God’s Hand & Our Free Will

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On a rather old (2008) blog site I found yet another argument regarding apokatastasis (the doctrine that God will restore all Creation to its former pre-Fall glory). It is of interest to me because one of the participants is Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Bishop of Vienna and Austria.  The blog was about his discussion of St. Issac of Syria, given at the Catholic Church’s first World Congress on Divine Mercy. What makes this blog even more interesting is the presence of His Grace, Bishop Hilarion, in the comments section to clarify the discussion being held regarding apokatastasis and his comments at the World Council.  For those interested, you may read the comments here.

I wish to take issue with one comment in particular made in this series of statements:

“One further point: I can understand the wish to believe that everyone is saved. I think all of us agree on this: Hell is a dreadful doctrine, and it is very hard to wrap our minds around it.

But IMHO there truly is no way to posit the salvation of all without ruling out free will. And to rule out free will is to deny human dignity. If we are passive robots who will all be saved whether we like it or not, so to speak, then we are not fully, truly human.

IOW, it may seem kinder to veer toward universalism, but I would very respectfully suggest that it really isn’t. There is no true kindness involved in a belief that negates our human dignity (IMHO).”

Step by step, my response to this is:

  1. Not only is hell a dreadful doctrine, it casts a dreadful slander upon our loving heavenly Father to believe in some of the forms of hell which are so terribly popular among Catholics.  The lurid tales of Dante’s Inferno, the vivid descriptions of many of the modern Catholic “seers,” the ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas and Tertullian in which they claim that the saved will watch the torments of the damned and not only enjoy them, but they will add to the glory of God, these are all to me a perverse character assassination of the One whom the Bible says is love, as if love would initiate such tortures and keep them going forever for the enjoyment of those in heaven and the fulfilling of some bizarre idea of justice.

It is not only hard to wrap my mind around such a teaching, it is even harder to imagine that love would have anything to do with a punishment that goes far beyond what is required of justice to punish a man for his sins.  As one Orthodox writer, who is a Patristic Universalist, said of such a description of the torments of hell:  “You are not talking about Jesus. You are talking about Zeus!”

2.  The writer goes on to make the statement that God MUST respect our free will, and to not do so is to deny our human dignity.  Since I have a distinct dog in this fight, one that the writer may never have encountered, I feel I must respond to this.

If God had respected my free will, I would still be involved in a panoply of sins so disgusting and heinous that I will not mention them here.  Or I would now be long dead and gone from this world.  Given the severity of my wickedness and the insanity of my actions, I think probably the latter. Think of the Hippie Movement of the 1960’s and imagine every licentious, dirty, and wicked thing that the Movement promoted.  That was me, and that was my “free will choice,” so to speak.  I loved the sins of the flesh, I had declared myself an atheist, and I despised Christians. I wanted nothing at all to do with them or their Jesus.  That was my free will.  Go away God! Go away Christians!

So how did I come to the point of repenting and turning to Christ in sorrow for my sins? Did God overtake and remove my free will, eliciting from me a robotic response of repentance which He desired?  Was my will violated in such a manner that I had no choice but to do what I was told?

No, God simply let me “run out my string.”

There is a saying in the Twelve Steps book of AA which says that you cannot make an addict change until he has hit the bottom and is watching his last bubble of air float to the surface. That is exactly what God did with me, allowing me to, of my own “free will,” hit the bottom and realize that all the “fun” I was having was about to kill me. Far from the sense of carnal excitement I felt when I took my first hit of marijuana, my life had become, in four years of unrestrained hedonism,  a joyless tedium racked with sorrow and drug-induced psychosis. I was in deep trouble and I knew it, filled with suicidal thoughts but dreadfully scared of the black void which my atheism said was the ultimate end of man.  Of my own free will, I began an intense search for the garden gate which offered escape from this fool’s paradise into which I had eagerly dashed.  No one had to tell me it was get out or die – and no one was coercing me! I had come to the point that I knew it was the only option left for me.  Yet even then, I could have chosen to shake my fist at God and die.  I took the choice to live and began my search.

