Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Soul and Resurrection is perhaps his most strongly argued universalist work. However, is this the only way to read the work? Let’s take a look.
The work styles itself as highly Biblicist and critical of Hellenistic syllogistic philosophy. This is ironic given its own logical derivations and speculations:
As for ourselves, if the Gentile philosophy, which deals methodically with all these points, were really adequate for a demonstration, it would certainly be superfluous to add a discussion on the soul to those speculations. But while the latter proceeded, on the subject of the soul, as far in the direction of supposed consequences as the thinker pleased, we are not entitled to such licence, I mean that of affirming what we please; we make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet; we necessarily fix our eyes upon that, and approve that alone which may be made to harmonize with the intention of those writings…we will adopt, as the guide of our reasoning, the Scripture, which lays it down as an axiom that there is no excellence in the soul which is not a property as well of the Divine nature…we will speak upon these points by making our study of them so far as we can follow the chain of Scriptural tradition.
After speculating about the soul and the passions, the work begins to speculate about how “every knee shall bow” and every tongue confess Jesus Christ. The implication is that if every knee will bow, then there must be a “restitution of all things” (i.e. apokatastasis). Gregory seems cautious, admitting that he “believes…the prevailing opinion, and still more of Scripture teaching” and that there is a judgement. However, “some say…that…evil shall have been some day annihilated” and that “nothing shall be left outside the world of goodness.”
Later on, Gregory writes again to the effect that he is speculating on an opinion that is not accepted by most:
But He that becomes all things will be in all things too; and herein it appears to me that Scripture teaches the complete annihilation of evil. If, that is, God will be in all existing things, evil; plainly, will not then be among them; for if any one was to assume that it did exist then, how will the belief that God will be in all be kept intact?…As for ourselves, we take our stand upon the tenets of the Church, and assert that it will be well to accept only so much of these speculations as is sufficient to show that those who indulge in them are to a certain extent in accord with the doctrine of the Resurrection.
As we can see, Gregory is openly expressing a minority (or at the very least unsettled) opinion and only wants it accepted to the extent that it is “in accord with the doctrine of the Resurrection.” It appears Gregory is engaging in some sort of thought or rhetorical experiment in an attempt to answer how evil can be completely annihilated and only God’s goodness remain.
But what does Gregory actually means takes place when evil is “completely annihilated.” Does this mean universalism? Or something else? We will see this be elaborated as the book unfolds.
In beginning his argument, he initially condemns annhilationism (“…I think that all but the most stubborn controversialists will have been sufficiently convinced by our debate not to consign the soul after the body’s dissolution to annihilation and nonentity…”) He does this in order to answer the conundrum of how every knee shall bow without postulating that those who do not will simply be “memory holed.” However, as we can see before, the thought experiment he is expounding pertains to the “the complete annihilation of evil” and all that entails. He does this without postulating that any rational creature will cease existence.
Later on, he also rejects reincarnation and the pre-existence of souls on the principle a rational soul like a man’s cannot come from or become later an irrational soul, thereby contradicting Origen. In doing this, he rejects the Origenist solution to the problem.
As follows, appears to me, Gregory’s case for “apokatastasis”—one which he highly qualified in Il Illud and the Great Catechism to the point where he was merely floating the concepts but not actually teaching the belief—is similar to those other works in that he is not teaching universalism. Rather, he appears to be teaching that a non-descript number of people are purged of sins and God annihilates all evil in this sense.
If we take this interpretation, it makes sense that his apparent “universalist passages” are actually consistent with his eternal damnation passages, where he faithfully re-presents the teaching of the Church.
Interpreters often skip over the obvious fact that Gregory teaches eternal damnation. When he argues that God pervades all things “and by this penetration of the whole keeps the world in a state of being,” he uses this as a leaping off point on how God restores everything to goodness. This is important, because this is the context behind him giving an exegesis of the Rich Man and Lazarus. In this interpretation, he reiterates the traditional, eternal conception of damnation. In so doing, this implicitly equates the teaching found in the following parable with his doctrine on universal restoration:
…it is impossible to make the framework of the narrative correspond with the truth, if we understand it literally; we can do that only by translating each detail into an equivalent in the world of ideas.
Once man’s life had but one character; and by that I mean that it was to be found only in the category of the good and had no contact with evil…God divided the life of man into two parts, namely, this present life, and that out of the body hereafter; and He placed on the first a limit of the briefest possible time, while He prolonged the other into eternity; and in His love for man He gave him his choice, to have the one or the other of those things, good or evil, I mean, in which of the two parts he liked: either in this short and transitory life, or in those endless ages, whose limit is infinity.
