ST. ISAAC THE SYRIAN 1
Unknown Author. If you know the author, please let me know.
The seventh-century mystic, Isaac the Syrian, known also as Isaac of Nineveh is, in the history of the Church, one of the most courageous supporters of the eschatological hope of universal salvation. This paper is based on three chapters devoted to the topic of Gehenna in ‘The Second Part’ of his writings discovered in the Bodleian Library in Oxford (1983), translated and published by S. Brock (1995)2.
INTERIOR AND OUTER MEANINGS OF THE SCRIPTURES
Isaac clearly distinguished between “interior” meanings of the Scripture narratives, on the one side, and their “outer meanings” and “bodily exterior,” on the other. This distinction gave him a deep insight into the symbolic meaning of eschatological images, warnings, and threats. What is striking in his comments is a deep understanding of the nature of the figurative language of the Bible. He was convinced that many figurative terms employed in the Scriptures are far removed from God’s true nature.
He often says that literal understanding of biblical texts about “eternal punishment” can lead only to regrettable misinterpretations of their meaning. To properly understand the “difficult matter of Gehenna”3 one needs the gift of spiritual knowledge, able to penetrate into the logic of the relationship between the “outer surface” of the biblical text and its inner meaning.
Just because (the terms) wrath, anger, hatred, and the rest are used of the Creator, we should not imagine that He (actually) does anything in anger or hatred or zeal. Many figurative terms are employed in the Scriptures of God, terms which are far removed from His (true) nature. And just as (our) rational nature has (already) become gradually more illuminated and wise in a holy understanding of the mysteries which are hidden in (Scripture’s) discourse about God – that we should not understand everything (literally) as it is written, but rather that we should see, (concealed) inside the bodily exterior of the narratives, the hidden providence and eternal knowledge which guides all – so too we shall in the future come to know and be aware of many things for which our present understanding will be seen as contrary to what it will be then; and the whole ordering of things yonder will undo any precise opinion we possess now in (our) supposition about Truth. For there are many, indeed endless, things which do not even enter our minds here, not even as promises of any kind4.
Isaac willingly makes use of long and involved sentences. His complex syntax may baffle the reader, but the content is straightforward. Perhaps only today are we able to appreciate his long-sighted wisdom and deep insights. Symbolic images of the Bible cannot be interpreted as factual statements. What particularly strikes me is his acute awareness, that our terms, concepts and images are not adequate to the invisible reality, even if we are gradually able to better perceive divine mysteries. The disproportion is so great that we cannot imagine many things, even in the form of promises.
The symbolic and apocalyptic images of the Bible should not be interpreted as future eschatological facts and events. One should not understand everything literally, “as it is written”. Isaac resolutely rejects what he calls an “infantile way of thinking”5, leading to blasphemous representations of God which ascribes to Him the feelings of anger, vengeance or retribution. A serious mistake would be to remain only on the “outer surface” of biblical texts dealing with eschatology. Their inner meaning is more profound. He writes:
That we should imagine that anger, wrath, jealousy or such like have anything to do with the divine Nature is something utterly abhorrent for us: no one in their right mind, no one who has any understanding (at all) can possibly come to such madness as to think anything of the sort about God. Nor again can we possibly say that He acts thus out of retribution, even though the Scriptures may on the outer surface posit this. Even to think this of God and to suppose that retribution for evil acts is to be found with Him is abominable6.
We do not attribute a wish of retribution even to noble and virtuous people. How then believe that God can take retributive actions against those whom He has called to being with honour and great love? He knows certainly our bad behaviour but does not withholds, even for a moment, His care and grace. According to Isaac, it would be a blasphemy to think that God, out of His patience, bears with sinners here on earth, but will punish them mercilessly after their death.
It is not (the way of) the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction (in punishment) for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, (aware) how they would turn out when He created them – and whom (nonetheless) He created7.
The merciful God, in everything He does looks to ways of assisting rational beings. One cannot remove from God His unchanging kindness, eternal goodness and compassion:
Among all His actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion; this constitutes the beginning and the end of His dealings with us8.
