When they are in fashion, fads are never recognized as fads. Those under their influence and promoting them feel that they have come across “An Important New Truth,” or (if Orthodox) “An Important But Neglected Part of Our Tradition.” Recognizing them as fads would only serve to dismiss them from serious consideration. Thus fads never ’fess up.
I suggest that the recent interest in Universalism—the belief that everyone will eventually be saved - is the latest fad. Evidence of this may be found in the fact that the view is being promoted by a number of different people who have little contact with one another and with little else in common, such as by scholar David Bentley Hart (in his essay God, Creation, and Evil), and also by Rob Bell (in his best-seller Love Wins). Admittedly the conviction that everyone will eventually be saved, including Satan and the demons, has been expressed from time to time throughout Christian history, but the majority of Christians have decided to pass on it. For people like the Orthodox who believe that God guides His Church and that therefore consensus matters, the solid fact of Christian consensus about the eternity of hell is surely significant.
I suspect that one reason that a belief in universalism is becoming popular is that our western culture has lost its sense of sin. In ancient times, all people, be they Jew, pagan, or Christian, believed that they stood guilty before the divine judgment seat. Thus when Christ said in passing that men were evil [Greek poneros; Matthew 7:11], no one batted an eye, for everyone knew it was true. We no longer believe that, and so (in C.S. Lewis’ famous phrase) we have put God in the dock, with ourselves as His judges. In this frame of mind the very existence of hell is a stumbling block, and something which cries out for justification, if not revision. Thus many even in the Church are happy to revise this part of our Tradition, using whatever justification can be found. The somewhat lonely patristic witness of Saint Gregory of Nyssa is being called upon, as well as that of Isaac the Syrian. Some even are suggesting rehabilitating Origen, even in the face of his conciliar condemnation by name in Canon 11 of the Fifth Ecumenical Council and Canon 1 of the “Quinisext” Council.
Much of the debate centers around the teaching of Saint Paul, who is presented as an apostolic witness for universalism. After all, Paul did teach that “as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22), and that at the end “God shall be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). The problem of course is that Saint Paul also taught that “the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9), and that at the end the disobedient “shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 1:9), and no less an exegete than Saint John Chrysostom commented on this latter text that this penalty is “not temporary,” for “how then is that temporary which is eternal?” (from his third homily on 2 Thessalonians). So it would seem that Paul’s witness is ambiguous.
What is not ambiguous at all is the teaching of Christ, and He said repeatedly and emphatically that all would not eventually be saved, but that the punishments of hell were unending. He referred to the unrighteous being bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30), with no suggestion that this punishment will be temporary. In His parable about Lazarus and the rich man, He explicitly said that there was a great gulf fixed between paradise and the place of punishment, so that none may cross over from the place to punishment into paradise (Luke 16:26), and this is an odd thing to say if in fact everyone in the place of punishment will indeed eventually cross over into paradise. Finally He referred to the fire of Gehenna as “the eternal fire.” And in His parable on the Last Judgment, He ended by saying that “these [unrighteous] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). The same word—“eternal” (Greek aionion)—is used to describe both the punishment of the wicked and the life of the saved, so if the life of the saved is unending, so must be the punishment of the wicked. One may debate the meaning of Saint Paul’s letters, but the words of Christ admit of no debate. The fire of Gehenna is real and eternal.
What does this mean for us? It is not a merely theoretical debate among theologians who seem to have too much time on their hands. It also has moral dimension, and an urgent one. We are, all of us, divided persons, fallen human beings, with temptation to sin ever close at hand and the devil also close to confirm our decisions to rebel against God’s Kingdom and His righteousness. That is perhaps why even Origen, who believed that all would be saved, counseled that this truth not be publicly proclaimed, but shared quietly among the spiritually mature. Most of us need all the help we can get in our struggle against sin, and cannot afford the luxury of the thought, even if it were true, that our sins, rebellion, and rejection of God ultimately will not matter because all will be saved. Doubtless that is why Origen thought the teaching should not be generally promoted. I suggest that the real truth is that all will not eventually be saved, and that the conviction that they will contains subjective spiritual dangers for some as well as being objective error. God calls us to hate sin and to war against it, not because it impedes our eventual arrival in the Kingdom, but because it could prevent it altogether. All will not be saved. The gate to life is small and the way is narrow that leads to it and few are those who find it (Matthew 7:14). All the more reason for us to repent and walk in truth and righteousness and enter by that small and narrow gate.