METROPOLITAN EPHRAIM AND SALVATION IN HELL

Written by Vladimir Moss

METROPOLITAN EPHRAIM AND SALVATION IN HELL

Metropolitan Ephraim of Boston has aroused controversy with a recent article entitled “Awake, Sleeper!” in which he appears to argue that every person who has not encountered the True Orthodox faith during his life on earth will have another chance after his death. The critical passage is the following: “Essentially, what Saint Philaret (and the Church Fathers) say is that, in order to judge mankind fairly, our Saviour will give every person who ever lived on earth the opportunity to espouse or reject His teaching. Whether this happens while the person is still living or in Hades – whenever it happens – he or she will have the opportunity to make that choice.

“This is what the Holy Scriptures and our Holy Tradition teach us (see our previous article ‘Sheol Delenda Est!’). Whether all choose to believe and accept that message is a question we cannot answer, of course. But, in general, the Saints of the Church are generally optimistic about the success of the Christian message.”

Really?! Is that why the Lord said that many are called, but few are chosen, and that the way into the Kingdom is straight and narrow, and few will be those who find it (Matthew 7.14)? Is that why the Apostle Peter said: “If the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” (I Peter 4.18)? No, it is clear that the great majority of mankind will be damned. This is not an optimistic message…

As for the idea that people who have not encountered True Orthodoxy will be given a second chance in Hades, this is a very nice and comforting thought, and I hope it is true. The problem is: I can find no evidence in the Holy Fathers that it is true. Metropolitan Ephraim’s patristic quotations are not directly to the point, and he offers no quotation from St. Philaret’s “Will the Heterodox Be Saved?”

The following is a reworking of an earlier article of mine in which I analyze a part of St. Philaret’s article.[1]

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Neither St. Philaret nor any of the other Holy Fathers state that unbelievers will be given a second chance in Hades because it is a basic teaching of the Church that there is no repentance in Hades. “For in death there is none that is mindful of Thee, and in Hades who will confess Thee?” (Psalm 6.4). Metropolitan Ephraim counters that Christ preached to the spirits of the dead in Hades. Yes, but is there any evidence that He will do that a second time before His Second Coming? No, there is none…

On the contrary, there is clear evidence there is a fundamental difference between the period before Christ’s Death and Resurrection and the period after it. “In the past,” said Saints Paul and Barnabas to the pagans of Iconium, “He allowed each nation to go its own way” – that is, He did not send preachers to the pagans to turn them away from the worship of idols. But now “we have come with good news to make you turn away from these empty idols to the living God Who made heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is therein” (Acts 14.16, 15).

“But what of those who have never had the good news preached to them?” comes the objection. Undoubtedly, they will be treated with greater condescension. For God is just: men will be judged in accordance with the truth that has been revealed to them, not in accordance with the truth that has not been revealed to them. "If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth" (John 9.41). St. Paul himself is a clear example of this truth. "I obtained mercy because I acted in ignorance” (I Timothy 1.13; cf. Acts 3.17, 17.30). For our Great High Priest is truly One "Who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way" (Hebrews 5.2).

So we may agree with the point – this was St. Philaret’s main point – that those who have never encountered True Orthodoxy in their lifetime will be judged differently, and less severely, that those who encountered it and rejected it. Involuntary ignorance is undoubtedly a mitigating factor in the judgement of the Great King. Thus we read: "That servant who knew his master's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required; and he to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more" (Luke 12.47-48).

However, let us linger a little longer on this last Gospel passage, and in particular on St. Theophylact’s commentary on it: "Here some will object, saying: 'He who knows the will of his Lord, but does not do it, is deservedly punished. But why is the ignorant punished?' Because when he might have known he did not wish to do so, but was the cause of his own ignorance through sloth."[2] Or, as St. Cyril of Alexandria puts it: "How can he who did not know it be guilty? The reason is, because he did not want to know it, although it was in his power to learn."[3]

To whom does this distinction apply? St. Cyril applies it to false teachers and parents, on the one hand, and those who follow them, on the other. In other words, the blind leaders will receive a greater condemnation than the blind followers - which is not to say, however, that they will not both fall into the pit (Matthew 15.14). For, as Bishop Nicholas Velimirovich writes: "Are the people at fault if godless elders and false prophets lead them onto foreign paths? The people are not at fault to as great an extent as their elders and the false prophets, but they are at fault to some extent. For God gave to the people also to know the right path, both through their conscience and through the preaching of the word of God, so that people should not blindly have followed their blind guides, who led them by false paths that alienated them from God and His Laws."[4]