The gate out of my individual hell came in the shape of a cross.

Did God in any way violate my free will?  Or did He simply allow me to come to a point where the foolishness, the vanity, and the destructiveness of my choices could no longer be ignored, and the “joys” of unrestrained hedonism were not worth the price I was paying?

Do you see the point I am making?  The only objection that the writer really has is the idea that some come later – much later – than others. Every repentance, every Christian conversion comes about as a result of the awakening of the mind to the reality of God. Repentance – turning from ourselves to God – is the result. If God did not intervene to change our wills – bending them not by coercive force, but by bringing us to see ourselves as we truly are and Himself as the true desire of our hearts – we would never wish anything to do with Him.  Ever.  This is the very issue the Council of Orange dealt with in response to the Pelegian heresy, which says that man, left to himself, can find God.  He cannot.  God must intervene. He is the Prime Mover to whom we respond.

God moves first. Waits for our response. Maybe we do respond. But maybe we are set in our sins and find delight in them. God is patient and continues to move towards us, always moving first and waiting for our free will response.  Some few respond at an early age, even before they are teens.  Many more respond in their teens, twenties, thirties, forties….some on their deathbeds.

Some die unconvinced.

What do they find on the other side? Truth. The presence of Christ strips away every vain thought the soul has of itself and the carnal pleasures of sin. Sergius Bulgakov wrote that even the devil, when stripped of all that he has, will come to see himself as a nothing folding itself in on itself, and will thus come to realize the lie he believed  – that he could exist without relationship to God.

Bulgakov pictured Satan as being bitterly divided between the awareness of his angelic creaturely nature on the one hand and his false pretense to be the ‘prince of this world’ on the other hand. Bulgakov asked ‘Can Satan’s battle with himself become infinite (and in this sense “eternal”), a bad infinity? Or must Satan lose his strength in this battle and at some point lay down his arms in impotence? Bulgakov’s reply was that after Satan’s expulsion from the world his resources were bound to be exhausted by this internal contradiction, the prince of darkness would give in to the power of divine love in the end.

God’s limitless mercy and the sacrifice offered by Christ extend even into the realm of the demonic.

So it will be with the soul.  To see ourselves as nothing, stripped of all false pretense and ego so common in this world, is to come to a point in which the soul will desire, of its free will, to be united to Christ, no matter what in what manner it must suffer to achieve that end.  We were created to be “gods,” to share the divine nature. The alternative is nothingness. Who, of their own free will, would choose that over becoming all that God made us to be, no matter what the cost in purgative and restorative punishment in the fires of God’s love?

“Here Origen, like Bulgakov, emphasizes that the torment is caused by the internal conflict between what the soul has become in its revolt against God and what God had made it to be. Bulgakov also followed Origen and Gregory of Nyssa in stressing the purgative and therapeutic rather than the retributive dimension of this type of punishment.

For Bulgakov, the triumph of God’s will meant that in the resurrection rational creatures would no longer be able to choose between good and evil, but only between the different kinds of good. The progress towards evil would become impossible; only  the progress towards greater good, the passing ‘from glory to glory’ (2 Cor 3 18) would remain a possibility. Bulgakov insisted that such a state did not eliminate human freedom. On the contrary, freedom from evil is the greatest possible kind of freedom rational creatures can possess.”

“Blessed are they who have not seen, yet have believed.”  Why? Because we will miss the painful fires of God’s chastening love which will purge the sinner of all self-importance, all falsity, all ego, and make us desire – of our own free will – our true Home.


  1. Good post. We need to think outside the free-will box. Surely a good God would not create this good world knowing that a good portion of humanity (or even one) would irrevocably condemn themselves to eternal suffering and agony.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your kind words. I got the genesis for this post from reading a commentary on Sergius Bulgakov and his reflections on Apokatastasis.

