Book II of Life of Moses contains Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s exegesis of the Book of Exodus. His purpose is to exegete from Exodus teachings about asceticism and warn against sins and passions. It is within this context we must understand the whole work.
Not coincidentally, this is very similar to the Great Catechism, which was written for an audience of unbaptized Christians in the hope of correcting Manichean (and Jewish) errors which were popular at that time and place, as well as motivating his readers (and probably listeners) to repent and be baptized.
When exegeting Life of Moses it is important to keep this background in mind. If we incorrectly identify the audience, we may incorrectly universalize passages which were meant to apply to the sort of readers Gregory expected to reach. Furthermore, similar to my exegesis of Gregory’s other allegedly “universalist” works, I prefer a simpler, internally consistent approach. From this I conclude that his works teach a traditional eschatology.
Some ground rules. In deciphering the work, it helps that we make some basic assumptions which I believe to be justified by both the book’s internal details as well as what would have been commonly asserted by contemporary exegetes.
For one, in the Life of Moses “Israel” represents the people of God typologically. Hence, in Gregory’s day, these would be Christians. Similarly, Moses (and other figures, depending on circumstance) would represent religious leadership (such as a Bishop or even Christ over the Church.)
“Egypt” obviously represents the wicked and unbelieving. The Pharaoh and taskmasters are Satan and the demons.
From the preceding we can grasp that there are those who would seem to be in the middle: “Israelites” under the sway of Pharaoh, yearning to return to Egypt and its pleasures (including meat, milk, and honey.) What we shall see unfold is that the allegedly universalist passages are referring to this class of people.
A fixation on baptism. Gregory, similar to the Great Catechism, is concerned about the efficacy of baptism. He exegetes Moses being put in a basket in the Nile River as a type of baptism. Similar to his teaching in the catechism, one’s will must cooperate with sacramental grace for there to be an actual divinization (i.e. grace) imparted by God’s energy. He speaks of Moses’s birth and subsequent placement in the Nile in the following ways:
I am speaking of that kind of birth in which free will serves as the midwife, delivering the child amid great pain. (par 5)
It is the function of the free will both to beget this virtuous male offspring and to nourish it with proper food and to take forethought how to save it unharmed from the water [of baptism]. (6)
[T]he daughter of the king, being childless and barren (I think she is rightly perceived as profane philosophy), arranged to be called his mother by adopting the youngster. (10)
For truly barren is profane education, which is always in labor but never gives birth. (11)
As we can see, it is through repentance and ascesis (“great pain”) that our will (“the midwife”) permits baptism (the “kind of birth”) to take place. “The virtuous male offspring” (i.e. Moses) is the repentant Christian who eats “proper food” (i.e. does good works) to vouchsafe his baptism. The “food” was from Moses’ birth-mother who represents the Law of God. Moses’ feeding from this mother, instead of the princess (“profane education”), is the equivalent of leaning onto the Lord, but not one’s own understanding. (Prov 3:5)
“Universalist” passages. After making several interesting observations about Theophanies and Marian typology (i.e. the burning bush), Gregory moves onto the topic of how evil exists. This, again not coincidentally, is the exact same topic which concerned him so much in the Great Catechism. In a similar fashion, Gregory argues that evil does not in fact exist and that men create their own evil by a wrong disposition of their will:
In the same way, the thought of the Apostle should be clear, that it is those who do not acknowledge God who are delivered up to shameful affections, and that the Egyptian tyrant is hardened by God not because the divine will places the resistance in the soul of Pharaoh but because the free will through its inclination to evil does not receive the word which softens resistance. (76)
In keeping with this insight of mine, consider the air which is darkened to the Egyptians’ eyes by the rod while to the Hebrews’ it is illuminated by the sun. By this incident the meaning which we have given is confirmed. It was not some constraining power from above that caused the one to be found in darkness and the other in light, but we men have in ourselves, in our own nature and by our own choice, the causes of light or of darkness, since we place ourselves in whichever sphere we wish to be. (80)
God hardens hearts simply by not prompting people, like Pharaoh, to repentance. This is ironically, also the view of mainstream Calvinists vis a vis Hyper-Calvinists such as John Piper. Furthermore, similar to the teaching of his brother Saint Basil, “light and darkness” are interpreted to be the experience of the will responding to God’s grace. Hence, what is good (light) is just as easily made into darkness by wrongful willing.
