St. Basil on Universalism

St. Basil of Caesarea ca. 330-379

In one place the Lord declares that “these shall go to eternal punishment” (Mt. 25:46), and in another place He sends some “to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41); and speaks elsewhere of the fire of gehenna, specifying that it is a place “where their worm dies not, and the fire is not extinguished” (Mk. 9:44-49) and even of old and through the Prophet it was foretold of some that “their worm will not die, nor will their fire be extinguished” (Isa. 66:24). Although these and the like declarations are to be found in numerous places of divinely inspired Scripture, it is one of the artifices of the devil, that many forgetting these and other such statements and utterances of the Lord, ascribe an end to punishment, so that they can sin the more boldly. If, however, there were going to be and end of eternal punishment, there would likewise be and end to eternal life. If we cannot conceive of an end to that life, how are we to suppose there will be and end to eternal punishment? The qualification of “eternal” is ascribed equally to both of them. “For these are going,” He says, “into eternal punishment; the just, however, into eternal life.” (Mt. 25:46) If we profess these things we must recognize that the “he shall be flogged with many stripes” and the “he shall be flogged with few stripes” refer not to an end but to a distinction of punishment. (Rules Briefly Treated 267)

Comments

  1. Nice quote. Have you compiled a list of quotes from early Christian leaders regarding universalism? I hear people say that some of the church fathers were universalists without showing where their writings express that view.

  2. Thank you Justin B.

    I haven’t as of yet. There are so many Fathers that affirm an eternal penalty as Basil does that I never thought to do so.

    There are alot of people who don’t understand the way the east speaks of “salvation” and they’ll read certain quotes and mistake it for universalism. For instance, Apostle Paul states that Christ is “the savior of all men”, and “God will fill all in all”, therefore someone can say then all men will be saved. In a sense they are because they are saved from dissolution and non-being in the resurrection. It is in this way Chrysostom even calls Gehenna “salvation”: He (Paul) calls it, however, “salvation”, you will say; why, that is the cause of his adding, so as by fire: since we also used to say, It is preserved in the fire, when we speak of those substances which do not immediately burn up and become ashes. For do not at sound of the word fire imagine that those who are burning pass into annihilation. And though he call such punishment “salvation”, be not astonished… And so here in saying, he shall be saved, he has but darkly hinted at the intensity of the penalty: as if he had said, “But himself shall remain forever in punishment”. (Homily 9 on First Corinthians)

    see here: http://classicalchristianity.com/2011/06/14/chrysostom-on-being-saved-through-fire/

    In the comments below that post I quoted Fr. John Romanides who boldly says: “In other words hell is a form of salvation although the lowest form of it.”

    Many people confuse the language because they define hell as a place cut-off from God’s love and presence whereas in the east we say that the reprobate are saved, loved and in His fiery presence and that this is the very source of their torments. They experience His burning love as wrath, so we could say that they are saved from Hades, corruption, dissolution of body and soul, even the reign of the devil, but not saved from wrath.

    St. Gregory of Nyssa is a father of the Church who seems to explicitly teach universalism or the possibility thereof but even that is questioned as to what he means:

    In the same way when death, and corruption, and darkness, and every other offshoot of evil had grown into the nature of the author of evil, the approach of the Divine power, acting like fire, and making that unnatural accretion to disappear, thus by purgation of the evil becomes a blessing to that nature, though the separation is agonizing. Therefore even the adversary himself will not be likely to dispute that what took place was both just and salutary, that is, IF HE SHALL HAVE ATTAINED TO A ENJOYMENT OF ITS BENEFIT.
    For it is now as with those who for their cure are subjected to the knife and the cautery; they are angry with the doctors, and wince with the pain of the incision; but if recovery of health be the result of this treatment, and the pain of the cautery passes away, they will feel grateful to those who have wrought this cure upon them. In like manner, when, after long periods of time, the evil of our nature, which now is mixed up with it and has grown with its growth, has been expelled, and when there has been a restoration of those who are now lying in sin to their primal state, a harmony of thanksgiving will arise from all creation, as well from those who in the process of the purgation have suffered chastisement, as from those who needed not any purgation at all. THESE AND THE LIKE BENEFITS THE GREAT MYSTERY OF THE DIVINE INCARNATION BESTOWS. For in those points in which He was mingled with humanity, passing as He did through all the accidents proper to human nature, such as birth, rearing, growing up, and advancing even to the taste of death, He accomplished all the results before mentioned, freeing both man from evil, AND HEALING EVEN THE INTRODUCER OF EVIL HIMSELF. For the chastisement, however painful, of moral disease is a healing of its weakness. (The Great Catechism, Ch. XXVI)

    Fr. Georges Florovsky takes Gregory to mean that the reprobate can attain to the goodness of their substances when they were initially created: …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…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.

    Fr. Florovsky mentions the Church as having “three apokatastases”, many hear that word and equate with “universalism” and that is not correct.

    St. Martin of Tours also opens up a possibility:

    The demon set forth the crimes of each of them; but they added that Martin, resisting the devil firmly, answered him, that by-past sins are cleansed away by the leading of a better life, and that through the mercy of God, those are to be absolved from their sins who have given up their evil ways. The devil saying in opposition to this that such guilty men as those referred to did not come within the pale of pardon, and that no mercy was extended by the Lord to those who had once fallen away, Martin is said to have cried out in words to the following effect: “IF THOU, THYSELF, WRETCHED BEING, WOULDST BUT DESIST FROM ATTACKING MANKIND, AND EVEN, AT THIS PERIOD, WHEN THE DAY OF JUDGMENT IS AT HAND, WOULDST ONLY REPENT OF YOUR DEEDS, I, WITH A TRUE CONFIDENCE IN THE LORD, WOULD PROMISE YOU THE MERCY OF CHRIST.” O what a holy boldness with respect to the loving-kindness of the Lord, in which, although he could not assert authority, he nevertheless showed the feelings dwelling within him! (Life of St. Martin of Tours XXII)

    This seems to affirm a possibility of repentance before the judgment and St. Gregory seems to hold to possibility even after the judgment. This is definitely a minority view in comparison to the sources I’ve been exposed to.

    Soory so long, but I wanted give you a good place to start if you explore this further. Maybe I will do a post on the eternality of Hell. Here are some posts pertaining to this subject:

    http://classicalchristianity.com/2011/04/14/on-the-dread-judgment/
    http://classicalchristianity.com/2011/04/02/sin-gehenna-and-death/
    http://classicalchristianity.com/2011/03/12/fire/

  3. Thanks for the starting point! I appreciate it!

  4. Stay tuned Justin. We have one in the works.

  5. Thanks for your work, guys! It was seeking a deeper understanding of how to reconcile with the love of God revealed in Christ with what Jesus and the Scriptures teach about hell and judgment that brought me to Orthodoxy. There is a world of difference in the Orthodox understanding of the nature of Gehenna and also the basis of the Last Judgment and that typically taught within Evangelicalism. Now, the raging controversy over Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins” (which, I suspect might have some more Orthodox insights about the nature of judgment and hell than the typical views of hell that arise out of Penal Substitution theory) is, I think, an indication that I’m not alone by a long shot. I’ve not had a chance to read Bell’s book yet (there are several copies at my local library, but all are checked out with a long list of those waiting for a returned copy!), but I would be interested in a fully Orthodox critique of it (and suspect that might be helpful to some Evangelicals as well).

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