ISAAC’S VIEW OF THE PROVISIONAL AND THERAPEUTIC NATURE OF GEHENNA
In his meditations on Gehenna Isaac often thinks of the Kingdom of God. He sees both Gehenna and the Kingdom as belonging to God’s plan of salvation, both being the expression of His love, mercy and compassion. He emphasizes, however, that it is not a matter of reward and punishment, although the Bible uses these terms. Both the Kingdom of God, as well as Gehenna, have been foreseen by Him for the good of the whole of creation: “The Kingdom and Gehenna are matters belonging to mercy, which were conceived of in their essence by God as a result of His eternal goodness”9.
These are surprising affirmations. How can Gehenna no less than the Kingdom be embraced by the same salvific purpose of God? Isaac has no doubt: if we think that the issue of Gehenna has nothing to do with the love and compassion of the Creator towards His creatures, this would be “an opinion full of blasphemy and insult to our Lord God”10.
(By saying) that He will even hand us over to burning for the sake of suffering, torment and all sorts of ills, we are attributing to the divine Nature an enmity towards the very rational beings which He created through grace; (the same is true if we say) that He acts or thinks with spite and with a vengeful purpose, as though He was avenging Himself11.
In fact it is the other way round. In Isaac’s explanations one can feel the mystic’s passion in defending God against those who calumniate Him and do not understand the proper meaning of the Scriptures. He does this with calm and lucidity.
If God is really so, then we ought to admire Him and to praise His magnanimity and compassionate love for all people. In a true believer these attributes of God arouse the feelings of wonder and gratitude.
How much to be worshipped is our Lord God’s gentle compassion and His immeasurable munificence: He makes many threats, but He makes the punishment small out of grace, all in order to increase love for Him in ourselves. May His name be blessed!12
In the sufferings of Gehenna Isaac perceives a hidden mystery. Gehenna has no sense in itself. The wise Creator knew that it would disclose its purpose in the future. Iniquity and willfulness of rational creatures will not remain in them for ever in the state called Gehenna. God is able to carry out His work to the very end. The mystery of Gehenna remains provisionally hidden before humans, angels and demons.
If the world to come is entirely (the domain) of grace, love, mercy and goodness, and because the resurrection from the dead is also a demonstration of the mercifulness of God and of overflowing abundance of His love which cannot be repaid, how (can one think of) a dispensation in which are included requitals for our own good or evil (actions)?13
Isaac belongs to those Christian mystics who do not exaggerate the power of evil. In his eyes human sin is infinitely small in comparison with the infinite mercy of God14. The torments of Gehenna are caused by self-exclusion from the great feast in the Kingdom of heaven, by a person’s inability to participate in the love of God. Yet they will come to an end, although here on earth we do not know when it will take place. Gehenna is a consequence of sin which also will have its end. If God punishes, He does it out of love, in order to heal a sick freedom of rational creatures. Sinners in Gehenna are not deprived of the compassionate love of God. The purpose of punishment is change for the better, purification and conversion. The punishment ceases when this purpose is achieved. The sinners are not deprived of God’s love even in their infernal state. They can always count on His help. God’s justice and mercy are inseparable. He awaits with love all His creatures at the end of their purification. If evil, sin and Gehenna do not have their origins in God, how can they be eternal?
I am of the opinion that He is going to manifest some wonderful outcome, a matter of immense and ineffable compassion on the part of the glorious Creator, with respect to the ordering of this difficult matter of (Gehenna’s) torment: out of it the wealth of His love and power and wisdom will become known all the more – and so will the insistent might of the waves of His goodness15.
According to Isaac, Gehenna can only be temporary and provisional, permeated by God’s love and mercy. He would not allow a punishment which would deny His own nature. The punishment has a therapeutic and correctional meaning. It is always connected with His “compassionate intentions and purpose” to set us on the upright path, and not to bring us to perdition. Gehenna’s torment is “a matter of immense and ineffable compassion”. It must have its end and achieve its purpose. For this reason it is subject to a limit. It is not for eternity and will last only for a fixed period, decreed by God’s wisdom. The punishments, measured out in correspondence to the sins, are finally going to have an end. The eternal punishment would be a monstrous reality unworthy of God. Who thinks otherwise has not overcome an “infantile way of thinking”, “the childish opinion of God”16. The Syrian mystic dares even to affirm, that by God’s grace “the majority of humankind will enter the Kingdom of heaven without the experience of Gehenna”17. This does not concern those who fail to show remorse in suffering for their faults, because of their hardness of heart and abandonment to wickedness. But even in this case God is so good and compassionate that “He is always seeking to find some small means of putting us in the right”18.
