–that is, to everlasting fire, to everlasting torment, with the devils. Whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. Rev. xx. 15. And, That is the second death. Rev. xx. 14. Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. Matt. xxv. 41. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal. Matt. xxv 46. It is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. Mark ix. 47, 48. (Abridged Version of Saint Filaret’s Longer Catechism)
St. Filaret’s Catechism is one of the most authoritative sources of dogma in recent Orthodox history, and here we see that he, like the Fathers before him, simply takes the Last Judgement at face-value, affirming its judgements as eternal for both the righteous and the wicked. Once again, compare St. Filaret’s writings about the Final Judgement to Bulgakov.
Sts. Silouan the Athonite and Sophrony of Essex:
The Lord said, ‘And I, if I be lifted up from the earth’ (that is ‘crucified on the cross’) ‘will draw all men unto me’. (cf. John 12:32) Thus Christ’s love hopes to draw all men to Him, and so reaches out to the last hell. There may be some – whether many or few, we do not know – who will meet even this perfect love, this perfect sacrifice, with a rejection, even on the eternal level, and declare, ‘I want no part in it’. (It was this recognition of this abyss of freedom which prompted the Fathers of the Church to repudiate the determinist theories of the Origenists. Belief in Apocatastasis, understood as universal salvation predestined in the divine purpose, would certainly rule out the sort of prayer that we see in the Staretz [Silouan].)
What was made known to the Staretz in his vision of Christ outweighed all doubt and hesitation. He knew that it was the Almighty God that had appeared to him. He was sure that the humility of Christ which he had come to know, and the love which filled him to the limits of his strength, were the action of God the Holy Spirit. He knew in the Holy Spirit that God is boundless love and mercy, yet knowledge of this truth did not lead him to conclude that ‘anyway, we shall all be saved’. Awareness of the possibility of eternal damnation remained deeply engrained in his spirit. (St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 109)
When you ask a universalist to present a single modern saint who taught universalism, the only one they ever come up with is St. Silouan the Athonite, because he taught that “love could not bear” watching even atheists burning in hell, and therefore “we must pray for all.” And while it’s true that he did say this and this is a valuable teaching about the efficacy of our prayers for the dead and the extent of God’s love and mercy, this quote from St. Sophrony’s account of St. Silouan’s life definitively shows that the Staretz was in line with the fathers before him in teaching that the torments of hell will be forever.
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. (Colossians 2:8)
The last part of this article is going to be addressing probably the real reason why most universalists hold the positions they do, and that is because of philosophy. I’m not going to be very exhaustive in this section, as I believe what I have shown above is more than enough to solidify the absolute necessity of rejecting universalism in Orthodoxy, and so all I’m going to do here is explain why a belief in hell is philosophically reasonable.
A very common claim, among both universalists and atheists, is that God’s infinite love and infinite mercy are simply incompatible with an eternal hell. But does this claim hold any weight? I don’t think so.
Ultimately, these claims about the eternality of hell being logically contradictory to God’s nature, are no different than secular claims about the Problem of Evil being just that as well. If you don’t believe me, then simply look at the argument presented as a syllogism (courtesy of Seraphim Hamilton’s summary of Alvin Plantinga’s work):
P1: If a person is both good and has the power to remove a particular evil, he will necessarily remove the evil or cease to be good.
P2: God is such a person.
P3: There is evil in the universe.
P4: Therefore, the concept of God is self-contradictory.
Conclusion: Therefore, God does not exist.
In the mind of the universalist, “hell” is a particular evil that God will necessarily remove or else He will cease to be good. Thus, on the universalist understanding of this philosophical puzzle, one can logically conclude that God does not exist simply from the existence of any evil at all, before we even get to the question of hell. However, obviously, the syllogism presented here is false, because P1 isn’t true. We know that there are reasons to allow certain evils for the sake of the greater good (such as a doctor allowing pain for the sake of healing a patient), and so likewise we can suppose that God allows all evils (including the eternality of hell) for the sake of some ultimate good:
P1: If, for evil action A, there is a greater good G, accomplished, then A is justified evil.
