The Coptic doctrine on eternal damnation - Printable Version
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The Coptic doctrine on eternal damnation - Paul Harrison - 14-09-2006
Lets go in at the deep end with a profound theological question. Christianity in general teaches eternal damnation for the unrepentant. In spite of Jesus' hard sayings eg Matthew 25, there's little in Scripture to support this view and there are other possibilities there. Your short evening prayer in "Our Daily Life includes, "for the dust in the grave offers no praise and among the dead there is no remembrance, neither in Hades does anyone give thanks." This quote from Psalm 6.2 reflects God's promise to Adam that he should surely die for disobedience, not be eternally punished. When Paul said that the wages of sin is death, perhaps he meant it at face value.
Scripture can also prove universal reconciliation. Paul says, "Far as in Adam ALL DIE, so in Christ will ALL be made alive. (1Cor 15.22). Also "and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross" (Col 1.20). Origen believed in universal reconciliation. He thought that eternal punishment for finite sin was unworthy of a loving God which is why the sacrifice of Christ covers all human sin. So did his follower Gregory of Nyassa.
The Fifth Ecumenical Council anathematised Origen and affirmed a belief in eternal damnation. Western Christianity, so much under the influence of Augustine has always taught a very harsh and IMO loveless view of the destiny of mankind. So what does the Coptic Church say on these things? As they weren't signatories to the Fifth Council, they can't be bound by its anathemas and I believe that Origen is still held in high esteem. Of the three possible interpretations of Scripture held by Christians through the ages, eternal damnation, conditional immortality or universal reconciliation, I am a universalist who believes in the cosmic significance of the cross in the ultimate resurrection of all creation. Yet I could accept the justice of conditional immortality. I will never be able to reconcile the idea of a God of pure love with a belief in eternal torment.
Salvation - John Charmley - 14-09-2006
You raise one of the most difficult of questions, and I will be interested to see what someone more knowlegeable has to say.
What I can do is to quote what Father Anthony Coniaris has written on this which is as follows:
'Salvation according to Orthodox theology is not a state of being but a state of becoming, a constant movement toward union with God (theosis) which can never be fully achieved in this life. It is a process that begins here and is consummated and perfected in heaven.'
Never would the saints of the church say, "I am saved. I have made it. I have arrived." They were always on the way. So they kept praying the Jesus Prayer to the very end: "Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner." The Christian life is constant growth, constant becoming, a constant journey from being the image of God, to becoming the likeness of God.'
Since the Orthodox Church does not, as I understand it, accept Augustine's manichean view of human nature, and its soteriological conclusions, it leaves open the possibility of universal salvation; but I don't think (Peter Theodore and others will know) it takes a dogmatic view.
If even the Saints cannot say 'I am saved', how much less can we?
What we know is that God wants us all to be saved, and that through the Church and through the way we live our lives, we can choose to embark on the journey towards theosis; but only God knows how and when we achieve it. We must, I suppose, have the free will to reject God's love, but in that event it is we who reject salvation, not God who condemns us.
His love is shown through the Incarnation, and through His Son we are saved.
I look forward to being put right by others more learned than myself, but as we are all starting on this site, and this is such a good question, I thought I would try an answer - and ask for pardon - and enlightment - from some of our fellow enquirers.
The Coptic doctrine on eternal damnation - Paul Harrison - 14-09-2006
Thanks for your reply. Any belief that free will is an inviolable right of human beings always raises problems for universalists, but we believe that God has time to wait for each of us to repent because He has no time. Yet many Christian denominations believe that the fate of the sinner is fixed at the moment of physical death. If the writer of the "Theologia Germanica" is right, and chances to repent are always given, even in the next life, I would have no problem with that doctrine.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, while reminding of the ever present reality of hell, prays that all will be saved and acknowledges that "with man it is impossible but with God all things are possible." My purpose in posting this topic is to see what the BOC and the wider Coptic Church make of this matter.
- John Charmley - 15-09-2006
I hope this will encourage others to post responses.
The one think we know is that we cannot know God in His fulness, and therefore we must be very careful in claiming that we know who is and who is not 'saved'. The process of theosis is a continuous one in this life and it may be so in the life of the world to come.
