Wednesday, July 08, 2020

An Open Letter to Fr. Aidan Kimel regarding Universalism

An Open Letter to Fr. Aidan Kimel
regarding Universalism

by Dr. David C. Ford

June 22, 2020
St. Alban of Britain

Dear Fr. Aidan,

Glory to Jesus Christ!

I do want to thank you for giving me the courtesy of letting me know ahead of time about your response to my response to Fr. Plekon’s review of David Bentley Hart’s book, That All Shall Be Saved.

And I suppose I should thank you for giving my document such close attention, despite thinking it’s “drivel”!  I guess that’s a compliment of some sort!

By way of contrast, here’s what a retired Assistant District Attorney wrote to his priest about my response to Fr. Plekon’s review:

I read Dr. David Ford’s review of the review of Hart’s book on universal salvation.
It was an excellent piece - very well written. He writes like a good lawyer.
I believe it informed me of just about everything I probably want to know about the book, and seemed to confirmed a suspicion of mine that Hart may have become too “smart” for his own good.

To address your response to my response, I’m sure we completely agree that it would be truly wonderful indeed if every single human being, and every single angelic being including every demon and even Satan himself, were to repent and beg Christ for forgiveness before the Last Judgment occurs, or even afterwards (if that proves to be possible), leaving hell utterly empty if not totally annihilated.  Those with big enough hearts may well be praying for that!  That’s the hope we all are welcome to have.

But not the certainty.  For as you well know, for all the Scripture verses and passages that might possibly be taken in a Universalist way, there are many others that strongly imply what the Church as a whole has always taught against that speculation.  And who has the authority and the certain knowledge of the future to declare unequivocally that everyone, including the Devil and all his hosts, will repent and be saved in the end?  And of those who dare to declare this as a certainty, which of them will be willing to bear all the consequences if they are mistaken – especially if they’ve misled others to the extent of their living without repentance in this life because they got convinced they could just wait and repent in the next life?

Also, I’m very sorry that you don’t seem to understand how the issue of authority is indeed at the very heart of the matter.  For no matter what any of our speculations might be, no matter how well-thought out and well-intentioned they are, if they’re not informed by, aligned with, and centered in the received Tradition of our Orthodox Church, they simply can’t be correct!  This is especially true when the issue at hand is an important one, and when it has already been decided by the Church as a whole, with virtually every Saint and Church Father and holy elder in agreement.

Either our Church, Christ’s Body, has preserved Christ’s Truth in all its fullness, or our Lord has not protected His Body from “the gates of hell” as He promised He would.  And the Spirit of Truth, Whom Christ promised would lead His Church into all the Truth, must have failed to do that very thing.

Concerning the claim that some Christians in the early centuries were apparently Universalists, if we are faithful Orthodox Christians and not crypto-Protestants, we trust our Church to have made the correct decision in eventually rejecting Universalism, even if some unknown number of Christians believed it in the early centuries.  The historical record is that the Church as a whole rejected it; and after about the middle of the 6th century it rightly disappears, under the guidance of the Spirit of Truth Who was indeed leading the Church into all Truth – as all faithful Orthodox Christians believe. 

By that same guidance of the Holy Spirit of Truth, speaking in unknown tongues and the interpretation of tongues, though apparently endorsed by St. Paul himself (1 Cor. 14), as well as the office of the traveling prophets, also dissipated and disappeared, probably by about the beginning of the third century.  And also, the early belief, held by many rigorist Christians, that repentance and restoration to the Church were not possible even after deep repentance for those having committed the worst sins – adultery, apostasy, and murder – similarly was overturned by the Church as a whole, by the end of the 4th century.

You’re asking our Church to view our Orthodox Faith “through Universalist spectacles.”  When I attempt to do so, I see very serious and potentially disastrous pastoral and intellectual problems.

For instance, concerning the pastoral repercussions of Universalism, through our Church's rejection of Universalism She has recognized it as a misleading speculation that could very well undermine our people's incentive to live a life of ongoing repentance, which is so important in our Orthodox spiritual life, and which has direct relevance for our future state in the next life.  For if I can just plan on repenting in the next life, what does it matter how dissolutely I live, or how blasphemously I think, or how recklessly I believe, in this life?  I’m surprised you don’t seem to recognize this very real danger.

Really, with the Universalist claim, where is the incentive to take the Last Judgment seriously, if it’s believed that God absolutely will save everyone from hell the moment they finally repent?  And why are the prayers and hymns of our Church, as well as the Book of Psalms, filled to overflowing with calls and entreaties for the Lord to save us and have mercy on us, if He’s going to do that anyway the moment hell gets too hot for us and we finally repent then?

And what about for people who are in deep depression and struggling to resist suicidal thoughts?  If they’ve become convinced that Universalism is true, what would stop them, in a particularly excruciating moment of temptation, to give in to the temptation and take their own life in the expectation that they’ll be able to repent and be saved in the next life?  It seems clear that it’s not without deep pastoral wisdom, based in deep experience with spiritual warfare, that our Church, in order to provide an additional incentive for those dealing with suicidal thoughts to resist them, has traditionally denied a full Christian funeral to those taking their own life.

In addition, how would it not be deleterious to people's life in the Church if they get swayed by Hart's rhetoric into doubting the wisdom and trustworthiness of the great Saints and Church Fathers through the centuries?  People might ask themselves, If the Fathers are wrong on this issue, what else might they be wrong about?  And I wonder, how can people venerate the Saints and Fathers and ask for their prayers with fullness of reverence, esteem, and confidence if they get convinced that the Fathers were wrong on such a crucial issue?

