Written by Vladimir Moss



     There are two kinds of justice: pedagogical and retributive. The first kind is an expression of God's love, and is applied by God in order to correct the sinner and help him to avoid His retributive justice. The second, retributive justice, is God's justice in the stricter sense: it is not applied to correct the sinner, but to reward him in accordance with his deserts.

     It is fashionable among many contemporary new calendarist Greek Orthodox theologians, such as Fr. John Romanides, Fr. George Metallinos and Christos Yannaras, and even among some Old Calendarist ones, such as Alexander Kalomiros, to deny the retributive justice of God. Thus in his famous article, “The River of Fire”, Kalomiros writes: “God never takes vengeance. His punishments are loving means of correction, as long as anything can be corrected and healed in this life. They never extend to eternity…” (p. 6)

     But how can this be true?! What about the sentence of death passed on all mankind? Is that not a punishment? What about the terrible deaths of various sinners, such as Ahab and Jezabel, Ananias and Sapphira, Heliodorus and Herod and Simon Magus? How can they be said to have been “loving means of correction”, since they manifestly did not correct the sinners involved, who were incorrigible? And what about the torments of gehenna? Do they not extend to eternity? Will not the Lord Himself say to the condemned at the Last Judgement: “Depart from Me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25.41)?

      Many of God’s punishments are indeed “loving means of correction” – that is, they are pedagogical. But when correction and pedagogy fail, then God punishes in a different, final, purely retributive way. Bishop Nikolai (Velimirovich) distinguishes between the two kinds of punishment or judgement as follows: “One is conditional and temporary. We can refer to it as the pedagogical judgement of God over men in the school of this life. And the other judgement will be just and final. This is obvious from the many examples in the Holy Scriptures. God punished righteous Moses for one sin by not being allowed to enter the promised land towards which he spent forty years leading his people. This is the temporary and pedagogical judgement of God. It is there for the sinners to see and say with fright, ‘If God did not forgive such a righteous man one sin, what will He then do to us who are lade with so many sins?’ But Moses’ punishment was not the final, conclusive judgement of God over him. Nor does it mean that Moses will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. You know that this great servant of God appeared along with the prophet Elijah at the Transfiguration of the Lord. This testifies to the fact that even though he was punished once for one sin, he was not discarded by God nor left out of the eternal life. Pedagogical punishments, or pedagogical judgements of God, serve that very purpose – to correct people, and make them suitable for the Kingdom of Heaven. Or, look at that ill man at Bethesda who lay paralyzed for 38 years. The fact that his illness was there because of sin was clearly stated by the Lord when He said, ‘Behold, now you are healthy; sin no more that even worse does not happen to you’. And what worse thing could happen to him than being cast out and left out of the Kingdom of Life at the Terrible Judgements of God because of his new sins?

     “Our Saviour clearly spoke of the Terrible Judgement of God – of the day which ‘burns as a furnace’. When the sun and the moon darken , when the stars get confused and start falling, when the shining ‘sign of the Son of Man’ appears in that utter darkness, then the Lord Jesus will appear in power and glory to judge justly the living and the dead.”[1]

     Kalomiros goes on: “Death was not inflicted upon us by God. We fell into it by our revolt.” (p. 6). And he quotes St. Basil: “God did not create death, but we brought it upon ourselves”.

      Certainly God did not create death: we brought it upon ourselves by our wilful transgression of His commandment. But does this mean that God was completely inactive in His pronouncement of the sentence on Adam and Eve, in their expulsion from Eden, in His placing the cherubim with the sword of fire to prevent their return? Of course not! God did not will our first parents to fall. Nor did He, being Life Itself, create death. However, He allowed our first parents to fall, and He permitted death to enter into their life. Why? Partly in order to correct them, to humble them and lead them to repentance. Partly in order to cut off sin and allow the dissolution of the body for the sake of its future resurrection. And partly because crime requires punishment, because God is the just Judge Who cannot allow sin to go unpunished if it is not repented of.

      Man is the ultimate cause of his own misery: but that by no means implies that God does not punish him. In fact, as St. John of Damascus writes, "a judge justly punishes one who is guilty of wrongdoing; and if he does not punish him he is himself a wrongdoer. In punishing him the judge is not the cause either of the wrongdoing or of the vengeance taken against the wrongdoer, the cause being the wrongdoer's freely chosen actions. Thus too God, Who saw what was going to happen as if it had already happened, judged it as if it had taken place; and if it was evil, that was the cause of its being punished. It was God Who created man, so of course he created him in goodness; but man did evil of his own free choice, and is himself the cause of the vengeance that overtakes him."[2]

      Again, St. Photius the Great writes: “Let us comprehend the depths of the Master’s clemency. He gave death as a punishment, but through His own death He transformed it as a gate to immortality. It was a resolution of anger and displeasure, but it announces the consummate goodness of the Judge…”[3]

      Thus the truth is more complex than Kalomiros would have it. Death is both a punishment and, through Christ’s own Death and Resurrection, a deliverance from death. It is both judgement and mercy. Nor could it be otherwise; for God is both love and justice. As St. John of the Ladder says, He is called justice as well as love.[4]

      Turning now to the question of eternal torments, we note that Kalomiros does not deny their existence, but denies that they are inflicted by God because “God never punishes” (p. 19). Rather, they are self-inflicted. “After the Common Resurrection there is no question of any punishment from God. Hell is not a punishment from God but a self-condemnation. As Saint Basil the Great says, ‘The evils in hell do not have God as their cause, but ourselves.’” (p. 16).