The same may well be true of the vexed question of free will. As I can follow it, the Church teaches that we are made in God's image and that we can achieve theosis if we try to live in that image, if we believe in Our Lord - and if God so wills it. Since we cannot know His will, we can know neither who is saved or who is not; not can we know that all are not saved. With God all things are possible.
It would be good to hear from others on this journey.
- Paul Harrison - 29-09-2006
I'll try once more to stoke up some interest in this topic. In the ealry pre-Nicene Church there seem to have been three different ideas about what happens to us when we die. Origen and Gregory of Nyassa believed that Christ's atoning death covers all creation and therefore all, even satan would ultimately be reconciled to God. That's the view I favour. Justin Martyr and Iraneus believed that the soul is not intrisically immortal. When Paul says in Romans 6.3 "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" they took it to mean that, through sin we die, unless we merit resurrection in Christ. That's quite consistent with the OT. Adam was promised death by the serpent, not eternal punishment.
Finally there's the belief in eternal torture held by Turtullian and especially Augustine. The huge influence of Augustine on Western theology has meant that both Catholic and Protestant theologians ever since have been obsessed with the idea of hell. The problem is that all three of the abvove possibilities can be reasonably proved from Scripture so we must depend on whose interpretation of Scripture we choose to follow. My question would be: where do the Oriental Orthodox Churches stand on this point?
An Anglican priest once told me that because the Nicene Creed makes no mention of eternal damnation and because it is nowhere mentioned in any Anglican Catechism, a member of the Anglican Church could make up their own mind on the issue. But this comes from a church which has abandoned any pretence at theological orthodoxy and can't be trusted. The crux of the issue must be: would assenting to a belief in eternal torture be a requirement for membership of the Oriental Orthodox Church? To repeat: I favour apokatostasis, but could accept conditional immortality. I am unable to assent to a belief in any form of eternal punishment.
- admin - 01-10-2006
This is an interesting topic, but one that I respond to with a little hesitancy.
I think that what can be offered are a few definite principles and a variety of opinions.
Firstly it is clear that Oriental Orthodox believe that the purpose of the incarnation is NOT to passify an infinitely offended God, nor is it merely to make possible a legal transaction whereby God punishes His Son in His imfinite wrath. (Although of course there is value in these Scriptural images and they should not be completely discounted. We have offended God, and we do deserve the spiritual death which our own sinfulness has brought upon us).
But it seems to me that reading through the prayers we pray each day and in the Liturgy we want rather to stress a different relationship between our Almighty and Holy God and His sinful creation.
For instance, each of the daily hours of prayer ends with,
Christ our God, the good, the long suffering, the abundant in mercy, and the great in compassion, who loves the righteous and has mercy on the sinners of whom I am chief; who does not wish the death of the sinner but rather that he returns and lives, who calls all to salvation for the promise of the blessings to come.
This seems to me to be an axiomatic position of the Oriental Orthodox. God does not 'wish the death of the sinner'.
Does this mean that no sinner will die? I do not think so. But I believe that it is clear that we do not understand God as desiring such death, rather,
For God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son...
This seems to me to completely exclude the Augustinian and Calvinistic notion of the predestination of men to eternal damnation.
But it is necessary to face the clear facts that in the teaching of Oriental Orthodox Fathers there is certainly an acceptance of the reality of spiritual death. Our choices in this life DO matter.
As with many things however, the Oriental Orthodox appear to wish to exercise a degree of hesitation when talking about subjects which are outside of our knowledge and revelation.
I would say that my understanding is that there are probably a variety of opinions within Oriental Orthodoxy over the last 1400 years but that the idea of an angry, torturing God is generally excluded. (I don't know that we won't find some who take that view).
What seems more widely shared is the idea that there is a subjective element to our experience after death. Those who have been renewed in Christ will rise to find His presence a joy, while those who have chosen to life for death will rise to find the loving presence of God painful and a fire. Hell is not so much other people, but our own hearts, if they are filled with darkness and death, in the presence of Light and Life.
For those who have not known God? Well I believe that the Oriental Orthodox would want to say that we must be guided by several principles.
Firstly, that God loves all mankind.
Secondly, that the Scriptures teach that those who have no knowledge of Christ will be judged both more leniently and by their response to the Life of Christ as they have known it under a veil of mystery.
