On Maximus and universal salvation
An artistic commentary on the Oxford Handbook
The central irony here involves the relationship between debates about freedom, and the fact that abusive coercion plays such a central role in forming the thought of the supposed defenders of freedom.
A truncated understanding of freedom has long been used to argue, quite literally, that slavery is freedom. Here, we also see reactionaries arguing that the coercers are the ones who understood freedom. More on how we got to “slavery is freedom” here and here. More on how this plays out as slanderous attacks (or at least ignorant ones that are presumably culpable) today here.
And now, a visual essay reflecting on an excerpt from here:
Andreas Andreopoulos, “Eschatology in Maximus the Confessor,” in The Oxford Handbook of Maximus the Confessor, ed. Pauline Allen and Bronwen Neil, First Edition. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 330–333:
In addition to this passage, which refers directly to the apokatastasis, there are three passages from the Questions Addressed to Thalassius which reflect the views of Maximus on the final restoration of the world and the forgiveness of all (Q. Thal. prol., Laga‒Steel 1980: 39–40; Q. Thal. 21, Laga‒Steel 1980: 131, 133; Q. Thal. 43, Laga‒Steel 1980: 293–7). Two of those comments touch on the issue of the two trees in the Garden of Eden, a theme that had been connected to the concept of the apokatastasis since Origen. The third passage refers to the victory of Christ over evil through his crucifixion. In these passages Maximus states that there is a ‘better and more secret explanation, which is kept in the minds of the mystics, but we, as well, will honour by silence’.
Several modern commentators see this honourable silence as an implicit support of the idea of apokatastasis, which remained secret, mostly for pastoral reasons. Nevertheless, Maximus never gives his clear support to the idea, and, with the exception of the writings cited above, he never engages with it at length. Writers such as Sherwood (Sherwood 1955a: 9) have noted that although Maximus criticized in detail many other of the ideas of Origen, in this way, by trying to correct and absorb several of them, he developed his own system. On the other hand, there are several passages in his work that discuss the situation after the final judgement and speak of eternal punishment for the ones who freely used the logos of their being contrary to nature (Amb. Io. 42, PG 91. 1329A1–B7; Amb. Io. 65, PG 91. 1392C9–D13; Q. Thal. 59, Laga–Steel 1990: 55, 57). What is this eternal punishment? At a first level we can discern a certain ambivalence here. Although it is clear that Maximus believes that there cannot be an automatic, universal salvation for everyone, we can suspect that he finds something interesting in the idea of the restoration of the world. Because of this ambivalence, modern scholarship (cf. Vasiljević 2013) has mined the thought of Maximus in pursuit of direct or implied support of the concept of apokatastasis, but most of the thought on this subject has to do with whether he supports or denies the idea of the restoration of all in the way we find it in Origen. While this is clearly not the case, there is obviously more than meets the eye here. Perhaps the area of our inquiry is the distance between the certainty of a universal restoration and the hope and possibility for all souls to be saved.
As we saw above, when Maximus discussed the three kinds of restoration known by the church, he examined more closely the restoration of the powers of the soul to the state they had before the Fall. It is interesting that he sees this restoration as something that will happen to all people at the end of time, just like the resurrection of the body. Maximus sees the resurrection of the dead as a restoration of the entire human being to its state before the Fall: not only the body, but the soul and its relationship with the body will be restored. This can be understood through the prism of his anthropology, which is not comfortable with the separation between the two. Nevertheless, the point here is that the restoration of will from its gnomic to its natural state (as we can also see in the aforementioned passage from his commentary on Psalm 59) will be common to all people, just like the resurrection of the body. However, this topic demonstrates the difference between Origen and Maximus at a different level: the two restorations that are granted to everyone at the end of time return the human being to its state before the Fall (although this time the human being consists of a soul and a body), but this is not enough to guarantee salvation. An additional step needs to be taken. Maximus does not presume that the next step will be automatic, or likewise common to all. On the contrary, he makes a sharp differentiation between a lesser knowledge of God (ἐπίγνωσις), which implies an intellectual understanding of the causality of evil, and full participation in God, which is a condition to which one proceeds by exercising one’s natural (restored) yet always free will (QD 19, in Philokalia 14A, Meretakis 1992: 38).
Nevertheless, this may be the boldest statement in support of the apokatastasis of all beings that we can find in the writings of Maximus, although he certainly keeps a safe distance from any bold and sweeping arguments about it. Yet, since we often think of sin as a result of the distance between us and God, and of the war inside us between what we want and what we do (what St. Paul describes in Rom. 7:23 as ‘another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members’), it is hard for us to think that even when these two obstacles are removed, we may still choose to be apart from God and under sin. What makes this difficult to visualize is that elsewhere we find images of hell and damnation, along the lines of the penance that corresponds to a certain transgression, and of God as the ultimate judge. Although such images may be found in the Gospels and in some Fathers, it is generally not the approach we find in the Greek Fathers — certainly not in the writings of Maximus, who writes much about sin, yet virtually nothing about hell. However, even the modern mind cannot fathom what kind of sin could deserve an eternity of torment, if the measure of the justice of God is suffering for like sin, if not more. To return to the image of the restoration, there is a similar paradox. How could it be possible not to repent and not to beg for the forgiveness of God, once our will has been restored to its natural state? One might be tempted to read the restoration of the powers of the soul as a return to the fresh state of creation, with the added benefit of the experience of sin and its effects, which makes it very difficult for us to see how anyone would then consciously choose to be away from God. And yet Maximus does not follow this argument.
