Why the Eastern View of the Eschaton Makes More Sense

“He, the Eternal King, recapitulates everything in himself” (Adversus haereses, III, 21,9)

By: Jay Dyer

For a long time I assumed that the Eastern notions of the eschaton sounded universalist and heretical. This was based on my staunchly Latin view of the eternal state, based in turn on what I had accepted as understood in the Augustinian and medieval milieu.  I want to thank Steven Kaster for taking the time to explain things to me much better. When I first read “River of Fire” by Kalomiros, I was struck by how unbiblical it sounded. It still does to me.  Kalomiros proposes that no one has understood what “justice” means in the west. That’s hard to accept.

As I read further, I encountered Isaac the Syrian and Basil in more depth, as well as soaking in St. Maximus, Von Balthasar and others, and the Nyssan-Maximian notions of perpetual progress in the eschaton.  More recently, reflection upon Anslem’s ideas of the meaning of the atonement have become increasingly ridiculous, too. Pope Benedict XVI wrote of how incoherent this view was back in 1968 in Introduction to Christianity, sharing many of the standard Eastern criticisms of the Latin ideas.  This is also the basis for the controversial Vatican Declaration on Limbo from a few years ago.  And you can see from its footnotes it’s relying on Eastern Fathers. 

I shouldn’t have to state the Latin doctrine of hell, as it is widely known. The Eastern doctrine is much less known, but much more sensible and consistent with proper Christology – and that is the key. How God relates to the world has tremendous implications for how the eschaton will work.  A couple key factors arise that impact the eschaton and hell in particular – that of the recapitulation/apokatastasis and the fact that all men must continue to retain the energies proper to the nature, even in the eschaton.

One of the problems that Calvinism and western Catholicism fails to consider is that the Incarnation is the only basis for the resurrection of all human beings. That being the case, all men then bear some relation to Christ by that fact alone – even the worst reprobate. That all of nature is restored in the eschaton is beyond dispute. How men will experience the eschaton and God’s presence is where the difference lies. The wicked, having in this life exercised their wills and energies in actions of defiance, moving themselves away from the good (God), will experience the continual energetic presence of God as something awful.  It cannot be some place where God isn’t – God is omnipresent.  Because they hate God, God’s presence is odious to them, just as already in this life God’s presence and love is hated by the wicked, even though it is in itself something good.

In traditional, crass western theology, God got really mad at what He had made, and because His infinite honor had been offended, He determined to predestine a large mass of the population to eternal damnation in a lake of fire to display his honor.  This includes, unfortunately, a large number of non-elect infants (in the hardcore Augustinian and Calvinistic camps), or at least a lack of participation in the blessed vision of God on the part of the infants eternally confined to the Limbus Infantum.

This perception is Nestorian and based on theological voluntarism. When asked why this state of affiars is, the response of the Calvinist is that God willed it to be so.  God willed that there needed to be a human sacrifice to pacify His anger. Enter Anselm. But God also willed that only a sacrifice of infinite value would pacify His infinitely wounded honor, and so God decided to Himself become Incarnate and kill Himself.  But if this is the case, then God could have just willed to not be so angry, and the Incarnation wasn’t necessary.  But this is silly.  Furthermore, God is in need of no thing, so it makes no sense to say He willed to need to pacify His own anger. God in this view is basically an angry drunk parent who takes His rage out on Himself .  This theologcial confusion is why many better-thinking theologians have dropped this goofyness.

God’s anger is never pacified (the thing the “sacrifice” of the reprobate is supposed to do), however, and is eternally poured out on the non-elect (including many infants if you’re Augustinian), and so arises the other strange issue – Manichaeanism.  In Manichaeanism we have the doctrine of two eternal powers, forever at loggerheads, duking it out.  This struggle is eternal. But isn’t odd to say that evil continues on forever? Immortality – eternal existence – is something restored by Christ’s resurrection – not something “natural.”  St. Paul says this clearly in 1 Tim. 6.  Does “evil” take on an attribute of eternal existence? Is it an eternal principle in opposition to God? It does if you believe the wicked are forever weeping and gnashing their teeth and hating God (which is sinning, by the way).  Further, if the natures of even the wicked are restored to immortality, they must also still retain their free will and energy. 