      Kalomiros here follows Romanides in confusing two very different things: the crime of the criminal, and the sentence of the judge. If the judge sentences the criminal to prison for his crime, it is obvious that the primary cause of the criminal’s being in prison is his own criminal actions: it is the criminal himself who is ultimately responsible for his miserable condition – this is clearly the point that St. Basil is making. Nevertheless, it is equally obvious that the judge, too, has a hand in the matter. It is he who decides both whether the criminal is guilty or innocent, and the gentleness or severity of the sentence. In other words, there are two actors and two actions involved here, not one.

      Kalomiros also confuses the free acts of the criminal and his involuntary submission to his sentence. Thus, corrupting the words of Christ in Matthew 25.41, he writes: “Depart freely from love to the everlasting torture of hate” (p. 20). But the sinners do not freely depart into the everlasting fire! On the contrary, they “gnash their teeth” there, witnessing, as the Fathers explain, to their fierce anger and rejection of the justice of their punishment. We may agree that they have been brought to this plight by their own sinful acts, freely committed. But they do not freely and willingly accept the punishment of those acts! The God-seer Moses and the Apostle Paul were willing to be cast away from God for the sake of the salvation of their brethren, the Jews – here we see the free acceptance of torture and punishment, but out of love. Those condemned at the Last Judgement, however, will be quite unlike these saints, and will be cast against their will into the eternal fire.

     Again, Kalomiros distorts the nature of heaven and hell. In a characteristically modernist, rationalist manner he reduces them to psychological states only: a state of supreme joy and love enlightened by the fire of God’s grace, on the one hand, and a state of the most abject misery and hatred, burned but not enlightened by the fire of God’s grace, on the other. “This is hell: the negation of love; the return of hate for love; bitterness at seeing innocent joy; to be surrounded by love and to have hate in one’s heart. This is the eternal condition of all the damned. They are all dearly loved. They are all invited to the joyous banquet. They are all living in God’s Kingdom, in the New Earth and the New Heavens. No one expels them. Even if they wanted to go away they could not flee from God’s New Creation, nor hide from God’s tenderly loving omnipresence…” (p. 20).

     Like all heretics, Kalomiros mixes truth with falsehood. So let us first freely admit what is true in his account. It is true that a large part of the torment of hell will be psychological: the hatred and bitterness that continues to seethe in the sinner’s heart – together with remorse, shame and the most soul-destroying despair. It is also true that that bitterness will be exarcebated by the thought of the “innocent joy” of the blessed in Paradise. It is true, furthermore, that in a certain sense it is precisely God’s love that torments the sinners in hell. For, as Archbishop Theophan of Poltava writes: “In essence the wrath of God is one of the manifestations of the love of God, but of the love of God in its relation to the moral evil in the heart of rational creatures in general, and in the heart of man in particular.”[5]

     However, it is stretching traditional theological understanding far too far to say that those condemned in the eternal fire of gehenna are at the same time “all living in God’s Kingdom, in the New Earth and the New Heavens”! There is no place for the damned in God’s Kingdom! As was revealed to St. John in the last chapter of Revelation: “Blessed are they that do His commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. For outside are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie” (22.14-15). In other words, the New Earth and the New Heavens, Paradise and the City of God, will not be accessible to the condemned sinners; they will not be living there! Nor is it true that even the damned will be “invited to the joyful banquet” and that “no-one will expel them”. In this life, yes, even sinners are invited to the joyful banquet of communion with God in the Church. But on the last Day, when the sinner is found naked of grace, the King will say to His servants: “Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness: there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 22.13).

      God is not as passive as Kalomiros makes out. He acts – and acts to expel the unrepentant sinner from His presence. Thus to the “inner darkness” of the sinner’s hate-filled, graceless soul will be added the “outer darkness” of the place that is gehenna, where the river of fire will consume his body as well as his soul. This outer aspect of the eternal torments appears to have been ignored by Kalomiros in his over-psychological, over-abstract and over-sophisticated understanding of the torments of hell. And if he were to object: “There is no space or time as we understand it in the life of the age to come”, we may reply: “As we understand it, in our present fallen and limited state - yes. And yet we cannot get rid of the categories of space and time altogether. Only God is completely beyond space and time. The idea of a body burning in hell is incomprehensible if it is not burning somewhere. Nor is the idea of our earth being transfigured into Paradise comprehensible if it not located in any kind of space…”

      Kalomiros makes all these distortions of Holy Scripture because he fails to distinguish between the two kinds of Divine punishment or judgement. He refuses to admit that God punishes, not only pedagogically, to correct and rehabilitate the sinner, but also retributively, as a pure expression of His justice. Since retributive punishment does not lead to the rehabilitation of the sinner, he considers it pointless and cruel, and therefore unworthy of God. In other words, he sees no value in justice in itself, independently of its possible pedagogical or therapeutic effect.