Who reads Isaac feels his constant fascination with God’s goodness, mercy and “immense grace that, like an ocean, knows no measure”. God is incomprehensible in His compassion: “His face is set all the time towards forgiveness”19. One has only to show the will to compunction and a little suffering because of committed sins, and He without any delay grants forgiveness. An eloquent example for the Syrian is the case of the tax collector (cf. Lk 18:14) or of the man who received forgiveness on the cross (cf. Lk 23:40-43). “For (God) wishes for our salvation, and not for reasons to torment us”20.
Isaac does not deny the reality of separation of sinners from their fellow human beings. Following Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment he believes that “the sheep” (usually white) will be separated from “the goats” (usually black) who will be sent to Gehenna. However, his attention is directed beyond this separation which in his eyes is not irreversible. The parable should not be read as a dogmatic statement on the final destiny of the righteous and sinners. It is a prophetic warning against the lack of love and compassion for people in need during our earthly life21. The separation takes place already now, and the Last Judgment will only reveal our spiritual state which would require the awful torment of Gehenna, even though limited in duration.
The merciful God knew, writes Isaac, that “if a genuine righteousness were required of human beings, then only one in ten thousand would be found who could enter the Kingdom of heaven”22. For this reason He provided everyone with a medicine of repentance and compunction. However, Isaac’s inner experience prompts him to warn people against neglectfulness in facing the danger of Gehenna:
Let us beware in ourselves, my beloved, and realize that even if Gehenna is subject to a limit, the taste of its experience is most terrible, and the extent of its bounds escapes our very understanding. Let us strive all the more to partake of the taste of God’s love for the sake of perpetual reflection on Him, and let us not (have) experience of Gehenna through neglect23.
In another meditation he adds:
Nevertheless (Gehenna) is grievous, even if it is thus limited in its extent: who can (possibly) bear it? For this reason the angels in heaven rejoice at a single sinner who repents24.
What strikes me is an unshakeable confidence with which the author of the three meditations on Gehenna speaks about the hope of universal salvation. He is strongly convinced that this hope is fully in accordance with the profound meaning of the Bible. He discovers this hope in the biblical “discourse about God”, under the “bodily exterior of the narratives”. Expressing this hope he wants to disclose the hidden wisdom of the Scriptures.
No part belonging to any single one of (all) rational beings will be lost, as far as God is concerned, in the preparation of that supernal Kingdom which is prepared for all worlds. Because of that goodness of His nature by which He brought the universe into being (and then) bears, guides and provides for the worlds and (all) created things in His immeasurable compassion, He has devised the establishment of the Kingdom of heaven for the entire community of rational beings – even though an intervening time is reserved for the general raising (of all) to the same level. (And we say this) in order that we, too, may concur with the magisterial teaching of Scripture25.
So, in the matter of Gehenna there is indeed some hidden mystery. For Isaac it is only “a starting point for its future outcome”, “a way of bringing to perfection” God’s whole dispensation. This teaching makes wise and gives “the advantage beyond description”26. It shows a different image of God, full of condescending care, outgoing mercy and compassion. The future judgment and possible sufferings are not a matter of retribution for evil acts. St. Isaac‘s contemplation on the topic of Gehenna is full of wonder and amazement at its mystery.