Can this be applied more widely? What of those who have grown up without any possible knowledge of Orthodoxy? Surely they will also be judged in the light of the knowledge which God did grant them? And those who only had poor examples of Orthodoxy? Will they be judged in the same way as an Orthodox who knowingly lives a corrupt life?
Back to our regular British Orthodox prayer,
Christ our God, the good, the long suffering, the abundant in mercy
This seems to me to be a principle that we should hold on to.
There is also of course some thread within Scripture and Oriental Orthodoxy that there is some purgative process after death. Not the fully elaborated Purgatory of Roman Catholicism, but some sense that there is a burning away of the stain of sin. It seems to me that this burning away is described in Scripture as being more painful and comprehensive for some than for others who have given their lives to ascetic effort.
Would this not apply to those who have lived the Orthodox life badly, as well as those who have lived a non-Orthodox Christian life to the best of their understanding, and even to those who have lived a non-Orthodox life rather badly? It is not for us to say where the mercy of God ends, but the Scriptures seem to draw the mercy of God wider than many Western Christians have done.
I don't sense that any of the above runs counter to the sense of anything I have read in Oriental Orthodoxy.
This doesn't come to the fulness of the apokatostasis. But I think it is necessary to preserve the freedom of human will to choose evil even in the face of absolute good. But even here I think the principle of God's mercy is evident. We cannot know what is possible, but I sense that even some small movement of soul in repentance would be welcomed as the Prodigal Son.
It is hard for me to believe that God would be content with an eternally present locus of pain and hatred. But it seems best to leave ultimate ends to the mystery which they are. There is mercy with God, He loves mankind enough to die for us, but we can also choose death. We don't know how these principles play out in the life after death.
So I don't think you will find definite answers to the idea of the apokatostasis. But certainly an Augustinian view is not of the substance of Oriental Orthodoxy.
We can hope that all things find peace in God, and in the meantime we can do all we can to make sure that as far as it lies in our power all men are able to hear of God's love for them and respond to Him.
Does any of this help?
- Paul Harrison - 03-10-2006
I found your reply very helpful. Eternal damnation is a subject with which I have had a big problem ever since I was a teenager in the Baptist Church and I am now 52. As we both know, its a subject very strongly emphasised in Protestant Christianity and was responsible for my rejection of that form of religion when in my mid teens. The difficulty I have with the "Rivers of Fire" scenario which you mentioned is that I find it difficult to imaging a place where the saints are ever praising God in bliss while others are screaming out for mercy and unable to obtain any.
Only the depraved are able to tolerate the agonies of another human being or even of an animal. Most people, even those who are far from being saints, will find themselves compelled to alleviate suffering in their presence or go away and pretend it doesn't exist. I, as a sinner with my imperfect love, can think of nobody who I would choose to see punished eternally. Does God love less than I do? This is not to say that I don't believe in punishment for sin, just that it can't be eternal.
Rabbinic Judaism, while having no dogma on the subject of the afterlife, has a consensus that the wicked are punished in Gehinnom (Hebrew for Gehenna or hell) for a year and then released. The year is obviously metaphorical, but the idea that the punishment is proportional to any evil done in this life resonates strongly with me. Ultimately its a mystery as you say. The Lord says, "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion" (Ex 33.19).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reads:
1058 The Church prays that no-one should be lost: "Lord let me never be parted from you." If it is true that no on can save himself it is also true that God "desires all men to be saved" (1 Tim 2.4), and that for him "all things are possible (Mt 19.26).
I can live with that. Many Protestant Churches seem to know, not only that many are damned, but who they are. That is errant nonsense IMO. I suppose that the crux of this enquiry is; does the freedom exist within Oriental Orthodoxy to believe or at least hope for universal reconciliation? or does the church teach that a proportion of mankind, significant or otherwise will inevitable suffer eternal damnation? It seems to me that as an Anglican or a Roman Catholic there is room for a freedom of choice on this matter.
Eternal damnation - John Charmley - 11-10-2006
Quote:Many Protestant Churches seem to know, not only that many are damned, but who they are. That is errant nonsense IMO. I suppose that the crux of this enquiry is; does the freedom exist within Oriental Orthodoxy to believe or at least hope for universal reconciliation? or does the church teach that a proportion of mankind, significant or otherwise will inevitable suffer eternal damnation? It seems to me that as an Anglican or a Roman Catholic there is room for a freedom of choice on this matter.