      And yet Holy Scripture is full of the idea of retributive justice as being the norm of existence, proceeding from the very nature of God. Thus: “To them there is no requital, because they have not feared God; He hath stretched forth His hand in retribution” (Psalm 54.22). And again: “The Lord is the God of vengeances; the God of vengeances hath spoken openly. Be Thou exalted, O Thou that judgest the earth; render the proud their due” (Psalm 93.1-2; cf. Psalm 98.8; Isaiah 34.8; Jeremiah 50.15, 51.6; II Thessalonians 1.8). And again: “They [the martyrs] cried with a loud voice, saying: How long, O Lord, holy and true, doest Thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6.10). It goes without saying that in none of these quotations are God or the saints understood as being vengeful in a crudely human and sinful manner, as if they were possessed by a fallen passion of anger. As the Venerable Bede writes: "The souls of the righteous cry these things, not from hatred of enemies, but from love of justice."[6] So the desire that justice should be done is by no means necessarily sinful; it may be pure, proceeding not from the fallen passion of anger, but from the pure love of justice. Indeed, when the Lord says: “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay” (Romans 12.19), He is not saying that justice should not be desired, but that it should be sought, not through the exercise of the fallen human passions, but through God, Who acts with the most perfect and passionless impartiality.

      Even St. Basil the Great, upon whom Kalomiros relies so heavily, does not deny the idea of retributive justice in God – and precisely in the context of the river of fire. As he writes, commenting on the verse: “The voice of the Lord divideth the flame of fire” (Psalm 28.6): “The fire prepared in punishment for the devil and his angels is divided by the voice of the Lord. Thus, since there are two capacities in fire, one of burning and the other of illuminating, the fierce and punitive property of the fire may await those who deserve to burn, while its illuminating and radiant part may be reserved for the enjoyment of those who are rejoicing.”[7]

      So the river of fire is punitive – for “those who deserve to burn”. And it is punitive in a retributive sense, as expressing the pure love of justice that is part of the nature of God. Of course, God longs to have mercy even on the most inveterate sinner. But if that sinner does not wish to believe and repent, He wills that the sinner should be punished - even though the punishment can have no rehabilitative effect…

      Another ardent proponent of the new soteriology in relation to the last things, is the new calendarist Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware). He is openly Origenist, and in his exposition shows that the modern denial of the retributive justice of God goes back to Origen. Let us examine his argument more closely…

      Ware claims that while some passages of Holy Scripture clearly teach that many will burn in the flames of gehenna for ever and ever, there are others which promise the salvation of all. “It is important, therefore, to allow for the complexity of the Scriptural evidence. It does not all point in the same direction, but there are two contrasting strands. Some passages present us with a challenge. God invites but does not compel. I possess freedom of choice: am I going to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the divine invitation? The future is uncertain. To which destination am I personally bound? Might I perhaps be shut out from the wedding feast? But there are other passages which insist with equal emphasis upon divine sovereignty. God cannot be ultimately defeated. ‘All shall be well’, and in the end God will indeed be ‘all in all’. Challenge and sovereignty: such are the two strands in the New Testament, and neither strand should be disregarded.”[8]

      And yet Ware clearly believes in the second strand, and not the first. The first group of quotations he calls “challenging”, although these passages do not issue a challenge but state a fact: many will be damned for ever. As for the second, much smaller group, this he misinterprets.

     Let us take I Corinthians 15.28: “When all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will be subject to Him Who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.” St. John Chrysostom understands this passage as follows: “What is: ‘that God may be all in all’? That all things may be dependent on Him, that nobody may suppose two beginningless authorities, nor another kingdom separated off; that is, that nothing may exist independent of Him.”[9] There is nothing here about universal salvation…

      Again, Blessed Theodoret writes: “In the future life, when corruption has come to an end and immortality been given, there will be no place for the passions, and after the final expulsion of the passions not one form of sin will have any effect. Then God will dwell in everyone in a fuller, more perfect way.”[10] So the Divine sovereignty is expressed, not in the salvation of all men, but in the complete sanctification and deification of all those who are saved.

      Ware’s other “salvation of all” quotation is Romans 11.32: “God has imprisoned all in disobedience, that He may be merciful to all”. But St. John Chrysostom writes: “’God has imprisoned all in disobedience’. That is, He brought them to the proof. He showed them forth as disobedient; but not in order that they might remain in disobedience, but that He might save the one [the Jews] through its rivalry with the other [the Gentiles] – the former through the latter, and the latter through the former.”[11] Again, the Apostle is not speaking here about universal salvation, but about how God in His wonderful Providence uses the rivalry between the Jews and the Gentiles in order to save as many as possible from both.

