I read a very helpful essay by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware), in which he traced the careful path between assuming that everyone is going to be saved, which is called universal salvation, that ultimately everybody is going to end up in heaven—between assuming that and praying that all will be saved, praying with yearning, praying with tears, because (1 Tim. 2:4) “God desires that all may be saved and come to knowledge of the truth.” We pray for that, but not assume that that’s what’s going to happen. He does this by examining the thought of St. Silouan the Athonite, who, if you listen to this podcast you’re probably know, reposed in 1938. He was a Russian monk with not very much education, a villager who ended up as a monastic on Mt. Athos, and a very profound saint. His story was written by St. Sophrony who reposed in 1993, who was a disciple, a spiritual child of St. Silouan, and St. Sophrony also founded the Monastery of St. John the Forerunner in England, in Essex.
Metr. Kallistos is looking at this idea in the thought of St. Silouan, but it’s the idea itself that I want to speak about. Oh, yes, and in case you’d like to read this essay—I can’t hyperlink while I’m talking, but www .bogoslov—that’s b-o-g-o-s-l-o-v—.ru, bogoslov.ru—and look for Metr. Kallistos (Ware), St. Silouan, St. Sophrony, and I expect it’ll pop up. I just want to talk about that concept, of praying for all to be saved instead of assuming all are going to be saved. There’s a distinction there that can be missed, I think, and I think that’s especially the case today, because the more challenging aspects of anything are routinely played down and God’s mercy is emphasized, to the exclusion of any other characteristic that God may have. He’s always forgiving, he’s always merciful. We know that’s true, of course, and what we save of that is true, and it’s true to emphasize it, but we can lose our balance too far toward that time and neglect to speak of his holiness and how he challenges us and that he chastises every child whom he sees.
We live in a comfortable age, and so we assume—every age remakes God in their own image—we assume that God’s primary desire is that we will be comfortable, that he’s trying to make us comfortable, so we skip over the Scriptures that say things that might unsettle us or the ones that [are] Jesus’ hard sayings, the things that are difficult to listen to and difficult to do.
In addition to that, the secular world is putting enormous pressure on Christians to espouse universalism. We’re under great pressure to agree with the universalist viewpoint. For that reason, we have to give careful consideration to the other side of the argument, a non-universalist view, which is what all Christians have held from the very beginning. Universalism’s only a few hundred years old, so we shouldn’t assume that we’re wiser than all the other Christians in history. Social pressure like that can obscure our ability to think clearly.
I have what I call the New York Times test, that when you’re considering a viewpoint, ask yourself which side the New York Times would approve of, which side would the secular elite smile upon and reward and encourage. Then put a little extra weight on the other side of the scale. Challenge yourself to think a little bit longer, a little bit harder, about whichever point of view would make you less popular with the powers that be.
Of course, in Orthodoxy the view of salvation is different [from what] it has historically been in the Western Christian tradition. We don’t think that God sends people to heaven. Rather, it’s that in the next life we are all going to experience the unveiled presence of God, and God is ultimate Light and Love. To those who “love darkness rather than light” (John 3:19), when God’s light is inescapable, it will be torment to them. It will still be light, it will still be love, but it will feel like burning and misery.
So we ourselves choose in this life how we are going to experience God’s presence in the next life. We are forming ourselves day by day, one choice at a time, into the kind of person that we will be at the end. In the end, judgment day, as our Lord says, it’s when he separates the sheep from the goats. It doesn’t take a lot of scrutiny to tell whether an animal is a sheep or a goat; it’s immediately obvious. So it’s not that we should picture a criminal trial, where God goes over all the facts on one side and then the other and comes to a decision: eternal salvation or damnation. It doesn’t take much thinking about what we did in our life at all. It’s a matter of what we’ve become, what did we make ourselves. The last judgment sounds like it’s going to be less like judging a criminal case and more like judging a livestock show.
The question is whether someone who dies in hostility to God… can that person gradually, over the course of endless eons—think of how long eternity is going on—can this person eventually be healed and enabled to love God? So if all are to be saved, if salvation will be universal, then the self-made goats, the people who have turned themselves into goats, who are drawn by God’s love for eternity, they will gradually turn into sheep. That would be a way of phrasing the universal hope, when you’re thinking of the next life in Orthodox terms.