At first glance, it would appear that the Rich Man will reap the fruits of “his choice” for “those endless ages, whose limit is infinity.” Clearly, this is the teaching of the Church. Gregory continues in his exegesis to the same effect:
Those, then, whose reasoning powers have never been exercised and who have never had a glimpse of the better way soon use up on gluttony in this fleshly life the dividend of good which their constitution can claim, and they reserve none of it for the after life; but those who by a discreet and sober-minded calculation economize the powers of living are afflicted by things painful to sense here, but they reserve their good for the succeeding life, and so their happier lot is lengthened out to last as long as that eternal life. This, in my opinion, is the gulf [between the Rich Man and Lazarus in Hades]; which is not made by the parting of the earth, but by those decisions in this life which result in a separation into opposite characters. The man who has once chosen pleasure in this life, and has not cured his inconsiderateness by repentance, places the land of the good beyond his own reach; for he has dug against himself the yawning impassable abyss of a necessity that nothing can break through…
In this story of the Rich and the Poor Man we are taught another doctrine also, which is intimately connected with our former discoveries. The story makes the sensual pleasure-loving man, when he sees that his own case is one that admits of no escape.
As we can see, the traditional teaching of the Church is being reiterated. Anticipating the speculations of Saint Maximus the Confessor (Ambigua to John, 21:12 and 65:3), he asserts that the volition of the will towards God has consequences that “last as long as that eternal life.” This would seem to definitively refute universalism. Only if Gregory was this straightforward throughout the book!
Sadly for us interpreters, as the work continues and Gregory elaborates his doctrine of restoration, he speculates about purgation after death (in Hades, he had no concept of Purgatory) would accomplish. This purgation, though with earlier precedent and later ascribed by other Orthodox saints, was probably a minority opinion of its time due to its obscure treatment in the Scriptures. In speaking of this purgation, which we can agree from the above parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is not applicable literally to every individual, the vagaries of language certainly give off an air of universalism. For example:
So it is that, when the change is made into the impalpable Unseen, not even then will it be possible for the lovers of the flesh to avoid dragging away with them under any circumstances some fleshly foulness; and thereby their torment will be intensified, their soul having been materialized by such surroundings.
If, then whether by forethought here, or by purgation hereafter, our soul becomes free from any emotional connection with the brute creation, there will be nothing to impede its contemplation of the Beautiful; for this last is essentially capable of attracting in a certain way every being that looks towards it. If, then, the soul is purified of every vice, it will most certainly be in the sphere of Beauty.
The preceding would appear to be a negation of what was taught about the Rich Man and Lazarus. However, “our” is a key word we must zero in on. Does “our” mean “every individual in mankind?” Or, is it a reference to the saved (i.e. Christians) and not to those whose “case…admits no escape.”
The purgatorial fire of Hades is described as being as intense as the “amount of evil there is in each individual.” This is because “it would not be reasonable to think that the man who has remained so long as we have supposed in evil known to be forbidden, and the man who has fallen only into moderate sins, should be tortured to the same amount in the judgment upon their vicious habit.”
The paragraph continues on a universalist note:
[I]t shall be that every will rests in God, evil will be reduced to complete annihilation, owing to no receptacle being left for it.
I must reiterate, it is unclear whether this is true of every individual human being, or if this is a poetic way of addressing the human race in a categorical sense–but not applying the preceding to each individual.
This may seem to be special pleading, but it makes sense of the contradicting statements we are seeing in the preceding paragraphs. Furthermore, it is the same sort of explanation Gregory himself gives elsewhere in his Nativity Homily:
The rest of the beast’s body, dispersed in human life, as long as mankind is motivated by evil, always roughens life with the scales of sin. The serpent’s power is now dead, since its head has been rendered useless, but as time passes and things endowed with motion come a standstill at the awaited consummation of this life, then the tail, the enemy’s last remaining part, that is, death, is annulled. In this way **evil will ****completely**** disappear**, when all are recalled to life through the resurrection: the righteous will immediately be transported to celestial bliss, while those held in the grip of sins will be consigned to the fire of Gehenna. (p. 7)
As we can see “evil will completely disappear” when “death is annulled,” undoing the work of Satan, and “all” are granted “life through the resurrection.” Even then, there are still “those held in the grip of sins” that “will be consigned to fire of Gehenna.” Clearly, this is not the way universalists imagine evil completely disappearing. Yet, Gregory has no issue with reflecting upon the issue in this sense.