The Confessor distinguishes between two kinds of knowledge, only one of which implies participation, whereas the other is a disembodied, distant knowledge, which is not relevant in the context of salvation. Effectively, the difference between these two states reflects the two possible meanings of gnosis, the first according to the biblical-apostolic tradition, and the second according to philosophy — we could also say knowledge by participation vs. the possession of information. This distinction is helpful in our comprehension of the riddle of the last things. What this distinction means in the context of the restoration, as considered by Maximus, is that the argumentative, calculating part of the restoration (the one that will show that God is not responsible for sin) may bring about a cognitive acceptance of the word of God, and may also demonstrate to everyone what sin is, what grace is, what forgiveness is — but this is not enough. It is not enough to have the tools: it is necessary to use them. To use the patristic expression, a movement of the soul is also necessary, in a way that allows one to use one’s logos according to one’s (restored) nature. Keeping in mind the Christocentric and cosmic significance Maximus attaches to the logos/logoi, this harmonization between logos and nature is worth exploring further. The logoi that exist in every being are a reflection of the touch of the original Logos of creation. This suggests that, although we cannot find a systematic exposition of the eschatological expectation in Maximus, Christ has a central place in it.
At any rate, it is difficult to understand the extent of the restoration of natural will in the human being, with everything this entails about the passions and the soul. First, is it restricted to humans only? And is it possible for this movement of the soul to take place then? Does this restoration allow for the possibility for human, angelic, and even demonic souls to repent (if they choose so), to be forgiven, and to be subsequently accepted in the kingdom of God, after their deliberative, gnomic will is restored to natural will, and after they are able to see the difference between good and evil? Is it possible to repent after death, or is forgiveness restricted to the ones who repented during their life on earth? Following the distinction between disembodied knowledge and knowledge by participation, Maximus describes the restoration which is common to all as a disembodied, objective event, which is not necessarily accompanied by a ‘movement of the soul’. Although the way Maximus approaches the question of the final restoration allows us to hope and pray for the repentance, forgiveness, and salvation of all, a salvation that is automatically and mechanically common for all would deny the freedom of the soul and would transform the kingdom of God into a cruel menagerie.
There are additional problems with this interpretation of apokatastasis. An argument from the point of view of ethics is that, if the ontological restoration of the body and the soul were to lead everyone into the kingdom, there is no point in trying to follow the path of God. There can be no judgement, nor real forgiveness, if the compassion of God is forced on everyone as an automatic, mechanical forgiveness.
Second, if free will, gnomic or natural, is preserved after the second judgement, is there a danger of a second Fall, starting a new cycle of events? We can see something like that in the unstable rest of Origen. Maximus modified Origenist cosmology emphatically, changing the Origenist triad of becoming–rest–movement, into becoming–movement–rest, indicating precisely that the final situation has to be a cosmic balance, a stable conclusion. In Amb. Io. 65 (PG 91. 1392) he writes about the ὀγδοάς, the eighth day or the age to come, the ‘better and endless day’, which comes after ‘things in motion have come to rest’, and he makes a clear distinction between the fate of the righteous and the fate of the wicked. It is possible, then, that the restoration of the natural will is not sufficient to guarantee that there will be no second fall. It is no surprise that the discourse on the apokatastasis is traditionally connected to the original fall in the Garden of Eden, and the Greek Fathers saw original sin not so much as an ontological fall but as an illness that will nevertheless be concluded in a condition better, and therefore more stable, than the beginning.
How can this be accommodated with the restoration of all? On the one hand, Maximus foresees the restoration of the natural will and speaks of the purifying fire of the Second Coming, something that implies an end to the purification process, but, on the other hand, he emphasizes the final rest. Perhaps the answer can be found in a comment from the Q. Thal. 22 (Laga–Steel 1980: 139. 66–141. 80) where Maximus draws a distinction between the present age, the ‘age of the flesh’, which is characterized by doing, and the age of the Spirit that will be characterized by ‘undergoing’. This suggests that the final rest will not be a static rest, but that some kind of activity is conceivable. In addition, it is not specified if the activity of that age is limited to the righteous only: the analogy to the age of doing suggests the opposite. Is it possible, then, that with the mysterious phrase ‘ever-moving rest’ (ἀεικίνητος στάσις), the Confessor envisioned a rest similar to the unification of the soul with God, as described by Gregory of Nyssa, where the soul moves infinitely towards God without ever being able to reach the end of infinity, but experiencing and participating increasingly in the divine energies? The ‘undergoing’ of the sinful souls might then be translated into the contrition and repentance they never had in life, which could perhaps even then bring them closer to God, while the righteous advance in their blissful participation of the divine. Something like that would be consistent with the possibility of a final restoration of all and with Maximus’ views on the rest. This active rest would have to be understood as an unchangeable condition, in spite of the movement or undergoing of the souls, something that would satisfy its position at the end of the Maximian cosmological triad as the conclusion. It would also mean that it is not necessary to envision an ontological difference between the righteous and the wicked, as there is not one now.