DEMONS WILL NOT REMAIN IN THEIR DEMONIC STATE
The Syrian mystic untiringly speaks of God’s love and compassion towards all His creatures. The love of the Creator is not diminished towards “those rational beings who have become demons as a result of their demonic action”. It is the same as His love towards “those who remain in the angelic state”27. It is the same for sinners and for the righteous. God has “a single caring concern for those who have fallen, just as much as for those who have not fallen”28. The divine nature is not affected by opposition of the creatures and by its consequences. It remains the same from eternity. Therefore God’s love and mercy are without alteration, timeless and everlasting, independent from events taking place in all creation. Isaac is convinced that hate or resentment do not exist with God, “even against demonic beings”29. Salvation is His gift for all rational beings, also for those who have fallen. Our human language concerning the final destiny of demonic beings is helpless. Isaac struggles with words, looks for new shades of meaning, reminds of earlier formulations. Words like the following give impressive and moving witness:
And it is clear that He does not abandon them the moment they fall, and that demons will nor remain in their demonic state, and sinners (will not remain) in their sins; rather, He is going to bring them to a single equal state of perfection in relationship to His own Being – in a (state) in which the holy angels are now, in perfection of love and a passionless mind. He is going to bring them into that excellency of will, where it will not be as though they were curbed and not <free>, or having stirrings from the Opponent then; rather, (they will be) in a (state of) excelling knowledge, with a mind made mature in the stirrings which partake of the divine outpouring which the blessed Creator is preparing in His grace; they will be perfected in love for Him, with a perfect mind which is above any aberration in all its stirrings30.
So the demonic beings are also embraced by the divine dispensation of compassion and mercy. If the devil and demons were created by God as good and sinless, but fell away from Him by their own free will, how can one suppose that the merciful Creator will eternally reconcile himself with this perdition? No wonder, Isaac clearly opposes a dualistic conception of the co-eternal existence of God and the devil, good and evil. Sin and Gehenna will be ultimately abolished, although their end is a mystery surpassing human understanding. The final outcome of the history of the created world must correspond to the beauty of the beginning and to the goodness of God. If we suppose the truly eternal punishment of sinners and demons, this would mean that the creation of the world was an enormous failure and mistake. God is able to overcome, by His goodness and beauty, every evil, even the opposition of the devil himself.
It is worthwhile to stress the astounding boldness of St. Isaac’s insights which go far beyond the dogmatic teaching of the Church. He does not confine himself to affirming the possibility of conversion of evil spirits, but also believes that they may once achieve a higher degree of perfection than the angels.
May be (they will be raised) to a perfection even greater than that in which the angels now exist; for all are going to exist in a single love, a single purpose, a single will, and a single perfect state of knowledge; they will gaze towards God with the desire of insatiable love, even if some (divine) dispensation [sc. Gehenna] may in the meantime be effected for reasons known to God alone, lasting for a fixed period, decreed by Him in accordance with the will of His wisdom31.
According to Isaac, God’s love is prior to any of His ways to the freedom of rational beings. He does not forget any of His creatures and carries out His plan of salvation to the advantage of all, although we are not yet able to understand how. The state of separation from God is totally unnatural, and He will not permit those who have fallen away from Him to remain in this state for ever. The true aim of Gehenna is hidden from those who undergo punishment. Only when Gehenna is abolished will this therapeutic aim be fully revealed. Everything is now known to God alone, but once He will make it known to all. Gehenna, then, is in this view a sort of purgatory, conceived for the salvation of human beings and fallen angels. Yet, this salvation will not be forced upon anyone. It has to be accepted freely by each rational being.
CHRIST, OUR GREATEST HOPE
To support his teaching on the incompatibility of an eternal Gehenna with God’s love and mercy, Isaac used various sources: Scripture, patristic writings and some logical arguments. He never denies the awful reality of Gehenna, but understands it within the Gospel message of God’s boundless love, compassion and mercy. In his teaching God is like the householder in Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard (cf. Mt 20:1-15). He rewards equally those who worked only one hour and those who have borne the burden and heat of the whole day.
To avoid any possible accusation of “those who zealously imagine that they are being zealous for the cause of truth”, Isaac emphasizes that this teaching is by no means an innovation or his private opinion. Such was also the teaching of “orthodox Fathers” before him, that of “the blessed Interpreter” of the Scriptures, Theodore of Mopsuestia and of “the holy Diodore, Bishop of Tarsus”32. Theodore, “like one of the apostles” taught about pedagogical and therapeutic purpose of Gehenna’s punishments which are finally going to have an end. In a similar opinion of Diodore, the torments for the wicked “are not for eternity”. God in His mercy diminishes them and shortens their length33. This applies also to the case of the demons: “Not even their immense wickedness can overcome the measure of God’s goodness”34.