It is a disservice to everyone that no one interprets Gregory’s own words according to his own teaching on the same topic. In fact, universalists (and others who simply do not understand Gregory) prefer to believe he is frequently contradicting himself and borders on incomprehensible, than admit his universalist language is a kind of poetic hyperbole whose point is to emphasize the immense (and infinite!) salvific nature of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection.
Taking the preceding into account, within On the Soul and Resurrection frequently betrays that his universalist-sounding passages are in fact not speaking of all mankind individually:
Therefore, those who have parted with evil will be united with Him; and so, as the Apostle says, God will be all in all ; for this utterance seems to me plainly to confirm the opinion we have already arrived at, for it means that God will be instead of all other things, and in all.
As we can see, “God will be all in all” because “those who have parted with evil” attain to salvation. Why not say, “when all have parted with evil?” The clear sense is not every man does, which explicitly is what his exegesis above on the Rich Man and Lazarus postulated.
As the work goes on, it continues making universalist statements which similarly appear qualified in the above sense. For example:
[I]n the Resurrection, and all the inveterate corruption of sin has vanished from the world, then a universal feast will be kept around the Deity by those who have decorated themselves in the Resurrection; and one and the same banquet will be spread for all, with no differences cutting off any rational creature from an equal participation in it; for those who are now excluded by reason of their sin will at last be admitted within the Holiest places of God’s blessedness, and will bind themselves to the horns of the Altar there, that is, to the most excellent of the transcendental Powers.
While the universalists may cling to the statement pertaining “those who are now excluded,” their zeroing in on this statement actually disproves their whole notion. The fact there are “those” or one class means that “those who have decorated themselves in the Resurrection” are also a class of people. “Those who are now excluded” will become part of “those who have decorated themselves in the Resurrection” after their purging. Clearly, because we recognize these are classes of people, this betrays the existence of yet another class: “those” who are not saved. Not coincidentally, this is the same exact conclusion Gregory gives in his Nativity Homily.
As we continue reading the work, it becomes clear that what universalists are confusing as Origen-lite apokatastasis is in fact Gregory simply teaching on the existence of purgation in Hades after death for a limited class of people.
So, when we read statements such as:
…when the complete whole of our race shall have been perfected from the first man to the last — some having at once in this life been cleansed from evil, others having afterwards in the necessary periods been healed by the Fire, others having in their life here been unconscious equally of good and of evil — to offer to every one of us participation in the blessings which are in Him, which, the Scripture tells us, eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor thought ever reached. But this is nothing else, as I at least understand it, but to be in God Himself; for the Good which is above hearing and eye and heart must be that Good which transcends the universe…According to the amount of the ingrained wickedness of each will be computed the duration of his cure. This cure consists in the cleansing of his soul, and that cannot be achieved without an excruciating condition, as has been expounded in our previous discussion.
This is no different than the teaching of his own brother, Saint Basil, on the same topic:
The fire prepared for the torment of the devil and his angels, is divided by the voice of the Lord, so that after this there might be two powers in it: one that burns, and another that illumines: the tormenting and punishing power of that fire is reserved for those worthy of torment,; while the illumining and enlightening power is intended for the shining of those who rejoice. Therefore the voice of the Lord Who divides and separate the flame of ire is for this: that the dark part might be a fire of torment and the unburning part a light of enjoyment (St. Basil, Homily on Psalm 28).
People get confused when they literalize statements such as “the complete whole of our race.” They do not interpret this seemingly categorical statement with what Gregory teaches elsewhere in the same book and with how he treats similar categorical assertions in other books.
And so, it is on this note I will end my exegesis as I have honestly covered every “difficult” passage (on both sides) which I found relevant. If it is too rigidly “reactionary” in its interpretation, this is because in this day and age we have failed to get enough people seriously interacting with the work under the presumption it is actually orthodox and internally consistent.
I challenge any interlocutor to posit an internally consistent interpretation that does not throw Gregory of Nyssa into utter contradiction.
Help Grow the Orthodox Church in Cambodia!
Has this article blessed you? Please bless the Moscow Patriarchate’s missionary efforts in Cambodia to bring the Gospel to a people who have not heard it!
How would you address the existence of patristic testimonies effectively abscribing these erroneous views to St. Gregory? St. Barsanuphius the Great and St. Mark of Ephesus, to name a few.
St John the Ladder had my view, is my response.
The ablity to argue that “the complete whole of our race” doesn’t meant ever single person is dependent on very modern Individualist Philosophy and was utterly unthinkable to anyone living in antiquity.