On this note, Gregory continues:
According to the history, the eyes of the Egyptians were not in darkness because some wall or mountain darkened their view and shadowed the rays, but the sun cast its rays upon all equally. Whereas the Hebrews delighted in its light, the Egyptians were insensitive to its gift. In a similar manner the enlightened life is proposed to all equally according to their ability. Some continue on in darkness, driven by their evil pursuits to the darkness of wickedness, while others are made radiant by the light of virtue. (81)
Who is this “some” that Gregory has in mind? Simply the whole lot of evil people? Nominal Christians? He does not immediately disclose the answer, so let’s continue.
Perhaps someone, taking his departure from the fact that after three days of distress in darkness the Egyptians did share in the light, might be led to perceive the final restoration which is expected to take place later in the kingdom of heaven of those who have suffered condemnation in Gehenna. For that darkness that could be felt, as the history says, has a great affinity both in its name and in its actual meaning to the exterior darkness. Both are dispelled when Moses, as we have perceived before, stretched forth his hands on behalf of those in darkness. (82)
The preceding should make us contemplate two things. First, who are “those” who will benefit from “the final restoration?” Internal details in the same paragraph seem to lend credibility to the universalist reading. This would be disappointing considering this would contradict Gregory’s other writings. Nevertheless, we find that Moses’ intercession on behalf of the Egyptians brought light back to their eyes. So, following the typological key we gave above, this would plausibly point to the restoration of the Egyptians (i.e. ultimate salvation for the damned.) Before jumping to conclusions, it is important to continue to unpack Gregory’s thought:
In the same way we would perceive the true meaning of the furnace asbes which, according to the text, produced painful boils on the Egyptians. In the figure of what is called the “furnace” we perceive the threatened punishment of fire in Gehenna which touches only those who imitate the Egyptians in their manner of life. (83)
If anyone is truly an Israelite, a son of Abraham, and looks to him in life in such a way as to show by his own free will his kinship in race to the elect people, he is kept unharmed from that painful fire. The interpretation of Moses’ outstretched hands which we have already given may become for those others also the healing of pain and the deliverance from punishment. (84)
In the very next two paragraphs, Gregory undoes the universalist reading. Gregory reveals his pastoral concern for “those who imitate the Egyptians in their manner of life.” Clearly, “those who imitate” are not actual Egyptians (either literally or typologically), but they are those who have refused baptism and/or repentance and so imitate the unbelievers (i.e. actual Egypt). This is why in the subsequent paragraph, Gregory reminds his audience that true Israelites cooperate with the grace of God by their “own free will.” This concern (i.e. “the fixation on baptism”) is exactly the same one which began the work itself! There is an obvious continued thread of thought in this work.
Furthermore, the warning that Moses’ intercession (typologically representing the work of Christ on behalf of man) “may become…healing of pain and the deliverance from punishment” connects the passage to par 82. It shows that Moses’ intercession is not a guarenteed thing, or the word “will” would have been used instead of “may.”
Hence, Moses’ outstretched arms on behalf of the Egyptians and its application to the “final restoration” on “behalf of those in darkness” is specific to wayward “Christians.” This is why the promise of “restoration” only “may become….healing of pain and deliverance from punishment.” This is a conditional promise, the condition being that wayward Christians must repent and (presumably) sufficiently benefit from the Church’s prayers and liturgies on their behalf. There is no guarantee given that all of these people, after purgation in “Gehenna” (more popularly called “Hades” in Orthodox parlance), will be saved.
So much for the universalist interpretation of yet another work from Gregory.
Conclusion. For the sake of space and readability, the exegesis of the Life of Moses will end here. There is an addendum which continues to exegete the rest of the book as an answer to those who think the preceding is out of context.
It suffices to say that Gregory is surprisingly very consistent in his thoughts on eschatology throughout his works and it is the shame that lazy or simply incorrect exegesis has led so many to concede to the “Big Lie” that Gregory was a universalist. As we can see, Gregory is not even terribly complicated on the subject. His eschatology is traditional and Orthodox. He clearly affirms eternal damnation.