The ecumenists often bring up the example of the Hindus and Buddhists and others who have lived their whole lives in non-Christian communities. Can they be said to be wilfully ignorant of the truth? Of course, only God knows the degree of ignorance in any particular case. However, even if the heathen have more excuse than the Christians who deny Christ, they cannot be said to be completely innocent; for no one is completely deprived of the knowledge of the One God. Thus St. Jerome writes: "Ours and every other race of men knows God naturally. There are no peoples who do not recognise their Creator naturally.”[5] And St. John Chrysostom writes: "From the beginning God placed the knowledge of Himself in men, but the pagans awarded this knowledge to sticks and stones, doing wrong to the truth to the extent that they were able."[6] And the same Father writes: "One way of coming to the knowledge of God is that which is provided by the whole of creation; and another, no less significant, is that which is offered by conscience, the whole of which we have expounded upon at greater length, showing how you have a self-taught knowledge of what is good and what is not so good, and how conscience urges all this upon you from within. Two teachers, then, are given you from the beginning: creation and conscience. Neither of them has a voice to speak out; yet they teach men in silence."[7]

Many have abandoned the darkness of idolatry by following creation and conscience alone. Thus St. Barbara heeded the voice of creation, rejected her father's idols and believed in the One Creator of heaven and earth even before she had heard of Christ. And she heeded the voice of her conscience, which recoiled from those "most odious works of witchcrafts, and wicked sacrifices; and also those merciless murderers of children and devourers of man's flesh, and the feasts of blood, with their priests out of the midst of their idolatrous crew, and the parents, that killed with their own hands souls destitute of help" (Wisdom of Solomon 12.4-6). But her father, who had the same witnesses to the truth as she, rejected it – and killed her.[8]

Thus there is a light that "enlightens every man who comes into the world" (John 1.9). And if there are some who reject that light, abusing that freewill which God will never deprive them of, this is not His fault, but theirs. As St. John Chrysostom says, "If there are some who choose to close the eyes of their mind and do not want to receive the rays of that light, their darkness comes not from the nature of the light, but from their own darkness in voluntarily depriving themselves of that gift."[9] If the Light of Christ enlightens everyone, then there is no one who cannot come to the True Faith, however unpromising his situation. If a man follows the teachers that are given to everyone, creation and conscience, then the Providence of God, with Whom "all things are possible" (Matthew 19.26), will lead him to the teacher that is given at the beginning only to a few - "the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the Truth" (I Timothy 3.15). For "it is not possible," writes St. John Chrysostom, "that one who is living rightly and freed from the passions should ever be overlooked. But even if he happens to be in error, God will quickly draw him over to the truth."[10] Again, St. John Cassian says: "When God sees in us some beginnings of good will, He at once enlightens it, urging it on towards salvation."[11]

So there is not such thing as “invincible ignorance”, to use the Roman Catholics’ term. All ignorance is “vincible” if the ignorant one wants the truth in his heart. A striking example is the story of the Aleut Indians who were joined to the True Church by St. Innocent of Alaska. Two angels appeared to their shaman and instructed him for two years in the Orthodox faith, telling him to pass on his knowledge to his pagan Indian flock. When they were ready, the angels instructed the shaman to bring the people down to the shore, where they would meet the Orthodox pastor whom God had sent to baptize them…

Having said all this, we can still hope that those who depart this life uninstructed and unbaptized will be given a second chance in Hades. But our hope here must not be taken as part of our dogmatic faith. On the contrary, we must recognize that to assert that certain people could not have acquired the truth in their lifetime, and therefore must be given a second chance after death, is to display a lack of faith in God’s Almighty Providence – and to open a chink in our dogmatic defences that the ecumenists will not fail to widen and rush through if we are not careful…

Vladimir Moss.

December 1/14, 2009.

St. Philaret the Merciful.

St. Philaret of New York.



[1] http://www.orthodoxchristianbooks.com/articles/209/-judge-or-not-judge/.

[2] St. Theophylact, Explanation of the Gospel according to St. Luke 12.47-48.

[3] St. Cyril, Homily 93 on Luke. Translated by Payne Smith, Studion Publishers, 1983, p. 376.

[4] Bishop Nicholas, The Prologue from Ochrid, Birmingham: Lazarica Press, 1986, vol. II, p. 149.

[5] St. Jerome, Treatise on Psalm 95.

[6] St. Chrysostom, Homily 3 on Romans, 2.

[7] St. Chrysostom, First Homily on Hannah, 3.

[8] The Lives of the Women Martyrs, Buena Vista: Holy Apostles Convent, 1991, pp. 528-542.

[9] St. Chrysostom, Homily 8 on John.

[10] St. Chrysostom, Homily 24 on Matthew, 1.

[11] St. Cassian, Conferences, XIII, 8.

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