In the previous essay I explored the rather different Hebrew conception of time. I began that essay by mentioning Sergie Bulgakov, a theologian who was active about 100 years ago. Bulgakov, while brilliant, was eccentric, and his eccentricities are probably the reason there continues to be so much interest in him 100 years after his writing career. And, among his most infamous eccentric beliefs is that he was a universalist. Before I can say more, though, we need some background related to my previous essay on time.
Probably because Eastern Orthodoxy has no magisterium and is instead led by the cooperative will of all the bishops, there are far fewer things that are dogma. (In fact, I suspect Orthodoxy has fewer dogmatic statements than most Protestant churches, which, ironically, consider dogma suspicious in general.) In place of a complex set of dogmas, the Orthodox church has theologumena, which is best described as a consensus of the church fathers and mothers. While the theologumena are authoritative, it is not strictly required to hold to these beliefs and rules in the same way that dogmatic teachings (such as the Holy Trinity, the incarnation, and Christ’s return) are required.
Among the teachings that are not dogmatic is what happens to unbelievers after they die. St. Gregory of Nyssa (not only a saint, but celebrated as one of the three Cappadocian fathers—the three most significant theologians of their generation) taught that there was a possibility that everyone (including unbelievers) would be saved in the end. It is far beyond the scope of this essay to go through the details of the argument, but two things can be said about it. First, a significant piece of the argument in favor of universalism has to do with that slippery word “eternal” that we explored in the previous essay. Second, Gregory didn’t say everyone would be saved, rather he held out the possibility that universal salvation might be a possibility.
In relation to the first point, the Greek words that get translated “eternal life,” and in turn, “eternal damnation,” don’t speak primarily about the length of time, but rather about the quality of life. At this point I need to make clear that I have not read Gregory himself on this subject, only various authoritative interpreters of his work. But Gregory argued that the Greek word we translate eternal is distinctly different than our modern concept of infinite. Eternal damnation, therefore, doesn’t point to the length of time spent in hell, but rather that hell is a separate realm.
He speculated about this partly because of what Paul said in 1 Cor 15, a passage that is exceedingly difficult to make sense of. Beginning in v. 24, Paul says,
24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all. 29 Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?
There are a couple of things I will note in this passage. First, in the end, God will be all in all. Gregory speculated that this might mean that God is even greater than our unbelief. In the end, God has the ability to draw, even the unbelieving to himself. Second, if our own deaths are an absolute break, after which nothing can happen (as Hebrews seems to indicate), then what about this “baptism on behalf of the dead”? To be clear, no one knows what Paul is talking about. Whatever it was he was referring to, it is a practice lost in the mists of time. Furthermore, no Christian group (except heretical sects) baptize on behalf of the dead, so v. 29 is a real head scratcher.
Gregory’s point is that we simply don’t know what happens after death. We have hints and pointers. The general arc of the New Testament is that there is such a thing as eternal damnation. But then there are other things, such as 1 Cor. 15, that don’t fit the general pattern. When this is the case, it is dangerous to be dogmatic. The only sensible thing to do is say, “I don’t know.”
This is why Gregory held out the possibility of universal salvation while more generally holding to the majority opinion that there will be damnation that lasts forever for those who reject God’s offer of mercy. His speculation about the theoretical possibility of universal salvation was his way of emphasizing that some things are beyond our comprehension and when it comes to those things, Christian humility demands us saying, “I don’t know.” Many teachers since then have been of the opinion that Gregory would have been better off just keeping his mouth shut. He should have left it at, “I don’t know” rather than speculating about other possibilities.
And this brings us to Bulgakov, who was not nearly as humble as Gregory. Using logic and exegesis that was “unique,” he felt that he had proved the point. He said that there wasn’t an “I don’t know” involved. Instead, he argued that he had proved from scripture, the teachings of the church, and logic, that universal salvation was necessarily the truth of the matter.
And this is Bulgakov’s error. It is not that he believed and taught universal salvation. His error was that he was dogmatic about a matter that the church in her wisdom has always refused to be dogmatic about.
His views are certainly eccentric. Eccentricity is something we should forgive because Christian charity demands it. But his attitude is arrogant to the point of being dogmatic. That is something Christians absolutely cannot condone. And again I emphasize that Gregory was never dogmatic on this topic. His point was quite specifically, “I don’t know.”
And the ironic thing is that even though we absolutely cannot condone Bulgakov, he may actually be right. But on that point we need to stick with Gregory and affirm that in the end, we don’t know.
And finally, I offer a concluding unscientific postscript. I believe that Gregory of Nyssa should be the patron saint of social media. Why would I say that? Well, “I don’t know,” if you get my drift. 😉