      As for being Catholic, the only part of me that is Catholic is my body. My theology, my thinking, my praxis, and my liturgical norms are all Orthodox. For some reason, the Lord wishes me to stay in the Eastern Catholic Church I am in at this time, but I eschew any connection to Roman Catholicism, or in other words, I am NOT Catholic.

      My thoughts regarding the traditional response of Roman Catholics who resort to bringing up Constantinople II as their “proof” that this is a dead deal is to remind them that modern scholarship has, if I remember correctly, shown the existence of forgeries and other shenanigans done within this council. In addition, the canons which opposed Apokatastasis were added after the original condemnation of the Three Chapters by the insistence (probably at swordpoint) of the half-pagan emperor, Justinian.

      I don’t take my theology from a murderous, egomaniacal thug with visions of grandeur any more than I would take it from Hugh Hefner if he was still alive. If you are going to write on this issue, read all you an about the behavior of Emperor Justinian, both before the council and after. He was hardly a model of Christian leadership, charity, or virtue.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “…the existence of forgeries and other shenanigans done within this council. In addition, the canons which opposed Apokatastasis were added after the original condemnation of the Three Chapters by the insistence (probably at swordpoint) of the half-pagan emperor, Justinian.” Can you refer me to this scholarship? Thanks.


  2. Norman – go to Tentmaker.org. While this man is a most assured heretic, denying the Blessed Trinity, his historical information dovetails with a number of other publications I have read regarding the thug emperor Justinian and his messing with Constantinople II.

    I also recommend the writings of Fr. Aiden Kimmel here at WordPress. Look through his voluminous works present at this site for anything regarding the council.


  3. Excellent post – thanks for sharing this – but especially your own compelling story.
    The “libertarian free will defense” is at bottom a denial of reality; a mere philosophical thought experiment in misdirection – paper thin and insubstantial: we are not truly, fully free – until Christ sets us free!


  4. Thank you, a very interesting read.

    The “purgative and restorative fires of God’s love” is a Catholic conceptualisation we call purgatory which I thought Sister Orthodox rejected. Is this true of sister Orthodox too?
    Peace & All Good


    • There is a subtle difference in how the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches approach what is in essence the same experience after death – the final cleansing of the soul. In Roman Catholicism, everything is based on the idea of sin as a legal crime against God. Therefore, if you read older texts from the RC church on Purgatory, what is being done is making that final legal payment to God for the debt of our sins.This is why Indulgences popped up in the Medieval Church. In this mindset of paying off a debt from a crime, external payments could be brought to bear upon the sentence imposed upon the soul, thus shortening the time required to pay the debt to God. It is not about growth into holiness or a change of the soul. It is about legal forgiveness, which, if you think about it, is very strange. Luther caught this when he realized that if the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross was a legal payment for a crime, then in the sense of legal payment, all you had to do was believe (faith alone) and that payment would make a full restitution for any and all crimes(sins). You know what followed when he took this to its logical conclusion!

      No such understanding exists in Orthodoxy. In Orthodoxy, sin is dealt with as a sickness which affects the very ontological being of the person. Thus, the approach of cleansing after death is that of healing the soul by bringing it to a point where it changes in its ontological orientation. As indicated in my blog, I was brought to a point that sin was not only simply not attractive to me, but I realized it for what it truly is – my enemy and the source of all my unhappiness. My DESIRE was changed, slowly but surely, and continues to be worked on to this day. A saint, either here on earth or in heaven, is one whose desire has been healed from the sickness of finding sin attractive and desirable to seeing it for what it is – and correspondingly developing desire for that which is true and for which we were made. In this understanding, I cannot see how anyone but the holiest of monks on Mt. Athos are going to avoid some pain of being healed from those things that still cling to us, making us less than we are intended to be by God.

      I hope that makes sense. It is punishment vs healing.


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