Whereas previously I described very briefly Stăniloae's conception of the world as the medium of dialog between the Logos and rational human persons, now I want to cover his defense of the possibility (and reality) of eternal hell for the damned following upon the judgment of all.
The question is raised: Is there no hope for the return from hell of those who are condemned thereunto after the universal judgment? Shall there be an escape from hell into communion with God or not?
The answer Stăniloae gives is interesting. In the first place, he writes, it is possible for some persons who go to hell after the particular judgment but before the universal judgment to leave there and to be restored to fellowship with God. But after the universal judgment, there is no possibility of leaving hell. Thus he says:
The teaching of the Church about the possibility of the escape of some from hell, in the period between the particular judgment and the universal, permits a response this question.
In conformity with this teaching, those who go to hell after the particular judgment with a certain faith, that is without an attitude utterly opposed to fellowship with God, will be able to arrive in such circumstances that the potentiality for fellowship present in them may be actualized. So this hell [after the particular judgment, before the universal] implies two possibilities: the possibility of being eternal for some and not eternal for others.
Without being able to say precisely for whom hell will be eternal and for whom it will not be eternal, for some of [those in hell] there exists the possibility that hell will not be eternal.
But the mystery of freedom does not allow that hell will cease to be eternal for all. Those who will not be able to leave hell until the universal judgment will never be able to leave hell (Teologia Dogmatică Ortodoxă, III, pp. 272-3; translation mine).
But the question is then raised: why won't these persons leave hell? Why should they remain in hell forever, even when the possibility of escape exists prior to the universal judgment? Stăniloae responds that this is grounded in the foreknowledge of God:
But on what basis does the fact stand that those who will be left in hell through the universal judgment will remain there forever, while at the same time God never ceases to be a loving God, and so long as these will retain forever a certain liberty? It is grounded in the foreknowledge of God, on the basis of which God knows certainly that those will never respond to offer of love, whether because they will not want to, or because they have created for themselves, through their total refusal of communion [with God] throughout the course of their earthly lives and from the time between the particular and universal judgments, such a state that they are no longer capable of accepting fellowship with God (p. 273).
In other words, these persons will either refuse God's offer to no end, or else they will have so distorted and formed their characters that they are incapable ever of being saved. They become incurable, whether through persistent refusal or through a malformation of their nature. Appealing to John of Damascus, Stăniloae calls the damned "immutable."
Above everything, Stăniloae's discussion of hell is centered around the notion of human freedom, which entails the ability to reject God's offer of salvation and fellowship as much as it means the possibility of accepting this. Human persons are endowed with a freedom that has a power to harden itself into a negative liberty impossible to overcome (p. 274).
The theologian considers that God, in his foreknowledge, already knows that some persons will be damned forever and thus has made this known to us in revelation. What remains is just for us to find out who is who, who will be saved and who will be damned,
Against Berdyaev, who thought that the sufferings in hell are merely subjective and so cannot be eternal for this reason, Stăniloae insists that the subjective over time cements itself into the ontological:
. . . after a while the subjective and the ontological can no longer be separated. A narrow way of thinking, of feeling, of understanding things and people, creates in human nature a certain ontological state, disfigures the spirit in a profound way, and not even Christianity says that hell is merely torturous external circumstances, rather than also a world of disfigured spirits, hardened in evil, in a crooked way of perceiving reality (p. 274).
The distortion of the character of the damned through persistently base, sinful behavior transforms itself into a tortured and painful way of perceiving reality, an arduous and hellish conscious existence.
Above everything, the possibility of hell is a result of the profundity of human freedom. He writes: God gave humankind the power for [communion with himself], but its development depends on [humankind's] own contribution (p. 277). As for the question of why God should not reveal himself to those who are in hell, so that they might freely come to communion, Stăniloae insists that their deformed characters would not permit this, because God must be received in a certain way:
The presence of God is not an external reality, so that it may correspondingly impose itself, but rather it offers itself as a loving Thou; and for this reason, it cannot be understood except through an openness that is humbled and full of yearning for love. But sometimes the curious phenomenon takes place in which a person who defends his own autonomy hardens himself especially in refusing to accept another who, through the love with which he offers himself, makes this one to realize that his own existence depends upon this offer. Hardened in his pride, he cannot admit this, because he cannot admit that someone can love him when he cannot. He would be able to admit the reality of one who depends on him, but not someone who reveals himself as him upon whose unending love he is truly dependent (p. 278).
This passage is a bit difficult, but the idea seems to be this: the extreme pride and exaggerated autonomy of the damned person in hell doesn't admit that God should truly reveal himself to such persons, because they will not accept that they depend totally and utterly for their existence on the pure and unconditioned love of God. They reject God as a loving Thou, and so God simply cannot reveal himself to them in this way.
None of this should be too unfamiliar for any visitors to my blog who've read my interactions with Jerry Walls (who draws from Soren Kierkegaard on this very topic); in many ways their positions are quite similar. There is much to be said here, but I will limit myself to a couple observations.
In the first place, Stăniloae oversteps his bounds when he affirms the reality of eternal hell on the basis of human freedom. I may grant that human freedom makes eternal hell a real and genuine possibility for all people. But it is another thing entirely to say that human freedom makes eternal hell a certain reality. After all, if human freedom precludes certainty about the eventual restoration of all God, why shouldn't it just as well preclude certainty about the eventual damnation of some? One result may not be any more certain than the other, if genuine human freedom means that both alternatives are truly possible.
Stăniloae thinks that God has revealed that some persons will be damned forever. But we might contest his interpretation of the relevant biblical texts. In the Bible, even the most certain language about the eventual destruction of some sinners can turn out to have been false as a prediction of the future, though certainly useful and true as threats of genuinely possible outcomes. For example, Jonah preaches to the Ninevites: 40 days and Nineveh will be destroyed! The people repent, though this was not an option presented to them in Jonah's preaching (as is made especially clear by the fact that they express uncertainty that repentance will accomplish anything), and the destruction, declared so certainly from Jonah's mouth, did not take place. Likewise, both Jonah and God knew that the Ninevites would repent; the threat turned out to be the means by which their repentance would be effected. Likewise, in Ezekiel 33, God tells the sinful people, Surely you will die! And yet the sinner repents, though the message left no option in this respect, and God says that he will forgive his sins.
The rhetorical function of pronouncements of judgment, even unambiguously worded and straightforwardly affirming a certain unfavorable future for the unrepentant, is that of a threat: it is a way of moving the unrepentant to turn from their sins. No threat, no statement of future destruction, no matter how straightforwardly worded and unambiguously affirmed, necessarily will come true. There is always the option of repentance, accomplished in who-knows-what ways and by God-only-knows miraculous means.
For this reason, I think Stăniloae's interpretation of the statements of scripture about the eventual damnation of some persons is mistaken, or at the very least, not the only possible one. Because of human freedom, utter self-ruin and damnation must be affirmed as possible if people do not repent; but that some people will never repent cannot be a part of what we claim to know, on the basis of this same understanding of human freedom.