      Ware now turns from Scripture to Church history, and discusses the heretic Origen, whose teaching on the apocatastasis, or restoration of all things and all men, was anathematized at the Fifth Ecumenical Council as follows: “If anyone maintains the mythical pre-existence of souls, and the monstrous apocatastasis that follows from this, let him be anathema.” This should be enough for anyone who believes in the authority of the Seven Ecumenical Councils: the doctrine of apocatastasis is heretical and under anathema. But Ware tries to get round this by pointing out that the anathema “does not only speaks about apocatastasis but links together two aspects of Origen’s theology: first, his speculations about the beginning, that is to say, about the pre-existence of souls and the precosmic fall; second, his teaching about the end, about universal salvation and the ultimate reconciliation of all things. Origen’s eschatology is seen as following directly from his protology, and both are rejected together… Suppose, however, that we separate his eschatology from his protology; suppose that we abandon all speculations about the realm of eternal logikoi [rational intellects existing prior to the conception of the eternal world]; suppose that we simply adhere to the standard Christian view whereby there is no pre-existence of the soul, but each new person comes into being as an integral unity of soul and body, at… the moment of the conception of the embryo within the mother’s womb. In this way we could advance a doctrine of universal salvation – affirming this, not as a logical certainty (indeed, Origen never did that), but as a heartfelt aspiration, a visionary hope – which would avoid the circularity of Origen’s view and so would escape the condemnation of the anti-Origen anathemas.”[12]

      However, Ware’s and Origen’s “visionary hope” is dashed by the sober and penetrating vision of the faith of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. First, the Fifth Ecumenical Council calls Origen’s doctrine of apocatastasis “monstrous” – which it would hardly do if it were true in itself, independently of the teaching of the doctrine of the pre-existence of souls. This being the case, the “visionary hope” of universal salvation may be “heartfelt” (although “the heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17.9)), but it is undoubtedly false, and therefore harmful. Hope that is not based on true faith, but on a false vision of reality, is a form of spiritual deception, and must be rejected. It is possible to “hope against hope”, that is, hope for something that looks impossible according to a secular, scientific point of view but is possible for Almighty God; but to hope against – that is, in direct contradiction to – the doctrines of the faith, can never be justified.

      Nothing daunted, Ware continues to expound the Origenist teaching: “The strongest point in Origen’s case for universalism is his analysis of punishment. We may summarize his view by distinguishing three primary reasons that have been advanced to justify the infliction of punishment.

      “First, there is the retributive argument. Those who have done evil, it is claimed, themselves deserve to suffer in proportion to the evil that they have done. Only so will the demands of justice be fulfilled: ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ (Exodus 21.24). But in the Sermon on the Mount Christ explicitly rejects this principle (Matthew 5.38). If we humans are forbidden by Christ to exact retribution in this way from our fellow humans, how much more should we refrain from attributing vindictive and retributive behaviour to God. It is blasphemous to assert that the Holy Trinity is vengeful. In any case, it seems contrary to justice that God should inflict infinite punishment for what is only a finite amount of wrongdoing.”[13]

      In accusing others of blasphemy here, Ware undoubtedly falls into blasphemy himself. As we have seen, God is the God of vengeances. In the Sermon on the Mount He forbids men to take vengeance because in men the laudable desire for justice is mixed with the sinful passion of hatred. But God is able to do what men cannot do, with perfect freedom from sinful passion. That is why “vengeance is Mine, saith the Lord; I will repay” – an Old Testament text (Deuteronomy 32.35) that is twice quoted by New Testament authors (Romans 12.19; Hebrews 10.30). In saying that the Orthodox who believe in eternal torments “attribute vindictive and retributive behaviour to God”, Ware slanders the Orthodox by confusing the sinful passion of “vindictiveness” with the laudable longing for “retribution”, the natural and God-implanted desire that everybody should get their just deserts in the end.

      Of course, there are modern heretics who deny that there is any laudable longing for retribution. Following the fashionable “science” of psychoanalysis, they ascribe any such longing to neurotic illness. Thus Fr. John Romanides says: “Should we identify religion with the final victory of universal justice? Are we obligated to have religion because there must be a God of justice Who will ultimately judge all mankind so that the unjust will be punished in Hell and the just (in other words, good boys and girls) will be rewarded in Heaven? If our answer is yes, then we must have religion so that justice will ultimately prevail and the human longing for happiness will be fulfilled. Is it conceivable for good boys and girls to be unhappy after their death in the life to come? It is inconceivable. And if they were wronged in this life, is it possible for these good boys and girls who suffered unjustly to receive no justice in the next life? It is impossible. And in Heaven shouldn’t they lead a pleasant life, a life of happiness? Of course, they should. But for all this to happen, life after death has to exist as well as a good and righteous God Who will settle the score with good and just judgement. Isn’t that how things stand? He has to exist, at least according to the worldview of Western theology in the Middle Ages.