I don’t think that we can assert with any confidence that that’s the case, to say, yes, everybody’s going to turn into a sheep, everybody’s going to change, just give them enough time. I think the flaw in this argument actually is right there, in that people don’t seem to be able to imagine this happening without saying there will be so much time. It’s the very, very long amount of time that’s available; that’s essential. Nobody seems comfortable saying you die a goat and a minute later you turn into a sheep.
The problem is, when we’re talking about eternity and we start positing something happening gradually over a period of time, we don’t know what we’re talking about, because the next life is going to be timeless. We will be in a state of timelessness. So there’s really no such thing as we experience today, where every morning you get up and you make choices and you can gradually shape yourself one way or another. That’s not an absolute argument against the universalist position, but it says there’s some flaw here, just for starters, because of this insistence on this and that. You can’t really imagine this happening without giving them a lot of time in which to make that change.
So I don’t think we can assert with any confidence that everyone is going to be saved, and certainly we have not, throughout Christian history, throughout the history of all denominations until recent centuries, and of course in our Orthodox Church. The assumption has always been that some people are going to spend eternity in torment, because that’s what Jesus says, that there will be an outer darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. There’s got to be somebody there making those noises. It’s not like it’s a “Halloween sounds” cassette. Those noises are being generated by someone in agony, and as horrible as it is to think about, that’s where our faith has always come down, and that we have been under tremendous pressure not to say that in the last few centuries as evident, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t still true.
So we can’t assert with any confidence that all people are going to be saved. It might be things actually turn out that way, though; maybe they will. Nevertheless, we can’t say for sure, but it might be the case. I think it’s possible. I think about “God wills that all be saved,” and if God wills something, is his will ultimately done? Is his will going to be done? I don’t think we can rule it out. I see very clearly that we’re not allowed to assume it. We cannot assert that this is the case, but some people approach this, as we say, as we are allowed to hope; we are allowed to hope that hell will be empty; we are allowed to hope that no one will suffer eternal torment; we are allowed to hope.
I just sound like I’m being cranky, but I think it’s pretty clear that we’re not allowed to hope that. We’re not allowed to hope that. As Metr. Kallistos keeps saying in his essay, St. Silouan says we should pray with yearning, we should pray with tears, that everyone will be saved, but we never assume. I think Jesus did not invite us to take comfort in that idea. I think our motivation for salvation is that we know that there is this terrible possibility. I think that hoping it becomes so close to complacency, even if it might ultimately be the case, I think we’re meant to assume that some will be in eternal torment. If we dwell hopefully on that likelihood that all will be saved, it so undermines our motivation to preach Christ to unbelievers, because it’s difficult, it’s awkward, to talk about our faith to those who have contempt for it.
If we’re thinking, “Well, maybe you’ll be saved anyway,” it takes off a lot of pressure. Our operating instructions are really founded on the opposite assumption, that our Lord said in the Great Commission, “Go and preach the good news to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” we were told to go out there and preach and evangelize. People get killed for that. They did thousands of years ago; they get killed for that today. That’s what we’re supposed to do anyway. We’re supposed to operate under the opposite assumption, that if we don’t preach the Gospel, that there are some people who will endure hideous torment for eternity, because we did not bring them the good news. It’s an assumption that’s designed to make us take the stakes very seriously, so seriously that we will get outside our comfort zones, as they say, and actually evangelize, tell others about our faith. It’s designed to make us care about the lost instead of thinking, well, it’ll be okay in the long run. To pray for them with weeping, like St. Silouan said, the way our Lord wept over Jerusalem.
If God has a secret back-up plan that he is going to bring everybody into the full joyous communion with himself, if we fail to do our job, if we don’t preach the Gospel, if he has a secret plan like that, he hasn’t told us about it. He hasn’t invited us to meditate on it and to think everything will be all right in the end. He has told us only what he thinks his servants need to know. He’s told us only what we need to know, and we’re meant to operate under the assumption that it is urgent that we evangelize.
So it seems that this image of people being, for eternity, lost and being in great torment, we should be motivated to do our part to call the world to salvation and to seek God’s will that all may be saved. God wills that all may be saved. Metr. Kallistos’ essay traces that distinction by tracing the thought of St. Silouan the Athonite and other saints, ancient and modern, so I do recommend it to you: www .bogoslov—b-o-g-o-s-l-v—.ru, and at that point I recommend that you search for Metropolitan Kallistos, St. Silouan, and St. Sophrony.