Those with a more refined understanding of this may disagree, but on my reading of what Orthodoxy teaches (and much of this comes from Kallistos Ware's work), it is possible to hope for the salvation of all.
He suggests two apparently conflicting principles are at work here: God is love, and we, as humans, have free will, and asks: 'If the triumph of divine love is inevitable, what place is there for liberty of choice?'
Certainly Mark 9:43, 47-8, like Mt. 18:8-9 all seem to point in the direction of never-ending torment for sinners, and these are verses often quoted by those wishing to find scriptural sanction for such a view. But how to reconcile that with 1 Corinthians 15:22, or Romans 5:18. When Paul writes: 'As all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ', he doesn't say 'Perhaps all might be made alive in Christ.'
Origen thought 1 Corinthians: 15:28 the key text, and then there is 1 Tim. 2:4 'It is the will of our God and Saviour ... that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.'
None of this proves anything as such, but it points to the scriptural evidence needing to be read with care - and the guidance of the Church.
Origen, of course, believed in the possibility of universal salvation, and was condemned by the 5th Ecumenical Council for this and other teachings; but the Oriental Orthodox do not recognise that as more than a local council. But Bishop Ware casts doubt upon the notion that the 5th Council meant to condemn this part of his teaching, in any case. St. Gregory of Nyssa also taught that universal salvation was possible, as did St. Isaac the Syrian.
St. Isaac thought that 'even those who are scourged in hell are tormented with the scourgings of love' and that 'the pain which gnaws at the heart as the result of sinning against love is sharper than all other torments that are.' He also wrote that: 'It is wrong to imagine that the sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God.'
In the end there is an ineffable mystery, and only God can know who will be saved and what will happen to those who will not accept salvation; we know He is love and that with Him all things are possible.
So, we cannot rule out Universal salvation, and we cannot say that the Biblical and Patristic evidence rules it out either. So, as far as I can see, the Church does not rule it out - and anyone who does takes the bold step of declaring he or she knows the mind of God.
Not sure if that answers it fully, but I hope it helps.
- Simon - 19-10-2006
Having read through the postings on eternal damnation, I want to clarify one point in particular and then to give an answer to the specific question you have asked more than once.
Firstly, that particular point ? you write of those ?screaming out for mercy and unable to obtain any.? This is, I guess, a fair reflection of the teaching many of us heard or read in our time as Western (Protestant/Roman Catholic) Christians ? the idea of God sending unwilling sinners into hell to punish them. As an Oriental Orthodox Christian I do not see it that way ? and to be fair not every Christian from my former Church background or origins see it that way either. It was C. S. Lewis I believe who wrote that hell was locked from the inside ? presumably in a vain attempt to shut God out. Far from screaming out for mercy, far from craving the love and mercy of God and being unable to obtain it ? it is those inside hell who refuse it, who shut God out (as best they can) which is why they are unable to obtain it. I do not see this in terms of God sending unwilling sinners into eternal punishment but rather sinners finding God loathsome and hateful to themselves and endeavouring to flee Him, to get away from Him, to deny Him, to shut Him out?
?Suppose for a moment that you were allowed to enter heaven without holiness. What would you do? What possible enjoyment could you feel there? To which of all the saints would you join yourself, and by whose side would you sit down? Their pleasures are not your pleasures, their tastes not your tastes, their character not your character... perhaps you love the company of the...worldly-minded and the covetous, the reveller and the pleasure-seeker, the ungodly and the profane. There will be none such in heaven... you think praying...and hymn singing, dull and melancholy...a thing to be tolerated now and then, but not enjoyed... But remember heaven is a never-ending [worship]. The inhabitants thereof rest not day or night, saying, ?Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty,?... How could an unholy man find pleasure in occupation such as this?
?Think you that such an one would delight to meet...Paul, and John, after a life spent in doing the very things they spoke against? Would he...find that he and they had much in common?-Think you, above all, that he would rejoice to meet Jesus, the Crucified One, face to face, after cleaving to the sins for which he died... Would he stand before Him with confidence, and join in the cry, ?This is our God; we have waited for Him, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation??...Think you not rather that the tongue of an unholy man would cleave to the roof of his mouth with shame, and his only desire would be to be cast out! He would feel a stranger in a land he knew not, a black sheep amidst Christ?s holy flock. The voice of Cherubim and Seraphim, the song of Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven, would be a language he could not understand. The very air would seem an air he could not breathe.?