     “But then modern psychology comes along and discredits all of this. Modern psychology tells us that these views are products of the mind, because human beings have an inner sense of justice, which calls for naughty boys and girls to be punished and good boys and girls to be rewarded. And since compensation fails to take place in this life, the human imagination projects this idea into another life where it must take place. This is why someone who feels vulnerable becomes religious and believes in his religion’s doctrines. It also applies to someone who is devoted to justice and has profound and earnest feelings about what is right. They both believe, because the doctrinal teaching that they have accepted satisfies their psychological need for justice to be done. Their reasons are not based on philosophy or metaphysics but on purely psychological considerations…”[14]

      What a slander against the holy apostles, prophets and martyrs, who all longed for the final triumph of truth and justice! The Lord came “to proclaim good news to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to preach liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to declare the acceptable year of the Lord, the day of recompense” (Isaiah 61.1-2). The whole burden of the Old Testament Prophets was an impassioned, yet holy lament against the injustice of man against God and against his fellow man, and a longing for the day of recompense when justice will be done by “the God of justice” (Malachi 2.17).

      But “modern psychology”, says Romanides, has proved that the longing for that day is a projection of the human imagination, merely the expression of a (fallen) need! What then of those martyrs under the heavenly altar who cry out with a loud voice: “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6.10). Is their cry based “on purely psychological considerations”? Is their faith and hope founded on a medieval worldview? Are they not deified saints in the Kingdom of heaven and so not in need of any “purely psychological” gratification? If even the saints in heaven cry out for justice and vengeance against evil, this shows that the love of justice is an essential part of holiness and in no way a subject for pseudo-psychological reductionism…

      Returning now to Ware and his argument that finite sins do not merit infinite punishment, we are tempted to ask: “Shall mortal man be more just than God?” (Job 4.17). How can Ware dare to contest the judgement of God? In any case, St. John Chrysostom writes: - "Do not say to me, 'How is the balance of justice preserved if the punishment has no end?' When God does something, obey His demand and do not submit what has been said to human reasoning. In any case, is it not in fact just that one who has received countless good things from the beginning, has then done things worthy of punishment, and has not reformed in response either to threats or to kindness, should be punished? If it is justice you are after, we ought all on the score of justice to have perished at the very outset. Indeed even that would have fallen short of the measure of mere justice. For if a man insults someone who never did him any wrong, it is a matter of justice that he be punished. But what if he insults his Benefactor, Who without having received any favour from him in the first place, has done countless things for him - in this case the One Who was the sole source of his existence, Who is God, Who endowed him with a soul, Who gave him countless other gifts and purposed to bring him to heaven? If after so many favours, he not only insults Him but insults Him daily by his conduct, can there be any question of deserving pardon?

      "Do you not see how He punished Adam for a single sin? 'Yes', you will say, 'but He had given him paradise and made him the recipient of very great kindness.' And I reply that it is not at all the same thing for a man in the tranquil possession of security to commit a sin and for a man in the midst of affliction to do so. The really terrible thing is that you sin when you are not in paradise but set amidst the countless evils of this present life, and that all this misery has not made you any more sensible. It is like a man who continues his criminal behaviour in prison. Moreover you have the promise of something even greater than paradise. He has not given it to you yet, so as not to make you soft at a time when there is a struggle to be fought, but neither has He been silent about it, lest you be cast down by all your labours.

      "Adam committed one sin, and brought on total death. We commit a thousand sins every day. If by committing a single sin he brought such terrible evil on himself and introduced death into the world, what should we, who live continually in sin, expect to suffer - we who in place of paradise have the expectation of heaven? This is a burdensome message; it does upset the man who hears it. I know, because I feel it myself. I am disturbed by it; it makes me quake. The clearer the proofs I find of this message of hell, the more I tremble and melt with fear. But I have to proclaim it so that we may not fall into hell. What you received was not paradise or trees and plants, but heaven and the good things in the heavens. He who had received the lesser gift was punished and no consideration exempted him; we have been given a greater calling and we sin more. Are we not bound to suffer things beyond all remedy?

      "Consider how long our race has been subject to death on account of a single sin. More than five thousand years have passed and the death due to a single sin has not yet been ended. In Adam's case we cannot say that he had heard prophets or that he had seen others being punished for their sins so that he might reasonably have been afraid and learnt prudence if only from the example of others. He was the first and at that time the only one; yet he was still punished. But you cannot claim any of these things. You have had numerous examples, but you only grow worse; you have been granted the great gift of the Spirit, but you go on producing not one or two or three but countless sins. Do not think that because the sins are committed in one brief moment the punishment therefore will also be a matter of a moment. You can see how it is often the case that men who have committed a single theft or a single act of adultery which has been done in a brief moment of time have had to spend all their lives in prison or in the mines, continually battling with hunger and every kind of death. No one lets them off, or says that since the crime was committed in a brief moment the punishment should match the crime in the length of time it takes.