That is why, in the access of an all-embracing compassion, Isaac prayed also for the conversion and salvation of the demonic beings35. He quotes his predecessors to confirm his own hope for salvation of all God’s rational creatures. These “astonishing insights and opinions” should lead us on to love God and wonder at His wise dispensation. The hidden meaning of the divine judgment and of the punishment in Gehenna can therefore be understood in a new light, far from “the childish opinion of God”. Gehenna is a manifestation of “the immensity of God’s mercy” which overcomes all evils done by created beings. Only then can we understand better the therapeutic nature of Gehenna’s torments and the divine “compassionate intentions and purpose He has in allowing (these) to come upon us”36, as well as the beneficial outcomes of these sufferings.
Gehenna does not destroy our created being and will not endure the same for eternity. God allows it “in a fatherly way, and not vengefully”37. He does not bring us to perdition. In His wisdom “our good God” effects everything for us to set us on the upright path. All painful things He allows to come upon us will have an end38. Only what is good will endure for eternity. The purpose of the punishments is not retribution for past actions, but improvement: “God is not one who requites evil, but He sets aright evil”39. He does not act like evil people, but like a loving father. The mystery of Christ shows in abundance God’s immense compassion for all, and not a retribution for evil deeds40.
So then, let us not attribute to God’s actions and His dealings with us any idea of requital. Rather, (we should speak of) fatherly provision, a wise dispensation, a perfect will which is concerned with our good, and complete love. If it is a case of love, then it is not one of requital; and if it is a case of requital, then it is not one of love. Love, when it operates, […] it looks to what is most advantageous in the future: it examines what is to come, and not things that are past41.
These are, in St. Isaac’s eyes, the deepest motives not only to wonder at God’s goodness and to love Him, but also to feel ashamed at our faults and to change the conduct of our lives here on earth. He has no doubt that this is precisely what the Scriptures remind us of. But this understanding comes to us only through “the gift of spiritual knowledge”, able to penetrate deeper than “corporeal images”, into the interior meanings of biblical texts42. God has given to all repentance as a remedy to be cured from sin. It is enough to ask for forgiveness and repent. The guarantee of this forgiveness is Christ’s Incarnation and His death on the cross.
Contemplation on the topic of Gehenna requires a spiritual attitude full of wonder and amazement at this mystery. Already at the very beginning of his meditations St. Isaac wrote:
All who have knowledge of truth are full of wonder and amazement at this mystery: since the contemplation of this escapes all enquiry, all rational beings endowed with (the faculty of) knowledge and who are conversant with the spiritual meaning of the divine mysteries retire and have recourse to silence, and (fall down) in worship before the mysteries of the wisdom of Him who should be worshipped in silence, for all His actions are to be wondered at in adoration43.
The hope of universal salvation has strong foundations. It is not deceptive, because its ultimate foundation is Christ himself. The figure of the Saviour often appears in Isaac’s meditations. He ponders with amazement on His love surpassing all understanding and contemplates His words about the world to come. Christ is “our hope”44. In this context one can better understand his ardent encouragement:
Let us not be in doubt, O (fellow) humanity, concerning the hope of our salvation, seeing that He who bore sufferings for our sakes is very concerned for our salvation; His mercifulness is far more extensive than we can conceive, His grace is greater than what we ask for45.
The Syrian mystic had a deep intuition of “the beauty of truth” and of “the beauties of God”46. The perception of the divine mysteries takes place “in the inner sanctuary of the heart”, as “a silent form of revelation and in visionless insights”47. The connection between hope and the human heart is not accidental. The mind and the heart have to act in harmony. The theology of the universalism of hope requires such a harmonious co-operation between these two highest human faculties. That is why in his Ascetical Homilies Isaac calls hope “wisdom of the heart”48. The human heart full of compassion and hope has a better insight into “the mysteries of our Saviour” than a mere logic of the mind, so often deprived of the sense of wholeness. God is God of the Great Symphony of the world to come, of “the House of Mysteries”49.
