Baptism with Fire and St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Resurrection:
“…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:13)
The fires of hell are a reality that cannot be dismissed in any honest reading of the New Testament. However, as I have stated throughout this series on Universal Salvation, the issue in question is what do the New Testament authors mean by hellfire, and how were these teachings received by many of the most venerable theologians in the early church. In later posts I hope to elaborate directly on the Scriptural texts on hell, and how they have been diversely interpreted, and in some cases catastrophically misinterpreted in the history of the church.
One of the most brilliant theological minds in the history of the church is St. Gregory of Nyssa – who along with his brother St. Basil the Great, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus (commonly known as the Cappadocian Fathers) not only defended the doctrine of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ, but also gave us a clearer language to articulate these truths that are reflected even today in the most central doctrines of the church. All this to say, St. Gregory’s orthodoxy is beyond dispute, therefore we ought to take his teachings on the matter of Universal Salvation seriously even if, at the end of the day, we disagree. In one of his most important works, On the Resurrection, Gregory sits at the feet of the woman whom he names Teacher, she also happened to be his sister, St. Macrina. In this work they discuss the nature of the soul and the resurrection while Macrina’s own health is failing, and they both mourn the death of their brother Basil.
In one crucial section, Macrina uses an arresting metaphor for a ruined soul’s suffering in the afterlife by first describing the scene of a family who must drag the mangled corpse of a loved one out from beneath the wreckage of an earthquake. Due to the catastrophic ruins left by the earthquake, even removing the corpse for burial might entail doing more damage to the lifeless body as it is pulled from the debris. As is the broken body, so is the soul that has been wrecked by sinful passions. She then goes on to say this as she describes the soul’s encounter with God –
Such I think is the plight of the soul as well when the Divine force for God’s very love of man, drags that which belongs to him from the ruins of the irrational and material. Not in hatred or revenge for a wicked life, to my thinking, does God bring upon sinners those painful dispensations; He is only claiming and drawing to himself whatever, to please Him, came into existence. But, while He, for a noble end is attracting the soul to Himself, the Fountain of all Blessedness, it is the occasion necessarily to the being so attracted of a state of torture. Just as those who refine gold from the dross which it contains not only get this base alloy to melt in the fire, but are obliged to melt the pure gold along with the alloy, and then while this last is being consumed the gold remains, so, while evil is being consumed in the purgatorial fire, the soul that is welded to this evil must inevitably be in the fire too, until the spurious alloy is consumed and annihilated by this fire. – St. Gregory of Nyssa: On the Resurrection
Nyssa’s argument might seem odd, especially for my fellow Protestants (yes, I am still a Protestant). However, when we see the fires of hell presented to us in the New Testament with a proper understanding of aonian (which is mistranslated as ‘eternal’ when it clearly refers to a specific age, epoch, or duration), much of these theological issues ironed out in the early church snap back into focus. When John the Baptist says, ‘see the lamb of God who is taking away the sins of the cosmos’ [note, the word commonly translated as ‘world’ is cosmos in Greek, this is reflected in David Bentley Hart’s New Testament translation], he means just that – Christ is taking away the sins that have marred his creation in entirety. When Paul speaks of all things in heaven and on earth being summed up in Christ (Ephesians 1:10) he means all things – there will not be one inch, one sub-atomic particle that will be stained by sin when all things are summed up in Christ because evil does not exist in his presence – it must be burned away. So, what we understand to be the fires of hell cannot be anything less than identical with the love of God as it encounters the evils that beset his creatures – yes they will burn, but only to the destruction of the evil, not to the destruction of the soul, which God made both good and for himself.
I could go on, but I don’t want to make these posts any longer than they need to be: for more on this series, see the following posts:
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, The Harrowing of Hell, Apocatastasis: The Heresy that Never Was
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