      "'People do act like that,' you may say, 'but they are men, whereas God is loving towards mankind.' Yes, but even the men who act in this way do not do so out of cruelty but out of love for mankind. So since God is loving to mankind He too will deal with sin in this way. 'As great as is His mercy, so great also is His reproof' (Sirach 16.12). So when you speak of God as loving towards mankind, you are actually supplying me with a further reason for punishment, in the fact that the One against Whom we sin is such as this. That is the point of Paul's words: 'It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God' (Hebrews 10.31). I ask you to bear with these words of fire. Perhaps, yes, perhaps they may bring you some consolation. What man can punish as God has been known to punish? He caused a flood and the total destruction of the human race; a little later He rained down fire from on high and utterly destroyed them all. What human retribution can compare with that? Do you not recognise that even this case of punishment is virtually endless? Four thousand years have passed and the punishment of the Sodomites is still in full force. As His loving kindness is great, so also is His punishment..."[15]

      Ware continues: “The second line of [Origen’s] argument insists upon the need for a deterrent. It is only the prospect of hell-fire, it is said, that holds us back from evil-doing. But why then, it may be asked, do we need an unending, everlasting punishment to act as an effective deterrent? Would it not be sufficient to threaten prospective malefactors with a period of painful separation from God that is exceedingly prolonged, yet not infinite? In any case, it is only too obvious, especially in our day, that the threat of hell-fire is almost totally ineffective as a deterrent. If in our preaching of the Christian faith, we hope to have any significant influence on others, then what we need is not a negative but a positive strategy: let us abandon ugly threats, and attempt rather to evoke people’s sense of wonder and their capacity for love.”[16]

      Again, Ware’s lack of agreement with the Holy Fathers is evident. St. John Chrysostom says: “I have to proclaim hell so that we may not fall into it.” But Ware, giving in to the prevailing Zeitgeist, prefers to talk about love – although love without justice is mere sentimentality. The truth is that he does not want to preach hell because he does not believe in it; it is no deterrent for him, so he cannot try and make it a deterrent for others. But the true pastor is called to preach “in season and out of season”, whether people want to hear his message or not. And if he has real faith, and the fire of the Holy Spirit, then his word about the fire of gehenna will be believed.

      Ware goes on: “There remains the reformative understanding of punishment, which Origen considered to be the only view that is morally acceptable. Punishment, if it is to possess moral value, has to be not merely retaliatory or dissuasive but remedial. When parents inflict punishment on their children, or the state on criminals, their aim should always be to heal those whom they punish and to change them for the better. And such, according to Origen, is precisely the purpose of the punishments inflicted upon us by God; He acts always ‘as our physician’. A doctor may sometimes be obliged to employ extreme measures which cause agony to his patients. (This was particularly so before the use of anaesthetics.) He may cauterize a wound or amputate a limb. But this is always done with a positive end in view, so as to bring about the patients’ eventual recovery and restoration to health. So it is with God, the physician of our souls. He may inflict suffering upon us, both in this life and after our death; but always He does this out of tender love and with a positive purpose, so as to cleanse us from our sins, to purge and heal us. In Origen’s words, ‘The fury of God’s vengeance avails to the purging of our souls’.

      “Now, if we adopt this reformative and therapeutic view of punishment – and this is the only reason for inflicting punishment that can worthily be attributed to God – then surely such punishments should not be unending. If the aim of punishment is to heal, then once the healing has been accomplished there is no need for the punishment to continue. If, however, the punishment is supposed to be everlasting, it is difficult to see how it can have any remedial or educative purpose. In a never-ending hell there is no escape and therefore no healing, and so the infliction of punishment in such a hell is pointless and immoral. This third understanding of punishment, therefore, is incompatible with the notion of perpetual torment in hell; it requires us, rather, to think in terms of some kind of purgatory after death. But in that case this purgatory should be envisaged as a house of healing, not a torture chamber; as a hospital, not a prison. Here, in his grand vision of God as the cosmic physician, Origen is at his most convincing…”[17]

      In other words, according to Origen and Ware, there is no such thing as retributive justice in God: His justice is at all times purely reformative or pedagogical or therapeutic. As Ware writes: “His justice is nothing other than His love. When He punishes, His purpose is not to requite but to heal.”[18]

      But if there is no such thing as just desert or requital, even the concept of mercy makes no sense. For mercy does not involve the rejection of the profoundly scriptural principle that sin must be paid for in one way or another, by one person or another, and that what we sow we must reap. It is the balancing of this (just) claim by another, equally powerful and just one. If the concept of just desert did not exist, then it would make no sense for a sinner to say: “I have sinned; I deserve to be punished”. The true attitude is to recognize the claims of justice while pleading for mercy. This is the attitude of the Prodigal Son: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before Thee, and am no longer worthy to be called Thy son. Make me as one of Thy hired servants.” (Luke 15.18-19). The son recognized the claims of justice, which required that he be demoted from the status of sonship. And the Father had mercy on him, restoring him to sonship, precisely because the son recognized that he was not worthy of it, because he recognized the claims of justice. The same is true of the good thief on the cross, who was forgiven because he recognized that he was being justly punished. Thus his recognition of retributive justice was the condition of his punishment becoming pedagogical and therapeutic… It follows that mercy is possible only in and through the recognition of justice. But to abolish justice by identifying it with love is to abolish repentance and therefore the possibility of salvation…

