Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Fr Touma (Bitar) on Eternal Perdition

Arabic original here.

Eternal Perdition as an Elixir

In a previous article I talked about eternal life. At the time I said that love alone is eternal and its eternality is the eternality of the incarnate Son of God. This might raise a question: but what about "eternal perdition"? How does perdition relate to love, if there is eternal perdition? We do not have a clear answer to this question, neither in tradition in general nor in the Bible in particular. However, there are glimmerings that shed some light on it, in the Bible and in the sayings and experience of the saints.

We find talk of "eternal perdition" in the First Epistle to the Thessalonians 9:1. John the Beloved, in his gospel, talks not only of a resurrection for those who do good works, which he calls "the resurrection of life," but also of a resurrection for those who did evil works, which he calls "the resurrection of judgment" (John 5:29). This means that evildoers do not pass out of existence, as though they never were, but rather are resurrected in the body at the general resurrection. This also means that "eternal perdition" is a continuation of existence, of some sort, different from eternal life and not at all obliteration!

What kind of existence does "eternal perdition" entail? The texts state that those who perish are cast into "the outer darkness" (Matthew 8:12). There, weeping and gnashing of teeth reign. There abides a fiery furnace that never goes out, and a worm emerges from those perishing that "does not die" (Mark 9:43-44).

With regard to the outer darkness, darkness is the complete absence of light. Sinners are banished from God's light, every blessing and every consolation. Before the general resurrection, the Lord God shines His sun upon the wicked and the good and causes it to rain upon the righteous and the unjust, so that, with long-suffering, the wicked might be guided aright and the unjust might pay heed. But on that day there is nothing to cool the flame of torment that afflicts sinners (Luke 16:24) and nothing to warm the total frost that envelops them. The outer darkness represents the ultimate banishment from God's presence. Sinners abide outside the range of the divine presence. Effectively, in existential nothingness, even if they remain in existence. This is worse than non-existence itself. For this reason, the Lord Jesus said of the man who betrays the Son of Man-- that is, Judas Iscariot-- that "it would have been better for that man had he never been born" (Mark 14:21)!

All this poses the question: what is the value of sinners' existence if the abide in eternal perdition? The easy answer is that a person reaps what he sows, whatever that means, or that sinners reap the fruit of their deeds, or that God punishes sinners, or that this is what sinners chose for themselves, or that God leaves them the freedom to weave their own destiny on their own, or that sinners are tormented by their own sins apart from God, or similar things. God is love. All of Him is love. So how can God's love be manifest in any of these answers? That is the question! I know that God respects human freedom to the utmost. However, if a person misuses his freedom and goes astray and ends up becoming completely lost and falls into perdition, does this please God? Is He content to let His creation remain in the outer darkness out of respect for their freedom?! If that is the case, how do we reconcile God's love that desires that all be saved and approach knowledge of the truth-- notice that it says "all"-- with God's respect for human freedom, even if they want to cast themselves into hell? It is not possible for the freedom that God breathes into humans to be outside the range of His love for them. Even the Apostle Paul speaks of this love when he says of those who have gone astray from among the Children of Israel, "I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh" (Romans 9:2-3). Does God love less than His servant Paul, who speaks through His Spirit? Insofar as God is love, He cannot by pleased by or even accept the perdition of a sinner! Thus it is stated clearly that God is not pleased at the death of a sinner, but rather that he turn from his ways and live (Ezekiel 33:11). How can God be love and abandon any creature of His to eternal torment!? He is not heedless and vengeance does not befit God's love. So what remains? That God is incapable?! Of course not! It is said that for God everything is possible. So God wills the salvation of all and He is capable, through ways that only He knows, of saving that which has been lost! This means that salvation happens, even if we do not know how. In this case, we can only imagine God's heart, in a sense, in constant pain, tireless pursuit, and restlessness until He brings back the sinner, made white like snow! If there is great rejoicing in heaven over a single sinner who repents, is it reasonable for God's diligence in bringing back His creatures who died in sin to wane and for His joy at their return to be extinguished after they die?! Impossible!!!

Salvation, then, is inevitable for all! God's love and His power leave no room for doubt about this!

So where does this analysis bring us? To seeing what is called "eternal perdition" as a salvific dispensation, in a sense, even if this is beyond our understanding and we approach a threshold that the Lord God did not wish to reveal to us in total clarity because it is not helpful for us in our quest for His face.

Some of the holy fathers, such as Saint Gregory of Nyssa and Saint Isaac the Syrian, were inclined to speak of salvation for all, even for the demons! However, the Holy Church does not officially permit their teaching. Naturally, there is wisdom in the Church's position. First of all, teaching in the Church is for building up. The Church is not an abstract philosophical school! We do not theorize about that which the Lord God has not revealed and rely on our theorizing for a rule of life. This might kill within the soul the need and effort for keeping the commandments and seeking holiness! There is definitely an outer darkness that sinners experience. There is torment. There is a furnace of fire. There is a worm that does not sleep. There is gnashing of teeth and there is weeping! There is no doubt about this! How can all this be for salvation? We do not know completely and it has not been given to us to know precisely. How can "eternal perdition" turn into salvation!? This is beyond imagining! This matter is beyond us and we will not enter into speculation. However, something occurred to me while I was reading the life of Saint Arsenius the Great that might perhaps be something of a key to unlocking the great door of God's final plans in this regard. It says that whenever he would sit down to work with his hands, he would place a handkerchief over his chest to collect the tears that would stream down from his eyes without ceasing. When Father Poemen saw him, he said, "Blessed are you, Arsenius. Because you have reward for the tears that you have shed in this age, you will have no need for tears in the age to come!" Notice what he says! "You will not have need for tears in the age to come"! For most, then, there is a need for tears in the age to come, not only in this age! This is because through tears contrition is completely restored and sin is washed away. This is the experience of the holy fathers! Is it reasonable for weeping, which is also one of the effects of eternal perdition, to be an entryway to salvation? At first glance, these tears appear to be tears of regret, tears of fear, tears of grief. Naturally, this is an internal state in which there is an existential goad, pain of heart, and even a stubbornness of attitude. However, in the face of profound suffering, suffering that is not the result of an externally imposed condition that the Lord God casts upon us as a punishment, like Purgatory or the equivalent-- this is in no way consistent with God's love, for which it is impossible to cause suffering for God's creation or to subject it to torture-- rather, it is the result of an internal, existential that to which humans were brought by sin: in the face of this profound suffering, perhaps the existential goad, the pain of heart, and even stubbornness, turn into contrition, like coal turns into diamond and venom into medicine! In this way the almighty God pulls something priceless from dross, just as He pulled resurrection from death and from the snake's venom medicine for the healing of ailing humanity! If this is true, then salvation lies in the mystery of tears, in its profound existential meaning! At that point, we understand what our saints experienced and repeated, generation after generation, that there is no salvation for those who do not weep! This calls to mind the eschatologically-tinged words from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, "Fear and a snare have come upon us, desolation and destruction. My eyes overflow with rivers of water, for the destruction of the daughter of my people. My eyes flow and do not cease, without interruption, till the Lord from heaven looks down and sees... You drew near on the day I called on You, and said, 'Do not fear!'" (Lamentations 3:47-50, 57). If this is true, then the eternality of perdition is what creation needs in order for the time to be fulfilled contrition and longing for God to be returned to its being! In any case, this only happens through the divine, loving grace that secretly works for the salvation of all. God committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all (Romans 11:32)! Yes, "all", and it means no less than all in this world and the next, not because anyone is good but because God is love!!!

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan the Athonite-- Douma
January 13, 2013

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Amen and Amen

Pure Gospel

Thank you!