Reflections on St Isaac the Syrian-Part III

For many where St Isaac’s teaching becomes questionable is when the universal scope of God’s love is extended beyond creation to embrace eschatology.

As BH writes:

According to Isaac, the final outcome of the history of the universe must correspond to the majesty of God, and that the final destiny of the humans should be worthy of God’s mercifulness. ‘I am of the opinion that He is going to manifest some wonderful outcome’, Isaac claims, ‘a matter of immense and ineffable compassion on the part of the glorious Creator, with respect to the ordering of this difficult matter of Gehenna’s torment: out of it the wealth of His love and power and wisdom will become known all the more – and so will the insistent might of the waves of His goodness. It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when He created them – and whom nonetheless He created’ (II/39,6).

His Grace continues:

All afflictions and sufferings which fall to everyone’s lot are sent from God with the aim of bringing a person to an inner change. Isaac comes to an important conclusion: God never retaliates for the past, but always cares for our future. ‘…All kinds and manner of chastisements and punishments that come from Him’, Isaac suggests, ‘are not brought about in order to requite past actions, but for the sake of the subsequent gain to be gotten in them… This is what the Scriptures bring to our attention and remind us of.., that God is not one who requites evil, but He sets aright evil’ (II/39,15-16).

Central to St Isaac’s eschatological vision is the idea that “love contradicts the idea of requital.” For Isaac, BH argues, “if we are to suppose that God will punish sinners eternally, this would mean that the creation of the world was a mistake, as God proved to be unable to oppose evil, which is not within His will. If we ascribe requital to God’s actions, we apply weakness to God: ‘So then, let us not attribute to God’s actions and His dealings with us any idea of requital. Rather, we should speak of fatherly provision, a wise dispensation, a perfect will which is concerned with our good, and complete love. If it is a case of love, then it is not one of requital; and if it is a case of requital, then it is not one of love’ (II/39,17).

At the core of what is being taught is the reality that we simply do not understand God. All we know of Him we know by way of His free revelation to us. This is simply to day that all “God’s actions are mysteries that are inaccessible to human reasoning” and this includes the mystery of Hell or “Gehenna.” Where many Christians, and not simply Western Christians, view hell as a place of torment and punishment, St Isaac sees it in more therapeutic terms as a place created by God “in order to bring to a state of perfection those who had not reached it during their lifetime” BH goes so far as to describe hell in St Isaac’s teaching as “a sort of purgatory rather than hell” as that term is more generally understood. That Gehenna is a place of purification is something “hidden from those who are chastised in it.” The true meaning if their confinement there is something that “will be revealed only after Gehenna is abolished” and when “All those who have fallen away from God will eventually return to Him [having been purified] through the fire of suffering and repentance.”

Speaking personally for a moment, I find the teaching presented by St Isaac to be both attractive and troubling. Attractive because I find comfort in the idea that God will never abandon me, never cease to love me. I find it troubling—and here I must be honest with myself—because I think it lets OTHER people off the hook for their bad behavior. In my mind’s eye I can see a parade of wicked, and not so wicked, people appealing to St Isaac to justify their own malfeasances.

Damn it all, I need bad people to be punished, or at least I need to be able to threaten them with punishment to keep them in line.

And there it is of course. God doesn’t need hell, but I certainly do. I need to think that justice will be done and that the wrongs I suffered (though not the wrongs I committed) will be righted. And righted they will, Isaac suggests, but by divine love and mercy and not justice.

Isaac was quite resentful of the
widespread opinion that the majority of people will be punished in hell, and only a small group of the chosen will delight in Paradise. He is convinced that, quite the contrary, the majority of people will find themselves in the Kingdom of heaven, and only a few sinners will go to Gehenna, and even they only for the period of time which is necessary for their repentance and remission of sins: ‘By the device of grace the majority of humankind will enter the Kingdom of heaven without the experience of Gehenna. But this is apart from those who, because of their hardness of heart and utter abandonment to wickedness and the lusts, fail to show remorse in suffering for their faults and their sins, and because these people have not been disciplined at all. For God’s holy Nature is so good and compassionate that it is always seeking to find some small means of putting us in the right, how He can forgive human beings their sins – like the case of the tax collector who was put in the right by the intensity of his prayer (Luke 18:14), or like the case of a woman with two small coins (Mark 12:42-43; Luke 21:2-3), or the man who received forgiveness on the Cross (Luke 23:40-43). For God wishes for our salvation, and not for reasons to torment us’ (II/40,12).

To repeat what I said at the beginning, Isaac the Syrian explicitly teaches universal salvation. But while the Orthodox Church rejected the teaching apokatastasis ton panton (restoration of all), in BH’s view Isaac is teaching something different from “the universal salvation [inherent in an] Origenist ‘restoration of all’. For

Origen, universal restoration is not the end of the world, but a passing phase from one created world to another, which will come into existence after the present world has come to its end. This idea is alien to Christian tradition and unknown to Isaac. The latter is more dependent on other ancient writers, notably Theodore of Mopsuestia and Diodore of Tarsus, who also developed the idea of universal salvation, yet in a way different from Origen’s. On the other hand, it would not be fair to say that Isaac simply borrowed the ideas of his predecessors and inserted them into his own writings. Isaac’s eschatological optimism and his belief in universal salvation are ultimate outcomes of his personal theological vision, whose central idea is that of God as love. Around this idea the whole of his theological system is shaped.

BH’s distinction here is, I must admit, lost on me. As I get older I become ever more content to leave the heavy theological lifting to those with intellects, and prayer lives, better than my own. Again, the older I get the more I realize that I do not pray well enough to do theology as it ought to be done even as I pray to well to be happy doing theology the way that it is done. And so I find myself evermore content that God has made me a priest-psychologist rather than a priest-theologian.

To be continued…

In Christ our True God, the Physician of our souls and body, the One heals our every disease and Who forgives us our every sin,

+Fr Gregory

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