      The philosopher Immanuel Kant, though also a heretic, was much closer to the truth than Origen in this respect. He wrote: “Judicial punishment can never be used merely as a means to promote some other good for the criminal himself or for civil society, but instead it must in all cases be imposed on him only on the ground that he has committed a crime.”[19] In other words, if the guilty are not punished, justice is not done; crime is punished because that is just, not because it is therapeutic or useful. This is not an argument against mercy or clemency (or therapy). It is the argument that mercy or clemency make no sense if the prior claims of justice are not recognized…

      Another modern philosopher, C.S. Lewis, called the pedagogical view of justice “the Humanitarian theory”, contrasting it with “the Retributive theory”. He argued that the Humanitarian theory is not really about justice at all since it removes the crucial concept of “desert”, that is, degree of guilt or innocence: “The Humanitarian theory removes from Punishment the concept of Desert. But the concept of Desert is the only connecting link between punishment and justice. It is only as deserved or undeserved that a sentence can be just or unjust. I do not here contend that the question ‘Is it deserved?’ is the only one we can reasonably ask about a punishment. We may very properly ask whether it is likely to deter others and to reform the criminal. But neither of these two last questions is a question about justice. There is no sense in talking about a ‘just deterrent’ or a ‘just cure’. We demand of a deterrent not whether it is just but whether it will deter. We demand of a cure not whether it is just but whether it succeeds. Thus when we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, we now have a mere object, a patient, a ‘case’.”[20]

      Lewis goes on to make the important point that the application of the Humanitarian Theory may actually lead to much crueller and less humane results for the criminal than the old retributive theory. For on this view “the offender should, of course, be detained until he was cured. And of course the official straighteners are the only people who can say when that is. The first result of the Humanitarian theory is, therefore, to substitute for a definite sentence (reflecting to some extent the community’s moral judgement on the degree of ill-desert involved) an indefinite sentence terminable only by the word of those experts – and they are not experts in moral theology or even in the Law of Nature – who inflict it. Which of us, if he stood in the dock, would not prefer to be tried by the old system?”[21]

     Lewis continues his argument in an almost prophetic manner (he was writing in 1949) when we look at the ravages of Soviet psychiatry or the western “nanny state” in recent times. “It is, indeed, important to notice that my argument so far supposes no evil intentions on the part of the Humanitarian and considers only what is involved in the logic of his position. My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting upon that position would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell on earth. Their very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals. But to be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we ‘ought to have known better’, is to be treated as a human person made in God’s image.

      “In reality, however, we must face the possibility of bad rulers armed with a Humanitarian theory of punishment. A great many popular blue-prints for a Christian society are merely what the Elizabethans called ‘eggs in moonshine’ because they assume that the whole society is Christian or that the Christians are in control. This is not so in most contemporary States. Even if it were, our rulers would still be fallen men, and, therefore, neither very wise nor very good. As it is, they will usually be unbelievers. And since wisdom and virtue are not the only or the commonest qualifications for a place in government, they will not often be even the best unbelievers. The practical problem of Christian politics is not that of drawing up schemes for a Christian society, but that of living as innocently as we can with unbelieving fellow-subjects under unbelieving rulers who will never be perfectly wise and good and who will sometimes be very wicked and very foolish. And when they are wicked the Humanitarian theory of punishment will put in their hands a finer instrument of tyranny than wickedness ever had before. For if crime and disease are to be regarded as the same thing, it follows that any state of mind which our masters choose to call ‘disease’ can be treated as crime, and compulsorily cured. It will be vain to please that states of mind which displease government need not always involve moral turpitude and do not therefore always deserve forfeiture of liberty. Our masters will not be using the concepts of Desert and Punishment but those of disease and cure. We know that one school of psychology already regards religion as a neurosis. When this particular neurosis becomes inconvenient to government, what is to hinder government from proceeding to ‘cure’ it? Such ‘cure’ will, of course, be compulsory; but under the Humanitarian theory it will not be called by the shocking name of Persecution. No one will blame us for being Christian, no one will hate us, no one will revile us. The new Nero will approach us with the silky manners of a doctor… And thus when the command is given, every prominent Christian in the land may vanish overnight into Institutions for the Treatment of the Ideologically Unsound, and it will rest with the expert gaolers to say when (if ever) they are to re-emerge. But it will not be persecution. Even if the treatment is painful, even if it is life-long, even if it is fatal, theat will be only a regrettable accident; the intention was purely therapeutic…”[22]

      Returning now to the Humanitarian or Pedagogical theory in relation to God’s justice: to identify the concepts of “justice” and “love” is radically to distort the meaning of two of the most important words in the vocabulary of theology. Earlier we quoted St. John of the Ladder: “He is called justice as well as love.”[23] Now this statement would have no weight if “justice” and “love” were identical in God. It has weight because it tells us that there are in God two moral principles or energies that cannot be identified with each other, and of which the one cannot be reduced to the other.[24] God is always and in all things supremely just and righteous. He is also supremely merciful and loving. But His mercy does not contradict His justice. It only seems to – to those who do not understand the mystery of the Cross.