Today, after the twelve centuries which have elapsed since the times of Isaac the Syrian, one reads his texts with deep affection and sincere admiration. His universal hope makes him one of the greatest guides and teachers, especially in theological thinking about the world to come. His eschatological insights correspond to the teachings of quite a number of ancient Fathers, yet what he taught was not simply a repetition of his predecessors, but the result of his personal theological experience. In this experience the central conviction is that God is love (cf. 1 Jn 4: 8.16).
1 A paper initially published in: Die Wurzel aller Theologie: Sentire cum Ecclesia. Festschrift zum 60. Geburtstag von Urs von Arx, Bern 2003, pp. 139-150.
2 Isaac of Nineveh (Isaac the Syrian). ‘The Second Part’, Chapters IV-XLI. Translated by S. Brock (=CSCO 555; Scriptores syri, t. 225). Lovanii 1995. On Isaac’s universal hope in The First Part of his writings see W. Hryniewicz. Hoffnung der Heiligen. Das Zeugnis Isaaks des Syrers. “Ostkirchliche Studien” 45 (1996) Heft 1, pp. 21-41.
3 ‘The Second Part’, XXXIX, 1; p. 162. Isaac constantly uses the biblical term Gehenna.
4 Ibid., XXXIX, 19; p. 171.
5 Ibid., XXXIX, 2, 14, 17; pp. 163, 169, 170.
6 Ibid., XXXIX, 2; p. 162-163.
7 Ibid., XXXIX, 6; p. 165.
8 Ibid., XXXIX, 22; p. 172.
13 Ibid., XXXIX, 21; pp. 171-172.
14 See Hryniewicz. Hoffnung der Heiligen, pp. 25-29.
15 ‘The Second Part’, XXXIX, 6; p. 165.
16 Ibid., XXXIX, 2 and 14; pp. 163, 169.
17 Ibid., XL, 12; p. 177.
21 How this view corresponds to modern biblical exegesis of the recent past see A. Wierzbicka. What Did Jesus Mean? Explaining the Sermon on the Mount and the Parables in Simple and Universal Human Concepts. Oxford 2001, pp. 356-372. Jesus spoke the language of the Jewish prophets called, in modern hermeneutics Drohrede (ibidem, pp. 455-464).
22 ‘The Second Part’, XL, 8; p. 176.
23 Ibid., XLI, 1; p. 180.
24 Ibid., XL,7; p. 176.
26 Ibid., XXXIX, 20; p. 171.
27 Ibid., XL, 2; p. 174.
28 Ibid., XL, 3; p. 175.
29 Ibid., XXXIX, 3; p. 163.
30 Ibid., XL, 4; p. 175. Italics are mine W.H.
31 Ibid., XL, 5; p. 175.
32 Ibid., XXXIX, 7, 8, 11; pp. 165-167.
33 See ibid., XXXIX, 11-12; p. 168.
34 Ibid., XXXIX, 13; p. 169.
35 See Homily 71, in: The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, Mass. 1984, p. 344-345. More about this in: Hryniewicz, Hoffnung der Heiligen, p. 30.
36 ‘The Second Part’, XXXIX, 14; p. 169.
38 Ibid., XXXIX, 15, p. 169.
39 Ibid., XXXIX, 15; p. 170.
40 Ibid., XXXIX, 16; p. 170.
41 Ibid., XXXIX, 17; p. 170. Commenting upon these texts Hilarion Alfeyev (today a Russian Orthodox Bishop) writes in his recent study: The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian. Kalamazoo, Mich. – Spencer, Mass. 2000, p. 296: “A place in the kingdom of heaven is given to a person, not on the basis of his worthiness or unworthiness, but on the basis of God’s mercy and love for humankind. The kingdom of heaven is not a reward, and gehenna is not a requital: both are gifts of the merciful God ‘who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4)”.
42 ‘The Second Part’, XXXIX, 18; p. 171.
43 Ibid., XXXIX, 1; p. 162.
44 Ibid., XL, 18; p. 179.
45 Ibid., XL,17; p. 179.
46 Ibid., XLI, 1; p. 180.
47 Ibid., XLI, 2; p. 181.
48 Homily 40, in: The Ascetical Homilies…, p. 203.
49‘The Second Part’, XLI, 2; p. 181.