Reconciling Tradition: Damnation and Apokatastasis

Tradition ensures that Christians believe and pray according to the mind of Jesus Christ. Christianity without Tradition is not possible and we know that we are Christians in so far as we receive what has been given. So much is obvious to those who are familiar with historic Christianity.

But questions still remain about the interpretation of Tradition whether it be found in the liturgies, the Fathers, the Scriptures, or traditional icons. There are times in the Church’s history where seemingly contradictory doctrines have been passed down leaving the theologians to hash out the contraries. There have been times when Christians have had to hold to doctrines which have no apparent reconciliation.

This does not mean that the faithful should throw up their hands in despair: “Well I guess it is a contradiction! I accept it anyway.” On the contrary, the Christian must at least implicitly hold that there is no absolute contradiction. One doctrine may appear to contradict another doctrine but that is due to our limited ability to see. In themselves all doctrines are reconcilable.

The dangers of accepting an absolute contradiction are many, but the point here is that we have to live with apparent contradictions. There is precedent for this in the history of the Church. The most obvious example is that of monotheism and trinitarianism. There is a real problem for the human mind to reconcile that God is absolutely One and yet absolutely Three. Anyone who speaks of these contrary positions as easily reconcilable betray a knowledge of both the history of Orthodoxy and theological distinctions. Only a cheap apologetic would pretend to reconcile these two absolutes by quoting certain Scriptures coupled with a few philosophical distinctions.

St. Thomas Aquinas, the Church’s greatest theologian, faced another apparent contradiction in the 13th century. In his attempt to reconcile traditional soteriology and mariology he proposed a false doctrine: Mary was not immaculately conceived. St. Thomas, understandably, could not see how Mary could both need a Savior and yet not be stained with some taint of sin from Adam. Holding the traditional doctrine that all need a Savior on the one hand and, on the other the hand, the doctrine that Mary is without sin, he compromised and fell into error. Mary needed a Savior. She needed Christ to save her from sin. Therefore Mary was not immaculately conceived. A seemingly logical conclusion. It was exactly false.

Of course we know that the Church’s doctrine of the immaculate conception was reconciled later with the understanding that Mary was saved by Christ before she was conceived. It is easy for us to accept this explanation now, but for thirteen hundred years this doctrine was seemingly irreconcilable with the soteriological necessity of Christ’s plan of redemption. It seemed an absolute contradiction and so one of the doctrines had to go. On the contrary, the proper response was to hold both apparent contradictory doctrines in tension with one another lest one truth be sacrificed to another truth.

The tensions are palpable with many of our doctrines. This is not because the Church’s doctrines are false or inconsistent, but, as I hope to explore in later posts, all doctrines fall short of who God is in His Nature. The mysteries of the Faith are beyond our minds’ capacity. They simply cannot be comprehended apart from the Beatific Vision. And these are not merely theoretical tensions. We also feel them on a practical level. Who has not felt the tension between the doctrines of providence, grace, and free will? Between God’s love and unbearable tragedy? Between the impassibility of God and the Incarnation? And so on. To think about these truths is to become aware of our inability to fully know any of them.

I propose that this is the same epistemological state we are in now regarding the doctrines of damnation and apokatastasis. Scripture and Tradition clearly state that many will be eternally damned in Hell. But Scripture and, at least some strands of Tradition (mainly the Eastern Fathers and the ancient liturgies) clearly state that Christ will reconcile all intellectual creatures and, consequently, all creation to the Father. Like St. Thomas, we cannot reconcile these apparent contradictory doctrines. Thus, many of us have sacrificed the doctrine of Christ’s cosmic reconciliation to the doctrine of eternal damnation. It has been an absolute contradiction in our minds.

I think it our Catholic duty to hold both doctrines at once: damnation and apokatastasis. The tension between these two doctrines should remind us that God is beyond all thought and all relation, as St. Maximus the Confessor and other Fathers have written. Safeguarding both doctrines we protect two other truths which must be held. First, that man is free and sin is our ruin. And, second, God is love and will bring all beings back to Himself. God is infinite love and man left to Himself is Hell. God alone is Love.

At this point, I do not know how to reconcile the apparent contradiction. J. Maritain and others have proposed ways of reconciling both doctrines. I appreciate their attempts because they demonstrates that saints (yes I believe J. Maritain is a saint!) feel this tension in their bones. They know both must be true without knowing how both are true. They knew that there is an eternal Hell and they knew that God would reconcile all beings to Himself. How this is to be, we do not yet know.

“These are only hints and guesses, hints followed by guesses; and the rest is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action. The hint half guessed, the gift half understood is Incarnation. Here the impossible union of spheres of existence is actual, here the past and future are conquered, and reconciled. . . . ” 
(T. S. Eliot Four Quartets; Dry Salvages)


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