Free will cannot be defined as a choice between good and evil because the righteous in the eschaton no longer have the possibility of choosing evil, and all confess that they have free will and retain their natural energies, though now deified.  This is why the Paul M. Blowers paper on Perpetual Progress in Nyssa and Maximus is so good – it deals with this problem and proposes that rather than there being a false dialectic of free will being defined as a choice between good and evil, it’s actually a choice between multiple goods – also showing that there must be multiple goods to choose from in the eschaton – and not just some single, Thomistic absolutely simple super essence of good.  Generally, this is conceived of as some static state of intellectual vision with little place for the resurrected body and it’s animation.

Fr. Florovsky explains, citing Ad Thalassium of Maximus:

“The Church knoweth three apokatastases. One is the [apokatastasis] of everything according to the principle (logos) of virtue; in this apokatastasis one is restored who fulfills the principle of virtue in himself. The second is that of the whole [human nature] in the Resurrection. This is the apokatastasis to incorruption and immortality. The third, in the oft-cited words of Gregory of Nyssa, is the apokatastasis of the powers of the soul which, having lapsed into sin, are again restored to that condition in which they were created. For it is necessary that just as the entire nature of the flesh hopeth in time to be taken up again into incorruption in the apokatastasis, so also the powers of the soul, having become distorted during the course of the ages had instilled in it a memory of evil, so that at the end of ages, not finding any rest, will come unto God Who hath no limit. And thus the distorted powers of the soul will be taken up into the primeval apokatastasis, into a merely discursive knowledge of, but not into the participation in, the good things [of God], where the Creator is known yet without being the cause of [their] sin.”

That is what I am getting at.

But this also seems to include the notion that the wicked can also still choose the good, according the movement of their natural will.  Yes, it does. However, it does not necessitate that they will participate in theosis – their natures will be restored and since it’s eternity, it’s likely that most or all will eventually choose the good, it does not mean that they will experience theosis, since this life is the trail period for that prize, and the elect alone partake of that blessed state. It also does not mean they will certainly choose the good. They may not.  This view of the eschaton, while strange-sounding to latin ears at first, actually makes much more sense in terms of being consistent with Christology.

However, we are told several times in the New Testament that God will make a complete end of death and sin, as well as recapitulating all things in Christ (see Col. 1).  But surely the wicked make up part of all things.  Again, there is no other basis for all men to be resurrected other than the assumption of universal human nature. To say that Christ only assumed some men’s nature in the Incarnation is a quasi-Nestorian oddity and at odds with the Fathers and the New Testament, as well as the 3rd, 5th and 6th councils. This is the meaning of the recapitulation (a patristic dogma, as well as a New Testament dogma) and it was largely forgotten in the west for a long while due to the Augustinian conception of the afterlife.  Something like the Inferno of Dante is a perfect example of this type of view.

All that said, I don’t think all this western stuff is necessarily wrong. Since Basil and the Easterns teach that hell is essentially a state that we choose for ourselves, the actual experience of that state could be multitudinous. It could encompass for some, something like the Inferno. Who knows? Few on this side of the grave.  What I do know is that this a move in a more sensible direction, and doesn’t even negate everything in western view (as many Easterns like to argue).  Any view that concludes, like Kalomiros and Fr. Romanides do, that “God never curses” just doesn’t match up to mountains of biblical data and events, and Eastern writers and bloggers ought not be so zealous to dismiss westerns who point to those texts.

John Paul II on the recapitulation here.

16 thoughts on “Why the Eastern View of the Eschaton Makes More Sense

  1. “One of the problems that Calvinism and western Catholicism fails to consider is that the Incarnation is the only basis for the resurrection of all human beings. That being the case…”

    With all due respect, Jay, that one breathtaking sweep of confusions, conflations, and apparent complete misunderstanding of the Church’s teaching on the Incarnation—-which by ecclesial definition includes ALL of the pre-1054 fathers of the East. Those who only see dissonance between East and West, and not the wondrous harmony, need to look with both eyes wide open.