Concerning the Universalist logic itself, granted that it may very well be extremely well-intentioned, compelling, and driven by the highest of motivations, yet it remains another attempt to reduce the mysteries of the Faith to the level of human reasoning.  It’s another example, as we see with every heresy, of the human mind staggering at some aspect of the mystery of our Lord’s inscrutable Being and Providence. 

According to human reasoning and conceptualizing, it might very well be true that knowing that God is Pure, Divine Love is logically incompatible with the fact that there may well be rational beings, demons as well as human beings, created by Him yet existing in an eternal state of separation from Him because “men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).  Such a scenario may very well not seem to us to be something our All-Loving God could ever allow.  But we can only make such a judgment according to our own very limited definitions and concepts of what God’s love must be like. 

And the very foundations of our Faith are wrapped in logically inconsistent paradox and mystery.  How can Three be One?  How can One be Three?  How can God become man?  How can a man be God?  How can our Lord be completely inaccessible to humans, and yet simultaneously be completely accessible?  How can our salvation depend entirely upon our Lord and His saving work, and also entirely upon ourselves to freely accept that work for ourselves?  How can our Church contain the perfect fullness of Truth, yet consist of members who all fall short of being perfectly filled with Truth?  These are paradoxes, antinomies, mysteries, all of which defy human logic, with which they indeed are entirely inconsistent. 

Speaking broadly, I think it reflects a Scholastic mindset to wish to reduce the mystery, the paradox, to the level of logical consistency.  But for the Orthodox, knowing our Uncreated Lord is infinitely beyond our created capacities for reasoning, infinitely beyond the reasoning capacities of even the most intellectually brilliant among us, we calmly accept the paradoxes, the antinomies, the mysteries of our Divinely-revealed Faith.  As St. Gregory Palamas says so well, “The antinomy is the touchstone of Orthodoxy.”

I think we can say that the mysteries that permeate our Faith are in a sense intended by our Lord to defy human reasoning, as one of His ways to keep us humbly reliant upon Him in all things. 

We can also be reminded of the Orthodox understanding of the difference between the apophatic and kataphatic traditions in our Orthodox theology.  As St. Dionysius the Aeropagite says so well, God is Love and yet He is also Not-Love, because His Love is both similar to human concepts of love, yet at the same time His Love is infinitely beyond our human concepts of love.

It’s indeed admirable that Universalists are so concerned to defend and protect the understanding of God as Complete and Total Love.  But in Orthodoxy, we know this already; we’re always saying, “for He is the Good God Who loves mankind.”  I’m reminded of how the erroneous and divisive Filioque clause was added to the Nicene Creed to try to reinforce the full Deity of the Son in the face of continuing Arianism in late 6th century Spain; but the Nicene Creed had already established His full Deity with the use of the word homoousios.  Similarly, the Universalist attempt to reinforce the fullness of God’s Love by removing the possibility of eternal separation from Him leads to divisiveness and confusion, and distrust of the Tradition as a whole.

And in the end, of course, despite all its emphasis on God’s Love, Universalism always boils down not to love, but to power.  As Hart says, “Insofar as we are able freely to will anything at all, therefore, it is precisely because He is making us to do so: as at once the source of all action and intentionality in rational natures and also the transcendental object of rational desire that elicits every act of mind and will towards any purposes whatsoever” (TASBS, p. 183; his emphasis).  Besides, this claim is false because it would make God the ultimate author of every evil intention, decision, and action that’s ever occurred, and we all know that He is not the originator of evil.

Universalism staggers at the idea that any human or demonic will could ever eternally override the will and desire of our All-Powerful God for every demon and every person to repent and be saved from hell.  But that’s part of the mystery – God, in His humble Love, allows this.  He always just knocks at the door of our heart (Rev. 3:20); He never pushes open that door.  It’s this humble dimension of the way God loves that Universalism doesn’t seem to understand. 

In addition, by the logic of Universalism, if it’s morally absurd, if it’s cruel, if indeed it’s evil for God to allow demons and humans to reject His love forever and hence to experience hell forever, then it must have been morally absurd and cruel and evil for Him to have created angels and humans in the first place with the capacity to reject His will for them in anything.  For every time we sin, we reject and override His will for us to live without sin; and every time we sin, we plunge ourselves into a certain kind of hell.  Pressing the logic of Universalism to a logical conclusion, how could a fully loving God allow even one of His creatures to experience any form or degree of hell even for a moment? – for that would be cruel, according to the humanistic logic of Universalism.

But in the end, who would ever think that any 21st century scholar, no matter how intellectually brilliant, is more trustworthy than St. Athanasius the Great, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Basil the Great, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Vincent of Lerins, St. Augustine of Hippo, St. John of Damascus, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Photius the Great, St. Symeon the New Theologian, St. Gregory Palamas, St. Nicholas Cabasilas, St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite, St. Silouan the Athonite, St. Paisius the Athonite, and countless other saints and elders? 

Is David Bentley Hart really living closer to God than they did?  Is he really more filled with God’s love and truth than they were?  Is it really possible that all those Saints were wrong about Universalism, and that you and David Bentley Hart are correct?  Do you really think the Head of His Church, Jesus Christ Himself, would have allowed His Church to go into error on this crucial point for all these centuries?  Has He really been waiting all this time for the truth to be finally discovered in the early 21st century by a handful of intellectuals? – with David Bentley Hart even daring to imply that all these Fathers and Saints were “moral idiots” for not believing in Universalism!

Of course, we’re all free to choose whom to trust, and whom to believe.  May we all choose wisely!

So, dear Fr. Aidan, please prayerfully consider my words, even if they are not brilliant.  And let’s all remember our Lord’s sobering words about being a stumbling block to any one of His little ones: “Better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he be drowned in the sea.”

With love and prayers,

Dr. David C. Ford
Professor of Church History
St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Seminary
South Canaan, PA