Orthodox words, I believe, those, from the Anglican bishop J C Ryle - compare this parable from the Eastern Orthodox writer Frank Schaeffer:
"Let us imagine a superb classical concert in which ...Bach's [music is] being performed. In attendance...are two groups... the first is made up of people who have, from childhod, listened to, studied, loved and enjoyed classical music, particularly...Bach... They have worked hard all year to save money to buy tickets for this concert. They are dressed for the occasion. They savor each moment... Some have even brought the score of the music in order to better follow the performance. At that same concert is a very different group...taken...by a well-meaning teacher... They dislike classical music and would rather be at a rock concert.
"Both groups of people are hearing the same superbly performed, lovingly renedred music...
"One group...have cultivated an understanding, love and appreciation of the music - their experience of the concert is "heavenly" because of their deliberately chosen habits of mind. The others...their experience is "hellish". Their habits of a lifetime have changed them?into?different people than they would have been had they chosen and cultivated different habits...?
The same fire that softens the wax hardens the clay ? the flame is constant, the same towards both? the difference is in the materials. Are our hearts softened by the holy fire of God?s Love or do they harden against it? The fault does not lie in the holy flame of divine love but in man, in sinful human hearts that harden against that Love, that reject it and shut it out.
To quote C. S. Lewis, "The point is not that God will refuse you admission to His eternal world if you have not got certain qualities of character: the point is that if people have not got at least the beginnings of those qualities inside them, then no possible external conditions could make a ?Heaven? for them...?
As I wrote earlier it was C. S. Lewis I think who wrote that hell was locked from the inside ? presumably in a vain attempt to shut God out, to get away from Him...
But having written all of that, the difficulty of reconciling eternal suffering with a God of eternal and infinite love still remains. I too fall back on Bishop Kallistos Ware who I have found very helpful on this problem and I would thoroughly recommend his article Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All? (available in his excellent book The Inner Kingdom). Incidentally despite, as a Byzantine Orthodox, accepting the Constantinople Council of 553 as the Fifth Ecumenical Council, Bishop Kallistos makes an interesting case as to whether Origen?s teaching, at any rate concerning apocatastasis or universalism, was in fact condemned by an ecumenical council. Bishop Kallistos also points out that another universalist Saint Gregory of Nyssa has never been anathemtiized. It is an excellent consideration of this difficult subject and I highly recommend it. I quote from the concluding paragraphs: ?Our belief in human freedom means that we have no right to categorically affirm, ?All must be saved.? But our faith in God?s love makes us dare to hope that all will be saved? Hell exists as a possibility because free will exists. Yet trusting in the inexhaustible attractiveness of God?s love, we venture to express the hope ? it is no more than a hope ? that in the end?there is nobody there.?
So now to your direct question: ?The crux of the issue must be: would assenting to a belief in eternal torture be a requirement for membership of the Oriental Orthodox Church? To repeat: I favour apokatostasis, but could accept conditional immortality. I am unable to assent to a belief in any form of eternal punishment? and again ?I suppose that the crux of this enquiry is; does the freedom exist within Oriental Orthodoxy to believe or at least hope for universal reconciliation? or does the church teach that a proportion of mankind, significant or otherwise will inevitable suffer eternal damnation?? Well, I am an Oriental Orthodox and I do not believe God punishes people with eternal tortures ? if anyone is in hell it is because they so choose. Furthermore, I believe that, yes, the freedom does exist within Oriental Orthodoxy to hope for universal reconciliation.
Universal salvation - John Charmley - 19-10-2006
Dear Paul and Simon,
As I understand it, the Church neither accepts nor denies apocatostasis. What the Church did condemn were certain parts of Origen's speculations that went along with this idea, such as the pre-existence of souls.
We cannot even pretend to know what God's will is here; it would be presumptuous to suppose we did. The Church has had pastoral problems with the doctrine of apocatostasis because of the obvious misreadings that can be made of it. But again, as I read things, we are not dispensed from the need to live a Christian life because of the possibility that all will be saved; by the same reasoning, all might not be - although on this I am with Simon, that that would be because of their inability to accept what theosis means.