P2: It is logically possible that for every evil action A, there is a greater good G that is accomplished.
P3: Hence, it is logically possible that all evil is justified evil.
P4: Failing to remove a justified evil does not affect one’s goodness.
P5: Hence God can be both all-righteous and all-powerful.
Conclusion: It is possible that God exists.
Now the only possible objection that the universalist could raise to the following argument is that there is no possible greater good that can come from the damned suffering eternally in hell. They’ll argue that, on the universalist model, hell does exist for the sake of an ultimate good, namely the healing of those who need healing. But on “the infernalist” account, hell serves no practical purpose other than retributive justice, which they say is somehow not a good that is “worth” the suffering of those souls. But to this argument I would simply say: who are you to judge that? Is not God the measure of what is “worth it”?
As Peter Leithart has pointed out, throughout the Bible, it’s revealed to us that God’s ways are not our ways, and that God often acts in ways that are contrary to our intuitions about love and justice. Replying to David Hart’s universalist arguments, Leithart writes:
Would a good God destroy most of humanity in a global flood? Would a good God tell Abraham to sacrifice his only son? Would the transcendent Good instruct Israel to carry out herem against the Canaanites? Would a good God bring calamity (Isaiah 45:7)? Would a good God say, “My eye will have no pity and I will not spare” (Ezekiel 5:11; 7:4, 9) to His own people? In short, does Hart think Yahweh is good? If Hart says Yes, he has to reckon with the apparently not-good things Yahweh does and commands. Then it becomes more difficult to sustain the simple claim that a good God cannot do things we regard as cruel (like herem warfare). If Hart says the Old Testament consists of ancient myths without theological weight, then his claim to honor the Bible is less than convincing. (Good God?)
[David Hart did reply to Leithart’s article, however the way he did so was absolutely horrific in that he explicitly affirmed the heresy of Marcionism, see Fr. John Whiteford’s documentation of this unfortunate reality.]
Indeed, as I’ve pointed out before, this is the entire point of the Book of Job: Job’s friends think they understand God’s justice, they cannot comprehend why God would allow evil things to happen to good men, and so they concluded that God simply wouldn’t allow this, and therefore Job must have done something to deserve his punishment, “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?” (Job 4:7). Obviously, however, Job’s friends were not only wrong, but indeed they were condemned by God Himself:
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? “Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it? “Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this” […] “Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you, and you declare to me. Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified? Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?” (Job 38:4-7, 12-13, 16-18, 40:7-9)
The Lord is clear, we were not there when He created the world, we are not there in Heaven, sitting in perfect knowledge and judgement of the world as He is. One thing that the witness of the saints consistently tells us is that the vast majority of people cannot even comprehend just how wicked sin truly is. Oftentimes, the holier the saints started to grow, the more they started to see just how rotten to the core with sin they really were, to the point where men like St. Anthony died in tears, wishing they just had a little more time to repent. And even these saints are just barely scratching the surface as to how wicked and deserving of judgement sin is, and so just imagine what this is like from God’s perspective. We cannot sit in judgement of the Almighty. In the (somewhat ironic) words of David Bentley Hart:
The [problem of evil] is premised upon an inane anthropomorphism – abstracted from any living system of belief – that reduces God to a finite ethical agent, a limited psychological personality, whose purposes are measurable upon the same scale as ours, and whose ultimate ends for his creatures do not transcend the cosmos as we perceive it. This is not to say that it is an argument without considerable emotional and even moral force; but of logical force there is none. Unless one can see the beginning and end of all things, unless one possesses a divine, eternal vantage upon all of time, unless one knows the precise nature of the relation between divine and created freedom, unless indeed one can fathom infinite wisdom, one can draw no conclusions from finite experience regarding the coincidence in God of omnipotence and perfect goodness. (The Doors of the Sea, p. 13)