      For on the Cross “mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalm 84.10). That is to say, as Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow says, “while love for God ‘lifts the Son of man from the earth’ (John 12.32 and 34), love for man opens the embraces of the Son of God for the earthborn, these opposing strivings of love intersect, dissolve into each other, balance each other and make of themselves that wonderful heart of the Cross, on which forgiving ‘mercy’ and judging ‘truth meet together’, God’s ‘righteousness’ and man’s ‘peace kiss each other’, through which heavenly ‘truth is sprung up out of the earth, and righteousness’ no longer with a threatening eye ‘hath looked down from heaven. Yea, for the Lord will give goodness, and our land shall yield her fruit’ (Psalm 84.11-13).”[25]

      On the Cross Christ took on Himself the whole burden of the just punishment of sinners, thereby making it possible for Him to have mercy on all and restore peace between God and man while satisfying the claims of justice. As a result, all those justly imprisoned in hades since the time of the fall were released and restored again to Paradise – if they believed in the preaching of the Cross. This was the triumph of love – but in and through the triumph of justice…

      The element of truth in Ware’s argument is that in His Providence towards us God very often does mix punishment with therapy, justice with healing. In this way He gives men the opportunity and the time to repent, administering chastisements that bring sinners to see the error of their ways. Indeed, it is the true sons of God who receive the most “therapeutical punishment”: “My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth” (Hebrews 12.5-6).

      But the therapy succeeds only if the sinner comes to see that he is being justly punished for his sins. Moreover, the opportunity to repent through suffering is not offered forever; “for why should you continue to be struck, since you continue in lawlessness?” (Isaiah 1.5). The time for repentance is strictly limited to this earthly life; “for in death there is none that is mindful of Thee, and in hades who will confess Thee?” (Psalm 6.4). After death, we cannot be saved by our own repentance, but only by the prayers of the Church, which God does not allow to be offered for all men (Ezekiel 14.14; I John 5.16)… In any case, at the very end “there will be time (as we know it) no longer” (Revelation 10.6), and so there will also no longer be change. For time is the medium of change and therefore of repentance…

Vladimir Moss.

June 29 / July 12, 201; revised March 2/15, 2012.


[1] Fr. Milorad Loncar (ed.), Missionary Letters of Saint Nikolai Velimirovich, Grayslake, Il.: Ne Gracanica Monastery, 2008, part 1, Letter 51, pp. 92-93.

[2] St. John of Damascus, Dialogue against the Manichaeans, 37.

[3] St. Photius, Letter 3, to Eusebia, nun and monastic superior, on the death of her sister; translated by Despina Stratoudaki White.

[4] St. John of the Ladder, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 24.23.

[5] Archbishop Theophan, On Redemption.

[6] St. Bede, On Genesis 4.10.

[7]St. Basil, On Psalm 28.6.

[8]Ware, “Dare we hope for the salvation of all?” in The Inner Kingdom, Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000, p. 197.

[9]St. John Chrysostom, Homily 39, P.G. 61:372.

[10] Blessed Theodoret, in Bishop Theophan, Tolkovanie Poslanij sv. Apostola Pavla (Interpretation of the Epistles of the Holy Apostle Paul), Moscow, 2002, p. 208.

[11]St. John Chrysostom, Homily 19, P.G. 60:652.

[12]Ware, op. cit., pp. 199-200, 200-201.

[13]Ware, op. cit., p. 203.

[14] Romanides, Patristic Theology, Dalles, Origen: Uncut Mountain Press, 2008, pp. 61-62.

[15]St. John Chrysostom, Homily IX on Corinthians, 1-3. Translated in Maurice Wiles & Mark Santer (eds.) Documents in Early Christian Thought, Cambridge University Press, 1977.

[16] Ware, op. cit., pp. 203-204.

[17] Ware, op. cit., pp. 204-205.

[18] Ware, op. cit., p. 213.

[19]Kant, The  Metaphysical Elements of Justice.

[20] Lewis, “The Humanitarian Theory of Justice”, in Compelling Reason, London: Fount, 1987, p. 128.

[21] Lewis, op. cit., p. 130.

[22] Lewis, op. cit., pp. 133-134.

[23]St. John of the Ladder, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 24.23.

[24]The distinction between the two principles is particularly clear in this text from St. Ephraim the Syrian: "Weigh our repentance, that it may outbalance our crimes! But not in even balance, ascends either weight; for our crimes are heavy and manifold, and our repentance is light. He had commanded that we should be sold for our debt: His mercy became our advocate; principle and increase, we repaid with the farthing, which our repentance proffered. Ten thousand talents for that little payment, our debt He forgave us. He was bound to exact it, that He might appease His justice: He was constrained again to forgive, that He might make His grace to rejoice. Our tears for the twinkling of an eye we gave Him; He satisfied His justice, in exacting and taking a little; He made His grace to rejoice, when for a little He forgave much." (The Nisibene Hymns).

[25]Metropolitan Philaret, “Sermon on Holy Friday (1816)”, The Works of Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow and Kolomna, Moscow, 1994, pp. 107-108 (in Russian); translated in Orthodox Life, March-April, 1992, pp. 2-10.

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