    Only the Church does not disappear as one goes backwards in time precisely to, because rooted-born in the continuum of Cross, Resurrection and Pentecost, and this is precisely because of her oneness with the Redeemer: http://stephen-hand.blogspot.com/2010/03/indefectibility-self-correcting-church.html

    • The purpose of this post is getting past east-west obfuscation towards a more balanced view. My views on this are pretty much in line with Benedict. There is no other basis for resurrection than Christ’s resurrection.

    • I’ve spent the last four years focused on the Incarnation and the theology of the Fathers and councils that produced it. You’re representing the typical boxed in western view that can’t see outside of it’s slice of medieval scholasticism. Have you even read On the Orthodox Faith by St. John of Damascus?

    • Your post on the indefectibility of the Church has nothing to do with this post. With all due respect to you as well, I don’t think you’re versed in this issue, nor do you understand what the debate and concepts are.

      Discourse on this topic requires familiarity and grounding in:

      1. Basic Greek philosophy
      2. Biblical texts
      3. The Cappadocians
      4. The two Cyrils
      5. The documents of Ephesus, and councils 5 and 6
      6. On the Orthodox Faith by St. John Damascene
      7. The theology of Nyssa and Maximus
      8. Pope Benedict’s writings on Eastern ideas
      8. Eastern critiques of Thomism
      9. The writings of Lossky, Palamas, Von Balthasar and Yannaras
      10. The writings of St. Theodore of Studium

      If you want to dialogue on this topic, I would be more than happy to, but it requires a lot of homework. A good place to start would be Yannaras’ article:

      http://reocities.com/heartland/5654/orthodox/yannaras.html

  2. ***and so God decided to Himself become Incarnate and kill Himself. ***

    LOL

    Good paper. It reminds me of a few things CS Lewis said on hell–or rather, how we experience hell. Good job showing how silly voluntarism is. Once you admit the premise that the good is whatever God wills it to be, then Incarnation is completely unecessary, for God can will that his honor no longer be violated, ad infinitum.

  3. “Your post on the indefectibility of the Church has nothing to do with this post.”

    Yes, that was a link mistakenly included. As for the rest…This was what was intended

    http://credo.stormloader.com/jlindex.htm

    As for the rest, “One of the problems that Calvinism and western Catholicism fails to consider is that the Incarnation is the only basis for the resurrection of all human beings. That being the case…”

    That is breath taking…

    • I’ve dialogued with Likoudis. You need to read On the Orthodox Faith by St. John, a Latin Doctor.

      It is a dogma that all men are resurrected – even the reprobate. Why* are the reoprobate resurrected and on what basis? It is the ancient patristic doctrine that this is because the Logos assumed human nature in general. This is closely related to the doctrine of the recapitulation. Here is John Paul II on it:

      http://www.omm.org/documents/general-audience-jpii/02-14-01.html

  4. “More recently, reflection upon Anslem’s ideas of the meaning of the atonement have become increasingly ridiculous, too.”

    While that may be, David Bentley Hart does defend Anselm in the Beauty of the Infinite.

  5. Interesting stuff. I understand the East doesn’t believe in Purgatory but some of them believe in an idea of passing through a progression of afterlife tollbooths on the way to heaven. What is the essential difference, if any, between these two concepts?

  6. Hart’s defense of Anselm is…interesting. If Hart is correct, then no, Anselm isn’t this meany judicial western guy. And while Hart may be correct, few people actually interpret Anselm that way.

    I’ll assume for the moment that Hart’s reading of Anselm is correct and Anselm is really a later Athanasius (and Hart doesn’t endorse Anselm en toto–he acknowledges many of Lossky’s criticisms). But Jay’s criticisms of post-Anselmian Western theology are sound.

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